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The Best Writing Advice I’ve Received

September 7, 2012

ImageImageMarielena Zuniga’s last blog post centered on writing when it seems the writing well is dry.  Of course, by the end of the post, Marielena proved that her “well” was anything but dry.  That itself seems like a profound revelation.  It got me thinking about the best writing advice I’ve gotten in my many years as a writer of all kinds of material – fiction and nonfiction, from magazine articles to op-eds.  It’s helpful to have these nuggets of advice rattling around in one’s brain when the going gets tough.  Here’s my collection.  What’s the best writing advice you’ve received?

Specificity creates authenticity.

Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?  It refers to the need for specific details in our descriptions and narratives, and it works as well for nonfiction as for fiction.  How can we create characters unless we build them up – detail by detail—as breathing people?  That’s what makes them come alive for our readers.  The same is true of specificity in your story incidents and description.  Broad generalities rarely cut it.  Our work comes to life when it is specific.

We don’t know what we know until we write it down.

Marielena’s last blog post reminds us of this axiom.  We can surprise even ourselves when we sit with paper and pen (or computer) to “write what we know.”  I used to sometimes be surprised at the nuggets of information that would flow out of me when I was writing an essay for a final exam when I was a graduate student in English.  The more pressure I was under the better.  The same is true in our fiction writing.  We all have fleeting impressions and innate knowledge that we may barely be conscious of.  It only bubbles to the surface when we bring it to life with our words on paper.  Working early in the morning or late at night when we’re tired can help us better tap into some of those resources.  Have you ever read something you’ve written and thought, I can’t believe I wrote this?  Writing can feel pretty miraculous at times!

Write from your emotional center.  Don’t be afraid to be open and vulnerable. 

Writing from your emotional center means writing from the heart to let the truth emerge.  That’s when readers connect with our words.  After all, the purpose of literature is to explore the human condition and what is a human being without emotion?  We need to be brave and show our humanity in our words.

Don’t over explain.  Give your readers credit for figuring out some of what you’re saying on their own. 

The wonderful writers don’t lay everything out for their readers.  Their work is subtle.  One of my graduate school professors called it “the reader’s share.”  Readers want to do some of the work themselves.  Could your fiction be dissected and examined for meaning the way a book club or a graduate literature class would do it?

Emily Dickenson wrote,

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise


As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind –

 Let your Truth as a writer “dazzle gradually.”   Not explaining every nuance adds to your work’s richness and the pure pleasure of reading it.

You can get a lot written if you give yourself what Anne Lamott calls “small assignments. ”

I’ve written about this before but I still consider it one of the best pieces of advice for writers.  Don’t panic when you have a large writing project.  Just do what the education professors at my university call “chunking it” – which refers simply to a good way for students to tackle large homework assignments:  do them in small chunks.  We can write in the same way.  One scene, one description, one page of tight dialogue at a time.  It’s amazing how much you can accomplish in that way.

Keep your fanny in the chair.

One of my most brilliant graduate school professors surprised me when he imparted these words of wisdom to our class and I never forgot them in all their bluntness.  When folks asked him how he found the time to write so much, he just smiled.  “Anybody can do it if they just keep their fanny in the chair.”  Get in the routine of sitting down to write as part of a careful routine.  Do it on a daily or five-times a-week routine.  It quickly becomes habit. And if you have to get a project done quickly, stay in your chair for long stretches of time. You’ll surprise yourself by how much you can write that way.

Those are my favorites.  How about sharing yours?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 9, 2012 2:06 PM

    Good post, Gretchen. Full of good advice. I especially like “You don’t know what you know until you write it down.” On the other hand, sometimes I don’t know what I need to know until I start writing. The not-so-simple act of writing has led me down paths I never have explored without its promting.

  2. September 9, 2012 7:11 PM

    Another great post, Gretchen! Thanks for the kind mentions. My favorite is writing from our emotional center, a topic I wrote about in another post some time ago. I call it “digging deep” where we open our hearts to connect with readers.

    Perhaps the best writing advice I got (and it applies to fiction as well) was from a crusty editor-in-chief at my first newspaper job. He peered over at a feature article I was writing and said three words that hurt, but that I never forgot and have helped me in my writing career — Write it again!

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