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Writing advice that bears repeating

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

― W. Somerset Maugham

June 3 is National Repeat Day, so let’s take a look at the most frequently repeated writing advice. Here are five adages that bear repeating—and one that you should forget forever.

Show, Don’t Tell. According to Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty, “Good writing tends to draw an image in the reader’s mind instead of just telling the reader what to think or believe.” That’s the essence of showing instead of telling. Compare the following passages; which one do you think is better?

A. Marie was really mad.

B. Marie’s fingers curled into fists, and she could feel her nails dimpling her palms. She breathed deeply through her nose as she counted backwards from ten.

Hopefully you think Example B is better because it describes how Marie felt instead of simply telling the reader what she felt.

Avoid Adverbs. Excessive modifiers (i.e., adverbs and adjectives) are a hallmark of amateur writing. Adverbs—particularly those that end in “–ly”—tend to prop up weak, generic verbs. Rather than writing “He walked slowly across the saloon,” let your character saunter, stroll, or even mosey. In a column for Writer’s Digest, Chuck Sambuchino cautioned, “If your manuscript has too many adverbs and clichés, it most likely means that the emotion you felt while writing it is not going to translate to the reader in the same way. Never underestimate the weakness of adverbs and clichés.”

Read Much, Write Much. In his inspirational book On Writing, Stephen King wrote, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time — or the tools — to write. Simple as that.” Reading great books (in a variety of genres, not just the ones you like the best) can inspire you, and studying master craftsman will help you develop your own craft. Reading lousy books can also inspire you—there’s no better motivator than tossing a bad book aside and exclaiming, “I can do better than that!” If possible, write every day; one or two thousand words (i.e., four to eight typed, double-spaced pages) is a good goal.

Proofread, Proofread, Proofread. No matter how imaginative your ideas or how vivid your imagery, typos and basic grammar mistakes will ruin your writing. Even a small error can yank the reader out of your story; too many in a row may cause them to give up on it altogether. Mistakes mark you as a careless writer, and editors, agents, and readers have too many demands on their time to waste it on a sloppy story. The best way to catch errors is to read your work out loud, but if you need extra help navigating the often-confusing rules of grammar, try Grammarly’s automated proofreading tool. It’s like having a dedicated proofreader on call 24/7!

Write What You Know. Second only to “show, don’t tell,” this piece of timeworn wisdom is often told to aspiring writers. Unfortunately for them, it’s terrible advice. If writers were limited to their own experiences and knowledge, we wouldn’t have any sci-fi, fantasy, or historical fiction, just to name a few genres that require imagination. A much better piece of advice is to Know What You Write. If you’re writing a book about ancient Greece, study the culture, architecture, and literature of the time. If you’re writing about wizards at a secret magical boarding school—well, first off, it’s already been done. But if you’re writing fantasy, flesh out that world as much as possible. Even if all of your research or world-building doesn’t make it into the finished work, it will help you understand the setting better, leading to a richer and more immersive experience for the reader. And after all, isn’t that what telling a story is all about?

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice that “bears repeating?” Share it in the comments!

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