Tag Archives: writing advice

Becoming a better writer

When I talk to people about improving their writing, I sometimes wonder if some flaws are simply hard-coded, or if anyone can improve those through effort. As Pepper Martin said to his manager Frank Frisch, after the latter’s rant during a time when the team was just bad, “You know, Frankie-boy, I got a jackass back home on my ranch, and you can run him from sunup to sundown, and he still ain’t never gonna win the Kentucky Derby.” That’s not a putdown without including myself; it may be true in some areas for all of us. I am pretty sure I’m tone-impaired, for example, because much music that some consider stunningly wondrous just sounds horrible to me, and I can’t make any decent music at all myself. I am not sure I have the physical wherewithal to improve. Likewise, I could have tried for a degree in math instead of history, but could I have comprehended even calculus? It’s doubtful, considering my struggles with pre-calculus. So some of what I suggest, I believe, might simply be outside some folks’ ken. But I can suggest it, and if people are trying to work on it, they can decide for themselves whether a flaw is innate or badly learned.

Homophones. These are words that sound the same, but are spelled differently and have different meanings. A long list is here. Until you make time to differentiate ‘their’ from ‘there’ from ‘they’re,’ you will look bad. I don’t care if you mess them up in chat, but if you’re writing something people should want to read, you must get these right. A new grocery store opened just down the hill from me. It looked fairly downscale, and then I looked up to its opening day marquee: YOUR TO GOOD LOOKING TO SHOP ANYWHERE ELSE. The combination of slack-jawed, vapid flattery with such obvious lack of attention to accuracy grossed me out. I’ve still never spent a dime there. If they can’t muster a better public intro than most people’s standard chat and e-mail errors, that’s just sad.

Read a lot–and read good quality. If I write well today, it is for two reasons. The first, the technical correctness, came from heavy reading between ages three and seventeen. Even when I can’t tell you why something is incorrect, I nearly always know when it is, because I have read a great deal of correct writing. The second, refinement, also comes from lots of reading, and began when I went to college. This is where we learn to examine our statements for clarity, wean ourselves away from adverb overdose, push aside passive voice, and otherwise break the standard bad habits. Don’t assume that endcap bestsellers exemplify good writing habits; more often, they exemplify lazy pandering to a public that doesn’t know the difference and doesn’t care.

Punctuation. Look up the purpose of each mark, from the apostrophe to the hyphen. Check your writing to see if you use these correctly. Find the basics here. And if you do not, then…

Stop with ‘well, that’s just my style.’ If your style is bad, then it’s not an asset, and should be changed. Styles evolve. Don’t hug your weaknesses dearly to your heart, as if questioning them questions your validity as a person. Lots of great thinkers and people can’t write well.

If you write like you talk, stop. It’s not an asset, because people don’t read like they listen.

Never ask for critique you don’t want. Most requests for critique are actually requests for validation. These are unfair to the critic, whom you place in an impossible position. Your writing might not be very good. If it isn’t good, and you came seeking validation, your critic can’t win. If she tells you the cold truth, she just broke your dolly and crushed your dream, heartless snob that she is. If she uses all her own writing talent to find a nice way to tell you that your writing is bad, she expended much more effort than you had the right to ask of her, all for nothing, because you probably heard only the kind parts you wanted to hear. And if she lies, she was worse than useless to you, actually harmful to your development. Don’t ask for critique unless you want it for the sake of improvement, even if caustic. No worthwhile critic is needlessly cruel, but sometimes the simple truth is cruel in nature. You don’t ask a dentist to tell you that your tooth enamel and nerve will grow back, do you? Do you ask an orthopedic surgeon to tell you that your achilles will really only take three painless months to rehab, when in fact it will take a year of significant suffering?

The worst, the very worst, is when someone asks me to critique their child’s writing. Critiquing a child’s writing is an exercise in compassionate lying. The writing may be quite good for the child’s age, but it’s almost surely deeply flawed–obviously, since the child is developing English skills. Is it good for his age? I am not equipped to know; that’s the province of an English teacher (whose job is to provide age-appropriate critique), which I am not and could not be. Think about it. I have to lie. I have no other humane choice. Can we just agree, outside the child’s hearing, that asking this of me constitutes a request that I lie and say something is better than it is, for the sake of not crushing a little soul? That’s all I ask: to be relieved of the duty of honest sincerity, and that we all agree that I’m here to lie, and that by lying here, I’m helping and being a good guy. Neither you, your child nor I desire that I dissect it for real. Okay? If you want age-appropriate non-lying critique, best ask a professional educator who knows what is good for each age. I’m not qualified to do anything but lie.

