Things I’d Tell My Past Writing Self


There comes a point in every writer’s life, after much study, improvement, and editing, when they look back and realize… their old stuff sucks.

So, what would I tell myself at seventeen, knowing what I know now about writing?

Don’t be pretentious.

Everyone knows you read Dickens, and Brontë, and Doyle. Don’t write like they did. That style went out of print over a hundred years ago, and all it adds is bloat that in thirteen years, you’ll be slicing through with an editorial pen, cursing the day you made an 80k novel 250k words.

Move the plot along.

Okay, so there ARE books out there that are huge, and long, and slow in places… but your book doesn’t have to be one of them. If it has no purpose on the plot, get rid of it. If the character goes nowhere, even if you love him to pieces, remove him from the storyline. If it’s redundant or information we’ve heard too many times already… kill it.

Show, don’t tell.

Yes, we’ve all heard this a thousand times but do we do it? Do we even understand what that means? It means, instead of having a character’s thoughts fill the page we can have them take an action that reveals their thoughts. You don’t have to say, “He was angry,” but “He punched the wall.” Instead of giving a long, drawn-out character history (if you even need it), have rapid-fire dialogue between two characters or just plain throw a line out once in awhile that makes the reader go, “OH MY GOSH.”

Your reader doesn’t have to know everything.

As the writer, you need to know the entire back history of your character… your reader doesn’t. They need only what’s relevant to your plot. I don’t care how persecuted and misunderstood he is, if it doesn’t move the plot forward, dump it. Save it for your book signings.

Have a plan.

There are three books every writer writes.

The first one is the “epic.” It’s long, it’s sprawling, it overflows with characters, loose ends, dead plot lines that seemed awesome at the time until you realized you have no idea what to do with them, and bloated descriptions. The second book is the one where you take out everything that is bad from your “epic,” and it winds up less than half as long. The third book is where you read through each chapter and do revision, with a clear goal in mind of where this story and these characters are headed. You polish up the descriptions and dialogue until it shines. That is the story you want to print.

Ground your world in reality.

Even if you’re writing a fantasy world, it needs to be plausible. Characters must be consistent, not waffle back and forth between different personalities or react the way you need them to, to get you where you want them to go. Your plot should drive the characters, not the other way around.

Don’t be afraid to write simply.

Deep down, we’re all egotists who want to get complimented on our writing style, but too much style can get in the way of the plot. It’s better to have someone flipping pages, incapable of putting your story down because it moves so beautifully and engages them emotionally, than to have them stop and say, “Oh, what lovely prose!” Do a little bit of both if you can, but always choose substance over style.

Try present-tense once in awhile.

Not only does this cut down your word count considerably (and in doing so, clean up your writing a lot) it’s fun to write, since it keeps your reader in the moment. Yes, it can be jarring for a first-timer but once you start doing it, going back to the world of “-ed” is a shock.

Read everything aloud.

If you get confused, change it. If you need to gasp for air midway through, your sentence is too long. If you find yourself skim-reading ahead to get back to the dialogue, cut some descriptions.

Pay attention in the editing process.

We all use worthless words and redundant words – like “that,” “rather,” “quite,” and “was.” Figure out the words you abuse the most and do a word search. Each time you find one, decide if you really need it or not. Usually, you don’t. Also, don’t start every paragraph with the same word and/or letter. Vary between letters and words. Your reader won’t notice if you do, but they might if you don’t (it’s really obvious to open a book and see “The” six times in a row).

Choose a name and stick to it, but don’t over-use it.

It’s confusing trying to keep up with names so keep it simple. Don’t refer to characters by a bunch of different names (nicknames, last names, middle names, full names – yes, Tolstoy, I am looking at you!). In first person, call Mother and Father just that, unless another adult is speaking to them. Also, people usually don’t use someone’s name unless they are a) singling them out in a crowd or b) really making a point. Don’t pull a James Cameron, and have a name at the beginning or end of every single thing two characters say to one another.

Happy writing!

