Top writers share tips on writing

Here’s our Christmas gift to anyone who spends any part of their day writing. It’s a collection of tips from writers who have distinguished themselves with their clarity, creativity and style.

If you are looking for advice on writing, a great place to start is Stephen King’s book ‘On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft‘. In it, the master of horror admits he has a particular horror of adverbs.

“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops,” he says. King’s rant about adverbs (and if you read the book you’ll see that he really does rant about them) prompted me to assemble a collection of other short, but potent, tips on writing.

This collection comes courtesy of, among others, Elmore Leonard, Kurt Vonnegut, Jennifer Egan and Zadie Smith, and – of course, Stephen King. Much of it is written from a fiction writer’s perspective. But the advice works just fine for anyone writing a report, a proposal, a presentation or a speech.

Let’s start with advice from the self-styled keepers of the definitive record of the English language.

THE OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS (Publishers of Oxford Dictionaries).

Know your purpose

“Keep your purpose in mind at all times to avoid going off topic. Even better: write it down in as few words as possible, print it out, and keep it next to you as you write.”

Start with a plan

“Far too often people write without a plan. The result is often disjointed writing, with parts that don’t connect, no clear way in, and no obvious way out. Whether you are writing a 10,000-word report or a letter of complaint, creating a clear plan and structure is the crucial first step to getting your message across quickly and in the most effective way.”

DAVID OGILVY (Often described as ‘the father of advertising’ for his role as founder of Ogilvy & Mather).

Keep it simple

“Write the way you talk. Naturally.”

“Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.”

“Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.”

STEPHEN KING (He’s sold more than 350 million copies of his 58 novels. In 2015, King was awarded with a National Medal of Arts from the United States National Endowment for the Arts for his contributions to literature).

Don’t be pretentious

“One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones.”

Write without fear

“Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation. Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sorts of writing as ‘good’ and other sorts as ‘bad,’ is fearful behavior.”

“Fear is at the root of most bad writing. Try any goddamn thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it.”

ELMORE LEONARD (Started writing Westerns, then turned to crime fiction and suspense thrillers, including Get Shorty).

Listen to your words

“If it sounds like writing … rewrite it. If proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.”

(Elmore Leonard’s tip is particularly applicable to anyone writing a speech or presentation. For heaven’s sake, don’t write in silence. If the words are going to end up coming out of your mouth, that’s exactly where they should start. That idea is at the heart of our TalkitOut Technique for speakers).

MARK TWAIN (Apprentice printer, riverboat pilot, miner, reporter, bankrupt – and described by William Faulkner as ‘the father of American literature’).

Find the right word

“Use the right word, not its second cousin.”

Celebrate simplicity

“I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in.”

KURT VONNEGUT (Vonnegut published 14 novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of non-fiction. He is most famous for his darkly satirical novel Slaughterhouse-Five).

Eliminate distractions

“If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.”

Be true to yourself

“The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child. I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench. I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am.” 

JENNIFER EGAN (American novelist and short story writer. Egan’s novel A Visit from the Goon Squad won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction).

It won’t all be perfect

“You can only write regularly if you’re willing to write badly. Accept bad writing as a way of priming the pump, a warm-up exercise that allows you to write well.”

ZADIE SMITH (British novelist, essayist, and short-story writer. Her most recent book is Feel Free, a collection of essays).

On editing

“Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.”

JAMES PATTERSON (In 2016, Patterson topped Forbes’s list of highest-paid authors for the third consecutive year, with an income of $95 million. His total income over a decade is estimated at $700 million).

On editing

“After your first draft, you should delete everything that is not on point. Even if you like it.”

So there we are. Seventeen tips from eight outstanding writers, and from one organization that supports writers. We have some more tips in our free White Paper. The link to the download appears below.

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