Learn consistency of article, number, person and gender reference. This governs so much and weaves together. If you do not even know what this means, I’ll explain. If the subject is plural, and you later refer back to it, you cannot use the singular unless you are singling out one member of the subject group. This is why ‘they’ is an unacceptable substitute for ‘he or she,’ the eternal gender neutrality problem inherent in English, and probably the cause of more recast sentences than even passive voice addiction. If you describe an event in the future perfect tense, you can’t contradict the timing in the next sentence. Learning the tenses in English would be a good step, so here is a reference to study. Use of the right verb tense is a combination of literal common sense and knowing what the tense means.

Remember that narrative and dialogue are different. Narrative represents the storyteller’s viewpoint, or the story as seen through a character’s eyes. Dialogue is what people say, their actual words. Internal monologue (unspoken thoughts) is a form of dialogue. In dialogue, nothing has to be perfect; it simply has to sound like the speaker (or his/her thoughts). Part of crafting good dialogue is knowing how well-spoken the speaker is. The English can and should be as lousy as the speaker’s; the thoughts may be disconnected and inconsistent. It could make a travesty of this whole blog post, and be great dialogue.

Never follow any rule off a cliff. This one comes from C.J. Cherryh, one of the finest writers in print. There are times to break every rule, provided you know it well enough to break it. Here is what I tell writers: every writer gets a certain number of cheats per piece, defined as deviations from everything he or she is told not to do. Teachers instruct us to use some devices sparingly, especially adverbs, em dashes, semicolons, ellipses, passive voice, split infinitives, sentences ending with prepositions…you get the idea. When you hew blindly to a ‘don’t do this’ list, you do as badly as if you are addicted to overusage.

Cheat for a reason. Cheat for extra effect. Cheat because it will make a key phrase stand out. Any time you cheat, be sure the cheat pays its way. For example, I have used ellipses twice in this post. Under normal circumstances, I’d consider that slothful, but I believe both usages worked and paid their way. The second usage is questionable, if the definition of a cheat were ‘something I could eliminate through recasting.’ To me, that is not a definition, but a value test for most verbiage and literary devices. That is a tightening test more than it is a cheat’s value test.


Why ‘lancers fail

There’s a lot of work out there for freelance writers.  While my editors don’t slather me with details about my competition, I’ve divined some reasons why people who think they could do it, really can’t:

1) Some just do not have the writing chops.  Editors can edit but they don’t want to have to clean up all your work.  You must be able to write in the way they want.

2) Some don’t comprehend deadlines.  You have to have your work in by the deadline.  No one cares why if you fail.  Business is business.  Do your work on time.  Do not have crises.  Do it anyway.

3) Some can’t deal with being edited.  Sorry, but you will be, and it’s probably for the best.  Sometimes not; I have had ‘fact checkers’ insert errors into my work.  But as Kurtis Blow teaches us, ‘that’s the breaks.’

4) Some do sloppy research.  Editors don’t want ugly surprises.  If you don’t have the research skills, and especially if you rely on Wikipedia or other fragile sourcing, they will get letters.  Back it up.

5) Some bitch.  It’s that simple.  Just don’t bitch.  People prefer to assign work to people who want it.  Be a pro, cheerfully confident and eager for assignments.  If you don’t like to write, you picked the wrong line of work.  Plus, if you always produce, eventually your editors will do what is easiest for them.  “Let’s see.  I could try and send this to Joe and Susan, and deal with their excuses and crap.  Or I could send this to my trusty Julian, who never fails, is eager for the work and obviously likes it.  What is to my best advantage?”

