This post on effective writing was originally published on The Quill Magazine (https://thequillmagazine.org) an online publication I’m an editor of.
There are no “rules” or “guidelines” that are going to make you an effective writer. The billion-dollar-a-year creative writing lecture, book, and workshop circuit has produced very few good writers; these writer’s clinics and cottage retreats are good for one thing: generating income off the insecurity many newly hatched authors and poets suffer.
In popular psychology there is the oft quoted 10,000 hour threshold between a master and a novice, the skill being quoted (I’ve heard this cliché used to justify everything from skiing lessons to tantric sex workshops) is irrelevant. This maxim of wax psychologic is, frankly, total crap; the difference between a master and a novice is – in addition to practice – what some call style, but could also be called talent. These “rules” (I use the term loosely) are general points of improvement for all forms of writing: letters, essays, fiction, poems (especially poems,) and those angry social media posts that inevitably follow the existential crisis fueled drinking many authors are all-too-familiar with.
Many will say things like: “all these rules are the same,” and “my grandmother loves my experimental fiction written from the perspective of a rumpled red dress.” To these people I say: “you’re right from a purely semantic point of view, and I’m glad your grandma has the patience to read your stories and the grace to lie to you about their quality.”
Writing doesn’t need to be a public exercise, for many writers their grandmother will be the sole human mind to ever enjoy their work and there is nothing wrong with this. Writing can serve many purposes: catharsis, political dissent, humor, masturbatory Pokémon themed sexual fan-fiction, the list can go on to eternity. The point I’m trying to make is this, you don’t have to write for other people to enjoy your work, but, if for some reason you want your work to be widely enjoyed, for the love of all things holy follow the gosh-darned rules.
Now, without further prevarication, the rules. Told, of course, in second and first person; I’m that good.
Rule One – Use Concrete Specific Nouns
“What does this mean? Aren’t the words ‘concrete’ and ‘specific’ kind of redundant? What exactly are ‘concrete specific nouns?'” you ask.
“If you give me a second, I’ll try to answer your question,” I reply. “Here is an example of an abstract, sloppy noun used in a sentence:”
“The man looked nice.”
“This, to an untrained eye, seems like a reasonable sentence. While I understand your confusion my sweet summer children, there are two glaring flaws contained within this four-word piece of crap. I will try to explain the first problem, and we’ll deal with the second problem in more detail as we move through the list. Stop rushing me.”
Problem #1 – The word “nice”
“Why is this a problem?” you ask.
“Because ‘nice’ says absolutely nothing about the actor (for the uninitiated, the actor is the one who does the action.) Furthermore, using a wimpy word like ‘nice’ instead of ‘handsome’ or ‘friendly’ takes away the double whammy of truly judicious prose. Rule 947: every time you have an opportunity to characterize, use it.”
Some (terrible) Examples:
“The lawyer was sharp.”
“The dancer is graceful.”
“The preacher will impose.”
“Each one of these sentences is both descriptive of how the action was preformed and builds a reader’s understanding of the character’s nature. But, these sentences are still total crap.”
“What? Why?” You ask.
“Well, I ask you to refer back to your first question: ‘Aren’t the words ‘concrete’ and ‘specific’ redundant?’ Before you can ask, no, no they are not.”
“What about the 946 rules before ‘Rule 947?'” you ask.
“When you’re ready, young padawan, when you’re ready,” I reply.
Problem #2 – The Words “sharp, graceful, and impose.”
“What, in plain English, does it mean to be ‘sharp, graceful, or imposing?’ Nothing. It means nothing. The answer, if I haven’t been clear, is nothing. You’d be better off with ‘nice’ than these three words. Seriously, I don’t even know why you, yes you suggested them. I would never do such a thing.”
“What?” you ask.
To which I respond: “if you’ll give me a minute of peace, without continuing your ceaseless stream of obnoxious questions, I’ll tell you.”
“Let’s begin with our friend the sharp lawyer. What does it mean to be ‘sharp?’ Smart? well-dressed? too quick to anger? a bit of an asshole? all the above? If your answer is ‘all the above’ I give you one imaginary internet hug. The word ‘sharp’ is ‘concrete,’ but it’s not ‘specific.’ Herein lies the answer to your first question. When we call a lawyer sharp, we avoid being specific and instead rely on vagueness to tell our story. We don’t want to tell a vague story, so we must use both concrete and specific words:”
“The lawyer’s suit was bespoke.” Or, “the lawyer’s words were both forceful and precise.”
“Now, I don’t want to frighten you, but this is important: always use your prose to do double duty, especially when dealing with characterization. Don’t get me wrong, we all get sloppy, and no one can write with only double-duty nouns, but each time you see a vague, sloppy noun you must try to either explain your transgression to the almighty gods of writing or – this is always the better option – find a concrete, specific noun to replace your sloppy disgrace of a word with.”
