SOME GENERAL ADVICE ON WRITING
Everyone who ever picked up a pen has had something to say on writing, from Orwell to Hemingway, from Dahl to Shaw. Even me.
1: To get started, write one true sentence.
Hemingway had a simple trick for overcoming writer’s block. In a memorable passage in A Moveable Feast , he writes:
Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.
2: Always stop for the day while you still know what will happen next.
There is a difference between stopping and foundering. To make steady progress, having a daily word-count quota was far less important to Hemingway than making sure he never emptied the well of his imagination. In an October 1935 article in Esquire ( “Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter” ) Hemingway offers this advice to a young writer:
The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it.
3: Never think about the story when you’re not working.
Building on his previous advice, Hemingway says never to think about a story you are working on before you begin again the next day. “That way your subconscious will work on it all the time,” he writes in the Esquire piece. “But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.” He goes into more detail in A Moveable Feast:
When I was writing, it was necessary for me to read after I had written. If you kept thinking about it, you would lose the thing you were writing before you could go on with it the next day. It was necessary to get exercise, to be tired in the body, and it was very good to make love with whom you loved. That was better than anything. But afterwards, when you were empty, it was necessary to read in order not to think or worry about your work until you could do it again. I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.
4: When it’s time to work again, always start by reading what you’ve written so far.
T0 maintain continuity, Hemingway made a habit of reading over what he had already written before going further. In the 1935 Esquire article, he writes:
The best way is to read it all every day from the start, correcting as you go along, then go on from where you stopped the day before. When it gets so long that you can’t do this every day read back two or three chapters each day; then each week read it all from the start. That’s how you make it all of one piece.
5: Don’t describe an emotion–make it.
Close observation of life is critical to good writing, said Hemingway. The key is to not only watch and listen closely to external events, but to also notice any emotion stirred in you by the events and then trace back and identify precisely what it was that caused the emotion. If you can identify the concrete action or sensation that caused the emotion and present it accurately and fully rounded in your story, your readers should feel the same emotion. In Death in the Afternoon , Hemingway writes about his early struggle to master this:
I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced. In writing for a newspaper you told what happened and, with one trick and another, you communicated the emotion aided by the element of timeliness which gives a certain emotion to any account of something that has happened on that day; but the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if you stated it purely enough, always, was beyond me and I was working very hard to get it.
6: Use a pencil.
Hemingway often used a typewriter when composing letters or magazine pieces, but for serious work he preferred a pencil. In the Esquire article (which shows signs of having been written on a typewriter) Hemingway says:
When you start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none. So you might as well use a typewriter because it is that much easier and you enjoy it that much more. After you learn to write your whole object is to convey everything, every sensation, sight, feeling, place and emotion to the reader. To do this you have to work over what you write. If you write with a pencil you get three different sights at it to see if the reader is getting what you want him to. First when you read it over; then when it is typed you get another chance to improve it, and again in the proof. Writing it first in pencil gives you one-third more chance to improve it. That is .333 which is a damned good average for a hitter. It also keeps it fluid longer so you can better it easier.
7: Be Brief.
Hemingway was contemptuous of writers who, as he put it, “never learned how to say no to a typewriter.” In a 1945 letter to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, Hemingway writes:
It wasn’t by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.
1. Miscellaneous observations on a topic are not enough to make an accomplished work.
A story should have a theme, a thread. It should answer a question or a few related questions (see 2
below). It shouldn’t try to prove something—develop a single “thesis” or a short set of closely related
points— this is not an essay! But like an essay you need to research the topic you will write about; write what you know. Use information from any particular text or sources. Gathering such evidence normally entails some rereading of the text or sources with a question or provisional thesis in mind.
Don’t just copy paste. Add your own ideas, or quote your sources.
2. When—as is usually the case—an assigned topic does not provide you with a ready-made story,
your first effort should be to formulate as exactly as possible the plot(s) you will seek to
outline in your story. Next, develop by thinking, reading, and jotting a provisional story or
ideas. Don’t become prematurely committed to this first answer. Pursue it, but test it—even
to the point of consciously asking yourself what might be said against it—and be ready to revise or
qualify it as your work progresses. (Sometimes a suggestive possible title one discovers early can
serve in the same way.)
