Writing Advice

George Orwell’s Brilliant Guide to Writing Well

17 September 2014

From George Orwell via The New Republic:

Despite the rank hypocrisy of Orwell’s use of the passive voice, this, “Politics and the English Language,” is one of the most sublimely constructed essays ever published in the English language. I wish The New Republic could claim full credit for this one. But Orwell initially ran the piece in London with Cyril Connolly’s Horizon before publishing it here. The piece perfectly expresses the hardheaded turn that liberalism would take in the postwar years—when it lost all patience with the obfuscations that had enabled utopian fantasies to persist. —Franklin Foer

To mark its 100th anniversary, The New Republic is republishing a collection of its most memorable articles.

. . . .

 This piece originally appeared in The New Republic June 17th, 1946.

. . . .

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent, and our language—so the argument runs—must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to airplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. I will come back to this presently, and I hope that by that time the meaning of what I have said here will have become clearer.

. . . .

As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easiereven quicker, once you have the habitto say In my opinion it is a not unjustifiable assumption that than to say/think. When you are composing in a hurrywhen you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speechit is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style. Tags like a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind or a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images dashas in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting potit can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking.

. . . .

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for youeven think your thoughts for you, to certain extentand at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.

Link to the rest at The New Republic

Famous Writers on the Creative Benefits of Keeping a Diary

14 September 2014

From Brain Pickings:

“You want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you,” Madeleine L’Engle counseled in her advice to aspiring writers. W.H. Auden once described hisjournal as “a discipline for [his] laziness and lack of observation.”

. . . .

Anaïs Nin was perhaps the most dogged diarist in recorded history — she began keeping a diary at the age of eleven and maintained the habit until her death at the age of 74, producing sixteen volumes of published journals.

It was while writing a Diary that I discovered how to capture the living moments.

Keeping a Diary all my life helped me to discover some basic elements essential to the vitality of writing.

When I speak of the relationship between my diary and writing I do not intend to generalize as to the value of keeping a diary, or to advise anyone to do so, but merely to extract from this habit certain discoveries which can be easily transposed to other kinds of writing.

Of these the most important is naturalness and spontaneity. These elements sprung, I observed, from my freedom of selection: in the Diary I only wrote of what interested me genuinely, what I felt most strongly at the moment, and I found this fervor, this enthusiasm produced a vividness which often withered in the formal work. Improvisation, free association, obedience to mood, impulse, bought forth countless images, portraits, descriptions, impressionistic sketches, symphonic experiments, from which I could dip at any time for material.

. . . .

This personal relationship to all things, which is condemned as subjective, limiting, I found to be the core of individuality, personality, and originality. The idea that subjectivity is an impasse is as false as the idea that objectivity leads to a larger form of life.

A deep personal relationship reaches far beyond the personal into the general. Again it is a matter of depths.

Link to the rest at Brain Pickings

How Stephen King Teaches Writing

10 September 2014

From The Atlantic:

Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft has been a fixture in my English classroom for years, but it wasn’t until this summer, when I began teaching in a residential drug and alcohol rehab, that I discovered the full measure of its worth. For weeks, I struggled to engage my detoxing, frustrated, and reluctant teenage students. I trotted out all my best lessons and performed all my best tricks, but save for one rousing read-aloud of Poe’s “A Tell-Tale Heart,” I failed to engage their attention or imagination.

Until the day I handed out copies of On Writing. Stephen King’s memoir of the craft is more than an inventory of the writer’s toolbox or a voyeuristic peek into his prolific and successful writing life. King recounts his years as a high school English teacher, his own recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, and his love for his students (“even the Beavis and Butt-Head types”). Most importantly, he captivates the reader with his honest account of the challenges he’s faced, and promises redemption to anyone willing to come to the blank page with a sense of purpose.

. . . .

Lahey: You write, “One either absorbs the grammatical principles of one’s native language in conversation and in reading or one does not.” If this is true, why teach grammar in school at all? Why bother to name the parts?