“Now, you may think we’re reaching the end of the lesson. A bespoke suit shows both style and success. Forceful and precise diction shows both control over one’s self and one’s audience. So, why are we only on rule one? Because we’re nowhere near done and these sentences are total crap, but, with a bit of patience – and no small measure of hope – we might end this journey with, fingers crossed, a modicum of storytelling panache.”
Rule Two – Remove all Abstractions and Categorical Nouns
“But,” you say, “isn’t this the same as rule one?”
To which I reply: “stop asking so many questions and give me a darned minute to enlighten you. Let’s begin with something simple:”
“She loved him with all her heart.”
“Looks great, doesn’t it? Well, I’m sorry/ not sorry to have to break this to you, but this sentence is fracking terrible. Like. The. Fracking. Worst. Sentences like this bring a blood-filled rage into my heart of hearts; every time I read this kind of sentence I want to sacrifice a moleskin to the gods (and goddesses) of writing. I’m serious, it’s that bad.”
“His absence burned a hole into a part of her she could neither find nor explain,” or “she couldn’t control the effect his body had on her, his presence was a fire she couldn’t stand, but couldn’t live without.”
“These are GREAT sentences, nobody writes sentences like me, my writing ability is tremendous, second-to-none. Err. Sorry, I’ve been watching way too much Fox news. Moving on…”
“Why are these sentences better?” You ask.
“Let me break it down for you:”
Problem #1 – “Categorical Nouns”
“Categorical nouns are words like: love, time, death, spirit, future, past, etc., etc., etc.-”
“But, how do I know what a categorical noun is if you don’t list them all?” you ask.
“Stop interrupting me for a second and let me explain. The solution to this problem is simple: ‘if you can’t touch it, it’s a categorical noun.’ In other words, if it’s not an actual physical thing you can touch, taste, hear, or see it’s a categorical noun. For instance, it’s acceptable for a surgeon to say: ‘I had my hand around her heart’ because, in fact, he’s elbow deep in a woman’s chest. You must always talk about real things, not ideas. No one gives a hoot about ideas, people want to read about tangible things.”
Change “she loved him” into “she woke up every morning both happy and terrified that he was still there.”
Change “his touch drove her to madness” into “his hands stroked over her back as he explored the muscles, the cool impartiality of the gloves a contrast to the warmth emanating from his body as he leaned in closer to her side.”
Change “she was so stressed out” into “the rush of traffic was too much, the sound of the radio was an air-raid siren ringing nonsense in her ears.”
“In case what’s happening isn’t blatantly obvious: tell me about what something does, not what it is. But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.”
Rule Three – Be Precise
“Okay,” you say, “I’m sure we’ve already gone over this. How are ‘concrete, specific nouns’ any different from precise nouns?”
“Have I failed you thus far? Give me a moment to explain, ye of little faith.” I reply, “now, Lets take a look at an example of concrete, specific nouns that are not, at the same time, precise:”
“It was a breezy and sunny morning as we jogged together along the riverbank.”
“What’s wrong with this one?” you ask, “it’s concrete and specific. I can’t see anything wrong here!”
To which I reply, “calm down and give me a darned second to explain myself.”
Problem #1 – Say Exactly What’s Happening.
“In a brash – misguided – attempt to correct the sentence above, we could try something like:”
“We jogged along the riverbank, enjoying the crisp morning air; the trees danced in the breeze, the dew sparkled with the first rays of dawn.”
“Understand? Don’t just tell me what’s happening, tell me exactly what’s happening. Now, the sentence above is an improvement, but the solution – of course – isn’t this simple.”
Problem #2 – Wordyness
“In your never-ending struggle for a steady supply of concrete, specific, and precise nouns you will encounter this problem. Even my example above struggles with it. In a perfect world, this boring sentence – seriously? You thought I was done?” I shake my head, “would be massaged into a couple well-crafted sentences. For example:”
“Joan and I jogged along the river path, Joan always kept up a good pace, but the crisp spring air left me cool and dry. The poplar trees lining the path danced in the breeze, the quilt of morning dew sparkled red and orange, reflecting the first rays of dawn into millions of tiny earth-bound stars.”
“Now we’re almost there-“
“-wait. This isn’t good?” you ask.
“Of course it isn’t! Have you even been listening? Sure, in the sentence above we have a passable – wimpy – description and most of the nouns are doing double duty. I didn’t need to say exactly what was going on around the runners and still managed to build up a scene with the double-use of many nouns and some careful use of metaphor. Still, the above sentence is, and it’s important you understand this, total crap.”
Rule Four – Use Uncanny Verbs
“Okay, this is a big one. If you take anything from this list of suggestions, this is the one thing you should take. Lets take another look at the example from rule three, what’s wrong with:
- Poplar trees ‘dancing’ in the breeze.
