10 Writing Tips That Can Help Almost Anyone

1. Write the sentence, not just the story
Long ago I got a rejection from the editor of the Santa Monica Review, Jim Krusoe. It said: “Good enough story, but what’s unique about your sentences?” That was the best advice I ever got. Learn to look at your sentences, play with them, make sure there’s music, lots of edges and corners to the sounds. Read your work aloud. Read poetry aloud and try to heighten in every way your sensitivity to the sound and rhythm and shape of sentences. The music of words. I like Dylan Thomas best for this–the Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait. I also like Sexton, Eliot, and Brodsky for the poets and Durrell and Les Plesko for prose. A terrific exercise is to take a paragraph of someone’s writing who has a really strong style, and using their structure, substitute your own words for theirs, and see how they achieved their effects.

2. Pick a better verb
Most people use twenty verbs to describe everything from a run in their stocking to the explosion of an atomic bomb. You know the ones: Was, did, had, made, went, looked… One-size-fits-all looks like crap on anyone. Sew yourself a custom made suit. Pick a better verb. Challenge all those verbs to really lift some weight for you.

3. Kill the Cliché.
When you’re writing, anything you’ve ever heard or read before is a cliché. They can be combinations of words: Cold sweat. Fire-engine red, or phrases: on the same page, level playing field, or metaphors: big as a house. So quiet you could hear a pin drop. Sometimes things themselves are cliches: fuzzy dice, pink flamingo lawn ornaments, long blonde hair. Just keep asking yourself, “Honestly, have I ever seen this before?” Even if Shakespeare wrote it, or Virginia Woolf, it’s a cliché. You’re a writer and you have to invent it from scratch, all by yourself. That’s why writing is a lot of work, and demands unflinching honesty.

4. Variety is the key.
Most people write the same sentence over and over again. The same number of words–say, 8-10, or 10-12. The same sentence structure. Try to become stretchy–if you generally write 8 words, throw a 20 word sentence in there, and a few three-word shorties. If you’re generally a 20 word writer, make sure you throw in some threes, fivers and sevens, just to keep the reader from going crosseyed.

5. Explore sentences using dependent clauses
A dependent clause (a sentence fragment set off by commas, dontcha know) helps you explore your story by moving you deeper into the sentence. It allows you to stop and think harder about what you’ve already written. Often the story you’re looking for is inside the sentence. The dependent clause helps you uncover it.

6. Use the landscape
Always tell us where we are. And don’t just tell us where something is, make it pay off. Use description of landscape to help you establish the emotional tone of the scene. Keep notes of how other authors establish mood and foreshadow events by describing the world around the character. Look at the openings of Fitzgerald stories, and Graham Greene, they’re great at this.

7. Smarten up your protagonist
Your protagonist is your reader’s portal into the story. The more observant he or she can be, the more vivid will be the world you’re creating. They don’t have to be super-educated, they just have to be mentally active. Keep them looking, thinking, wondering, remembering.


8. Learn to write dialogue

This involves more than I can discuss here, but do it. Read the writers of great prose dialogue–people like Robert Stone and Joan Didion. Compression, saying as little as possible, making everything carry much more than is actually said. Conflict. Dialogue as part of an ongoing world, not just voices in a dark room. Never say the obvious. Skip the meet and greet.

9. Write in scenes
What is a scene? a) A scene starts and ends in one place at one time (the Aristotelian unities of time and place–this stuff goes waaaayyyy back). b) A scene starts in one place emotionally and ends in another place emotionally. Starts angry, ends embarrassed. Starts lovestruck, ends disgusted. c) Something happens in a scene, whereby the character cannot go back to the way things were before. Make sure to finish a scene before you go on to the next. Make something happen.

10. Torture your protagonist
The writer is both a sadist and a masochist. We create people we love, and then we torture them. The more we love them, and the more cleverly we torture them along the lines of their greatest vulnerability and fear, the better the story. Sometimes we try to protect them from getting booboos that are too big. Don’t. This is your protagonist, not your kid.