King: When we name the parts, we take away the mystery and turn writing into a problem that can be solved. I used to tell them that if you could put together a model car or assemble a piece of furniture from directions, you could write a sentence. Reading is the key, though. A kid who grows up hearing “It don’t matter to me” can only learndoesn’t if he/she reads it over and over again.

Lahey: While I love teaching grammar, I am conflicted on the utility of sentence diagramming. Did you teach diagramming, and if so, why?

King: I did teach it, always beginning by saying, “This is for fun, like solving a crossword puzzle or a Rubik’s Cube.” I told them to approach it as a game. I gave them sentences to diagram as homework but promised I would not test on it, and I never did. Do you really teach diagramming? Good for you! I didn’t think anyone did anymore.

Lahey: In the introduction to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, E.B. White recounts William Strunk’s instruction to “omit needless words.” While your books are voluminous, your writing remains concise. How do you decide which words are unnecessary and which words are required for the telling?

King: It’s what you hear in your head, but it’s never right the first time. So you have to rewrite it and revise it. My rule of thumb is that a short story of 3,000 words should be rewritten down to 2,500. It’s not always true, but mostly it is. You need to take out the stuff that’s just sitting there and doing nothing. No slackers allowed! All meat, no filler!

. . . .

Lahey: You write that “it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer.” If so, how should writing teachers proceed when it comes to our least talented students?

King: Ask yourself what they need to get on in life, the bare minimum (like filling in a job application), and concentrate on that. Sometimes it can be as simple as writing—as a class exercise—instructions on how to get from Point A in town to Point B. They tie themselves in knots, at least to start with. It can be pretty hilarious. My kids used to end up shouting at each other, “No, no, you goleft at the water tower!” Stuff like that.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

The Psychology of Writing and the Cognitive Science of the Perfect Daily Routine

31 August 2014

From Brain Pickings:

Reflecting on the ritualization of creativity, Bukowski famously scoffed that “air and light and time and space have nothing to do with.” Samuel Johnson similarly contended that “a man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.” And yet some of history’s most successful and prolific writers were women and men of religious daily routines and odd creative rituals. (Even Buk himself ended up sticking to a peculiar daily routine.)

Such strategies, it turns out, may be psychologically sound and cognitively fruitful. In the altogether illuminating 1994 volume The Psychology of Writing (public library), cognitive psychologist Roland T. Kellogg explores how work schedules, behavioral rituals, and writing environments affect the amount of time invested in trying to write and the degree to which that time is spent in a state of boredom, anxiety, or creative flow. Kellogg writes:

[There is] evidence that environments, schedules, and rituals restructure the writing process and amplify performance… The principles of memory retrieval suggest that certain practices should amplify performance. These practices encourage a state of flow rather than one of anxiety or boredom. Like strategies, these other aspects of a writer’s method may alleviate the difficulty of attentional overload. The room, time of day, or ritual selected for working may enable or even induce intense concentration or a favorable motivational or emotional state. Moreover, in accordance with encoding specificity, each of these aspects of method may trigger retrieval of ideas, facts, plans, and other relevant knowledge associated with the place, time, or frame of mind selected by the writer for work.

. . . .

Kellogg surmises that writers more afflicted with the modern epidemic of anxiety tend to be more disconcerted by noisy environments. Proust and Carlyle appear to have been among those writers — the former wrote in a cork-lined room to eliminate obtrusive sounds and the latter in a noiseproof chamber to ensure absolute silence — whereas Allen Ginsberg was known for being able to write anywhere, from trains to planes to parks. What matters, Kellogg points out, are each writer’s highly subjective requirements for preserving the state of flow:

The lack of interruption in trains of thought may be the critical ingredient in an environment that enables creative flow. As long as a writer can tune out background noise, the decibel level per se may be unimportant. For some writers, the dripping of a faucet may be more disruptive than the bustle of a cafe in the heart of a city.

