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17 Writing Secrets

One author shares his tried-and-true principles for making good writing better. by Steven Goldsberry

1. Never save your best for last. Start with your best. Expend yourself immediately, then see what happens. The better you do at the beginning, the better you continue to do.

2. The opening paragraph, sentence, line, phrase, word, title—the beginning is the most important part of the work. It sets the tone and lets the readers know you're a commanding writer.

3. The first duty of a writer is to entertain. Readers lose interest with exposition and abstract philosophy. They want to be entertained. But they feel cheated if, in the course of entertaining, you haven't taught them something.

4. Show, don't tell or editorialize. "Not ideas about the thing, but the thing itself."—Wallace Stevens

5. Voice is more important than image. "Poetry is not a thing, but a way of saying it."—A.E. Housman

6. Story is more important than anything. Readers (and publishers) care a lot less about craft than content. The question they ask isn't, "How accomplished is the writer?" but, "How good is the story?"

7. These rules, pressed far enough, contradict each other. Such is the nature of rules for art.

8. All writing records conflict. Give the opposition quality attention and good lines. The power of the the antagonists should equal that of the protagonists.

9. Shift focus often. Vary sentence structure and type; jump back and forth in time and place; make a good mix of narration, description, exposition and dialogue.

10. Be careful of your diction. A single word, like a drop of iodine in a gallon of water, can change the color of your entire manuscript.

11. Provide readers with closure. The last sentences of the novel echo something that happened earlier. Life comes full circle. "If I have a pistol in my first chapter, a pistol ends the book."—Ann Rule

12. By the end of the work, the conflict should reach some satisfactory resolution. Not always a "happily ever after" ending, but something should be finalized.

13. Revise, revise. You never get it on the first try. Art shows up in rewriting.

14. Avoid excessive use of adjectives and adverbs; trust the precision of your nouns and verbs. Verb form: the shorter the better. Avoid helping verbs and progressives. Avoid passive voice. Avoid cliche and stock phrases.

15. Be interesting with every sentence. Be brief. Hemingway's first editor at the Kansas City Star gave him this style sheet: "Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative." Hemingway later referred to that list as "the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing."

16. If you can be misread, you will be.

17. There are no rules for good writing. Those who break the "rules" successfully are the true artists. But: learn, practice and master the rules first. "You cannot transcend what you do not know."—Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

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