Random Writing Tips
by Patricia Wellingham-Jones
After 26 segments in the “Getting Published” series for Long Story Short, I decided to throw together a random mix of tips I’ve learned over decades of writing. These aren’t ALL I’ve learned, but things that spring to mind from recent talks and gathered notes.
Martha Graham said, “There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action. And because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium, and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
Mary Oliver said in Blue Pastures, “The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time."
With these wise comments to spur us onward, let’s look at writing.
“All writing is about one of two themes: Ah, the wonder! or Ah, the pity.” Marc Beauchamp in 2003 quotes the editor of Forbes Magazine many years ago. If you remember this, your writing will become more powerful, less full of drivel.
Be engaged with your subject, emotionally involved. As Barry Spacks says, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”
Your writing will be what it wants to be. Let it go. That’s the purpose of all first drafts—to get the words out of your brain onto paper and see what happens, where it goes. Write in your natural style. Revision comes later.
Observe and listen; jot down notes; carry pen and paper everywhere. Write every day.
Make your writing make sense (unless you’re deliberately experimenting). Choose your points and follow through in logical order.
Write to be understood, not to impress; use conversational language. In general (unless you are writing academic/scientific papers—and even here it would help), keep it simple. Choose plain words over fancy. Whenever possible, choose the Anglo-Saxon form of the word over the Latin/Romance-language word—it’s more active and immediate. Don’t use a long word when a short word will do.
We must understand the importance of rhythm and music in all writing.
From Tony D’Souza, “Art is in the details.” Try to use true-life examples or anecdotes; readers relate to real life.
Borrow widely, steal wisely (Oakley Hall).
The Craft of Writing
Jump right in. Grab the reader’s attention with your very first sentence.
Use the active, not passive, voice. Avoid words ending in “ing,” “to be” words (is, are, am, etc.), words with “to” in front of them (to walk, to read). Beware the habitual case (would) and the word “there.”
Use strong verbs. “To be” verbs are weak.
Don’t be vague. A specific always beats an abstraction (Oakley Hall).
Watch out for adjectives, adverbs, gerunds and everything but nouns. Mark Twain said, “When you catch an adjective, kill it.”
On sentences, vary your sentence lengths for added interest.
On paragraphs, keep them short. Change paragraphs when you change ideas or points.
On white space, use it to enhance and showcase the words; it is part of the art of the page. In prose use white space between paragraphs and around margins; in poetry the white space becomes even more important and part of the presentation of the entire poem.
On dialogue, keep it simple. Instead of fancy words (e.g., whispered quietly, murmured, shouted, etc.), use “he said.” This becomes invisible and moves the story along.
On revision, get rid of as many unnecessary words as possible (e.g., about, all, always, every, finally, just, merely, next, often, only, simply, so, that, then, very, well). Olga Broumas makes revision less painful than some. “See how many words you can live without,” she says.
In writing, Economy = Strength (Mary Jane DeRoss).
Ease into your ending, don’t leap there, and make it satisfy. Endings needn’t be happy but must resolve the problem or wrap up the story.
On Poetry in Particular
“Poetry should be written by the heart and revised by the mind,” says Harvey Stanbrough.
The poet must find the poem in the experience; the reader needs to find the experience in the poem (Nancy S. Culbertson).
In the alchemy of poetry, the specific becomes the universal. It then becomes personal to the reader.
Teachers of poetry agree: Show, don’t tell.
Make every word count; avoid repeating words or using more than needed.
Don’t tell everything you know; it’ll be there anyway and inform the poem.
Robert Wrigley asks of a poem: Where is the tension in this poem? What’s at stake? He teaches that sometimes inverting the last two lines brings back the magic and tension.
Don’t be afraid to make changes.
Sally Allen McNall says feel free to move stanzas and lines around. She also suggests you color- highlight the best lines in the poem, then revise.
You can often find your title in the material discarded in revision (Tess Gallagher).
End the poem when it ends, not with a summary.
For All Writers
The best advice for writers of any genre remains:
Read. Read. Read.
The second best advice is:
Revise. Revise. Revise.
And the most important thing of all is:
Write. Write. Write.
Note: Additional thanks for input go to Maggi Meyer and Blaine Hammond, former editors of Poetalk, Marjorie Rommel, Jeannette Doob, Marty Giles, Lois Browning Bauer, Sallyann Keith, and the numerous books on writing resting on my shelves.