The best writers never stop striving for ways to write better. Here, five masters of the craft share their secrets for honing the essentials, one technique at a time.
|THE MINDS BEHIND THE METHODS:|
SAGE COHEN (sagesaidso.com; pathofpossibility.com) is the author of The Productive Writer: Tips & Tools to Help You Write More, Stress Less & Create Success; Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry (both WD Books); and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World.
DAVID CORBETT (davidcorbett.com) is the author of four critically acclaimed novels, most recently Do They Know I’m Running? His work has been compared to that of Graham Greene, Robert Stone and Dashiell Hammett, among others, and his story “Pretty Little Parasite” was selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2009.
DAVID MORRELL (davidmorrell.net) is the critically acclaimed author of First Blood, The Brotherhood of the Rose and many other bestselling novels, with 18 million copies of his work in print. A popular writing instructor and speaker, he is also author of The Successful Novelist and co-founder of International Thriller Writers.
A piece of writing is a living thing. Our goal should be to serve it and do what it wants, to be its instrument. The flow of words from our mind to the page is impeded in two main ways—if we try to make the story do something that it doesn’t want to do, or if something in us isn’t ready to face the full implications of the work’s theme and emotions.
Avoiding those blocks requires developing a relationship with the piece we’re working on, as if it were a person. At the start of each writing session, especially if you’re having trouble moving forward, literally ask your work-in-progress, “What do you want to do? Where do you want me to go with you? Why are you stalling?” This is a psychological trick that almost always creates an imagined response, along the lines of, “This scene is boring. Why are you making me do it?” Or, “This section is full of gimmicks. Why aren’t you being true to the subject?” The device takes only one minute, not 30, and over the years, it’s saved me from writing a lot of passages that would have been either unnecessary or else dishonest.
In the study of traditional Chinese painting, the term hua long dian jing speaks to the need for precision. It translates roughly to mean, “Dot the dragon’s eye, and it comes to life.” In other words, your subject remains inert until you add the precise detail that brings it, in the reader’s mind, to life. Often when we finish a draft, we feel the piece somehow isn’t working. Our writing group says they found it dull in places, or just “didn’t get it.” The culprit is often a lack of precision—the key, specific details that bring the world of the piece alive.
Develop the habit of dedicating time to reviewing your work with precision in mind. How would that scene change if you add a sweet tang of honeysuckle to the breeze? How might this character change if you fasten the top button of his shirt? Henry James told us that writers are people “on whom nothing is lost.” The key to successfully creating or conveying worlds for our readers is painstakingly observing those worlds, and then scribbling down the precise details that tell the story.
Your voice is how you write, the way you handle language, your style—if you have one. Do I? I write like I think. I like spontaneity. I push and pull, change speed and rhythm, balance short and long sentences. I compare it to jazz riffs and drumrolls. I’m economical with words, but I won’t interrupt a nice solo.
I never have to think about this. It’s me.
But does it rise to the level of “voice”—and does it even matter? I’ve known excellent writers who don’t have a recognizable voice, but have earned awards and attracted readers through their work. Your voice, ultimately, will be what comes out of you. And you’re entitled to it. But how you use it will also depend upon the audience at which it’s aimed and/or the market to which it’s sold.
The desire to develop a voice of your own may make you wish you could write like some others you’ve read. Feel no guilt; all artists stand on the shoulders of those they admire. Thus, for 30 minutes: Rewrite a page of your writing in the style of someone you admire. Don’t worry about losing yourself in the process—you’ll be doing just the opposite.
It is perhaps ironic that the exercise I consider most useful to spur originality is one I borrowed from another writer (William S. Burroughs). Then again, the best advice I ever received on writing in general was Oakley Hall’s two-word bromide: Steal Wisely.
In truth, originality is like voice, an elusive quality that cannot be created; it exists or it doesn’t, all you can do is hone it. But we can also strive to look at our own world and work in a fresh way. If you’re in a rut, change something in your routine. Write in a different place; write longhand; dictate into a recorder; switch point of view; remove every modifier in your text and start over—something.