Wish you lots of inspiration and every delight,
Janet

99 Responses to “10 Writing Tips That Can Help Almost Anyone”

  1. Penny Sobocinski Says:

    This is great! I want more. I’d love to read more about dialogue, and I appreciate what you wrote about writing a scene, changing emotions and making something happen.

  2. Daisy Says:

    Thank you so much for the wisdom.

  3. This is really great. It’s like a year or two of creative writing classes.

    I especially love the bit about writing good sentences. I started my writing life off as a poet, and when I defected to fiction workshops, it made me sad to see a kind of disregard for words. I love those juicy, succulent words, and those rythms that you’ll just follow off a cliff.

    What really helped me with dialouge was some play. I don’t even remember what it was, but it made me realize that sometimes when people have a conversation, it’s not just question and answer, statement and response; it’s more complicated than that. Sometimes each person is really having their own conversation, sometimes neither one is listening to the other. It’s helpful, I think to remember that communicating in real life is hard. That what you want to get across sometimes fails, and people enter into conversations with their own set of intentions. Sometimes there is a lot of push and pull, sometimes it’s a power struggle to be the one who is heard.

    And sometimes we want to say things, give confessions, let the cops know that the fugitive is in the closet, without actually having to say the words. Sometimes we ourselves don’t even know what we’re revealing.

  4. stephen Says:

    I completely agree with the tenth tip. Very novel I read with a tortured protaginist is a better than a cherished one.

  5. stephen Says:

    Ms. Fitch, quick question: if in a story or novel, do you consider it alright if the protagonist suffers at the beginning or should he/she suffer more towards the end of the story? Or do you not even have preference? If you can find the time to answer this question, it would be appreciated.

    • Usually it’s neither the beginning nor the end. At the beginning, a condition of stasis. Something happens and sets the ball in motion. At the end, things are coming to a resolution, the character is most active in his or her own fate.

      • stephen Says:

        All right, thank you Ms. Fitch

      • penny riggs Says:

        I just need to tell you how much I loved you two famous books!!! I was thrilled to read that Paint it Black may be made into a movie!! I can”t wait!!! The reason I’m writing, is that there is no way I could ever write a novel; but, I have a real life story that only you could put into book form. It concerns the life and ultimate death of my alcoholic, drug addicted daughter and her lesbian friends. It would be a best seller!! If interested, please get in touch. A dedicated fan!!! I feel like I know many of your characters; my life has been filled with those poor mis understood people.

  6. I enjoyed reading this. It kind of gave me more perspective to the writing world. I am writing a book and it took me a long while to figure out the entire plot and now that I’m putting it into words, things change. I do write a lot of other stories when inspiration hits, but this helped a lot. I got a fictionpress.com account to put out some of my work (not all!) just to get some input and/or criticism. Thank you for the tips!

  7. Hi Janet,

    I just stumbled upon your blog – and i’m glad I did. These tips are great – I’ll tweet this post soon! Looking forward to reading more of your stuff…

  8. Greetings, Janet.

    I must say I appreciate this bit of wisdom. You may have only mentioned ten things that form the backbone of writing, but my, you discussed the the things that either make a story fly or leave it struggling on its feet.

    I particularly appreciate the tips about the cliches and the protagonist. I myself believe you are a master of metaphors; every description you lay on page carries the weight of an entire paragraph. You have crafted to brilliance the use of sensory tools when setting a mood. On the other hand, I don’t think anyone in prose today puts their protangonist through the arms of despair quite like you do.

    With much respect, Ma

  9. Thanks for these tips – have Tweeted.

    This is fabulous. Not said in this way before.
    May we put this on our new site – launching next week.
    with whatever links credits/ picture you’d like.

    We will excerpt for our ezine too if okay with you?

