The Best Writing Advice I’ve Ever Gotten

In 2001, I quit practicing law and decided to learn to write. That was 17 years ago. I’ve taken all kinds of writing instruction—continuing ed at local colleges. Audited classes in real MFA programs. Writing conferences in town, out of town, and out of state. Day workshops, weekend workshops, week-long workshops, and one marathon 16 day workshop. (Thank you, Sewanee). I’ve been a member of 3 long-running writing groups where writing was discussed and shared. And here, on this very blog, is a distillation of the best writing advice I’ve ever gotten.

What about you? Please offer your favorite advice in the comments below.

  • Write the sentence so that the reader has to read to the end to get the needed information
My Very Southern Voice business card

This one is hard to explain, but it’s invaluable. For example, don’t write, “The cat vomited up a big hairball when I turned my back.” The reader is going to stop reading at hairball. Instead write, “When I turned my back, the cat vomited up a big hairball.” So, yeah, there were probably better examples, but I hope you get the point, which came from the very talented Richard Bausch.

  • Write each scene as if you were sighting through a camera lens

I really love this advice. It keeps you in the proper point of view. It insures you include enough (and the correct) details for the reader to visualize what’s going on. It must be working, because one of the recurring comments I get on my writing has to do with readers being able to see the story as if it were a movie.

  • Read your drafts out loud
Reading to a real audience at the book signing for TRACKING HAPPINESS

The friend who gave me this advice read her drafts to the teddy bears lined up on her bed. I have upgraded this advice to where the mechanical voice on my computer reads the manuscript to me. It is THE best tool for finding typos and eliminating repeated words.

  • Cut extraneous prepositions

This is a subset of the general advice to know your personal tics and revise for them. The problem is, I’m from the American South. We Southerners consistently add prepositions when they’re not needed. (“out of the window,” for example). This advice not only streamlines my writing. It also keeps me from sounding like a rube.

  • Have a non-word-based creative hobby

This advice came from the writing instructor who told me I needed to get a book published while I still did “good book jacket.” Missed that deadline. But her advice about having a 2nd, physical creative outlet was genius. She made hats (I know, crazy lady in hats.) I’ve done various things, but my latest involves making weird dolls from broken and found objects. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Looking for your own way in the world
  • Write what you love

I got this bit of advice after a looooooong period of writing about the difficult things in my life. It was an amazing release, a long sigh of relief, a big hallelujah of joy. Writing has been a lot more fun ever since.

  • Do whatever works for you

This sounds so simple, but for a long time when I first took up writing, I got very rigid, “you have to do it this way” advice. Make outlines. Diagram your plots. Use storyboards.

Me, when people tell me to write a way that doesn’t work for me.

My worst experience of giving into the didacticism was when an editor said we needed to do “rounds.” I knew that process of breaking revision into character, plot, theme, etc., wouldn’t work for my brain, which needs all the material out there at once so I can see how it fits together.  It was a disaster. That sealed my determination to do it my way.

So what writing advice do you find yourself going back to over and over again?

Best Writing Advice

Comments (8)

  • These really are good. Thanks. I’ll come back to them. Not that anybody should care, particularly, but I want to underscore this comment by saying: I don’t much go in for writing advice. I don’t do all these things you list–the workshops, classes, communal sharing and support. Quite possibly, even probably, that’s to my detriment…if not in the “Art With A Capital A” aspect, then in the Get Up And Go department. We’ll see. Anyway…thank you for sharing this. I think the points are really helpful, smart, shrewd. It’s generous of you, Ellen–and appreciated.

    • Thanks, Hadley. I was particularly pleased to discover that my Mac would read to me. It keeps me from “cheating” with voice inflection, and it catches a lot of typos (not all, as I discovered to my chagrin after Tracking Happiness was published . . . 🙂

  • Thanks, Ellen. As I read your advice, I reflected on my own writing habits and was pleased to note that some of them come very naturally to me. I think perhaps writing sermons for years so they sounded as if I were talking to a single person in the congregation helped. If I ever start writing books again, I’m going to try all of these suggestions!

    • It’s funny, Jerry. When we were doing the Door of Hope Community Writing Retreats, I had a section on spiritual writing that I asked clergy to lead. Some reacted with “I’m not a writer.” I thought that was very curious. I have heard the “write for one person” before on writing in general. I probably need to add that to my list.

  • Some of my most valuable advice has come from you! Some of the tips you gave me years ago about paragraphing and chapter breaks has impacted my style and voice permanently. It’s all about chaining the reader to the next link, and sometimes you do that with space, not words.

  • Great advice. I have only been writing for 1 year and the only thing I have ever written (other than letters to the editor of our local paper) is my blog. After a year, I feel like it is time for me to join some writing groups, get some constructive criticism, take some workshops. I am retired, so I have the time and I have found that I love writing. When I first began, I submitted my post to an online writer’s group and they tore it apart. It was good advice, however. I made the suggested corrections and had a much better piece that I originally produced. I think they had me remove about 16 “that”s ! Thank you for your wonderful suggestions.

    • Oh, my goodness. “That”s are my downfall. They still over-appear in my first drafts. The first graduate level writing course I audited, they tore into my story too. I was so shell-shocked, I got lost driving home. 🙂 I know better what to expect now, and it’s easier to separate myself from the work. Looking forward to following your blog!

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