. . . .

He also cites a 1985 study of circadian rhythms — something scientists have since explored with swelling rigor — which found that performance on intellectual tasks peaks during morning hours, whereas perceptual-motor tasks fare better in the afternoon and evening. Hemingway, in fact, intuited this from his own experience, telling George Plimpton in a rare 1989 interview:

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until morning when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that.

Link to the rest at Brain Pickings

Keeping it Fresh

30 August 2014

From author Dave Farland:

When you’re writing a long novel, sometimes as a writer you feel that you are getting stuck in a rut, that your prose has become repetitious, so it is important to find little ways to vary your work.

Most often, writing teachers will suggest that authors write sentences or paragraphs (or even chapters) of varying lengths.

For example, Ernest Hemingway is often considered the “master of the short sentence,” but in every story that he writes, when he gets up to the place where a thematic climax comes in, he will suddenly write long sentences—as long as three or four hundred words even.

. . . .

Anyone who has ever suffered through bipolar disorder knows that even a single protagonist can suffer through violent mood swings that seem to have nothing to do with what life throws at them. Thus, a character may be on top of the world one day and suicidal the next. So the emotional tone in a novel can vary widely, too.

I’ve seen authors who struggle to put in characters who are wildly different, so that each person is highly individual, and that can be fun, since it pushes you to really delve deeply in order to create interesting characters. Thus, you can look at the works of Arthur Conan Doyle in Sherlock Holmes, and find many interesting characters with odd habits, unusual costumes, and so on.

Sometimes you can simply alter your style in small ways to good effect. In John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, the author will go for fifty pages of dialog where the beats—the character’s internal thoughts and the descriptions of the external settings and character actions—are all skillfully interwoven through the dialog.

Link to the rest at David Farland and thanks to Eric for the tip.

Here’s a link to David Farland’s books

Failure, Writing’s Constant Companion

18 August 2014

From The New York Times Opinionator:

Failure in writing is not like failure in business, where you lose money and have to fire everyone and remortgage your house. When you’re a writer, most of the time, people don’t depend on you to succeed. Although you may starve if your books don’t sell, or your agent might yell at you for producing something that three people will read, failure in writing is more of an intimately crushing day-to-day thing. O.K., minute-to-minute. Measured against your ideal of yourself.

In the last few years, Philip Roth and Alice Munro decided to put down their pens.

Munro told this newspaper that she didn’t know if she had the energy “to do this anymore.” And Roth said, “I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration — it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.” Roth and Munro have produced many admirable works. They should be allowed to stop failing on a daily basis, if they want to, in their eighth decades.

But the rest of us are stuck.

In writing, failing is not dramatic. There will be no news headline: ANOTHER WRITER FAILED TODAY.

. . . .

By the way, unless you come from a family of writers, you can be certain that your family will have no idea what you’re talking about when you mention that you’re failing every day. They will encourage you to become a radiologist. They mean well. They are likely to be worried about the thing that most families are worried about, namely your ability to support yourself in the fashion to which you are accustomed.

But for writers, early on, other kinds of failure demand attention. There is the logistical failure of getting to your desk. Then there is the failure of not being able to stay there. John McPhee once famously tied himself to his chair, which strikes me as a good way to deal with the torpor that overcomes many writers when faced with the blank page or screen.

But even if you succeed here, you can’t stop your mind from getting up and going over to the couch. Another potential failure: pacing. Writing is not like bingeing on “Breaking Bad.” You have to do it every day. Whatever happens.

. . . .

I remember the first time I felt like a bona fide failure as a writer. This feeling of nausea washed over me, but it was confusing because it appeared at the exact moment when I was supposed to be feeling success. It was when I finished my first book and realized there were some things in it that I hated, things that were made all the more hideous to me whenever people said, “You must have such a sense of accomplishment.” I asked a more experienced writer if she ever got over this nauseated feeling. She didn’t reassure me. “Oh, that never goes away.”

