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The Best Writing Advice. Ever.

A guest post by Larry Brooks of Storyfix.com. Image by [phil h]

writing-advice.png

We are all storytellers. Whether we’re writing a blog, an ebook, a cheesy novel or a killer screenplay, even an essay, article or report.

Without some semblance of a story at the heart of it all, what’s left is a masturbatory exercise in rhetoric. And if there’s one thing we know about masturbation, it’s that we’re alone.

Thing is, alone doesn’t get us paid. Writing for money is a team sport that demands we pass the ball to a publisher and then a reader somewhere down the road.

The differences in various forms of writing reduce to executional semantics. Which means, the essence of what makes us better writers remains eternal and therefore something we can practice and eventually master, no matter what it is we write.

It Is Written

Behind the conventional wisdom, beneath the tips and techniques, before the fundamentals and the principles, and above everything else, there are certain foundational truths about what we do and how we do it.

This is a closer look at the latter.

These universal truths apply to pretty much any profession, by the way. But for some reason there are writers, especially newer writers, who tend to think such foundational truths either don’t exist or do not apply to them.

If that’s you, hear this clearly: that is the worst writing advice, ever.

The best writing advice – ever – comes from a core, fundamental perspective. Embrace these five gifts of truth and your writing will quickly and forever escalate to the next level.

1. Design your writing like an engineer.

The most pervasive and destructive illusion floating around the writing universe is that you can write something good without order and structure.

Even if you just wing it, if you like to make it up as you go, you’ll end up rewriting and revising until an ordered structure emerges and becomes the skeleton of a finished piece.

Some writers – often the most experienced and successful, so pay attention – give significant creative mindshare to the structure of a story before they write it. They build on a structure, rather than digging one out from the chaos of a convoluted draft.

The worst thing that can happen is that you don’t even realize that it’s convoluted. But you see, a story engineer would.

And it’s not just any ol’ skeleton, either. Structure isn’t something you make up in the moment, in mid-stride as you write. Story structure in any genre and in any deliverable format is based on accepted principles and models.

You violate them, or write in ignorance of them, at your own storytelling peril.

Without a narrative structure in place, even the most elegant and powerful prose plops to the ground in a heap of moist, quivering helplessness.

Order and structure is always – whether planned or retrofitted – a function of design. And design, by definition, is a practice based on certain physics, principles and those proven laws and models.

Learn them, then build your writing upon their proven strengths, and your story will be set free to elevate itself to art.

2. Polish your writing like an obsessive poet.

Writing is very much like singing, playing an instrument or excelling at athletics. The more you do it, the more evolved and polished your sensibilities become, until finally you can instinctively add subtlety and nuance to your performance.

Which, by the way, is what separates the published from the non-published.

Such deft touches usually look easier that they really are when observed from the cheap seats. Success in all of these pursuits is the product of craft, and craft is the product of evolved instincts colliding with proven principles.

The inherent risk in polishing your work is to overwrite, to imbue your narrative voice with a certain hue of purple. Polishing is as much the rendering of complex words into simpler terms as it is de-cluttering the space between your periods, while leaving just a little stylistic juice to spice things up.

Sooner or later your writing will settle into a voice that is uniquely yours. Once there, polishing your work becomes the literary equivalent of clearing your throat.

Sometimes the best writers are simply the best throat clearers.

3. Edit your writing like an anal retentive executioner with a hip edge.

Editing is easily confused with polishing. It can mean two things – copy editing (which is, in fact, the cleaning up and correction of your prose, whereas polishing is more a style and voice issue), and story editing, which is the trimming of expositional fat and the empowerment of narrative moments.

You need both. And you need some combination of two things to do it right: time, and the eyes of a stranger.

What you don’t need is someone trying to turn your work into the vanilla sensibilities of your old high school English teacher. Deliberate, effective voice trumps English 101 any day, provided your readers agree. (Example: earlier I used the word “executional.” Look it up, there is no such word. Each time I type it I see that pesky red underlining. But it’s the right word, the intended word, I’m confident you get it, and my old English teacher can bite me.)

One of the best strategies to bring out the best in your work is to set it aside for a while before turning a fierce editor’s eye back on it. And if you can’t be that set of eyes with objective clarity, consider outsourcing the task to someone who is as hip within your target niche as you are.

In my case, my wife. If it’s purple or if it’s bullshit, I’ll hear about it.

Turning in well-edited – in this case synonymous with appropriately edited – work is the great secret of published authors.

4. Advocate for your work like someone possessed.

Know that the manuscript next to yours on an editor’s desk, or the blog competing for the attention of your reader, is likely every bit as good as your stuff.