The distilled essence of ‘lancing is simple.  Be the easiest option.  If you are not the easiest and most attractive option for editors, you are doing it wrong.  You should adjust your attitude and habits as necessary until you are the preferred writer.  Be easy to deal with, be professional, be reliable.  You think it’s overrated? I ended up writing about 70% of a whole book just because I was the only one who could cut the mustard, and kept yelling for more work.  I did pretty well that year, owed a lot of taxes.  Keep on message:  “Or you could just assign it all to me, and just have it done and off your plate.”  Say so often enough, and you’ll get your wish.  And if you produce, it’ll come back to help you.  Because thereafter, when you say “I can,” they’ll believe you.

(11/11/2020 update: I find that this applies to many fields of endeavor. On time, capable, and uncomplaining is a good overall look. It went over well with acquisitions editors and it goes over well at the 7-11, or in an engineering office, or teaching geometry.)

Radcon 5C

This past weekend I spent at RadCon, the Tri-Cities’ (WA) science fiction convention.

Registration was more abominable than last year, if that’s even possible. (You cannot imagine. Should it take three hours of waiting in line? I think the line began around Bonner’s Ferry.) Dealers either not given enough room or charged too much–there were as many hotel room dealers as there were in the dealer room. If you didn’t wend your way down Wing 2, you missed the Bizarro Fiction folks (google Shatnerquake and just laugh your head off) and a bunch more stuff, such as the Cocaine energy drink people. I was tempted to buy one just to support a beverage that has a disclaimer that says “if you really imagine this contains actual cocaine, you are a moron.” I never tire of packaging that ridicules idiots–we have so many in my country, many of whom escape their just desserts.

Sharon was her usual lovely, charming self, brought a con newbie with her (friend Lovell, from HS) and did for him what she once did for me (general askari/native guide function). I think this was probably the con at which I transitioned from intermediate to veteran, becoming essentially self-sufficient and no longer an albatross around Sharon’s neck, all thanks be unto her for many companionships and kindnesses. Much socialization with C.J. Cherryh and Jane Fancher, each a marvel in her own way. Received emphatic and safe advice from C.J. on matters literary.  If I don’t follow said advice, coming from such a source, I’m too stupid to succeed (this blog is a direct step in that direction, since I’d hate to be too stupid to succeed).

You know, you really experience these cons differently with repetition. It develops a certain intimacy and warmth that grows over the years. I begin to think that if you’re going to do a given con, you need to become a regular–do it annually or don’t do it. You see people you talked to briefly last year, and this year they invite you to join them for dinner, and pretty soon you are invited to a cider pressing in Idaho in summer/fall. You shoot the breeze with some Rasta-type kids out front, or sort of commiserate with the security dude who is out for a smoke. Flirt with the obviously gay-as-the-1890s waiters; better service (as Sharon can attest, I have almost zero shame, not that shame is in heavy supply at SF cons).

One message comes through to me about the literary industry:  the New York dead tree model is hosed. It is less relevant each year. Simple math:  even a prominent author might keep one dollar in ten of the paperback revenues. Through e-publishing, she will keep 100%. Put another way: not only does one e-book sale equal ten paperback sales, one makes the e-book sale with complete creative control and no Manhattan corporate crap. I posed the question to more than one author: “at what point will we fully transition from the dream being ‘picked up by New York’ to, New York calls us and we say, ‘sorry, but you really have nothing to offer me but lousy margins, so no, thanks, I do not want to sign with Random House'”? In the estimation of many, we are nearly there. When one of your sales equals ten of theirs…that is big. That’s an exponent.

(11/11/2020: I review this content nearly a decade later, and kind of get a warm fuzzy because I turned out to be correct. It has driven the demand for editing services. It has also driven an explosion in “anyone can become a writer” thinking, which is great, except that most people who have limited writing skills don’t learn this until they send it to an editor. The second body blow is that, since they have limited writing skills, the editing will cost a lot more than they imagined.)

In short, Radcon was a great time for many reasons, despite its Tri-Cityness (perennial inefficiency being as much a part of the local culture as basic courtesy and goodwill). I pre-registered again, so that tells you something. Biggest drag: learning that the local newsies caught me on camera. It tells you how relaxed I was: I wasn’t even on the alert for one of my most hated situations, as I learned in a text from my wife advising me I was on TV whether I wanted it or not. When someone with a startle reflex and loathing for the news media as profound as mine managed to get filmed by the media on the sly, that someone really had his guard down.