What would I say to you if you were sitting opposite from me right now? (assuming I'm not having an 'introverted' moment).
It's hard to say in advance... but hopefully some words would come out of my mouth in a relatively understandable order, and you would fire some back at me.
You can't overthink a conversation without it grounding to a halt.
Which means that grammatical mistakes (after transcribing hours of interviews for CycleLove, I've realised that human speech is peppered with them) are let slide. The focus is on words getting out with a minimum of fuss.
But when you sit down at a computer with the intention of writing, the brain seems to freeze up.
"Shit, shit, shit. What am I going to write? How should I write it? It feels like I'm back at school again. Help!"
So how do writers write?
Elmore Leonard (whose stories have inspired films like 3:10 to Yuma, Jackie Brown and Get Shorty) offered this advice to the New York Times:
10 rules for writers
- Never open a book with weather.
- Avoid prologues.
- Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
- Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely.
- Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
- Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
- Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
- Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
- Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Whilst these are primarily tips for writing fiction, Elmore finishes with a single point that neatly encapsulates his approach, whatever you are writing...
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
I've found the best way to check this is by reading things out. Not just in your head, but audibly.
The next time you are stuck writing something, imagine a friend is sitting in front of you, then read it out aloud to him.
Are you using unnecessary words or unnecessarily complicated language?
Does what you've written sound natural, or does it sound like writing?
(And are you using lazy exclamation marks because your words lack punch?)
Posted to writing in 2014.