Maybe not – making sure that doesn’t happen is the goal here – but sooner or later that will certainly be the case.

Which means, you’ll win some and you’ll lose some.

Persistence is every bit as important to a writing career as talent and craft. This isn’t a business for the thin-skinned, and it isn’t a marketplace for the uninitiated.

Agents and editors and even readers are actually looking for a reason to reject our work as much as they are hoping they’ll fall in love. Nobody said this was fair, and it isn’t.

Your job is to be as passionate about how and to whom you are pitching your stories as you are about writing them. Which means you need to master skills such as manuscript preparation, niche market research, the competition, market trending, live pitching and written querying, not to mention picking yourself up after a good cry and doing it all over again.

The world is full of perfectly worthy manuscripts that didn’t get published because their writers didn’t have the chops to sell it. Don’t be that writer.

Whatever happens to you in this business is what you make happen.

5. Love your work as if you are its mother.

Your mother loves you unconditionally. And yet, she calls you to a higher level of performance, of being. She helps you get there, even if she doesn’t model it herself. She expects you to get there, and if she believes you really want it, she’ll accept nothing less.

And if you don’t, she’ll love you anyway, and just as much.

Her expectation of your excellence, your success, and ultimately your happiness, is the expression of her unconditional love for you. And chances are she takes no shit in the process.

She picks you up when you fall. She tends to your wounds when you fail. She hugs you when you need it, she kicks your ass when you need that.

Then she sends you back into the real world to try again. All in the name of simply loving you.

Your story needs more than a genius writer, a crack idea, a ruthless editor, a maniacal advocate and a few lucky breaks. It needs someone to love it.

Someone to will it into a state of excellence, who understands and accepts that good isn’t good enough in today’s market. Good is just the ticket to someone’s submissions inbox. The ultimate winners bring more.

What they bring is the love of their story, forged and coached and loved into existence at a motherly level of commitment.

And as the author you are, after all, its mother.

This is the best writing advice you will ever hear.

Because everything else in the vast universe of writing knowledge, anything possible to learn and apply to the craft and art of it, is empowered by these truths.

Without all this, all you have is an intention. And that alone won’t get you there.

These five core truths, combined with your talent and passion, not to mention your killer idea, just might.

Larry Brooks is the creator of Storyfix.com, an instructional writing resource for novelists, screenwriters and those who love them. His new novel, Whisper of the Seventh Thunder, releases March 2010.

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Comments

  1. Vivek says:

    thanks for the writing advice. i like the point no.-5 most. one thing i like to add that in writing it is not necessary to use too much difficult words because the visitors coming to your site are not the oxford university students. use the layman language which is understandable by everyone.

  2. Good stuff. I write quite a bit of prose on my site, and just this week opened the doors to a store ( ttp://www.hyraxpublications.com/store/ ) to sell collections of the short stories (each collection has bonus content as well) – and I’m planning to add some audio versions very soon. I decided to go this route rather than having one of the major e-content sites sell it for me. It’s quite a bit more work on the front end, but I get to keep more of the money and have more control over things.

    I’m also focusing on entering the Iowa Short Fiction contest this year.

    Although I try to keep a decent sense of humility around me, I also advocate like crazy for my work :) My wife would say that I focus on it too much – because sometimes I get in a time crunch and I have to decide whether to write or eat. 9 times out of 10, I write.

  3. F-a-n-t-a-s-t-i-c.

  4. erg. I left off the leading “h” in the URL :)

    http://www.hyraxpublications.com/store/

  5. I have been really trying to keep improving my writing every step of the way, so thank you. I don’t think we talk enough about the actual writing ability, the ‘how to’s, etc.

    Thank you for writing this, it’ll give me a fresh new way to critique my own work. I do agree with you on one thing especially: and that is, it’s not enough to just spew whatever thoughts come out onto the page, but I’ll be the first to admit that it’s so easy to do without even realising it, at times!

  6. I so needed this this morning. My blog began as a creative visual outlet so I find myself struggling with the writing part. It never sounds as good as it did in my head. Ya know?

    And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said “Oh, I’m not a writer” but that’s what I’m doing, writing, almost everyday.

    I especially love what you said about editing…

    “The inherent risk in polishing your work is to overwrite, to imbue your narrative voice with a certain hue of purple. Polishing is as much the rendering of complex words into simpler terms as it is de-cluttering the space between your periods, while leaving just a little stylistic juice to spice things up.”

    I try to hold true to the “less is best” mantra, so this is a good reminder. And well said.