. . . .

Junot Díaz wrote convincingly about how his efforts at his first novel after many false starts made him a writer: “In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times and thanks to Sandra for the tip.

Why It’s So Hard to Catch Your Own Typos

13 August 2014

From Wired:

You have finally finished writing your article. You’ve sweat over your choice of words and agonized about the best way to arrange them to effectively get your point across. You comb for errors, and by the time you publish you are absolutely certain that not a single typo survived. But, the first thing your readers notice isn’t your carefully crafted message, it’s the misspelled word in the fourth sentence.

Typos suck. They are saboteurs, undermining your intent, causing your resume to land in the “pass” pile, or providing sustenance for an army of pedantic critics. Frustratingly, they are usually words you know how to spell, but somehow skimmed over in your rounds of editing. If we are our own harshest critics, why do we miss those annoying little details?

The reason typos get through isn’t because we’re stupid or careless, it’s because what we’re doing is actually very smart, explains psychologist Tom Stafford, who studies typos of the University of Sheffield in the UK. “When you’re writing, you’re trying to convey meaning. It’s a very high level task,” he said.

As with all high level tasks, your brain generalizes simple, component parts (like turning letters into words and words into sentences) so it can focus on more complex tasks (like combining sentences into complex ideas). “We don’t catch every detail, we’re not like computers or NSA databases,” said Stafford. “Rather, we take in sensory information and combine it with what we expect, and we extract meaning.” When we’re reading other peoples’ work, this helps us arrive at meaning faster by using less brain power. When we’re proof reading our own work, we know the meaning we want to convey. Because we expect that meaning to be there, it’s easier for us to miss when parts (or all) of it are absent. The reason we don’t see our own typos is because what we see on the screen is competing with the version that exists in our heads.

. . . .

Generalization is the hallmark of all higher-level brain functions. It’s similar to how our brains build maps of familiar places, compiling the sights, smells, and feel of a route. That mental map frees your brain up to think about other things. Sometimes this works against you, like when you accidentally drive to work on your way to a barbecue, because the route to your friend’s house includes a section of your daily commute. We can become blind to details because our brain is operating on instinct. By the time you proof read your own work, your brain already knows the destination.

. . . .

But even if familiarization handicaps your ability to pick out mistakes in the long run, we’re actually pretty awesome at catching ourselves in the act. (According to Microsoft, backspace is the third-most used button on the keyboard.)

Link to the rest at Wired and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Year End Summary of Writing in Public: Year One

3 August 2014

From Dean Wesley Smith:

I did (not counting comments on web sites) 1,281,675 original words in the last twelve months.

745,175 words of that was original fiction.

51,700 words of that was nonfiction. (So just under 800,000 words of fiction and nonfiction combined. More than I thought, actually.)

That ended up being twelve novels and over thirty short stories and three nonfiction books. All the novels are in the general 40,000 to 55,000 word range. The short stories make up the rest of the fiction word count.

. . . .

I tend to write fiction about 2 to 3 hours per day. I work seven days per week. I write fiction last thing every day. With workshops, being CFO of WMG Publishing, and other projects, I tend to work about 50 hours at least per week away from fiction writing.

In July I averaged about 2 hours of writing per day, about 60 hours of fiction writing for the entire month. That produced about 60,000 words of fiction, which is about my average of 1,000 words per hour.

So those of you with day jobs out there, realize and watch that I also function in my life as if I have a day job that takes about 50 hours of my time per week. Day jobs are not an excuse to not write. (How’s that for blunt? (grin))

Link to the rest at Dean Wesley Smith and thanks to Alex for the tip.

