As I prepare my talk for Wrexham Carnival of Words next week, offering answers to FAQs (the most frequently asked questions) about writing, I’ve been revisiting some of my favourite advice from writers I admire. I hope you’ll enjoy it too, whether you’re a writer or a reader or indeed both.
George Orwell’s Six Rules of Writing
In my teens, I read the complete works of George Orwell for the extended essay that formed part of my International Baccalaureat at Frankfurt International School. His politics, his integrity and his rules of writing have stayed with me ever since.
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
While I don’t follow Orwell’s rules blindly – for example, I will use a long word if it feels more natural than the short equivalent – I think any aspiring writer would do well to pin them over their writing desk.
Just Write, says Ray Bradbury
Fear of breaking rules should not deter the would-be writer from putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and just getting on with it. Many writers, especially when they’re starting out, spend far too long dithering, thinking about writing, talking about writing, and admonishing themselves for not writing at all. They should listen to the hugely prolific (and entirely wonderful) Ray Bradbury:
Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.
Stephen King on Concision
Possibly the most useful English lesson I learned at school was the art of précis. I’m amazed it isn’t taught more widely.
I’m naturally garrulous in conversation and with the written word. Knowing how to cut out superfluous words without losing meaning was therefore invaluable in my early careers as a journalist and a PR, when I had to write articles to fit precisely into a given space or to match a specific word count. Ruthlessly editing down other people’s text, or pieces I’d written on clients’ products that weren’t close to my heart (eg cat litter, frozen peas, drainpipes), was great practice for when I began to focus on writing fiction.
Novice writers are often disbelieving when I tell them it’s possible to cut 10%, 20% or even more from something they’ve written – and return pleasantly surprised to find that not only did they manage it, but that the edited piece is more powerful. Stephen King, whose memoir On Writing should be on every writer’s shelf of reference books, sums up the process well:
When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt: revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.
More Murderous Recommendations from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
Stephen King is not the only writer who invokes murder. Although the next piece of advice has been attributed to many authors over the years, it was author and critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who originally coined the phrase in On the Art of Writing in 1916:
Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to the press. Murder your darlings.
I love this particular tip so much that I made it the playful title of my mystery story set at a writers’ retreat, published last year. It now feels like a lucky charm, as Murder Your Darlings has now made it to the shortlist of six novels for adults shortlisted for The Selfies Award, given by publishing industry news service Bookbrunch for the best self-published books in the UK.
A more succinct version of Quiller-Couch’s recommendation comes from Elmore Leonard:
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
I like to think George Orwell would approve!
Above All Else, Read!
But probably my favourite piece of advice to writers, and the one that irks me most when aspiring writers ignore it, is simply to read. I have no patience with those who say they can’t spare the time. Would you trust a chef who never tasted food? Over to Samuel Johnson:
The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.
Without wishing to sound smug, in the last twenty-four hours, I’ve read part of all of these:
- From the Oxford University Press’s “Very Short Introductions” series, American History by Paul S Boyer
- A collection of classic children’s stories, Mary’s Plain’s Omnibus by Gwynned Rae
- The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie
- The Times newspaper
Join Me at the Wrexham Carnival of Words (online this year)
If you’d like to hear my own writing advice at Wrexham Carnival of Words, which is being held online from 17-24 April, you’ll need to buy a ticket – but the good news is that just £15 will gain you a pass to the entire festival. Visit their website to find out more about the huge array of events on offer and to book your ticket now: www.wrexhamcarnivalofwords.com
For the Wrexham Audience
I’ll be sharing with delegates the following list of recommended further reading…
- The Art of Writing Made Simple – Geoffrey Ashe
- Polish Your Fiction & Writing in a Nutshell – Jessica Bell
- Self-editing for Self-publishers – Richard Bradburn
- Zen in the Art of Writing – Ray Bradbury
- Becoming a Writer – Dorothea Brande
- Write Every Day – Helena Halme
- On Writing – Stephen King
- Nail Your Novel series – Roz Morris
- Use the Power of Feedback to Write a Better Book – Belinda Pollard
- Punctuation without Tears – Dominic Selwood
… and this list of recommended membership organisations for writers:
- Alliance of Independent Authors (affiliate link) – a global nonprofit organisation, for which I’m UK Ambassador
- Fictionfire – run by my friend Lorna Fergusson, the most amazing writing coach and editor
- Jericho Writers – the leading online writers’ club for which I’ll soon be teaching a course (more news on that soon)
- The Society of Authors – the trade union for UK writers; similar organisations exist in most countries
Do you have a favourite quote about writing or a book for writers to recommend? I’d love to hear it, so please feel free to leave a comment.