Or, try this: Print out a page of your writing, cut it into quarters and rearrange them. Retype the text in this quasi-jumbled state. Where before your logical brain laid things out in an orderly fashion, you’ll now see them in jump cuts and inexplicable juxtapositions. Return to your work and revise with the best of these angularities intact, to the point they serve the piece, without reordering them back into comfortable reasonableness. Honor the deeper, inherent logic of your work by allowing its quirks and hard edges to show.
A successful image can plug right into your reader’s nervous system at times when explanation falls flat. Consider, “Donna felt weak,” versus, “Donna was unable to bring the spoon to her mouth.” Which one makes you want to know what happens next?
To see how images give your writing a boost, rewrite each of the following statements in a way that shows instead of explains:
- Her hair was a mess.
- The garden was ready for picking.
- I hate broccoli.
- You always change your mind.
- The moon is full.
Now, revisit a draft of your writing. Try making vague moments more vivid by replacing explanation with imagery. This won’t always be an appropriate solution—sometimes a simple, unembellished statement will be the most powerful choice. But you won’t know until you try.
Much of screenwriter William Goldman’s wonderful Adventures in the Screen Trade can be applied to other types of writing. Goldman advises getting into each scene as late as possible, and out of it as early as possible. Faulty pacing in almost any work can be corrected with this advice.
There’s no need to begin scenes by laboriously explaining how characters arrived there, or to open an article or essay with excessive setup or introduction. If you find you’ve done this, chances are a more interesting way to begin follows just after what you’ve written. Similarly, many writers put an empty paragraph at the end of a scene or section. When revising my novels, I experiment by cutting the first and last paragraph of each scene. Suddenly, a sequence that dragged can become speedy. Arrive late in a scene and leave early. The reader will fill the gaps.
One method for creating a sense of unity in a piece of writing is the use of selective repetition. A detail or remark or even just a unique word mentioned early in your piece can be echoed later, creating a sense of wholeness through the reader’s recognition of the previous mention. That recognition also imbues the repeated element with a resonance, not unlike a coda in a musical composition. The reader enjoys a satisfying sense of progression, of having moved from one literary moment to another.
Reread a piece you’re working on with an eye toward finding that element you could repeat in a subtle way, and then look for a place later in the piece where you could drop it in. If you’re unsure which one would be most affective, experiment by trying several. Ask yourself: If you had to cut all the details or images and retain only one, which one would you keep? That’s the one you want.
8. Sentence Structure
Well. I don’t know that any writer in the 21st century worries about subjects and predicates. Or believes that one shouldn’t begin a sentence with and or but or or. Or thinks contractions are slang. So I don’t have much to say on this matter.
But this is important.
Generally, I don’t like rules for writers. The First Amendment doesn’t, either. But the English language is democracy in action. It responds to its users. If it didn’t, we’d still be saying “prithee” and calling taxis “hacks.” Hence, my 30-minute recommendation is to sit down and write whatever moves you, following only one rule:
Don’t bore anybody.
9. Word Choice
The poet Frank O’Hara is rumored to have given this advice: “If you think in pictures, write. If you think in words, paint.”
This turns out to provide some guidance on word choice. If you’re stuck on a word, sketch what it is you’re trying to describe. It doesn’t matter how good you are at drawing. What matters is the employment of a different skill set, a portion of the brain distinct from the one that has been searching for the mot juste.
Or consider a soundtrack for the scene. Let the scene play out in time along with the music, or read it aloud with the music as background. When you employ a different depictive medium than mere words, different associative threads (or synaptic connections) can be brought to bear on the task.
10. Rhythm is the subliminal soundtrack in writing. To explore options for moving a reader along, choose a dramatic passage from a published piece you admire. How do you feel when you read it? (Notice your breathing, heart rate, posture and emotions.) How did the writer provoke this response? How do word pairings and sentence and paragraph structures contribute to its momentum? How do these rhythmic choices serve the piece’s meaning?
Now, write a passage that echoes the patterns you’ve discovered. If the first sentence is three short words, yours should be, too. Where a descriptive image blossoms for a paragraph, let yours do the same. Communicate emotion through your rhythm. You might let rage stutter through the syncopation of words and halting punctuation, or stream through run-on sentences. Notice how these choices support or squelch the surrounding narrative. Just as a musician practices scales until they become second nature, your attention to the mechanics of rhythm will help you improvise over time.
