My Top Tips for Lists of Tips

Category: Writing

I’ve been teaching creative writing classes for Edinburgh University’s Office of Lifelong Learning. Everything in writing is up for debate, but people are comforted by a few hard and fast pieces of advice. So I set about compiling a list of my favourite writing maxims. I have a love-hate relationship with tips like these. Sure they are useful points to think about but they can come across as trite. Somewhere or other there will be a writer producing brilliant stuff that ignores most of them. And I don’t want to stray into the territory of the apostrophe police (so brilliantly taken down a peg here by Stephen Fry).

Copyblogger is a terrific source of tip lists. It’s meant for bloggers but a lot of it applies to writing generally. Brian Clark of Copyblogger has a very astute “10 Steps to Becoming a Better Writer”:

1. Write.
2. Write more.
3. Write even more.
4. Write even more than that.
5. Write when you don’t want to.
6. Write when you do.
7. Write when you have something to say.
8. Write when you don’t.
9. Write every day.
10. Keep writing.

Then of course there are the famous authors who have made their thoughts known, such as Elmore Leonard, Anton Chekhov, Ernest Hemingway, and more amusingly if less believably, William Shakespeare.

William Safire of the New York Times manages a list that is both satirical and useful.

Prompted by Elmore Leonard’s list, the Guardian canvassed various writers and also its readers for their nuggets of wisdom earlier this year.

But without further ado, here are my Eight Tips to Tighten Your Prose. I have collected them over the years from various sources.  They are not commandments, but they are worth keeping in mind.

Show, don’t tell

Surely the commonest writing maxim of all.

Murder your darlings

A phrase first coined by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch but his theory has been updated many times. Elmore Leonard says, “If I come across anything in my work that smacks of ‘good writing,’ I immediately strike it out.”

Write drunk – edit sober

Dump every random thought you have onto the page without worrying about how good it is. Another maxim that fits in here is “Don’t get it right, get it wrote.”   Let your inner writing drunk mouth off and stagger about. It’ll be a classic shitty first draft but there just might be glimmers of inspiration and innovation worth keeping. Then go back and edit soberly. Your second sweep through the piece is when you need to be cool-headed, and question what the drunken lunatic was on about.

Sleep on it

Virtually every piece of work will improve if you return to it the next day and look at it again. The longer you can leave it in the drawer the better in fact.

Read it aloud

It is amazing the problems of flow and sentence structure that only become apparent when you read something out loud. You will also find a few more darlings to murder. If you feel foolish saying fancy words out loud then you have no business writing them down. The big challenge in all writing is to make it real and natural. Most of us talk far more naturally than we write. So speak up.

Use the breath test

Once you hit 20 words in a sentence, every additional word can lose you up to 10% of your readers.
If you have to pause for breath in the middle of speaking a sentence, it’s too long.

Be active not passive

If someone’s doing something, it’s active. If something was done by someone, it’s passive.

Avoid Adverbs

Even though you got extra marks for using them at school.

That’s my list. What’s yours?


George Anderson

George Anderson received a New Writers Award in 2008.