My Best Writing Learnings

Books written by my grandmother’s grandmother, Ellen Hebron

In my recent blog post I detailed how many, many writing classes I’ve taken and shared the best writing advice I’ve gotten. If you haven’t read it, jump over there and take a look. Be sure to look at the comments where others have offered their advice too. Today, I’m going to share what I’ve learned from writing for the last 17 years. Self-given advice, if you want. I’m inviting you again to leave your own hard-learned advice in the comments below. Maybe our sharing can keep others from having to learn it the hard way.

  • If the title doesn’t fit, it means the story isn’t finished

This is backwards from most folks, but if the title to one of my pieces doesn’t make sense, I don’t need to pick a new title. I need to rework the story so that the point of title becomes clearer, to bring out this primary point. Only once or twice have I continued to work on the story and picked a different title. Never have I combed through the story for a different title and declared it finished as is.

  • Beginning a sentence with a conjunction seems necessary but seldom is.

My first drafts always have tons of sentences opening with “And” or “But.” It seems essential at the time to string the prior thought into the next. It isn’t. Good revision of one or both of the sentences usually makes that clear.

  • You can overdo “Show don’t tell.”

The reader needs some telling. It’s called exposition. Exposition gives the reader a rest. Unlike scene, exposition does a lot of the reader’s work for her. After all, the writer is telling the reader what’s happening rather than asking the reader to live it/figure it out via scene. I had so absorbed the “Show don’t tell” maxim that I frequently told zilch. That was a mistake.

  • What seems like a normal amount of text on a typed computer page can be very dense on the printed page

For spacial reasons I’m sure, large paragraphs look more normal on the computer screen or printed page than they do when printed in a book. On the printed page, they look overblown, run-on, unnecessary. I believe editors know this, which is why they’re always trying to get authors to trim, but no one has ever actually told me this. But it is my observation.

  • If I have a sudden, brilliant insight on a word that will work in a sentence, it’s usually because I’ve used it in a nearby sentence
  • This has happened more times than I care to count. I’m casting about for a good word. I have a sudden epiphany on the perfect word I need. I put it in, then I look up the page and down. Yep, there it is. Like my brain saw that word and said, “Hey, I know a brilliant word you can use.” Lazy brain.


My burl wood that looks like a brain

Learn your writing/revision cycle and work around it

My first draft I underwrite. Always have.  Next drafts, I overwrite, mostly trying to explain everything that’s not clear in the first draft. Final reviews, I ease back on the throttle, trusting the reader to do some of the work. It cycles like this every time. I know to look for it now, the explanations that need to be added in early rounds, the fat to be cut in later rounds. The biggest mistake I make is believing the fat rounds are the final product. Yeah, it makes sense, but usually those are the most boring versions. Give it a bit more time. Make the fat sizzle.

Which brings me to my final, most important learning:

Writing takes a long time

I have recently discovered that I write a lot of novels (7 to date) to a point where I think they’re finished then move on to the next novel, which I write until I think it’s finished, and so on. But the novels aren’t finished (I had an old agent make this same mistake with Tracking Happiness, believing it finished when it wasn’t.) When I realize this, I go back and revise the old work while also working on the new novel. I wind up juggling 2-3 novels at a time. (Right now, I’m polishing HARBORING EVIL and doing one final round on THE HART WOMEN while readying MODEL FOR DECEPTION for publication.)  I read a marvelous interview of Deborah Eisenberg by Erin Bartnett in Electric Lit wherein she said:

When you sit down you write, I don’t know a page or whatever you write, two pages, a paragraph, and you think “Ah! Isn’t that marvelous. I’ve expressed myself so utterly and beautifully.” And then you look at it the next day and you can’t believe what an idiot you were! I mean you just can’t believe it! It’s so mortifying. But I think it’s very very important to develop the confidence through experience that you can make things almost infinitely better than they start out being. If you keep working on it, it’s going to get good. And the fact that it’s bad at first doesn’t mean that you’re ill-suited to do it, it just means that it takes time.

This quote was very comforting to me, especially the mortifying part. 🙂

What about you? What have you learned along your writing journey?

What I’m reading right now

Best Writing Advice, writing advice, writing and editing, writing and revising

Comments (6)

  • That show don’t tell thing is a biggie. Even some of the best writing teachers (in other ways) often push it too far. Then I read a good published book right after getting that advice and get ticked off because he/she actually told some of the story haha. It’s where and when and how much. But if you show everything you get nothing accomplished.
    And that beginning with a conjunction thing. hahaha Same as sentence fragments, I guess.
    Can’t wait for a review of that book you’re reading!

    • I have seesawed between too much telling and too much showing for years, recognizing the error but overcorrecting. I HOPE I am getting a better feel for the proper combination. My teacher Richard Bausch said, though, that every novel is a new learning experience–it actually doesn’t get any easier. We shall see! I’ll let you know how the books goes. (WordPress kept wanting to turn the photo upright 🙂 ) And Merry Christmas if I don’t talk with you again.

  • “Why do I care?
    ~Barry Hannah
    What is it about this piece that gives the reader a new or different insite. I now ask myself this on behalf of my readers.

    • That is a good one! An early teacher asked me, “Why do reader’s care about your sister’s tub?” The question made me figure out why I cared–it was an image of the safety she had created for her kids. So it meant more to me than to the piece (which I never did anything with.) Merry Christmas!

  • Because I am focusing on my blog right now, not a book, I had to learn to break up my paragraphs. My early posts loot too word-dense. It’s too hard for the reader to get to the end of the paragraph. I know. When I read a blog with long paragraphs, I find myself skimming.

    I can understand the whole juggling-two-or-three novels at the same time thing. I do this with posts. I find that all the posts are better when I have several going at the same time. I write and rewrite each post several times. I did not realize before beginning how labor-intensive blogging could be!

    • The internet has changed the way we read, hasn’t it? I find myself skimming even short pieces, looking for the one piece of information that made me interested in the article in the first place.
      It makes me feel better that you juggle. I don’t know others who do this, so comfort in company. 🙂

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