Top Tips from Authors: Introduction

elmore leonards ten rules of writingThe Guardian, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, asked several authors to come up with a list of their own personal do’s and don’ts. They asked a lot of authors, and so there is a lot to read, even though they haven’t all come up with ten rules each (The shortest entry was from Philip Pullman. In case you don’t want to read the whole article, this was his contribution: My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work).

After reading through 13 pages of tips from 28 authors, the similarities in their top tips became glaringly apparent. There were one or two differences of opinion, but not many (the main one being knowing what the ending of your novel will be when you start, versus not knowing and waiting until you get there). I went through all the tips and picked out the main themes that many of the writers seemed to pick up on – here is a brief breakdown of those points. Contributors include Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, PD James, Hilary Mantel and Michael Morpurgo.

  • Editing  Don’t over write, cut out long or unnecessary words, cut out what readers tend to skip (what do you skip when reading a book?). Reflect on your work with a very beady eye. Less is more.
  • Read it aloud  Helps you to understand the characters, helps speech to sound like real speech and not like writing, helps the rhythm of the story, helps you to make it flow and not sound stilted.
  • Take a break  If you get blocked, go for a walk! Stop if it’s becoming difficult, think about what you are writing and retrace your steps back to where the problem started. But don’t stop altogether – try and write something else until you can work through the problem.
  • Accept you might need to change things  If it doesn’t work, throw it out. Be honest with yourself. A character might change after you’ve written 50 pages – don’t be afraid to change your mind.
  • Analysing your own work  It’s difficult to read your own work objectively; ask someone else to read it, or if you can’t do that, try and read it like you are a stranger. Give your work a name, make it your own.
  • Read! – Bad writing is contagious – read with discrimination. The good books will make you remember them, so you don’t need to take notes, but the better the book, the harder it is to spot its devices.
  • Descriptions – Be economical! Avoid redundant phrases and flowery prose. Description must work for its place – give it a proper viewpoint. Trust the reader – not everything needs to be explained in such great detail.
  • Keep a record – Carry a notebook, record moments and memories, overheard dialogue and events. Inspiration is everywhere. Keep your well of ideas full.
  • When and how to write – Be disciplined. Decide when is your best time to work. Have more than one idea on the go. Proceed slowly and finish the day when you still want to continue.
  • Issue of perfection – You will have to let it go at some point, though you may never be satisfied with your own work. Just make it as good as you can.
  • Distractions – Disconnect the internet!
  • Motivation – Don’t wait for inspiration. Find out what keeps you happy, motivated and creative. Remember you love writing.

So many of their tips are useful, inspiring, memorable and relevant that it would be impossible to discuss them all in one post. So I have selected a few Top Tips from each of these themes to concentrate on; ones that I know I will either find useful in my own writing or that I already follow to some degree, to deconstruct their meaning and work out how they can practically be applied.

I hope all you writers out there find these tips as useful as I have. Next week I’m going to start with the theme of Descriptions – the difficulties in being economical.


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