Essential writing tips

I should probably call this “syllabus for a writing career” or something. Anyway, if you’re the kind of person who likes task lists, read this list; otherwise, skip to the meat below it:

  1. Read a lot, but identify a few books that you really love.
  2. Read a few books on writing essentials in the following categories: character, point of view, and plot; grammar and punctuation; book-publication style, as in “style guide.”
  3. Write a lot, and do not edit while you write. Set yourself a word goal within a time limit that keeps you writing fast enough that you’re always moving forward.
  4. Put together some music mixes to write by.
  5. Be bold and ridiculous and write characters that are too.
  6. Join a workshop so that you can practice editing.
  7. Submit what you write and develop the integument of Smaug-the-Dragon-minus-the-naked-spot.

If you don’t have any books you re-read, you probably don’t have the emotional attachment to words and stories to be a writer. Most writers have never read a style guide. As a result, they don’t understand the difference between stylistic conventions and rules of grammar and punctuation.

Writing and editing are separate brain functions. You do each in its own time, and you have to get good at both. Every author I know edits their work, even though their final edit is edited by someone else before it’s published. If you confuse “its” and “it’s” and “they’re” and “their”; if you don’t know how to use semicolons, thinking they always join independent clauses; if you don’t know your subject case from direct and indirect objects; if you don’t understand the difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive use of commas; if you think a dash is the same as a colon or two dashes the same as parentheses — or even if you know all this stuff but think this means you’ve pretty much got it covered, you probably need to read Edward Johnson’s The Handbook of Good English.

Here’s my suggested essential reading list for writers: Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction, Dwight V. Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer, Ken Rand’s The 10% Solution, Edward Johnson’s The Handbook of Good English, The Chicago Manual of Style, Words into Type, and Lucius Shepard’s essay on writing over at No doubt you can put together a comparably good list. But attend to the categories I set out: writing craft, grammar and punctuation, and style guide. You need them all.

I’ve read several online lists of Common Writing Mistakes, and it’s rare that they’re more than provisionally correct. They often show that these self-styled experts lack an understanding of style in any sense. Take my advice here and you’ll be able to spot the pretenders.

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