Writing Advice from the Experts
From Brian Garfield, novelist and screenwriter
- Start with action; explain it later.
- Make it tough for your protagonist.
- Plant it early; pay it off later.
- Give the protagonist the initiative.
- Give the protagonist a personal stake.
- Give the protagonist a tight time limit; then shorten it.
- Choose your character according to your own capacities, as well as his.
- Know your destination before you set out.
- Don't rush in where angels fear to tread.
- Don't write anything you wouldn't want to read.
From Elmore Leonard, novelist and screenwriter
- Never open a book with weather.
- Avoid prologues.
- Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
- Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said."
- Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words
- Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
- Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
- Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
- Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
From the late Kurt Vonnegut, novelist
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to
them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
- Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story
will get pneumonia.
- Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers
should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the
story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
From Neil Gaiman, author
- Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
- Finish what you're writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it. Put it aside. Read it pretending
you've never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that
- Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right.
When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
- Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move
on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
- Laugh at your own jokes.
- The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you're allowed to do
whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it's definitely true for writing.) So
write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can.
- I'm not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.
From P. D. James, writer
- Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more
effective your writing. We who write in English are fortunate to have the richest and most versatile language
in the world. Respect it.
- Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.
- Don't just plan to write—write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.
- Write what you need to write, not what is currently popular or what you think will sell.
- Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other people. Nothing that happens to a
writer—however happy, however tragic—is ever wasted.
From Edgar Allan Poe, writer, editor, critic
- Employ an unreliable narrator, preferably one who doesn’t know he is insane and has no recollection of
such events as digging into a grave to rip out the teeth of his recently departed lover.
- Include a beautiful woman with raven locks and porcelain skin, preferably quite young, and let her die
tragically of some unknown ailment.
- Use grandiloquent words, such as heretofore, forthwith, and nevermore. A little Latin will also enhance the
- Do not shy away from such grotes/queries as inebriation, imprisonment, insanity, and men costumed as
orangutans being burned to death.
- When in doubt, bury someone alive.
From George Orwell, novelist, essayist, journalist, and critic
- 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
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
From Ernest Hemingway, author and journalist
- The first draft of everything is shit.
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