In my writing classes, I devote a session to daydreams, which are spontaneous messages from our subconscious. After one of my presentations, a puzzled member of the audience raised his hand and asked what a daydream was. Others were surprised, but I wasn’t. Not everyone has a daydream-friendly mind. In fact, some people have been taught to repress daydreams as mere distractions.
As writers, however, we should not only welcome daydreams, but train ourselves to be aware of them. In fact, the cores of most of my novels have come from daydreams. Daydreams are our primal storyteller at work, sending us scenes and topics that our imagination or subconscious wants us to investigate. Each day, we should devote time (I usually do this before sleeping) to reviewing our daydreams and determining which of them insists on being turned into a story. Don’t push away those daydreams that make you uncomfortable: The more shocking the daydream, the more truthful about us it is. Embrace that truth.
Creating a sense of balance in your piece is similar to creating unity (see the opposite page), but the repeated element is even more obviously connected to its earlier use. A classic example: In The Great Gatsby, as F. Scott Fitzgerald introduces us to the Buchanans in early summer, he emphasizes the breeze blowing through the room, billowing the curtains and the women’s dresses. Later, the same characters seated in the same place are shown in the heat of summer as weighted down, dispirited, languid. The connection between these descriptions creates balance and gives the reader a keen (if not necessarily conscious) sense of progression. It also implies that the characters are no longer free and airy, but encumbered by the circumstances that have arisen.
Set aside 30 minutes to reread your work, looking for a description, scene or metaphor that you can repeat later with some aspect changed to serve as a counterweight to the first usage.
You have to lead your audience through a tapestry of facts, ideas and events. No matter what you’re trying to get across, you have to get it across, so keep it simple—unless complexity improves it.
In 30 minutes, examine your work for the following:
- A Stake in the Action: Readers need one. Drop the first shoe early to get them listening for the second, and give them something to care about.
- Logic: It’s the most important element of clarity. If you’ve written something that doesn’t quite connect, try saying, out loud, “What I’m really trying to say is …” and then finish the thought. Sounds crazy, but it usually works.
- Bumps in the Road: Check your work for brilliant phrases that you’d love to use somewhere, anywhere—but that interrupt the momentum. I used to cut and paste my elegant gems into a “futures” file; it rightfully became a cemetery.
- Verbosity: Avoid longish, meandering quotations by paraphrasing. Save the quotation marks for particularly revealing or quotable statements.
- Jargon: Save it for cocktail parties—unless it’s the everyday language of your audience.
14. Effective Details
The key to effective description is to realize the importance of contradictions. The telling detail is almost always one that at first glance doesn’t seem to fit, but by its being there creates the unique whole that the object or action or person represents.
Go to a good people-watching spot or a place you want to describe. What’s the thing that doesn’t quite belong? Pair one or two more typical attributes of the thing/person/scene with this anomaly, and judge the impression. If it differs from what you meant to describe, figure out what’s missing. Add as few details as possible.
A related point: Often, we read a description and think, If this is there, then that has to be there as well. Many writers then think that both details must be included, but usually the opposite is true. Provide the stronger, more typical of the two, and the other is implied; the reader’s mind supplies it automatically.
Creativity is the secret sauce of the writing life. Its ingredients are different for everyone, and may change over time, which can make it difficult to keep the cupboards stocked. When you get stuck, take 30 minutes and try one of these:
- Switch genres. Write a poem before diving into a narrative piece.
- Review incomplete writing for a scrap of idea or language; let it lead you in.
- Burn kindling. Keep a file of art, poems, quotes, pressed flowers—whatever ignites your imagination. Sift through it when you need a spark.
- Grow your own list of triggers. Repeat what works until it doesn’t; then try something new.
The great film director Billy Wilder was once asked if he liked subtlety in a story. He answered along the lines of, “Yes. Subtlety is good—as long as it’s obvious.” The same can be said about complexity and simplicity. Some stories are so complex that it’s frustratingly impossible to understand them. But others (like Wuthering Heights or Bleak House) are complex in a way that we don’t find difficult to understand, and actually find enjoyable because of the complexity. Conversely, Hemingway’s famous simple style is in fact very complex.
