28. Words Count
In my day job, I tell writers, “Too much is better than not enough. I can always work with too much. But not enough is just not enough.”
That’s when a writer has turned in a draft that’s lacking in some way and I’ve given her feedback and she says, “If I answer all your questions, that’s going to push it over the word limit.” I issue my advice so she won’t get too hung up on length when it’s more important to add missing details, feeling, color, or whatever. At that point, I know what I want, I know what she’s turned in, and I know how to make it stronger. Then I can trim.
But if you get an assignment of 1,000 words and turn in 2,400, saying, “It’s too long, but you’re a whiz at cutting!,” you haven’t done your job. Going a couple hundred words over is usually not a big deal for a 2,400-word piece, but 1,000 words over is. (Then again, a couple hundred over for a 300-word piece can be a big deal—it’s relative.)
If your first draft is wildly off the mark in length, cut it down close to the assigned word count before turning it in. (See tip number 9, “Editing Yourself,” for an exercise that may help.) If the editor wants more, he’ll tell you.
27. Say What?
One of my pet peeves is articles that say twice that someone said something.
For example, “Jackson says he likes the way his career has been going. ‘I started out with no plan, just doing what I enjoyed,’ he says. ‘Now I realize that’s exactly what got me where I am today.’ ”
Notice the repetition of “says”?
Much better would be “Jackson says he likes the way his career has been going: ‘I started out with no plan, just doing what I enjoyed. Now I realize that’s exactly what got me where I am today.’ ”
Or “Jackson says he likes the way his career has been going. ‘I started out with no plan, just doing what I enjoyed,’ he explains. ‘Now I realize that’s exactly what got me where I am today.’ ”
The first option adds a colon before the quote, eliminating the duplicate attribution. The second keeps the original structure but replaces the redundant “says” with “explains,” avoiding the echo.
There, I said it.
26. Half a Deck
Even though I posted tip number 25 only yesterday, I was determined to do number 26 on June 1. The reason: I started these random writing tips last December 1, continuing weekly from there, give or take a couple of days. Then around number 17 or so, I fell behind, which is why May became a jam-packed race to catch up.
When I sat down that first Saturday in December, I didn’t have this Apropos of Nothing project in mind. I was simply responding to a 30-day creativity challenge on social media by the brilliant teacher, performer, and writer Susan Blackwell, and this was the first thing that came out of me. (And yes, I did try to do something creative every day; this part of it just happened to feel like a weekly thing.)
So I’ll pass on to you what she passed on to me and her other Twitter and Instagram followers: Try to do one thing creative every day (or hey, every week; I don’t judge).
See where it takes you.
25. A Universal Truth
The paradoxical truism of writing is that the more specific you are to your own, or your characters’, experience, the more universal your writing will be. Trying to be “universal” is usually ruinous. It mires you in generalities, ponderousness, pedantry—in short, effort.
This isn’t to say you should never step back and reflect, draw conclusions, make sense of things. Of course you should. But given a choice between the way your best friend put her hand on the back of your neck sophomore year of college—the physical feeling and the sudden wattage change in that hideous ceiling lamp full of dead flies—and a statement about how everything you think you know can change in a moment (because anyone can relate to that, right?), go with the hand, the neck, and the lamp.*
Whether recognizing something they’ve experienced or being taken somewhere they’ve never been, readers will feel welcomed into your story and find a point of connection the more detailed you are about your very particular, one-of-a-kind world.
*Some will pick up that this sounds a lot like “show, don’t tell.” I’m not going to argue—and will have more to say on that at another time.
24. Wait, What Year Is It?
If you feel that your story or essay—particularly, but not exclusively, one that isn’t chronological—has more time references than it needs, that’s probably just about the right number. Remember, you have it all straight in your head, but you’re the only one who does.
23. Finding Community
One of the most important parts of sustaining a life as a writer—whether making a living at it, writing and publishing occasionally, or just being a person who writes—is having a community of other writers.
By that I mean at least one other writer. Someone, or ones, with whom you can talk about writing or not writing, story ideas, insecurities, ambitions, books, snacks, prompts, day jobs, the distractions and irritations of social media, the inspirations and opportunities of social media, the story you’re working on right now and the one you just can’t find your way into.
Fellow writers who are on your side. A person or group you can share work with, meet for coffee, or exchange spontaneous texts with. A community of one or more who get what you’re up to and won’t judge when your victories are small or be jealous when they’re big (or feel big to you even if they look small to the rest of the world).
Any way you can get this in your life, get it.*
*If you don’t have it, taking a class or workshop is the best way I know to find it. I say this not primarily as a writing teacher but as someone who found this as a student myself long ago.
22. What's the Title?
Always give your work a title. Even if you think it sucks. Even if it’s essentially a place holder for a better one. Even if you’re just turning in a first draft to a workshop. Even if—as will almost certainly be the case should the piece be accepted by a commercial magazine, a newspaper, or a website with SEO (search engine optimization) concerns—your editor gives it an entirely different headline to suit the publication’s specific, and legitimate, needs.
The right title signals to the reader that you know what this story is about. In fact, pausing during the writing process to contemplate a title can be a good way to find that out for yourself (not to mention simply a nice break from the writing process).
Readers see the title, then read the story, and then—almost always, I believe, whether they’re consciously aware of it or not—go back to the start and revisit the title, at which point it acquires deeper resonance thanks to the story. As does the story, thanks to the title.
21. Read It Out Loud
Read your work aloud. Don’t send it out without taking this step.
This is how to hear the unintended repetition and awkward phrasing that will clang in readers’ ears—because they’ll clang in yours as well. The places where you stumble will likely be spots that will trip up readers, too.
Print the story rather than reading it from a screen (though that’s better than nothing). Have a pen or pencil in your hand and mark it as you go.
You’ll hear the mistakes that spell check won’t find, that your eyes alone can’t see. It’s the time for your ears to do their part.
20. Do I Have To?
A good question to ask when someone you trust offers feedback on your story, article, or essay that you find yourself resisting, whether because it entails cutting a turn of phrase you love, adding an explanation you think ought to be obvious, restructuring that goes far beyond simple cutting and pasting, or any number of other changes that make your head ache or your heart break:
Am I writing this for myself or for the person reading it?
That’s not as snarky as it may look on the page. Think of it instead as a useful reminder that you’re in service to the story—and the story is in service to the reader.
Writing about dreams is tricky.
If you’re a reader who in real life likes hearing about friends’ nighttime rambles or of parsing your own, then they’ll work for you as a storytelling device—at least you’ll be open to them. If, however, your eyelids descend at the mention of dreams or you find the recaps near impossible to follow, the same thing can happen when encountering them on the page.
In both nonfiction and fiction, they tend to come off either as conveniences—tidy maps between points A and B (or G or V)—or as a deliberately indirect means of adding psychological complexity to a story or character. I can think of few tropes that are more a matter of personal taste (on the part of readers). Waking life is plenty interesting on its own, so just be sure the dream is worth it.
*I posted this, then had second thoughts and deleted it, and now am posting it again. The last thing I want to do is stifle creativity—just offering a perspective to think about.