7 Writing Maxims and What to Do with Them

To the recent influx of new followers: Salutations! In your honor, I thought I’d welcome you with a post on the most common writing advice I hear, and whether or not you should actually listen to it. I hope you enjoy your stay at my little corner of the blogoverse.

maxim

Contents:

  1. Kill your darlings
  2. Show, don’t tell
  3. Write what you know
  4. Eliminate adverbs
  5. Avoid purple prose
  6. If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.
  7. Write with the door closed. Rewrite with the door open.

1. Kill your darlings

I hear this all the time. I also look forward to the movie. The actual quote is “murder your darlings” and comes from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s On the Art of Writing:

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

Sometimes authors take “kill your darlings” somewhat literally and kill off their favorite characters. If it’s taken completely literally, as suggested by the movie title, then writers would be murderers. Thankfully 99% of us aren’t.

How it’s usually applied: “If I am attached to something I wrote, then I can’t be objective about it, so I won’t cut it out when revising, even though it doesn’t belong.”

Sometimes I’ve seen “kill your darlings” taken to extreme: “If I liked writing this, it must be awful. I’d better cut it out.” Give yourself some credit! If you enjoyed writing it, then someone else might enjoy reading it. However, the question to ask yourself is whether it belongs in this story.

Even Stephen King, whom I will refer to frequently in this post because On Writing is so widely read, used the “kill your darlings” mantra:

“Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings)…I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: ‘Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.’” —Stephen King (quote taken from here)

What’s interesting is that when Quiller-Couch said “murder your darlings,” he wasn’t talking about being sentimental about good writing, and he wasn’t talking about pacing, either. He was talking about ornamental writing (see #5). So whenever you hear “kill your darlings” or are tempted to use it yourself, swap it out for this instead, which is what people really mean when they quote it:

“Don’t put anything in a story that does not reveal character or advance the action.” —Kurt Vonnegut

What’s important: Pacing, character, and action are important. Think of these things when you are revising, and then take out whatever slows down the action or doesn’t reveal character. To help with that, this scene questionnaire from The Script Lab is a great resource worth bookmarking.

Boot it or take it to heart? 

boot Boot the idea that you should get rid of writing that you’re attached to.

heart Take to heart that pacing and character development trump your sentimental attachment. Keep it for a different story.

2. Show, don’t tell

The reason this is such a war cry for editors and writing professors is because it’s good advice. The idea is that a story becomes more resonant with a reader if it’s experienced. If you paint a picture with your words, then the reader has a more intimate connection with your writing than if you just tell them what to feel.

For example, you could tell me that a guy had big, bulgy muscles, or you could describe him throwing a hay bale into the back of his pickup truck, the buttons on his shirt puckering from the stress, revealing a sliver of sweaty skin. And then you’d delete that if you weren’t writing romance, and if you were writing romance, you’d rewrite the whole thing, or at least the “sliver of sweaty skin” part because alliteration is obnoxious.

Don’t, please, don’t, tell us that one of your characters is 6’10”. Nobody cares. If you want the reader to know that a character is tall, have them duck under a low-hanging chandelier, or have someone else stand next to them at chin-level. Something else.

How it’s usually applied: it’s better for a reader to feel things for him/herself than be told how to feel.

However, is telling always bad? No. I refer you to “5 situations where it’s better to tell than show in your fiction” on io9 for that information. Just remember your narration style when working information in. You can’t use the example from io9, “Diana was a mutant, but so far the only mutant power she’d manifested was passive-aggressiveness,” no matter how clever it is, if you don’t have a clever narrator, and you can’t reveal anything at all as the narrator if you’re using a Third Person Objective/Cinematic narrator.

What’s important: Giving your reader an experience, keeping your narrator’s voice consistent

Boot it or take it to heart? 

boot Boot the idea that telling is always worse. It’s much better to say that a character opened up a door than go into excruciating detail about the journey to the other side of the room and the way the doorknob feels in her hand.

heart Take to heart that we are more apt to remember experiences than words, so use your words to create an experience for the reader. Also remember that “show, don’t tell” is feedback that should be given only in certain instances—novels still need narration, or else they wouldn’t be novels! “Show, don’t tell” is not a universal rule. It means, “Don’t use abstract words here when you could give concrete evidence.”

