Chip MacGregor

October 12, 2012

What's your best writing advice?


Someone just wrote to me and asked, “What’s your best advice for writing fiction?”

I’ll offer mine if you’ll share yours…

Here is my best writing advice: Write with verbs and nouns. I read that in Strunk and White’s Elements of Style back in high school, and it’s still the best writing advice I know. Too many new novelists think they’re going to flower things up with lots of adjectives and adverbs. That’s a trap. Just tell your story, stick to verbs and nouns, and spend enough time selecting the right word that you don’t have to prop it up with extraneous verbiage.

That’s my wisdom. (And it’s brief, since I’m pulling jury duty all week.) What’s your best writing advice?

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  • chrisplumb says:

    I know I’m jumping into this conversation late, but rules about writing bother me. Obviously, we all know good writing when we see it, and hack writing when we discard it. I don’t think any of the great authors stuck to any rules religiously. Hemingway was thought of a short, basic, prose author, but he has passages that are 200+ words. Authors break rules, even their own rules, all the time. The standby will always be the story. Even poor authors can get buy with a great story. Too many great writers have no story. And it’s hard to say a lot about the little they write about, even if the prose dances off the pages. When F. Scott Fitzgerald had a subject matter of importance, his words married the plot-line in a intimate union. But when his stories were formulaic, even his masterful manipulation of the English language couldn’t give them life. It’s always about the story.

  • Sharyn Kopf says:

    Learning to be vulnerable — to bleed on the page — transformed my writing more than anything. It’s so hard to do but it also helps you find your “voice.” Whenever I’m working & think “I can’t write that” because it’s too personal or weird or no one’s ever said something that way, then I know I have to at least give it a go & see what happens.

  • Mary Beth Dahl says:

    Thanks for your advice. (I kept that simple instead of adding wonderful, sound, brilliant, and helpful–but all of those do apply!) My advice–don’t give up, and by not giving up, I mean keep learning how to do it right and stop expecting it to be easy.

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    Somewhere in my past, a well-meaning English teacher equated descriptive writing with using adjectives and adverbs. It was a lesson I learned too well and am still trying to unlearn.

  • Chip, I guess I’ve heard this a million times, but write what you know, whether fiction or non-fiction. I had a passion for Bible study so I wrote a paraphrase of John. Although in many dark times, I’ve doubted my calling, I’m still proud of it, because it makes me smile and I hope it makes other folks smile too. I really like the idea of bringing joy to folks through writing and if you can make the Bible actually entertaining and fun and easier to understand, how cool is that! In fiction, I am notoriously hard to please because I have a wicked case of ADD and I just find it hard to get through a fiction book…unless it’s Twain! 🙂

  • CharityHawkins says:

    One of the writers I respect most gave me this great advice: 1) Find your voice. 2) Be as honest as you can possibly be, and then be even more honest than that.

  • Martha Ramirez says:

    Great advice. So true. My fave advice comes from the movie Finding Forrester. Write your first draft with your heart. Your second with your head. It was one of my hubby’s fave movies but didn’t become mine until I became a ‘real’ writer. Love it.

  • Write what you know – an oldie but a goody. Enjoy the legal
    process! Maybe they will have good snacks.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Well… I’m not sure I always agree with this advice, Kathryn. It’s probably true most of the time (certainly we struggle when trying to write something we know nother about). But some of my favorite literature has come from people struggling with an issue — they weren’t really sure yet what they knew, or what they believed to be true. It was the struggle that gave power to the words.

    • SharonALavy says:

      If I only wrote what I knew, I would have learned nothing during these past 15 years years. God has spoken to me through the journeys my characters drug me through. Maybe that is why He wants me to write. Maybe just to teach me some hard life lessons.

  • John Robinson says:

    I agree, Chip. Beyond that (in honor of your jury duty): deponent sayeth naught. *G*

  • Tim Osner says:

    Find your style. There’s been some good conversation on voice recently. I think if you’re going to be good or bad, you might as well be you, And another bit that really stuck with me I heard on the radio on a morning drive into Chicago back in 1981 – The Perfectionist’s motto to stop procrastination: “Anything worth doing is worth doing whether it is done well or not.”