3. There are many ways in which any particular story may be well presented, but a story’s
organization—how it begins, develops, and ends—should be designed to present your characters
clearly and persuasively. (The order in which you discovered the parts of your plot is seldom
an effective order for presenting it to a reader.)
4. Successful methods of composing a story are various, but some practices of good writers are
• They start writing early, even before they think they are “ready” to write, because they use
writing not simply to transcribe what they have already discovered but as a means of
exploration and discovery.
• They don’t try to write a story from beginning to end, but rather write what seems readiest to
be written, even if they’re not sure whether or how it will fit in.
• Despite writing so freely, they keep the story’s overall purpose and organization in mind,
amending them as drafting proceeds. Something like an “outline” constantly and consciously
evolves, although it may never take any written form beyond scattered, sketchy reminders to
• They revise extensively. Rather than writing a single draft and then merely editing its
sentences one by one, they attend to the whole essay and draft and redraft—rearranging the
sequence of its larger parts, adding and deleting sections to take account of what they discover
in the course of composition. Such revision often involves putting the story aside for a few
days, allowing the mind to work indirectly or subconsciously in the meantime and making it
possible to see the work-in-progress more objectively when they return to it.
• Once they have a fairly complete and well-organized draft, they revise sentences, with special
attention to transitions—that is, checking to be sure that a reader will be able to follow the
sequences of ideas within sentences, from sentence to sentence, and from paragraph to
paragraph. Two other important considerations in revising sentences are diction (exactness and
aptness of words) and economy (the fewest words without loss of clear expression and full
thought). Lastly, they proofread the final copy.
Some examples of student efforts and my comments:These students will remain nameless!
Looking back on my past twenty years full of passions (1) and enthusiasm, I feel grateful and (2) to live a healthy and happy life. There are a lot of qualities I have learnt from ordinary life that guided me through. If I am asked to list the first three, I will put health, happiness of my family and enough financial support (3) as the passions I live for.
Health comes first for me. Without health, everything is meaningless. It is indispensable to everyone (4). Only when one is healthy can he start his own career, set up his own family and achieve any accomplishment (5). I always value health and regard it as the preliminary step (6) to possess a happy family and earn enough money.
Happiness of my family (7) is very important to me because I love my family wholeheartedly. I get pleasure in their joys and suffer what they suffer. Their infinite love and support motivate me to overcome any trouble or obstacle (8) I may meet. To make those I love happy is the biggest wish for me. What would millions of money (9) mean to me if I saw my family suffer from pain and agony (10)? Now that I’ve got a healthy body, I have plenty of time and opportunities to entertain my family. Then money comes third. (11)
Everyone must admit that they could never do without money (12). Money enables us to get food, a house for shelter, clothes to wear and furthermore (13) enjoyment. For example, with money, we can get a good education, travel around the world and receive fine medical treatment. Money is essential to satisfy our basic needs as well as further self-development.
As long as I am healthy, I’ll work hard to earn as much money as I can, then with it I buy substances (14) or services to make (15) my family live more comfortably. If everything goes on (16) smoothly, I’ll be absolutely the happiest girl in the world!
Thats not so bad. Lets mark it HARD.
Present perfect .
“Keys to Happiness”
Looking back on the first twenty years of my life, lived with passion, energy and enthusiasm, I feel grateful to have been so healthy and happy. I owe my happiness to so many people and lucky events, but there are three key, fundamental factors that have guided me and supported me in my life. Those three keys to life are my physical health, healthy finances, and my family’s happiness.
Health comes first for me, because without health everthing else is meaningless. Imagine starting a career without good health. Imagine starting a family without good health. Imagine achieving anything without good health. Clearly, good health is a basic, fundamental prerequisite for every other aspect of one’s life.
Good health is not enough to be happy. We still need to have money in today’s society. Money obviously pays for the basic necessities of life – food, housing, clothing – but is also necessary for other reasons. The amount of money we have at our disposal determines the quality of education we can receive. Money guarantees we will always get adequate medical treatment if the need arises. We can also use money for travel and other entertainment that can add to our quality of life.
When we have both our health and healthy finances, we can turn our attention to the most important factor in having a happy life. Family is the most important factor because it provides the love, joy and support that everybody needs. I love my family with all my heart. I get pleasure from their pleasure. I suffer when they suffer. My family helped me get through the tremendous pressure of entrance exams. They consoled and advised me when I had misunderstandings with my friends. More importantly, they were there to share in my successes throughout the past twenty years.