What really matters is whether or not something is clear. Each day, as you revise the pages from your prior writing session, take a few minutes to ask yourself, “Is this clear? Will the reader understand it?” If you’re not sure, revise until the answer is yes. Don’t be afraid to deal with a complex topic in a complex way, but always keep in mind that clarity will make you the reader’s friend.
17. Avoiding Clichés
Everyone “gets” clichés. That’s why they show up virtually everywhere. Clichés may be thought of as overused and predictable, but few people complain about movie car chases. For every person who doesn’t want “same old,” hundreds continue to enjoy stereotypical hard-boiled dicks helping dames in distress. Depending on your audience, a well-placed cliché can be more effective than an explanation.
Nevertheless, we need folks like you to buck the trend. So here are some ways to spend a half-hour:
- Create a cliché-free protagonist: you. Choose a career you once contemplated. Change your age, gender, race. Investigate something that intrigues you. Invent a situation that boosts your heart rate. Send your character to a place you’d like to visit. Now write.
- Remove from a work unnecessary parts of speech—such as replacements for the perfectly acceptable said, and words like angrily to reveal how someone slams a door. Say no more than readers need to know; let their imaginations work.
- I’ve intentionally loaded my five contributions to this article with more than my usual share of clichés. Circle them. Do it now. The early bird gets the worm.
Good writing connects with readers. For each piece you write, ask yourself:
- Who is my audience? Imagine the people you’d most like to reach.
- What do I want the experience and result of this piece to be? What do I want readers to know or believe? How do I want them to feel? What do I want them to do when they’re finished reading?
- How will I measure my ability to deliver on these goals? Workshop it in a writing group? Post it on my blog? Submit it to a publication?
Pay attention to feedback. You’ll start to see the types of people and publications that are attracted to what you write, how you’re meeting their needs (or not), and opportunities for becoming more effective.
Tension results from two factors: resistance and ambiguity. In nearly every piece of narrative writing, fiction or otherwise, someone is trying to achieve something. Tension results from external or internal opposition to achievement of the goal (resistance), or uncertainty as to the narrator or character’s understanding of the situation in which she finds herself (ambiguity), specifically its perils (psychological, emotional, physical).
Tension is essential because it keeps readers reading. Thus, in every scene you write, strive to heighten tension by doing one of two things: Enhancing the forces impeding achievement of the goal, or confusing/complicating the narrator or character’s understanding of the situation.
At the end of every writing session, take time to find and stress those elements within the narrative that serve these purposes. Trim away elements that do not, unless they add necessary color.
20. Evoking Emotion
Hemingway spoke of a story’s “sequence of motion and fact.” James M. Cain discussed “the algebra of storytelling: a + b + c + d = x.” What they meant was a sequence of incidents in a story that, if arranged correctly and dramatized vividly, will create a stimulus that compels the reader to feel the emotion the author is trying to create. Talking about emotions won’t compel a reader to feel them. “He felt sad” won’t make a reader feel sad. Instead, the reader must be made to feel the situations in the story, to experience what the characters experience; as a result, just as a sequence creates emotion in the characters, it will do the same in the reader. This is a case of stimulus-response.
Writers can achieve this effect if they take the sense of sight for granted and emphasize the other senses, thus crafting multidimensional descriptions and scenes. Details of sight alone almost always create a flat effect, so when revising, take a few minutes to make sure that each scene has at least one other sense detail. In this way, the reader becomes immersed in the story, feeling it rather than being told about it.
21. Figurative Language
Figurative language can enrich our writing, adding nuance and depth, like the addition of a harmony line to a melody. The right metaphor can enlarge our subject and offer our readers new ways of perceiving it. The risk involved, like adding a heavy sauce to your delicately flavored meal, is that the language can distract the reader and obscure your meaning rather than developing it. Figurative language calls attention to itself, can easily descend to cliché, and asks for the reader’s complicity, all of which could break your reader’s focus.
