Tuesday, 9 March 2010

On Writing: Following the Pro's Rules

How are your writing habits? Could you be more organised? Do they yield constantly good quality work? Or do you often get writer’s block or feel the work is sloppy and needs shaping up?

Maybe you need some helpful tips to get you on your way?

If so, follow this link to the Guardian’s website where a collection of writers, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s forthcoming 10 Rules of Writing, have shared their top 10 rules for writers. I followed it and was prompted to compile my top 10; not my own top 10 though, the top 10 as chosen from the website – they’re professionals after all.

Here’s my Top 10 Rules of Writing
From the Pro's Top 10 Rules for Writers
(which is now printed on A4 paper and attached to the wall in front of me)

1) If it sounds like writing, rewrite it. (Elmore Leonard)

2) Read it aloud to yourself because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentence are OK (prose rhythms are too complex to be thought out…). (Diana Athill)

3) Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones… (Roddy Doyle) *

4a) Keep a diary. The biggest regret of my life is that I never kept a journal or a diary… 4b)Beware of clichés… There are clichés of response as well as expression. There are clichés of observation and of thought – even of conception. Many novels, even quite a few adequately written ones, are clichés of form which conform to clichés of expectation. (Geoff Dyer) **

5) You see more sitting still than chasing after. (Jonathan Franzen)

6) Editing is everything. Cut until you can cut no more. What is left often springs into life. (Esther Freud) ***

7) Read as much as you can. As deeply and widely and nourishingly and irritatingly as you can. And the good things will make you remember them, so you won’t need to take notes. (Al Kennedy) ****

8) When I’m deep inside a story, living it as I write, I honestly don’t know what will happen. I try not to dictate it, not to play God. (Michael Morpurgo) *****

9) Don’t overwrite. Avoid redundant phrases, the distracting adjectives, the unnecessary adverbs. Beginners, especially, seem to think that writing fiction needs a special kind of flowery prose, completely unlike any sort of language one might encounter in day-to-day life. This is a misapprehension about how the effects of fiction are produced, and can be dispelled by obeying Rule 1. To read some work by Colm Tolbin or Cormac McCarthy, for example, is to discover how a deliberately limited vocabulary can produce an astonishing emotional punch. (Sarah Waters) ******

10) Work on a computer that is disconnected from the Internet. (Zadie Smith) *******

* This reminded me of the late Alan Coren’s rule: Whatever the first thing is that comes into your head, don’t write that because that’s what everyone will write. When the second idea comes into your head, don’t write that either because that’s what the bright kids will write. Wait for the third idea, because that’s the one that only you will do.

** I similarly regret not keeping a diary throughout my childhood. I tried once when I was about 7 but only managed about 5 months. I regretted this more significantly after taking note of Francois Truffaut’s like minded quote about a film director’s total work is a diary kept throughout their lifetime.

*** This is the rule known as Occam’s Razor which I’ll be writing about in a post shortly.

**** He’s right about ‘good things will make you remember them’, one quote that has stuck with me recently was David Blunket’s summary of the Question Time/Nick Griffin debacle: They made a victim out of the perpetrator. 8 words that perfectly summed up the 10000’s of words used surrounding the event.

***** This style of writing illustrates the organic and majestic nature of the idea: spontaneous, unexpected, unpredictable, magical, natural, primal.

****** Overwriting is an easy trap to fall into. Unnecessary flourishes in language can be destructive.

******* It’s inevitable: how can you fully concentrate on a piece of writing when the world is at your fingertips. Sometimes it takes me two hours of surfing the web before I realise I’m not doing what I intended and have to click-off!

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