    Thanks for the advice.

  7. This is, absolutely and hands down, the best blog post I have ever read. So much to think about and try to internalize before my next blog post. Thank you for sharing!

  8. Sudeep says:

    Hey ,
    What a great post enjoyed it a lot .. I love your advice where speak about your work to be compared as if your mother…
    Thanks

  9. Jenny says:

    I have to admit the structure aspect is something I really need to get a grasp on. I find myself frequently writing 600 or so words and then trying to string them all together. Writing it all out in the beginning is helpful for me, but taking the time to plot out some sort of structure before I free write all of my thoughts will probably save me a lot of time. Great to see you on here Larry. Your blog is one of my favorite for real, easy-to-apply writing tips.

  10. Ami says:

    Hi Larry, excellent post

    That last point got to me; I really do love my work and am very proud of it. I’m a big believer of storytelling and used to write many stories as a student, I think that people by nature are looking to find a storyline in everything they hear.

    Nowadays I’m telling my story as a new blogger, conducting a blogging diary of everything I’ve done to get it up and running, I call it The Real-Time Blogging Report. I’m hoping people find it useful and interesting

    Good weekend

    Ami
    Bee a Blogger | REAL-TIME Blogging Report

  11. This is good stuff. I saw the essential thrust of the article as
    1. Striving for excellence by taking your time
    2. Putting effort into it and not settling for shoddy work
    3. In order to do the above, love what you do, and don’t take no for an answer!

    Good advice all around.

  12. You know, I read a lot of crap on the Net. A LOT. Most of it is mediocre, dead dog beaten, repurposed drivel that is intended to fool me into thinking the writer actually knows what he or she is talking about (which it never accomplishes).

    It’s refreshing to read some real “meat and potatoes” from someone who walks the walk.

    Thanks for contributing to the value of the Internet with BS-free, valuable, relevant truth- a goal so few set and even less achieve.

  13. Gil Reich says:

    You left out “Self-promote like a Trump on TV.” Or maybe that’s part of rule 4.

  14. What an awesome analogy to a mother. We usually just think of a mother’s love as unconditional, but you’re right, a mother wants so much more for her children and wants them to be their very best. I need to remember this as I write. I want my posts to be their very best.

    Thanks for your blog, it has helped me grow and think about how I want to improve my posting. I see now that I need more order and I’m in the process of thinking through what that means.

  15. Great advice. I’ll book mark this and refer to it often.

  16. Aglolink says:

    ‘everything else in the Vast universe of writing knowledge, anything possible to learn and apply to the craft and art of it, is empowered’
    These words make my spirit is alive again. Writing became a hobby and not coercion.

  17. This post made me realize how little I knew about writing. I never thought of myself as a writer, but I always had desire to share my knowledge with others.

    So I decided that I’d rather write simply, then don’t write at all.

    There is always desire to grow though.

    Best,
    Ana/new YourNetBiz article

  18. RJ Weiss says:

    You’re right, that was the best writing advice I have heard.

  19. Karen Marcus says:

    With blogging, it is easy to get caught up in the mechanics, the promotion, and the optimization. Bloggers can forget that, at its core, blogging is writing, and that writing needs to be the best it can be. You bring up several key components of good writing, including structure, practice, and what I like to call “ruthless editing.” This post is a nice reminder to add “write well” to one’s list of blogging must-dos.

  20. Dave Rowley says:

    Thanks for the great post. I love writing, but it is hard work and it’s good to read a post acknowledging that. I liked what you wrote about structure, polishing and editing. Really useful advice for me.

    It was also good to hear about the importance of advocating for your own work. That’s a difficult thing to do after struggling with the writing part, and it’s yet another thing I need to work on.

  21. Ray says:

    Oddly enough I published a post that is closely related to this one.

  22. Tom Tucker says:

    It is kind of funny to me that a post titled “The Best Writing Advice. Ever” has some issues when it comes to editing. The author needs to do a better job.

    Here is the error:

    “Such deft touches usually look easier that (than) they really are when observed from the cheap seats. Success in all of these pursuits is the product of craft, and craft is the product of evolved instincts colliding with proven principles.”

    Errors like that should not be committed by a writer who presents himself as an expert.

  23. Andy Merrett says:

    Is masturbation the latest gimmick to use in posts? This must be the second article I’ve read this week that talks about “masturbatory… something”.

    If you have to use that analogy, realise that not all masturbation is a solo event.

  24. i like the way you put it as “it’s written”.

  25. Leah says:

    I really appreciate how well you convey that writing is a craft. Skilled writers, like skilled musicians or athletes, achieve what they do as the result of practice and hard work.