My advice, therefore, is to use figurative language sparingly, strive to make it fresh, and understand the implications of the comparisons you’re making (directly or indirectly). Make sure it’s serving the piece. In creating an effective metaphor, trust your subconscious, which makes connections our conscious minds cannot readily make. Don’t reach for the quick, easy one. Instead, take the time to plumb the depths of your imagination. Risk a reach toward an unlikely comparison rather than a safe one. You might be surprised at one you find, and your reader will be delighted.
The perils of subjectivity arise largely from overidentifying with a subject, narrator or character in a narrative, and making it (or him or her) the vehicle for a thematic point in which the author himself is overly invested. The antidote is at least as old as the New Testament, specifically Matthew 5:43–48, where Christ instructs his followers to love their enemies. If what I have to say seems old hat, therefore, I’ll be neither disappointed nor surprised.
If you find yourself overidentifying with a topic or character, try to identify within the sympathetic subject, narrator or even oneself a trait or belief or habit that is repellent or inexcusable or just plain odd. In doing so, you’ll enhance the psychological or moral distance between yourself and the object of familiarity
Another possible strategy is to rewrite the scene or section from the point of view of someone other than the object of sympathy. This forced disconnect can achieve a similar effect.
There are two good reasons for revising what you’ve written: Either you want to change something, or your editor, agent or client does. If the revision is your idea, that’s good. It means you know what you want, or what you suspect won’t fly. If the revision is by request, remember: The customer may not always be right, but she has the money and the medium—as well as the experience of buying for it. (You can fight for what you believe, of course, but choose your battles carefully. Races are won or lost in the final minutes.)
I knew a writer who would write a first draft and submit it without even reading it over. Others, myself included, substitute and trim and pinch and juggle until the work pours like melted butter.
With that in mind, here’s your 30-minute assignment:
Reduce by a third the word count of one of your recent efforts without losing its essence. (I did this myself, in fact, with my contributions to this article.) Note: Don’t constantly reread what you’ve written; if you memorize it, self-editing will be tougher. Put it away for a few days. Then read it fresh.
Think of your writing as a windshield. Ill-suited words can streak and cloud your reader’s view, and just-right language can be as clarifying as a high-powered carwash. Once you have a solid draft, it’s time to consider:
- Could a different word bring even more energy or resonance to a poignant moment through sound, subtleties of meaning, or syllabic rhythm?
- Could the setting be conveyed more vividly? Is the natural world palpable?
- Is the emotional tone consistently resonant? Are there neutral words or passages that could be more charged?
- Does the language powerfully enact the action?
As you polish and prune, each piece of writing will teach you something new about what is possible. Let yourself be surprised.
Writers sometimes speak of style as if it were an ingredient to be added to their story or poem or memoir. Instead, style is the thing itself. E.B. White said it best, writing, “Style takes its final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of composition, for, as an elderly practitioner once remarked, ‘Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.’” The key, then, to developing one’s style is to write, as White states, “in a way that comes naturally.”
Sound easy? It’s not. In fact, finding the “way that comes naturally” can take a lifetime, and the way can change with each piece you begin. One key to beginning that journey is to think about style not so much as a matter of addition, but subtraction—casting off feelings of awkwardness and self-consciousness, affectation and pretension. Focus on presenting your piece clearly, in a way that connects with readers. For practice, imagine a single reader sitting across a table from you. Spend a half-hour relating your piece to that reader, as clearly and honestly as possible. Spend another half-hour striving to make the piece more clear, more honest, more affecting. Then spend another half-hour making the piece more clear, more …
Not sure if your story structure is strong enough to woo an agent? Consider:
Story Structure Architect
Also check out these items from the Writer’s Digest’s collection:
Writer’s Digest Elements Of Writing Fiction: Beginnings, Middles & Ends
Writer’s Digest Elements Of Writing Fiction: Scene & Structure
Writer’s Digest Elements Of Writing Fiction: Conflict, Action & Suspense
Writer’s Digest Elements Of Writing Fiction: Description
Writer’s Digest Elements Of Writing Fiction: Characters & Viewpoint
Writer’s Digest No More Rejections
Writer’s Digest Weekly Planner
Writer’s Digest How to Land a Literary Agent (On-Demand Webinar)
Writer’s Digest Magazine One-Year Subscription
Writer’s Digest 10 Years of Writer’s Digest on CD: 2000-2009