- Light ‘sparkling.’
- Rays of dawn ‘reflecting.’
- And, Joan and I ‘jogging.’?
“The answer to this question is so obvious it hurts, it pains me to have to explain it. All these verbs are fracking boring. Seriously, gag me with a spoon. If I have to read one more story about trees dancing in the breeze… Er. Let’s see if we can spice things up a bit:”
“Joan and I jogged (that was a trick, there is no way to make jogging uncanny, are you nuts?) along the river path, Joan always demanded (now we’re using the verbs to characterize, see?) a difficult pace, but the crisp spring air dissipated any sweat the moment it emerged. The poplar trees lining the path flashed upon the breeze, the quilt of morning dew burned with red and orange, cascading the first rays of dawn into millions of tiny earth-bound stars.”
“Holy Hannah! I think we’ve got something here. No more boring verbs, no more sloppy nouns, and now Joan and I are having one heck of a jog along some kinda mystical riverbank. That’s what I call a description! Nevertheless, we still have a few more rules to get through before I can give up all hope and return to losing my faith in humanity.”
Rule Five – Avoid the Use of Adjectives and Adverbs (At All Costs)
“Remember how I said rule four was important? I lied. Rule five is just as important, rule nine is a big deal too, rule six not so much, but rules four and five are super important; you should remember rules four and five, or is it rules four and nine? Who knows, but to be safe you should probably remember them all. Now, lets frack some prose right up fam:”
“Clearly Helen knew what she was doing, she had carefully considered all the options before awkwardly asking her distant family for unwanted advice. Helen had a perfectly acceptable solution, but still she hesitated to approach her husband, knowing he would probably have a problem with her carefully considered, potentially unwanted answer.”
Kill me. I feel dirty. Writing that was… I don’t want to talk about it. If you can’t see a problem here, you’re probably helpless, but – in the interest of fairness – I will try to explain what’s happening. Please, for the love of all things holy, do not EVER, qualify ANYTHING unless there is an unavoidable, insurmountable reason for it. Writing without adverbs and adjectives is difficult for a good reason: it forces your weak writer’s muscles (these are real, google it) to think about concrete, precise, specific ways to say things, and keeps your writing clean and descriptive. In the words of Stephen King ‘adjectives multiply,’ you use one and they spread – like the disease they are.”
“Now, before the mess of adjectives and adverbs in Helen’s crappy sentence drives me insane, let’s take a crack at fixing it:”
“Helen knew what she was doing, she had considered all her options, even asking her distant family for advice. Helen had a solution, but hesitated to approach her husband, knowing he wouldn’t like what she had to say.”
“Is this okay? No. No it’s not. Am I going to fix it? No. No I’m not. Why? Because I’m done with Helen and her crappy sentence.”
“But how-” you ask.
“-simple, don’t use adjective and adverbs, unless:”
“You may, on occasion – when the gods and goddesses of writing have bestowed upon you a rare moment of existential clarity – use adjectives if they do something unusual. Here are some all-too-common mistakes and their unusual solutions:”
“The yellow sun” -> “the cinnamon sun”
“The hot bath” -> “the syrupy bath”
“The beautiful woman” -> “the effervescent woman”
“Get it? I hope so. I’m doing my best to explain things, but you can’t help everyone, right? Basically, if you’re saying something obvious you don’t need an adjective, full stop. Suns are always yellow, baths are always hot, and women are always beautiful (in books, unless they aren’t, I’m running out of ideas, give me a break) using words that don’t add meaning is silly, don’t do it.”
Rule Six – Do Not Use the Verb “To Be”
“You know this rule, I know you do. You’ve taken all those writing classes, you’ve heard all the rules about ‘active voice’ and how important it is, but you can’t stop using passive voice. Don’t worry, it’s okay, I do it all the time. ”
“Then why are you putting this rule here?” you ask.
“Because it’s important, but not in the way all those writing workshops and classes told you it is. It is impossible to always write in active voice, but you should at least try to. Here is an oft quoted list of words you should (try to) avoid:”
BE, BEING, BEEN, AM, IS, ARE, WAS, WERE, HAS, HAVE, HAD, DO, DID, DOES, CAN, COULD, SHALL, SHOULD, WILL, WOULD, MIGHT, MUST, MAY
“This list is ridiculous. Everyone knows it’s ridiculous. Don’t worry about this list too much, but every time you see one of these words think to yourself ‘is there any other way I can say this?’ If the answer is no, carry on, if the answer is yes, rewrite the sentence/paragraph/story to use active voice. Following the ‘no adjectives and adverbs rule’ will cut back on your use of passive voice, I promise.”