3. Write what you know

I could write a whole post on this, but I’ll spare us both the time and skip ahead:

Boot it or take it to heart? 

boot Boot any part of this that limits you as a writer. You are a human being, and you know what it’s like to be a human being. Empathize with your characters. Focus on the emotions you and your characters have felt, and use them in your writing.

heart Take to heart that authority is important to readers. If you don’t know something, you can do research, and then you will know. Don’t know what it’s like to be a murderer? You can probably figure that one out using your imagination without actually killing something. Or if you want, you could interview a murderer or read a memoir of one. Just remember that people lie. Don’t know the difference between annuals and perennials? Look it up on Wikipedia, for heaven’s sake. Just remember that Wikipedia lies. And if you’re writing about a culture that isn’t your own, for heaven’s sake, do research, and then humbly ask people from that culture to read your work. Sensitivity readers, unlike usual beta readers, are usually paid for their time because they are coaching you on their life experience.

4. Eliminate adverbs

Adverbs are guilty until proven innocent. —Howard Ogden

Adverbs aren’t the cause of lazy writing, but they are often a symptom of either redundancy or vagueness. Let’s use dialogue tags as an example.

“Hurry, Bella,” Alice interrupted urgently.

This is an example in redundancy from Stephanie Meyer. First off, “interrupted urgently” is redundant. If you are interrupting, you are being urgent. Second, the dialogue itself (“Hurry”) suggests urgency and an interruption. Third, do we really need to be told that Alice is interrupting urgently, when we could be shown that Alice is urgent with her actions, hopefully with something less cliche than her foot tapping?

Maybe Meyer used so many dialogue tags because she was afraid of vague or boring verbs. Why say “said angrily” when you can say “hissed”? (Want more examples of bad dialogue tags? Look no further. ) Well, when it comes to dialogue tags, less is more. Sorry, Meyer. But in other situations, it is better to go with a more descriptive verb than a verb who lets an adverb pull all the weight. It’s better to say “heaved” than “picked up with difficulty” and it’s better to say “charged” than “ran forcibly.”

“Very” can almost always be eliminated:

Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very.” Your editor will delete it, and the writing will be just as it should be. —Mark Twain

This fantastic “10 Mistakes List” lists some “empty adverbs” you should avoid. It also includes a section on showing versus telling.

You don’t have to eliminate all adverbs. But do eliminate ones that intensify a lazy verb as well as the lazy adverbs

Boot it or take it to heart? 

boot Boot the idea that all adverbs are evil. But do examine them to see if they are trying to cover up lazy writing.

heart Take to heart that adverbs are often a sign of redundancy and vagueness. Do a search in your document for “very” and “ly” to find most adverbs and see if they could be improved with better writing, and then go through your work sentence by sentence looking for other signs of redundancy (like two-word prepositions) and vagueness. Ask your Beta readers to look for redundancy and vagueness as well. And read my posts on revising if you’d like to enhance your voice further.

5. Avoid purple prose

“I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English—it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable.” —Mark Twain (letter to D. W. Bowser, March 1880)

Writers. Violent, right? First we talk about murdering darlings, then we talk about eliminating adverbs… now adjectives are facing genocide from wordsmiths.

Purple prose, or ornamentation, or lofty, flowery language—this is what the great writers will warn you to stay away from. THIS is what Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch was referring to when he said to “murder your darlings”:

To begin with, let me plead that you have been told of one or two things which Style is not; which have little or nothing to do with Style, though sometimes vulgarly mistaken for it. Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament. You remember, may be, the Persian lover whom I quoted to you out of Newman: how to convey his passion he sought a professional letter-writer and purchased a vocabulary charged with ornament, wherewith to attract the fair one as with a basket of jewels. Well, in this extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation, you have something which Style is not: and if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’ (On Style, Wednesday, January 28, 1914)

Why would he say this? Because amateur writers cling to their thesauruses like lovers, believing that an affair with vocabulary will win them the jealousy and affection of others. Unfortunately, it’s often true. Look at the book sales of Eragon. Look at the kinds of politicians people vote for.