17 thoughts on “Things I’d Tell My Past Writing Self

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  1. Great advice! “Don’t be afraid to write simply” is probably something I need to focus on most. Thanks for the post. 😀

  2. Great post Charity, thanks for sharing this! They’re definitely tips to keep in mind while writing. I’m actually pretty 😀 lately because I’ve been working on a new writing project that’s slowly beginning to take shape so your post is something to keep in mind 🙂

    p.s. Have you been watching those “viral” clips about John Harrison analysing Kirk and Spock? Very cool, I wonder what/who the third video is going to be about…

    1. New writing projects are AWESOME. I’m always so delighted to work on a new project — or, as I am now, to go back to an old project and realize, “Huh, I’m still obsessed with this topic!”

      … wait, what? really? WHERE??

      1. Re-discovering old projects are awesome too! I hope to experience that when I really go back to some of my drafts…someday…soon…lol xD Best of luck with that project you’re working on 🙂

        Here they are 😀 Benedict Cumberbatch sounds really menacing in them:

          1. SWEET.

            I can’t wait for this movie. I am SO counting down the days! I also saw that the first one went on sale at Amazon this week, so I got the Blu Ray for under $10. Go me!

  3. This just might be one of the best post I have ever read, being both amusing and convicting! There are still so many things I have yet to learn and apply as an aspiring writer, but you’ve pretty much stated all that is needed to write well. I also like your emphasis on quality instead of quantity. I used to think the more words there were in a book, the better it was.

    As one of my favourite quotes goes: “That which is less complicated is often better understood and more appreciated than what is more complicated; simplicity is preferable to complexity; brevity in communication is more effective than verbosity.”

    Ironically, I love words and tend to overuse and over-dramatize them. But that could use some change.

    1. That’s a great quote! It reminds me of C.S. Lewis in a way — everyone thinks Narnia is so rich and such a memorable place and as an adult they re-read the books and discover, he used very few words and left the rest up to the imagination of the reader! Yet, Lewis said ten times more in his short novels than many novelists say in books five times as long.

      Everyone should be learning all their life. There’s nothing worse than a writer who assumes they have it all figured out and there’s no way left in which to improve their material. I’m sure in another ten years, I’ll have a post telling myself off for everything I did wrong with my writing right now!

      When thinking about long stories and condensed ones, I find the best possible thing is to point to movie adaptations of long books — such as a Dickens adaptation. A well-filmed two (or sometimes four) hour Dickens adaptation does what Dickens should have done in the first place: trim the fat, eliminate unneeded situations and characters, and reinforce his wonderful characterizations and plots.

      Better to have a shorter, better book than a longer, less constructed one.

  4. First of all, that picture is ADORABLE!!

    And the only other thing I’d add to this list is to be wary of adverbs and adjectives–use strong verbs!

  5. Wow! This was an excellent (and inspiring!) post, Charity – thanks for sharing some “secrets.” 😉

    “Also, don’t start every paragraph with the same word and/or letter.”

    Funny you mention this. I do not remember which book it was, but I reviewed one that constantly started its chapters with the protagonists name. Basically, it doesn’t seem like something that would annoy and yet… it did! It’s been interesting to realize how much “harsher” I’ve become in my reading tastes since reviewing books – I still crave simplicity (and am easy-to-please) but fortunately, being a part of blogging programs has helped me prioritize which book, authors and genres I like best.

    Also, appreciate what you say about keeping things “simple.” I think writers tend to over-dramatize things (that’s our “creative license” talking, right!?), and most the time what is said in fifty words can be said or portrayed in half of that.

    1. Oh, gosh, I hate stuff like that — it so sets a book apart as being written by an amateur. Mom and I were discussing the appalling lack of editing in many published books nowadays… have the publishing houses abandoned their editors who used to catch stuff like that, or do the agents have no idea how to guide the author into shortening, tightening, and crafting a good book?

      George Orwell said, “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” He was right, it’s just that most writers enjoy their “purple prose” so much it can get the upper hand. (Instead of being simple and saying, “He smiled,” we use twenty words to describe how his face changes.)

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