Probably, the best advice I’ve ever come across from a writer on writing is Elmore Leonard’s suggestion, “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.” Second best is Mark Twain’s illustration of how to show, don’t tell, followed by Margaret Atwood’s close third, “Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.”
Whether you are a seasoned self-publisher or a first-time indie author, and whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, chances are you agree with Hemingway, who said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Nobody said this writing business was going to be easy. For Hemingway, the secret to effective writing was to forget about the flowery prose of the literati and keep your writing simple, short, and clear. When he went to work for the Kansas City Star in 1917, he was given four rules for effective writing, and he stuck with them his whole life. Here they are:
1. Use short sentences.
2. Use short first paragraphs.
3. Use vigorous English.
4. Be positive, not negative.
He also said, “There is no friend as loyal as a book,” something for all of us self-publishers and book lovers to keep in mind.
Back to Elmore Leonard. Years ago, at Delacorte Press, I was lucky enough to be his editor on Swag, Fifty-Two Pick-Up, and Unknown Man #89. We became pals, partly because we were both from Birmingham, Mich., and partly because I was such a fan of his sharp, unpretentious prose. “I always refer to style as sound,” he said, and he was hypersensitive to the sound of language. In 2006 he talked about the craft of writing on BBC Two’s The Culture Show. If you’re interested, you can find the short video on YouTube. In the show he offers three tips for writers:
1. “You have to listen to your characters.”
2. “Don’t worry about what your mother thinks of your language.”
3. “Try to get a rhythm.”
In 2007 he published his witty, short book called Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, based on his 2001 New York Times article, “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle.” Leonard suggests that writers:
1. Never open a book with the weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”
5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Same for places and things.
10. Leave out the parts readers tend to skip.
Another witty, wonderful advice-giver is Kurt Vonnegut. In the preface to his short story collection Bagombo Snuff Box, he lists eight basics of what he calls Creative Writing 101.
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
It seems to us at BookWorks that if you wrote down all the suggestions for writing well from successful writers, and tossed them into a hat, the top 10 would look something like this:
1. Write every day, even if it is only for 10 minutes.
2. Use the active not the passive voice.
3. Write like you talk.
4. Never use clichés.
5. Read what you write out loud, or, better yet, have someone else read it to you—sound matters.
6. Go easy on the adjectives and adverbs.
7. Keep it moving.
8. Show, don’t tell.
9. Finish it.
10. Delete the boring stuff.
Betty Kelly Sargent is founder and CEO of BookWorks.