Many of the most beloved writers of all time write about this subject:

“Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.” ― Ernest Hemingway

“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” —Jack Kerouac

“Any word you have to look up in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule” —Stephen King

I’ve said before, when mentioning his disdain for writer’s notebooks, that Stephen King must have a better memory than I do, because I often refer to the thesaurus to help me find the word that is at the tip of my tongue. The point is that you don’t use a thesaurus to pick out words you don’t already know. If, though, you are like me, and you find yourself saying “What’s that other word for ‘distracted’? The one where, you know, you can’t focus because you’re concerned with something else? …pulls up thesaurus.com... Oh, yes. Preoccupied.”—If you’re like that, it’s really okay to use a thesaurus. Just be sure you already know what the word means.

Boot it or take it to heart? 

boot Boot the little Stephen King that sits on your shoulder and judges you when you use a thesaurus to help resuscitate your vocabulary.

heart Take to heart that pompous language is annoying and separates you from your reader. You can use a five-dollar word once or twice, but use diction appropriately. (Check out my posts on diction here.)

6. If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. —Stephen King

One thing I learned in my writing classes was that writing is really an ongoing conversation. When you write, you converse with the reader, but you also converse with the writers you’ve been reading. You will never improve as a writer if you aren’t reading. Not just any reading, either. Most magazines and newspapers won’t cut it. Status updates and tweets certainly won’t. Nope, not even blogs. You need to read poetry and good fiction.

Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious. —P.D. James

Step away from fan fiction for a while. Even if you find something really good, you’ll have to wade through dreck to get there. And since most of what we read online is already unedited drivel, you already have your work cut out for you drowning out all those voices with quality writing. Honestly, just look at all the cliches I’m using on this post alone!

Boot it or take it to heart? 

boot Boot the idea that any reading is good reading. You write what you read, so read quality stuff, in and out of your chosen genre. Then read for fun when you want to take a break. (By the way, popular fiction is its own quality—if you want to write a page-turner, you’ll need to read them! Their pacing is more important than their metaphors.)

heart Take to heart that reading is just as important as writing, but don’t let reading nonfiction about writing keep you from writing fiction. Read poetry and fiction that inspires you to write. Try Li-Young Lee’s poetry, Letters To A Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, and Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. Suggest your favorite things to read in the comments. Join Goodreads and get ideas for books in your genres that way.

7. Write with the door closed. Rewrite with the door open.

This is another Stephen King quote, which I frequently have heard quoted out of context. At first I read it in terms of distraction. Hide yourself in a cave or rent out a hut in the forest when you’re writing, but when you rewrite, embrace the chaos around you. You can tell I work from home and have littles running around. Maybe you read something else into this quote. Anyway, here’s the context:

“Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right — as right as you can, anyway — it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it.”

So basically it’s like Anne Lamott’s Sh*tty First Drafts. Just get out the first draft (Hemingway refers to them as excrement), and then figure out what your story is about. Then rewrite it. THEN let other people help you as you continue rewriting it.

You’ll notice he doesn’t say, “Write with the door closed. Open up the door when you’re good and finished.” Rewriting is a process, and though introverts like me hate to admit it, rewriting needs the help of another pair of eyes. We need to get out that first draft, make sure it’s coherent, and then give it to other people—beta readers—to give us feedback so we can rewrite it better. Then we give it to our agents and editors, who give us suggestions. Then we rewrite some more. Then we get published, then the readers get the final product.

Boot it or take it to heart? 

boot Boot people out the door when you are trying to write your first draft. Better yet, try to get away with people having no clue you’re writing something. I’ve heard the more people you talk to about a work, the less likely you are to write it and finish it. Tell your significant other and immediate family, so they don’t think you’re a porn addict when you lock yourself in your room with your computer, but try to keep to yourself until you have something to share and rewrite.

heart Take to heart that writing is a community effort, even if you are a self-publishing introvert. No matter how good you are as a writer, you are blind to your mistakes sometimes, and an outsider’s point of view is necessary to bring you up to a greater potential. If you ever want another person to read your work, then you are going to have to involve other people into your rewriting process. Don’t worry, it still belongs to you.

Your turn: What other writing maxims have you heard? What are your opinions on these seven?

Next time: The Myth of Writer’s Block

7 thoughts on “7 Writing Maxims and What to Do with Them

  1. Dylan Hearn says:

    Great post. I love how you’ve explained the truism behind the well-worn phrase, rather than followed it parrot-fashion.
    The one point I would make, regarding if you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write, is that you can learn an awful lot from bad writing as well as good, as long as you are aware it’s bad writing and why.

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