Misc. writing advice

Some recent discussions about how to fix specific writing problems brought a few things to mind that have helped me in the past, which I am throwing out here in case someone who needs them runs across them.

* Ask critiquers to be very specific. (Without driving them away.)

For a long time I relied on the kindness of, not strangers, but critters who were patient enough to point out specific things (places to describe, characters they didn’t understand) or specific places in the text where I had to add stuff. This is probably obvious, but most people, including me, will say something vaguer like “Show me more about what the village looks like”. Which is fine but I’d go through each paragraph looking for things to add, and say to myself, see, right there it says the houses are on stilts. I needed someone to tell me what specific things they wanted to know about the village (how big are the houses? Are they in good repair?) before I could paint the scene.

If you’re just starting to look at one particular aspect of writing, it could be useful to ask people to give you specifics. Or even if you’re not just starting out. I got an anvil dropped on my head this weekend, a very enlightening and useful anvil, and I owe the dropper a drink or three (and a gallon of red ink pixels).

Important corollary: Fix the things the critiquers point out!

* Print out someone else’s work that you like (such as the sample chapters authors have online) in MS format and marking it up with a highlighter.

I forget who suggested this to me, but it was great advice. I remember using something of Bujold’s that must have been up on her site. I made all the dialogue yellow, description green, and emotion maybe pink. Just to slow myself down and look at the words other people used and the proportions of things. And then I highlighted a chapter of my own and a lightbulb flickered on. My manuscript looked like a screenplay by comparison.

Anyone else tried these, or think they’re horrible ideas?

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2 Responses to Misc. writing advice

  1. I’ve been transcribing short stories. It taught me an amazing lesson about voice that goes beyond dialogue; voice that exists in the narrative and how others carry it.

  2. elizabeth

    I’ve never tried it, but I’ve heard it mentioned a lot. I should probably try it some day. I imagine it would feel similar to my highlighting things.

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