    Best
    Jacqueline

  10. This makes so much sense–especially the points you made about torturing the protagonist (I think we tend to like our protagonists a bit too much). Also, I plan to try the substitution exercise with some writers I admire. Thanks so much for these tips!

  11. Brilliant. I’m printing this out! In theory as someone who has had three novels published I should know all this. But you’d be amazed at how quickly you forget. So thanks for this.

  12. I’m going to link this from my blog–it speaks volumes and it’s like attending a Saturday writing class without leaving home. Thanks for sharing your wisdom with fellow writers.

    Best,
    John

  13. Jill D'Aubery Says:

    Thanks! I’ve printed this out, retyped the headlines, and taped the whole thing on my wall over the computer!!! Now to attack everything I’ve ever written with all this in mind!!!

  14. such fantastic advice and I was so excited to come across your blog, White Oleander was one of the first novels I found truly inspiring and I have loved your writing ever since.

  15. Excellent article Janet.

    Have had some offers to write books but never gone ahead with it.

    Always think that when I am old I will write a bestseller based on what I’ve done all over the world. Just like Soheir Khashoggi told she does when I saw her in Riyadh.

    Have subscribed to your blog and have given it a thumbs up on Stumbleupon.

  16. [...] Fitch’s Blog 10 Writing Tips That Can Help Almost Anyone As soon as I discovered Janet’s blog this week, I immediately added it to my Google reader. Her [...]

  17. ..thank you you tips are great reminders of the pits i have been falling into.

  18. Found the link to this article from Nathan Bransford’s blog.

    He said it was an excellent list and I agree with him 100%. I definitely agree with the sentences. When I read a story that has powerful sentences (concrete nouns & powerful verbs) it’s easy to see how the words give the story an added punch.

  19. Wonderful list, but could you expand on #5? Should we write more sentences with dependent clauses to deepen our writing? Or revisit our work and expand on the thoughts we express in our dependent clauses?

    Thanks!

    • Deepening the writing with dependent clauses:
      maybe you started with:
      “He went to the store.”
      you play with it. You open the doors. You asking yourself about “he,” about how he went, about the store, bout the whole thing.
      It becomes:
      “Furious and punching the air, Johnny rocketed [improving the verb along the way] down to Doc Clyde’s store [just customizing a bit more], rehearsing along the way just how he would thank that old fart for all his help.”

      Two dependent clauses unlocking the story inside the sentence.

      • Great example, crystal clear. I think you’ve just shown me how to turn my novella into a novel. Thanks!

  20. I keep a link list of “10 writing tips” since you run into them so frequently on the Internet. This is one of the best. GREAT ADVICE!

  21. Beth Mithen Says:

    Fabulous list! I have posted it above my desk!

  22. Fantastic advice. E. B. White would have been proud.

    Thanks for sharing!

  23. Brilliant. I’ll be mentioning this on my blog before too long. Thanks very much.

  24. Great tips! Thank you so much

  25. Brilliant! Some of the best tips for writers I’ve seen. You’ve condensed most of the major how-to-write books into a single page.

  26. Laurel Says:

    1 & 9 are my favorite–great advice

  27. [...] Agent Nathan Bransford  has  a great link on his blog post this week from Author Janet Fitch -10 Writing Tips That Can Help Anyone which addresses the importance of ” writing the sentence, killing the cliche, writing in [...]

  28. How can I tweet this?

  29. Your sound advice will help me give depth and life to my writing.

  30. Thanks for these tips. I especially like your comments on writing scenes. I worked out about writing in scenes a few months ago, but you added to what I’d already disovered.

  31. Thank you for these, Janet.

    In particular, the last one, an important distinction to keep in mind. As a parent myself, it’s a curious mindset: wanting to simultaneously deliver challenges and turmoil to my protagonist, all the while looking forward to remedying them (if that’s the desired outcome–I suppose that isn’t always the case).