Rule Seven – Don’t Tell me What it is, Tell me What it Does
“This, to preempt your inevitable whinging, is an advance on rules 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, but, nonetheless, is very important. No one cares about what something ‘is,’ no one wants to read a pedantic list of descriptors, people want action, they want to read a story about stuff.”
“But, how do I tell a story about stuff?” You ask.
“Let me demonstrate:”
“Mike’s car was one of those red numbers, all flash and noise. He always wanted a red sports car, and now that he had one it was like a smile never left his face.”
“This sentence isn’t bad, per se, but it can be improved. No one wants to hear the review ‘not bad,’ from a publisher. If you’re satisfied with being a ‘not bad’ writer, then, by all means, write sloppy, wimpy-assed sentences, I don’t judge. For everyone else, let me show you how to knock the socks off your readers (see what I did there?)”
“I heard the car before I saw it, the roaring engine and screeching of tires thundered through the neighborhood long before Mike had stormed headlong up my street. A red blur raged passed my house, ‘did he forget where I live?’ The screech of rubber and concrete locked in mortal combat said otherwise. Mike’s car screamed back up the street in reverse, Mike beamed at me. ‘I bet he hasn’t stopped smiling since he bought this damned car,’ I thought to myself. I open the passenger door and strap myself in for my first flight Mike’s brand-new road rocket.”
“Now that’s how to tell a fracking story. Its got everything, uncanny verbs, precise, concrete, specific nouns. We’re not brushing too far into the realm of wordyness, heck, I think we’ve made some real progress! Both examples tell us about a red car, but one does a much better job at introducing the car to us. Why? Because the first example is a list of qualities, the second example is a list of actions.”
“But, it’s not really that simple is it? You can’t tell everything as it’s happening,” you say.
“Yes, my sweet summer child, yes you can,” I reply. “If you can’t describe what it does, it probably doesn’t belong in the story. Full stop. No one wants to be told what to think, people want to fill in the gaps on their own. This brings us to my first, and only, aphorism:
“Storytelling is, well, about telling stories. But, you’d be surprised how often this critical point is missed, skipped, avoided, and ignored. About half the stories I read as an editor aren’t stories, they’re what I call prose-etry: something beautiful, but without purpose. No matter what your story is about, even if it all happens in the POV character’s head, you must be able to narrate what something is doing and not what it is. No one cares what it is, heck, you probably don’t care what it is and have a hard time typing it out – spending hours alone at your keyboard struggling for the most beautiful way to say: “her underwear was frilly.” No. One. Cares. All good stories have one thing in common: good storytellers show the reader what is happening, they don’t tell the reader what has already happened. This one rule, above all other rules, is the difference between a master storyteller and a bumbling novice.”
Rule Eight – Show, don’t Tell
“I’m not 100% sure why I’m saying this. Rules 1 – 7 should have instilled an understanding of this rule, but in the interest of completeness, I’m going to include the rule many authors call the ‘golden rule.’ So, my delicate young flowers, what does it mean to ‘show’ and not ‘tell?’ Well, it’s simple, don’t tell me what’s happening, describe it as it’s happening.”
“But, I tell stories in the past tense?” You say.
“It doesn’t matter.” I reply. “Read the Hobbit. It’s a darned journal. Does Tolkien ‘tell’ you what’s happening? No. He shows you. It’s simple, every time you’re siting at the computer writing something along these lines:”
“The grass was luscious and green, the trees alighted on the early morning breeze, and the sun shone bright through the cloudless sky. My mother bought this farm 12 years ago, I spent most of my life here. The cows, my ever-present enemy, were always there to ruin my already-early school-day mornings. The barn is red. Etc., etc., etc.”
“You need to go outside, kneel down on the ground, and hope that the gods and goddesses of writing forgive you. No one wants to read this, it’s boring and terrible. Stop using long, descriptive expositions and use dialog or character motion to tell the story instead.”
“But, my writing coach-” you say.
“-shhh, we’re almost done, it’s going to be okay. As I mentioned in the introduction, writing does not need to be a public affair. It is possible to be a successful writer and never publish a single story; it’s all up to you what you want to get out of your writing. If you want to write weird experimental fiction, write weird experimental fiction. Don’t listen to some jerk on the internet who’s telling you not to. These rules are not going to work for everyone – I break them in my writing all the time – if you want to improve your writing these are some good starting points, but they’re not the only – or even the best – way to write.”
Rules Nine and Ten – Write a Darned Story
“That’s it. Write a story. This is so important it merited two whole rules, it’s not because I ran out of ideas, promise. If your story is good – or bad, I don’t judge – submit it to us or any other publication for review. The single greatest chance you have at becoming a successful writer is, you probably guessed it, writing a fracking story, submitting it to a publisher, and getting published. Now, if no one has any further questions, I think we’re done here. Josh out,” mic drop.
That’s it. There’s no trick to it. See you around the internet. Happy writing!