These three factors are all that I need and want in this world. As long as I stay healthy, work hard to earn as much money as I can, and then use my health and wealth to share both good times and bad times with my family, I will always be the happiest girl in the world.
Self confidence, you help me a lot
(See Corrections and Revised Composition Below.)
My friends often ask me the same question “why are you so (1) blithe all day?” I think the answer is simple — (2) it owns a great debt to self-confidence.
(3) When it comes to self confidence, someone will call it (4) “conceited” and I guess it is, but it really makes me feel at ease (5) I am doing something.
I still remember my first experience of an English Competition: 3 years ago, I was (6) singled out by my classmates to take part in a Speaking-English competition. When I went up to the stage, I had butterflies in my stomach. All at once, my mother’s words came to me. “If you want to do something with style, it costs nothing but self confidence.” Since I had the chance to stand here, it meant that I had the ability. (7) “Restore to balance.” I said to myself. “Don’t you forget that you have (8) drawn yourself in preparing this competition for a long time? You are the best.” Strangely, my nervousness vanished after I flattered myself. I began to speak. The feeling was wonderful. All the (9) audiences applauded after my speech. I was successful!
The self confidence helped me (10) win the success. My courage and optimism are all based on it. We will be faced with different difficulties occasionally and unavoidably in the future. If we come to terms with them, we are (11) bound to fail. Taking it for granted that we are capable of handling them will (12) benefit to build up confidence and success.
My friends, why not have self confidence? We are not (13) the most excellent, but we always do out best to achieve our aims, don’t we? Self confidence will add happiness (14) into our own lives.
The writer’s sentence structure is not too bad, so the message is communicated fairly effectively. However, the misuse of many words and expressions sounds strange and is often confusing.
(1) The word blithe is used today only in certain, limited expressions, and then mostly in written English, not spoken English. The writer’s friends will more likely say “carefree”. Also, instead of “all day”, the writer’s friends probably mean “every day”.
(2) The expression is “owe a debt”, not “own”.
(3) The whole phrase is unnecessary. It would be better just to say “Some people may call self-confidence ‘conceit'”.
(4) The noun form is “conceit”. In addition, it seems strange to say “someone will”. It’s a possibility, not a certainty, so “someone may” is better.
(5) A clause connector is missing here. Perhaps the writer meant to use “when I am doing something”. Also, “something” is too vague. The writer could improve it by changing it to “when I am trying to accomplish something” or “when I have a difficult task to face”, etc.
(6) “Be singled out” is a special expression that should be used only in special situations. It gives the impression that something is either extremely good or extremely bad. The simple word “chosen” is more appropriate.
(7) “Restore to balance” has no meaning in English. “Unbalanced” in English can mean “crazy”, so I don’t think it’s safe to write something like “become balanced”. “Balance yourself”, on the other hand, sounds like a physical action. A common expression used in American English under similar circumstances would be “Get a hold of yourself”.
(8) I also can’t imagine why the writer chose the expression “drawn yourself”. Why not just “you have prepared for this competition”? Some students try to add unnecessary words in order to sound impressive, but often end up getting just the opposite result.
(9) Obviously, “audience” is a non-count noun so the “s” is not needed.
(10) I think I can understand what the writer means by “win the success”. Probably the meaning is simply “succeed”, although it’s also possible the writer meant “win the competition”.
(11) Writing “bound to fail” was probably a mistake made while the writer was tired. The writer either meant “we are bound to succeed” or “if we do NOT come to terms with them, we are bound to fail”.
(12) “Benefit to build up confidence and success” should be changed to simply “build confidence and lead to success”.
(13) “We are not the most excellent” sounds a bit odd. Again, we cannot be certain, so “We may not” is better. “Most excellent” should just be replaced by “best”.
(14) The expression “add happiness into” is unnatural. If the writer keeps the idea of “adding happiness”, then the word “in” instead of “into” is correct. However, the whole expression could be made better. For example, we could write “make our lives happier”.
It seems the writer’s self confidence is a double-edged sword. Confidence can help us do more in our lives, but it can also lead to careless mistakes. You should be confident, but also be a bit careful. Then you will have the best of both worlds.
Look at your stories again, at your blogs again. Where are you making mistakes?
