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The Quest for the Enchanted Writing Tip

Many writers spend their whole careers chasing that enchanted writing tip that will make them extraordinary, and there’s certainly no shortage of craft advice. Some authors (I’m looking at you, Henry James, but I love you anyway) cultivate digression and pretension and some avoid it. Charles Baudelaire proclaims that one should always be a poet, even when writing prose, while George Orwell takes a more utilitarian approach, preaching concision at all costs. Orwell counsels against overblown or overly specialized language when you can find a reliable, solid little word to do your bidding. V.S. Naipaul says to stick to 10-12 words per sentence.

Mark Twain suggests using “damn” instead of “very,” and letting your editor remove every instance as a public service. Elmore Leonard says to throw out the part readers usually skip, and William Faulkner and Stephen King call for the murder of your darlings: cutting those precious parts you love but others won’t. In the interest of your writing career, Richard Ford suggests trimming the fat in a different way entirely, by not having children.

Kurt Vonnegut insists you avoid wasting the readers’ time: every sentence should advance plot or character, or it shouldn’t be there. He says to give each character a distinct need, even for something as simple as, say, a sandwich. Then, make your readers like at least one character so much they desperately want him or her to get that sandwich. But he also says to be mean to your nice characters to remind your reader how resilient they are.

Vonnegut proposes composing with a single person in mind. As he puts it in his inimitable way: don’t open the window and try to please the whole world or you’ll catch pneumonia. He’s also against keeping too much information to yourself. Instead, he says, give the reader so much knowledge of the book they could write the ending themselves, in the highly unlikely but entirely Vonnegutian scenario that cockroaches should eat it.

Hemingway rewrote the last pages of Farewell to Arms 39 times, so he’s clearly a fan of revision, and of ensuring each word is the perfect one. In the interest of finding the right words, John Steinbeck thinks your dialogue will sound like real speech if you say it as you write it. James Patterson pretends he’s telling a buddy across the table from him a tale. He doesn’t want this imaginary buddy leaving until the story’s over, so he has to make it good. An imaginary friend is often harder to please than a real one, especially when s/he comes laced with one’s own inner critic. Patterson’s and Steinbeck’s methods also ensure you don’t sound too pretentious, which Orwell would relish.

Writers tend to have strong feelings on parts of speech. F. Scott Fitzgerald insists you eliminate every exclamation point because it’s tantamount to laughing at your own punchline. But let’s not forget that Neil Gaiman specifically recommends chuckling at your own quips.

King is not a fan of adverbs. In fact, he suggests they pave the way to hell, while Philip Roth thinks it’s works in progress that pave that way. And Vonnegut writes one of the strangest sentences ever concerning his particular grammatical pet peeve: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

Everyone says “show, don’t tell,” but some writers say it with more panache than others. Anton Chekhov writes, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” He may be a bit less famous, but the writer Tom West memorably puts it this way:

If you tell the reader that Bull Beezley is a brutal-faced, loose-lipped bully, with snake’s blood in his veins, the reader’s reaction may be, ‘Oh, yeah!’ But if you show the reader Bull Beezley raking the bloodied flanks of his weary, sweat-encrusted pony, and flogging the tottering, red-eyed animal with a quirt, or have him booting in the protruding ribs of a starved mongrel and, boy, the reader believes!

King phrases it like so: “Making people believe the unbelievable is no trick; it’s work…Belief and reader absorption come in the details: An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything.”

Raymond Chandler thinks a good book comes out of a good title while Ray Bradbury considers it a numbers game: if you write enough, some of it’s bound to be good. Gertrude Stein, of course, advises that to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write. Maya Angelou says she writes whatever she can even if it sounds like a shoddy nursery rhyme because this tells the muse she means business. William S. Burroughs knows you can shortchange your landlord but not your muse.

Allen Ginsberg says to acquire your own voice you have to abandon all thoughts of having others hear it. Harper Lee says the first rule of authorship is a thick skin. Virginia Woolf thinks the history of writing is littered with works of writers who listened to others too much and prized originality too little. Hemingway locates this originality by writing drunk but editing sober, which reminds me of Andre Gide’s notion that the most gorgeous writing is the kind lunacy inspires but reason records.

To find that numinous place, Saul Bellow swears by writing down that sentence that woke you while you were sleeping, and Toni Morrison says a good sentence allows you to enjoy the smoke rising off it. It’s not clear if she means the reader or the writer does the enjoying, but I like the idea of both. Annie Dillard recommends shooting the moon every time: not saving any of your sparkle for a later writing project—that something superior will come later anyway.

Then again, maybe none of these recommendations matter because G.K. Chesterton credits his career success to carefully attending to all the good advice people give him and then doing the exact opposite. Gaiman thinks people are right when they tell you something about your story sucks but not when they try to tell you what or how to fix it.

Edgar Allan Poe has some good ideas about writing. He thinks a short story should sustain one mood throughout and each sentence should climb in a way that constructs it. But there are certainly writing tips I tell my students to be careful not to follow, such as this less good idea from Poe: “Include a beautiful woman with raven locks and porcelain skin, preferably quite young, and let her die tragically of some unknown ailment.”

I confess that I don’t have the perfect, practical writing tip for you. But, of course, I can’t resist sharing a thought or two of my own—more advice for you to do the exact opposite of should you so desire. For some reason it helps me get inspired to write at any window where I can see a tree. If all else fails, draw a tree on your window. That old adage about the importance of a writer’s powers of observation is certainly true, but sometimes it doesn’t play out exactly as you think it might.

I like to gaze at something until my eyes go blurry and I start to see something else entirely—some obscure, bedimmed space I can only imagine is my own creativity, and then I write from there. Sit and stare at something out your window, or on your wall if there’s no window available, until you start to feel a little out of touch with reality, and then there, at that intersection between your mind and that other world, start writing.

In the end, my best writing comes when I feel my life depends on it in some strange way. Not that I’ve ever actually written with a gun to my head. But I do my best work when I feel there’s something life or death at stake in that act of creation—like all of existence is thumping, and maybe also having a tea party, inside me, and I just might explode if I don’t write it out of there. In short, don’t stress and no pressure; writing is no big deal and quite casual; it only requires that you give it everything you have.