  26. Mathew Day says:

    That was deep, thanks for the advice and writing tips. I am constantly trying to become a better writer. More experience and tips from the experts has helped it tremendously over time.

  27. Thank you for the great advice!

  28. Larry says:

    Thanks to all for your kind comments. And thanks to Tom for pointing out my imperfection (which I never claimed), we need folks like you — and there are always folks like you — to be there to point out the negative in our well-intended work (and by the way, there are two mistakes in your comment… welcome to being human, Tom). Despite that little one-letter glitch, I did love this like a mother, and in both colloquial contexts.

  29. Hi guys

    i love number 5 best!!!

    the idea that you love your work to this level really works and i often think like this myself especially when i am writing articles for clients.

    kind regards

    sam
    X

  30. Greg Taylor says:

    I find that I really need to structure my blog posts to keep things on track.

    Jay Baer from http://www.convinceandconvert.com has a great tool on his blog for planning out your blog posts. His Intoxicating Blog Post Worksheet is by far the tool I have implemented into my workflow. (link to worksheet: http://www.convinceandconvert.com/free-social-media-worksheets)

  31. Tom Tucker says:

    “One of the best strategies to bring out the best in your work is to set it aside for a while before turning a fierce editor’s eye back on it.”

  32. Krista says:

    I think I’ve fallen in love with writing all over again. A wealth of information from someone who truly enjoys the art. Thank you!

  33. J. Hunter Sizemore says:

    I have to say, your use of the word “purple” baffles me. Maybe I’m not hip to the niche where this word has significance. Or maybe it’s because I’m American?

  34. Sebastyne says:

    I loved the advice, and I will have to take on board that last one, which kind of takes in all the rest, doesn’t it? Although, I do have to object to your idealistic view of a mother. Unfortunately, most are the kind that point you to a direction of a safe road, the one that travels 4 lanes wide bullet straight through a flat land, not the rocky and narrow one by a mountain cliff with a distracting beautiful view and a rain bow at the end of it. In fact, sometimes they like to attach themselves to your ankle and attempt to drag you back from there, and if that’s not possible, at least slow you down considerably. Yes, that’s my mother, but hey, that wasn’t the point of this article. :)

  35. Larry says:

    @Sebastyne — to be honest that was my experience, too, but I’ve spent my whole life (and more than a little therapy) trying to get over that fact. In this post I was going for the architypical mother’s love, and I do realize that too many of us didn’t have that experience. That, too, is something we can use as writers, if nothing else than to love and support our children (and our stories) differently and better.

    God bless ‘em… but we survived and lived to write about it. Thanks for commenting.

  36. Fikri Rakala says:

    Thanks for the advice. I like point number 5. I think, what ever you do you must love it!

  37. Sebastyne says:

    @Larry – It happens to relate closely to an ebook I’m writing, actually. Kind of at the top of my thoughts at the moment. :) Regardless, your post will help me a lot with that, I’m book marking it so that if I feel lost, I’ll read this again and I’m sure I’ll be good to go again! :)

  38. Larry, good post. One of the better writing posts I have read on problogger, not necessrily the best writing advice ever but sound advice nonetheless. Best in comparison to whom? Chekhov’s advice from his letters to a writer? Kerouac’s advice about spontaneous prose? Bernard Shaw’s essays or Arthur Miller’s essays about writing? I think the best advice is individual to what penetrates the writer independently. What you say and what I say can mean nothing but to one person or to ten thousand. To each his own, right?

    To add to “Design Your Writing Like An Engineer”, I would say that content creates the form, form does not create the content. If you try to sit there and write within a pre-conceived structure, you will be miserable. If you are truthful to giving yourself over to full creative expression, you will have the form created in and of its own accord because of that expression and that is art. Ask Samuel Beckett (Waiting For Godot) or Beethoven (symphony 9) or Thomas Wolfe or Shakespeare or well, you get my point. Why trap yourself within the confines of how other writers write? Just because they are proven methods does not mean they are the only methods….there is an infinity of form and each form is unique depending on the creative artist who bends it according to his/her own souls will. Learn from other writers and their structures like the Greeks or the Elizabethans or basically from the history of writing (theatre, novels, new media ect), of course, but master your own voice and from your own voice, will stem its own composition.

    Maybe you are saying the same thing here Larry, if you are, just wanted to help you clarify and if you disagree, I would be interested to learn your response.

    Good topic. Thanks.