Lets take an example, from the past:
this one, http://oh-margaritaville.tumblr.com is really really good. This was the best blog from last year’s groups.
this year we’ve seen some good, some bad and some ugly
http://captaintencap.wordpress.com/ was one blog that I really liked. its interesting, it works, the story is fluid.
http://yououghtalookout.wordpress.com/ is rather good!
http://journey-in-uae.webnode.fr/ is one I didn’t like, its not very fluid or dynamic, it doesn’t catch my interest , it shows off and is pretentious, and is rather bland. But the English is fine.
http://jolahur.unblog.fr/ is really terrible.This isn’t writing, but putting words on a page.
But at least the writer’s second story shows improvements. Much better here.
I looked at nearly 90 blogs, ranging from the sublime (Louise Moreau takes a bow at http://louisemoreauwriting.blogspot.fr/) to the ridiculous (http://aboutamericanseries.wordpress.com/) which was replaced by the student for the much better http://timebringsallthingstolight.wordpress.com/ and I can say that this is an assignment that really caught the imaginations of the students, and that they enjoyed the process. Perhaps, who knows, we’ll see some on the freshly pressed pages!
By and large, 80% of the 90 blogs would get a second read, and 20 % will get a third or fourth read. 1% will get a fifth read. Why? I have a life you know!) All the wordpress sites my students used got followed, so I’ll be watching these with interest. (note to students if I missed you, bug me!)
Orwell had some advice here is his essay Politics and the English language. This rather heavy read gets boiled down to 6 ideas, but you can click, sip and read here.
He came up with 6 rules, which I would encourage you to break!
- i. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active. (this one deserves to be broken)
- v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Roald Dahl wrote a series of letters to Peter Moulding, a banker who wrote dozens of poems and short stories in his spare time. The correspondence offered the banker some guidance that can be taken up by all aspiring writers on how to write stories that captivate the reader.
James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Tales of the Unexpected were published following the correspondence. Unfortunately Roald Dahl’s advice came too late for the banker, who was never published.
The letters appear in a new biography of Roald Dahl called Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl, by Donald Sturrock.
1) In a short story, if someone is fearful that some particular and awful thing is going to occur, then it must not occur. Something else must occur…
2) In horror stories such as this, there must, there absolutely must be a touch of humour somewhere. Laughs. Always. This is the one abiding mistake that so many writers of horrific stories make.
3) Keep on writing. I’d concentrate on the story. And make it interesting right from the word go. Give it a beginning. Then a middle. Not only an end.
4) Of critics, Dahl said: “I have nothing to do with the buggers.”
After 19 years of hints, tips and advice, he tells his friend bluntly: “I’m sure you know that you are not a natural writer in the true artistic sense of the word. You are a thoroughly literate person who writes well, which is totally different. You must know this.”
Hard news, and the truth is that sometimes, even our best isn’t good enough!
- Work on one thing at a time until finished.
- Start no more new books, add no more new material to ‘Black Spring.’
- Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
- Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
- When you can’t create you can work.
- Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
- Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
- Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
- Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
- Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
- Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.
My hints, tips and ideas.
- Get your theme sorted. Write what you know, or do research (and not surfing)
- Get a “hook” early in the story. You want people to turn the pages. Characters, interactions, keep it interesting. Remember the films of Hitchcock and his “red herring”. (MacGuffin) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MacGuffin
- Re-read your story and edit it. Do this every page.
- If you are writing really fluently, stop. Keep the idea, check it works. Don’t get lost in the writing, or dry the well
- Think about the characters and how they interact. Plan what they will do, and how that affects them and the story. Talk it out!
- Keep it simple and short, at least to begin with. Twists and turns need careful planning.
- Write. You only fail if you stop writing.
- Keep a note book by your bed for ideas, dreams, characters, sketches.
- Targets . Targets are for motivating you but also to be met, not failed. If you want to write a collection of short stories, start with one, see where it goes; perhaps it’ll evolve into something else, or perhaps it won’t. I don’t like writers who say “I’ll write 1000 words before 8am every day” because they may not write well. Deadlines are there to be respected if possible.
- Think about your audience. Get someone to check your work who will be constructive (so not your mum )You need to know how to improve.
- Style. Find YOUR voice. Then think about how to use that to sell.
- Try self publishing ! Or not!