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Huh. Interesting advice, Tim. That means we get to try new things, and maybe enjoy them, whether or not we’re good at them or not. I tend to agree with that (which is why I occasionally play golf, though I am without question the world’s worst golfer).

  • Amen! Drives me nuts when people try to fill out anemic verbs with fluffy adverbs. The English language is massive. Plenty of words to choose from. There’s no reason to settle for the wimpy ones.

    My writing advice: Listen to people speaking. Notice how they’re not all grammatically correct. Notice how they don’t all use the exact some words and phrasing. Apply such knowledge accordingly.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Halee. I think the notion of “author vocabulary” is under-reviewed. So is the notion of “author phrasing.” I like your advice.

  • Lisa Hetzel says:

    I agree. My kindergartners have it straight: fill your story with action and get to the point.

  • Jerry Eckert says:

    KISS. Keep it simple, as in simple sentences, not compound or complex. Keep average sentence length at or near 15 words – never above 20, and the average word length at or below 4.5 characters. Passive voice below 4%. After you find yourself within these grid lines, revise for strong nouns and verbs with punch.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Interesting, Jerry. I’ve heard the 20-word rule — not sure I agree with it (and have been known to break it on occasion in my writing). My sense is that sentence length probably is tied to voice, just as chapter length is tied to voice. But if this is advice that works for you, that’s great. Love your advice about revising for strong nouns and verbs — “word choice” is one of those elements of style that doesn’t get talked about enough.

  • sally apokedak says:

    Good advice. I’m guilty.

    My advice: Read. In your genre, out of your genre. Read the best books.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Sally. I wholeheartedly agree. Read great writers, and you’re more apt to know how to write great yourself.

  • Meghan Carver says:

    Great advice, and I love the comments as well. The best advice I’ve received is to relax and not make my writing sound like I’m trying too hard.

  • EdieMelson says:

    My best writing advice is to WRITE. So often I meet folks who spend all their time talking about writing instead of writing.

    • jlcary says:

      I agree! Gilbert Morris said you can’t write the Great American novel staring at a blank screen. However, once you start writing, the best advice is stick with nouns and verbs. 🙂

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I believe it was Twain who said, “Everyone wants to have written.”

  • Ruth Taylor says:

    I once downloaded a free sample of a novel onto my Nook and ended up confused and disgusted. I had no idea what the story was about because the author tried to use all this fancy language and turn it into a literary masterpiece. I tried to keep reading, hoping she’d tone it down, but it just kept going. Needless to say, I stopped reading. My advice? Get ‘er done. Write the first draft without being too concerned about making everything just right. Get the story down, then concentrate on the details when revision time comes. If not, it’s easy to get stuck on a trivial detail, causing your forward progress to delay.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Excellent advice, Ruth. Get the draft done. Don’t be worried about getting it right yet — just get it done. THEN go back and revise, since it’s going to be terrible. But it’s always easier to edit and revise than to create anew.

  • Karen Morris says:

    Great advice. I know that’s one I try to resist…until I read a book that abuses adj/adv’s horribly–then it’s like a splash of cold water to my face, and I go back and take out the -ings, the -lys and the as’s where possible. 🙂

    My advice? Listen to the pros-they’re pros for a reason. But don’t lose your own voice trying to mimic theirs…

    • chipmacgregor says:

      A grad-school prof gave me the advice to always look back over your work and circle all the adjectives and adverbs. It’s amazing how that makes them stand out — and allows you to go back and revise.

  • Mariya Koleva says:

    I’m one of those over-using adjectives. I never seem to find enough space for all attributes I wish to “attribute” to a single object or action 🙂
    Your advice is quite sound. I should take it more often.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      That is fabulous, life-changing, excellent, really cool advice, Mariya. :o)

    • SharonALavy says:

      Less is more. If you really have to use and adjective I’ve heard a rule to use only one. So which is more important, that the bag is huge, or that the bag is red, or that the bag is . . . Not = She picked up her huge, red, overfull, bulging hand bag. Which is more important for this instance. What do my readers need to know? What will make us see the type of character that would carry a handbag like this? If we really need more, then add another adjective later, and then another. Too many adjectives invite the reader to skip, skim, or shut the book.

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