  39. bunny says:

    Pretty good advice. I only have an exception with point number one. It is good advice if you wish to follow the American event based story structure. For much of the rest of the world we often prefer character based storytelling. Especially in comedy writing. It just doesn’t work trying to shoehorn extreme characters into a predefined set of events.

    Of course, then yo do need to edit heavily or do rewrites if the story gets too convoluted. Though I do believe that the public (even the American public) are getting more used to random events surrounding strong characters with strange personality quirks. Just look at the Simpsons. Many of the scripts have no set path, story arc or three act structure.

  40. Fergitude says:

    Larry,
    That was a fantastically structured story to help us hone our writing. Thank you for the contribution. It was stimulating!
    Ferg

  41. Thanks for the blog post

    I love writing and you have some brilliant tips here

    kind regards

    sam
    X

  42. Donna says:

    awesome advice for structuring your blog!

  43. EF Cussins says:

    Thank you for this post. It reminds me I got to treat every post. Not just putting content on the web hoping someone will read it.

  44. Writing is very much like singing, playing an instrument or excelling at athletics. The more you do it, the more evolved and polished your sensibilities become, until finally you can instinctively add subtlety and nuance to your performance.

  45. Archan Mehta says:

    Larry:

    Great post. Thank you for sharing your ideas.

    Writing has two elements: craft and art.

    The craft is technical, whereas the art is more about imagination and aesthetics.

    A literary artist like V.S. Naipaul can make music with both art and craft. The two can sing a duet and the voice which emerges is a golden one like Frank Sinatra. Lovely.

    By the way, you have a fabulous blog, which I enjoy reading, so keep up the good work. Cheers to you.

  46. Glenn A says:

    Well a good writing tip, at least, is to not alienate a chunk of your audience by bringing up something messy and personal in the first two graphs. … Obviously this was not written with blogging in mind, but even with that I would say the advice is OK at best. Writing (at least blogging) is not a forced march.

    “The differences in various forms of writing reduce to executional semantics.” Got it. I’m out outta here.

  47. Love it….thanks for sharing!

  48. Shelley S says:

    Believe the word you meant to say was “executable” since executional does not exist. Just saying. This writing comes off as a bit arrogant, though the other commenters love it — unless the last section title was supposed to be funny!

  49. Larry says:

    @Monologue Blogger — thanks for the thoughtful comment. You may be right, “the best” of anything is subjective, but then again, when you offer up cardinal rules and values that apply to virtually any aspect of the craft in question, then that level of fundamental truth is easily and riskless labeled the “best,” with the acknowledgement that it may not be a complete tome on the best value and practices. Neither were Beckett or Shakespeare. Citing ancient classics to disprove a contemporary truth… sort of not playing fair, there. That’s like saying Lebron James is doing it wrong because they didn’t allow between the leg dribbling back in the day. There isn’t a single one of those “ancient” players who could make a college team today, no matter how immortal their name still is… just makin’ an analogous point here.

    I don’t disagree with your view, but would offer this: how you utilize or subordinate to structural paradigms is driven by your goals. If you want to publish commercial fiction in today’s market, for example, rather than experimental fiction — in other words, if you want to make money — then you better be sure your story DOES comply with the accepted — and expected — structures and criteria in play in this niche. That’s your choice. If you wish to make up your own rules and structures, that’s fine, too, just don’t expect Random House or anyon else to offer you a contract. That may offend one’s artistic sensiblities, but then, the mainstream has been pissing off artists for decades, and still nobody has surfaced (at least in that particular niche) with a successful piece of work that does it any other way.

    My “engineering” value takes that into consideration. You can’t build a bridge or an airplane or conduct surgery or do your taxes according to your own wishes and creative whims, and expect success. This holds true for pretty much all forms of writing for money, too, versus writing for academia, for fun or for other non-commercial reasons. In those cases, you’re right, do it however you want to do it. All you’ll have to show for it, career-wise, is the satisfaction of humming “My Way” as you type.

    The operative word in the title of this blog is “Pro,” which implies something other than experimentation. If someone wants to become the next Shakespeare, more power to them… but that’s another website, and nobody’s reading it.

  50. Larry says:

    @J. Hunter Sizemore — you may be right, the context of the term “purple” relative to writing may be American, though I’m really not sure. Anyhow, “purple prose” is over-written prose, on the self-indulgent side of forced eloquence, the use of too many adjectives, and just plain too “flowery” in effect. If Shakespeare was submitting manuscripts today, using his own style in today’s culture, his rejection slips would probably mention that his prose is too purple, too much. Sure glad he did what he did, when he did it, but it wouldn’t work now for that reason. Hope this clarifies. Thanks for commenting.