The Best Writing Advice I Have Ever Received

It’s a new year, and a great time to start expanding writing goals. As I begin new projects and revisit old ones, I have been trying to take in a lot of new information and advice on improving my writing and publishing prospects. Even with all the new help I have been getting, I still return to two pieces of advice no matter what format I am experimenting with:

Never Erase Anything

Writing is not like drawing. Don’t use a pencil, use a pen. It is tempting to erase a few words that did not quite fit, but chances are you will be missing a line later that won’t just spring into your head. Instead, simply cross out the unwanted bit with a single strike so it has been saved for a time when you quickly need to overcome a brief bout of writer’s block.

In 2007, I attended a religious youth conference in upstate New York on the scholarship of the family of a friend that could not go. They paid for everything: my train ticket, my lodgings, the cost of food. It was truly an act of charity. Still, the event was a dying one. Originally held every two or four years, it now happened less and less regularly with smaller attendance each time.

The youth conference was meant to rectify the two major branches of Quakerism in the United States, something that both parties are less and less interested in doing. As a teen coming from a nonevangelical, unprogrammed setting that I barely recognized as a religion, it was strange to suddenly be in the midst of Friends that referred to Jesus as a savior, and tried to live by the Bible’s law.*

In any case, I treated the required morning Bible study and discussions over textual translations versus literal interpretations as if it were a class in some foreign mythology. Despite myself, I began to take an interest from a linguistic and political standpoint in why and how the Bible’s words had been translated. The weekend turned out to be full of useful literary tidbits, including the advice above.

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Performing poetry in Northern Wisconsin, ca. 2009.

A day or so into the conference, we were asked to write free flowing poetry on religious themes. Poetry came fairly easy to me: I was captain of the Slam Poetry Team at my high school, I had been trained in a Creative Writing program that called for two hours of writing instruction each day, and I kept a poetry journal in my spare time. Yet somehow it was not so easy this time.

I realized I had never really thought about religion or religious topics. Cue the writer’s block. Heavy use of the eraser was imminent as I threw out seemingly trite (even to a 17 year old) lines and cliches to describe scenarios I had never imagined. I was not proud of what I wrote, but still the organizer encouraged me to stop erasing, and start crossing out.

I kept the notebook with all my failed lines. It later turned out the turns of phrases I had hated so much in that context worked fine in my later, more sarcastic works. To this day, I am invited to judge poetry competitions based on the legacy of the bits saved during that conference. I have long since given up poetry, but the practice is still incredibly useful in world building exercises and epic fantasy narratives.

It’s only easier with computers. The copy and paste functions are now a writer’s best friend: Keep lists of unused dialogue, genius word combinations, and visceral descriptions you’ve scrapped from current stories for future ones. I have a document saved called simply “fragments” where I cross out each fragment as I use it in a piece. If I get stuck, I pull out the document and scan for something to jog a new turn of phrase or inspire a new narrative element.

Keep different lists for different genres and purposes, or keep it all jumbled in one sprawling universe of eclectic ideas. I practice the latter. It will come as a surprise what worlds emerge.

Every Minute You’re Reading, You’re Not Writing

This one came from my friend and fellow writer, Michael Schultz. It’s possible he got it from someone else, but this piece of advice has always stuck with me.

I don’t take it to mean that one should not read. As an author, and perhaps a person, it is important to read on a wide variety of subjects and works from several genres. However, just like my favorite past time of playing narrative heavy video games, every minute I’m immersed in a world someone else has created, I am not creating my own.

Privilege the things you write over those you read. Be well researched, but also be well written. It may take a while to find the balance (ah, the hours I’ve perhaps wasted in Tamriel), but once you do the stories you create will come easier to the page with less struggle.

Best of luck writing in the new year!

J.M.

* Quaker-speak is peppered with familiar terms used in seemingly strange ways, and unfamiliar jargon. For more information on Quaker terminology, try this glossary: http://www.quakerjane.com/spirit.friends/spirituality-glossary.html

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