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The same old writing advice

March 15, 2010

I've never gone on at length about writing. I'm not a teacher, for one thing. But, also, so much about the act of writing seems so basic that I don't want to insult anyone by harping on it.

But recently, I had the eye-opening experience of reviewing excerpts of first novels from aspiring writers for Amazon's annual contest. For the assignment, I read 40 excerpts of about 10 pages each, everything from mystery to science fiction to general literature.

For each excerpt, I answered three questions about the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript and my overall impression of it. Then, I was asked to rate for prose style, originality and interest level, among other criteria.

After reading my 40 excerpts, I have come to see the wisdom of continuing to repeat the basic advice that aspiring writers need to hear. Here is my take on the basics of writing:

1. Write about what you know. Don't write about urban gang life if you've never set foot in a city. If you know nothing about the FBI, don't write a thriller based on its inner workings.
2. Know the English language. Proper use of spelling, grammar, punctuation and usage is essential. Many writers apparently think it's not. Editors are not your moms -- they aren't going to clean up after you.
3. Read your writing out loud. Not only will you catch mistakes, you'll also improve the flow of your narrative and the strength of your dialog.
4. Life is people. Some stories were so plot driven that characters were stick people, pawns in the writers' hands. People are fascinating -- explore them!
5. Get your head out of the video games. Most of the writing lacked depth. The effects of cartoons, video games, and jittery animation were painfully evident. Writers tossed off pop references, one-liners and snarky asides to stand in for any real scene-setting or character examination.
6. Be an original. Most literary themes are as old as the hills. You can breathe life into them, but your take has to be fresh.

Writers, I urge you to take note of any and all advice you receive. Mastering the basics is essential. And good luck with next year's contest!