Basics of writing

Tips on writing from the experts

From Rick:

A good friend recently shared some writing tips from Kurt Vonnegut, and this prompted me to look up the source. In doing so, I found a site with tips from many noted authors.

This is an extensive collection from twenty-one writers, but I selected those tips that I felt applied to all writers and types of writing. However, I’ve included the link to the site in case you want to look at all of them.


Not all of these are what I would call writing tips. Some are more suggestions on the process of writing, such as “proceed slowly and take care,” while others apply to certain genres. The ones by Edgar Allan Poe apply only if you want to write like Poe: “When in doubt, bury someone alive.”

I have selected eighteen tips and numbered them consecutively, not based on the rule numbers from the individual authors. I chose those that I felt applied to the broadest situations and left out those I felt applied on in some circumstances. As one example, Henry James said to work on one thing at a time. That’s great advice for some writers, but others are more productive when shifting among two or more works because of they get stuck on one project, they can shift to another until inspiration moves me back to the first one. Meanwhile, they’re still writing. But as that doesn’t work for everyone.

Here’s my list along with my comments.



(1) “Grab ’em by the throat and never let go.”

[If your story opening is dull or lacks a promise, your reader may not get past the opening. In these days where readers can sample the writing, the lack of a strong opening may result in a lost sale.]

(2) “If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.”

[Although meant for screenplays, this applies to all works. If you’re having a problem later in your story, then the problem most likely exists much earlier in the story. It’s your job to figure out where and why.]

* * * * *


(3) “Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

[Exceptions to this should be RARE.)

(4) “Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’ …he admonished gravely.”

[Exceptions to #4 should be rare as well. You’ll find disagreement among writers, but if you feel you need to explain how the line was delivered, then you most likely haven’t crafted the dialogue, the character, or even the scene properly. There are occasional times when adding that adverb may be the perfect addition or the shortest route, but most of the time adding that adverb shows lack of writing skill because it’s telling instead of showing.]

(5) “Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.”

[Very few writers are skilled enough to be able to pull off a story with extensive dialect without alienating the reader. Unless you’re one of those writers like Mark Twain or Alice Walker (The Color Purple), then don’t attempt it, or minimize it if you do.]

(6) “Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.”

(7) “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.”

[Some will argue, perhaps vigorously, against these two tips by Elmore Leonard. Note, however, that he doesn’t say not to use description, just to keep it to a reasonable length. Both tips #6 and #7 follow what I said in recent blogs about how description stops the story. Any description will do that, but if you keep it brief, the descriptions will blend smoothly into the storytelling without bringing the story to a halt. Alternatively, if you really need lengthy description, then put it out of the way of the action where it won’t disrupt the flow of the story. When it comes to character descriptions, I’ve seen too many writers go overboard. The best advice is to give just enough to let the reader imagine the character, but not so much that a police sketch artist could draw the character perfectly for a wanted poster.]

(8) “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

[This is my favorite Elmore Leonard advice. It applies not only to overdone descriptions but to overdone anything in the story, to those details that add little or nothing nothing and represent the writer showing off his purported writing skills (or more often lack thereof).]

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* * * * *


(9) “Never use a long word where a short one will do.”

(10) “If it’s possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”

(11)” Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”

[I think these all speak for themselves. These tips may sound absolute, but they aren’t. They represent good writing practice overall and you should think carefully before going against them. There are exceptions to #11 where you will need to use the fancier word. Make sure it fits the tone of the narrative and character and doesn’t sound like you trying to show off your writerly vocabulary.]

* * * * *


(12) “Don’t create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.”

* * * * *


(13) “In a script, everybody matters. It became apparent to me early on that not only do I need to understand my characters, I need to understand the characters that you don’t generally need to understand…”

[Even your minor characters and your piece-of-furniture characters are important, and you need to understand why they’re there. If you don’t know why you put them in the story, then you need to remove them or figure out their real purpose.]

* * * * *


(14) “Unless you’re experimenting with form gnarled, snarled, & obscure, be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.”

[I can’t tell you how often I see writers using long paragraph after long paragraph. If you want to keep your reader reading, keep long paragraphs to a minimum—and put the brakes on characters who like to ramble even if it’s in their nature to do so.]

* * * * *


(15) “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.”

* * * * *


(16) “If possible, have something going on while you have your characters delivering exposition or philosophising. This helps retain dramatic tension.”

(17) “Ignore all proffered rules and create your own, suitable for what you want to say.”

[Note the condition attached to rule 17: “suitable for what you want to say.” Don’t create rules just because you think it’s cool to do so. Breaking and creating rules must have a valid purpose in the story or you’ll turn off your reader. Along with this, before you follow the rule-breaking of any other writer (famous or not), be sure you understand why the rule is being broken and that the writer knows (and cares) that he or she is doing so. Noted writers exist who break rules for no other reason than they want to rather than in service to the story.

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


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