Here’s a link to Dean Wesley Smith’s books

Failure Is Our Muse

28 July 2014

From The New York Times:

July 8, in case you happened to miss it, was Fitz-Greene Halleck Day, a chance to remember the most intensely forgotten writer in American history. “No name in the American poetical world is more firmly established than that of Fitz-Greene Halleck,” Edgar Allan Poe wrote in 1843. And yet, despite a Central Park statue that still stands in his honor, Fitz-Greene Halleck may now be the most famous man ever to achieve total obscurity.

Failure is big right now — a subject of commencement speeches and business conferences like FailCon, at which triumphant entrepreneurs detail all their ideas that went bust. But businessmen are only amateurs at failure, just getting used to the notion. Writers are the real professionals.

Three hundred thousand books are published in the United States every year. A few hundred, at most, could be called financial or creative successes. The majority of books by successful writers are failures. The majority of writers are failures. And then there are the would-be writers, those who have failed to be writers in the first place, a category which, if you believe what people tell you at parties, constitutes the bulk of the species.

. . . .

Failure doesn’t afflict only the lesser talents. John Keats, who died at 25 with a collection of bad reviews to his name, asked for his gravestone to read: Here lies one whose name was writ in water. He died convinced of his obscurity.

Herman Melville endured a stranger torture. His early, lousy novels were huge successes, and then the better his books became, the less anyone was interested in reading them. His travel story “Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life” sold 16,320 copies in his lifetime. “Moby-Dick,” 3,715. Melville worked 19 gloomy years at the New York Customs House, self-publishing occasional poetry in batches of 25 copies. He ended up as a ziner, with “Billy Budd” unpublished in his drawer.

. . . .

Writers don’t fail like ordinary people. They fail in their bones. They fail even when they triumph. Bernard Malamud took the 1959 National Book Award for his short story collection “The Magic Barrel”; he left the check on the dais, and when he arrived at the dinner in his honor, the organizers had forgotten to set a place for him.

Link to the rest at The New York Times and thanks to Jeff for the tip.

How Not to Start a Novel: Four Things to Avoid on Page One

21 July 2014

From author Janice Hardy via Anne R. Allen’s Blog:

The first page of your manuscript is critical for more than just grabbing an agent’s or editor’s attention. Readers often read the first page or two to determine whether or not to read the novel. If those pages grab them, they’ll buy the book. If not, they’ll put it back on the shelf. That’s a lot of pressure for 250 words.

Which is why those words need to capture the reader.

Common writing advice will tell you to “start with action,” but that doesn’t mean blow up a car or rob a bank—and this can actually hurt your opening not help if it.

What it really means is to start with something going on. It can be something going wrong, (my personal favorite), something revealed, something denied, something craved—the list is endless. But no matter what shape this “something” takes, there’s a sense that things are about to happen, and that it won’t be good for someone.

This sense of anticipation creates questions readers will want answers to. Why are the characters casing that playground? Who is that woman following them? What’s the deal with these two people arguing way too loudly?

However, one question you want to avoid is, “What’s going on?” A vague opening that confuses is not the type of question you want readers asking. They should be able to guess what’s going on, even if they’re not yet sure what it all means.

. . . .

Here are four common mistakes to avoid when crafting your open scene:

1. Having too much backstory and explanation.

Until the reader knows and cares about the characters, they don’t want to know the history of the world or the backstory of the protagonist.

They want to see a character with a problem and be drawn in by that story question.

Too much information can slow a story down and overwhelm a reader. If it’s too much work to read, they won’t read it.

Think of it like this: you walk into a party and some guy comes up to you and starts telling you all about his grandmother and how important she was to him, and how that’s affecting his current decision on whether or not to move to Baltimore and take this job he’s not sure s the right position for him. Are you intrigued? Odds are you’re looking for any excuse to get away from this bore.

To fix: Cut the backstory and look for ways to show how that backstory affects your character in that scene (If it doesn’t, that’s a big clue you don’t need to mention it at all). If it’s critical to know the protagonist is scared of dogs, don’t stop the story to explain how he was bitten when he was five, show him seeing a dog and being too scared to move. 

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog

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