Over the years I’ve been given some great advice on writing by people I’ve met, and I thought I’d share a few examples in case they might help you along the way too.
1: Easing off
received from David Garnett, writer and editor
I met Dave at the first SF convention I attended in 1997. We chatted, got on well, and he introduced me to a lot of people. It was a great weekend. He was at that time editing the New Worlds anthology, and invited me to send him something to consider. When the story came back a few months later it was one of those enthusiastic rejections which, while issuing a no thank you, encouraged me to keep at it. His feedback included the following piece of advice:
“Don’t try to cram in so much.”
I thought about the story and wondered where I’d crammed. By how much. And how not to. What to leave out of any creative endeavour – writing, music, choreography – to avoid “over-egging the pudding”, to quote one of my former editors, can be difficult to judge. I think I worked out what Dave meant eventually, but it’s a process unique to every piece of work, every paragraph, every sentence. I’ve still got that letter. It’s in a folder full of others just like it.
2: How they did it in the olden days
received from Christopher Priest, author
I’ve always written to people whose work I’ve admired and asked politely whether they might have any advice. These included Priest, after I’d read his novel The Prestige back in the mid-90s. Our correspondence developed, and he told me he did have some advice, but that I wouldn’t like it:
“Print it, delete the electronic file,
then re-key the whole thing.”
When people wrote longhand or with a typewriter, multiple copies could be created using carbon paper. Cutting and pasting was just that, using scissors and glue – a process that still has its place in creative writing today. And a re-draft was exactly that: type the whole thing out again, dude. But by the time this tip came my way we were firmly in the age of the word processor. Surely such antiquated techniques were redundant, weren’t they?
He was right: I didn’t like it. But when I gave the re-key a chance its benefits were immediately apparent. Bored typing a certain section or paragraph all over again? Then your reader will probably get bored too. And without doubt the weaknesses in any text are somehow more evident on the printed page than on screen, so re-keying from hard copy has benefits there. Whether you actually delete the electronic file is a matter of choice (I could never bring myself to go quite that far), but without doubt, taking the time to perform a real deal, old-school re-draft pays huge dividends.
And while you’re performing your satisfying re-key, implementing my final tip will make a world of difference.
3: You move your lips when you’re reading
received from unknown
I honestly can’t remember who gave me this nugget. It might have been John Meaney. Or I might have read it somewhere. But the most important thing is that I came across it somehow, because this one makes a huge difference:
“Read your text aloud.”
You may raise your eyebrows, but during speech the tongue will stumble over words that seem to work just fine when reading them silently in your head. Rhythm – or more to the point a lack thereof – makes itself known. Problematic syntax or repetition emerge from their hiding places between the words. Sentences that fall short. Or those that run too long and leave you feeling a little out of breath as you try to keep up with either the message or the mechanics of the content or sometimes both.
You’re sceptical right? Right. But give this one a go and I’m willing to bet a whole pound that the changes you make to address the problems that become apparent will make your text more readable.
So there you are. Three gems that just might help improve your writing in some way. Feel free to share any tips of your own.
Addendum – 9 July 2017
Come to think of it, here’s a tip of my own, gleaned through years of attending conventions and the like…
“Got a light, mate?”
Smoking is increasingly unpopular and unfashionable. I’ve never smoked, but lots of people do. With the ban on smoking indoors, smokers now huddle in groups outside hotels, pubs and restaurants, taking a moment. There’s camaraderie, formality is dropped, a joke and a lighter shared. But if you don’t smoke – what then?
Maybe one of those smokers is an editor or agent you’d like to work with, or a writer you’ve read and admired. Away from the formality and panels, new-build relationships can be cemented beside that smouldering metal bin.
There’s one golden rule, though: no shop talk. None. Don’t mention that book or script, or that really brilliant idea for a TV show you’ve had. Certainly don’t offer a card. To take a leaf from William Gallagher, this isn’t networking – it’s notworking. For the smokers those fags are an escape from the hubbub and the pitching and the sell of whatever event you happen to be attending. Just join them to get some air, engage in some chat and get to know people a bit more. Don’t be a stalker – if you’ve been bending their ear all evening then be aware it might be you they’re trying to take a break from. But otherwise, next time you meet or email they might just put a face to the name, and five years down the line…? Well there’s no guarantee they’ll be interested in anything you’ve written, but you might have made a friend.
I’m a writer, editor, and Royal Literary Fund Fellow.
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