  32. [...] 10 Tips for Writers Posted in writing tips by Chazz on 07/17/2010 Janet Fitch drops some superlative writing science on you at her blog.  [...]

  33. Great stuff. It makes me think harder about what I’m writing.

  34. Tip #1, Write the sentence, not the story, brought to mind A DIAMOND GUITAR, the story of a prison farm by Truman Capote, which contains the most beautiful sentence I have ever read: “In each sleep house there is one large pot-bellied stove, but the winters are cold here, and at night with the pines waving frostily and a freezing light falling from the moon the men, stretched on their iron cots, lie awake with the fire colors of the stove playing in their eyes.” In one sentence Mr. Truman takes us into the very souls of these men. And speaking of dependent clauses….

  35. I loved your writing tips! Can I make a suggestion though? Please remove your black background. I truly forced myself to finish all your tips because they were terrific but I probably won’t come back to the blog because my eyes hurt by the end of it.

    • Glad you liked the blog, and sorry that the style is hard on your vision–if you subscribe, the postings come by e-mail, white background, black type. Might be a better way to go.

  36. Miss Fitch, these tips are worth three books on the craft of writing. I was skeptical when I read on Nathan Bransford’s blog that I would be able to read genuine advice that goes beyond ‘kill the adjectives’ and the like, and I’m glad that Mr Bransford proved me wrong. Wonderful advice, and I’m truly grateful that you shared it with us.

    – Kristine

  37. Delicious. Thank you.

    It fasincates me that much of this list is the complete opposite of what I have to counsel & enforce in my daygig, where I strive to make medical & insurance information accessible to EFL readers or prep it for translation into everything from Spanish to Tigrigna.

    For fun, I run the (very stupid) Word Flesch-Kincaid tool on my fiction, occasionally. It tells me I write at 4th or 5th grade level, usually. This amuses me, given that I’m often more interested in the music of the language than the rules of composition.

    I also especially appreciate the “torture the character” advice. Sometimes I have to kill one. I cry! (Am I really confessing this?)

    And this advice makes me wonder: What is your position on “unlikable” characters? My protagonists rarely agree to behave & the self-designated experts in some writing groups have informed me this makes them unreadable. HA, I say.

  38. Alexandra Dubois Says:

    Thank you very much for sharing those great advices ! That must be the best ones I ‘ve ever received.

  39. Jill D'Aubery Says:

    I have to agree with Anne O’Connell…your blog is very, very hard to read because of the black background. Subscribing means what, exactly? I mean what would be filling up my email box?

    • It simply means that when I write a blog entry, it’s delivered straight to you. Never fear, I’m not nearly prolific enough to fill your email box! Once a week if I’m being good.

  40. KT Koulos Says:

    Oh, I’ve never seen someone say it before, but I’ve always thought the books that are the saddest, with the most torture for the main character, are the best. The books that are Disney-esque, where it’s all rainbows and happiness, with just a touch of sadness, are the most boring. The ones that made me cry, laugh, and want to kill someone in the same chapter are the best. My main thing in my writing is by the last draft, I still have to cry and want to kill certain characters at certain points. This list is definitely one of my favorites out there. I”m glad Nathan Bransford linked it! It’s when I read things like this that I get more excited and have an even stronger urge to open up my forth draft and work on it!

  41. I have already responded on goodreads by thanking you for these tips as it is my 27th birthday and I promised myself that I would buckle down and write every day from now on. But I also want to add, after reading these comments, that I find the white text on black background easier on the eye than the standard black-on-white. Just my two cents worth!

    Thanks for the tips once again. I have so many how-to books but these tips were exactly what I needed to understand where I’m going wrong with some of my writing.

  42. [...] Janet Fitch’s very wise 10 Writing Tips [...]

  43. Great post, Janet.

    It would also be great if you had a SHARE button on your site so that we could re-tweet your posts.

    Regards
    Mel

  44. Excelent writing tips. Wish more paid attention to craft.

  45. …and spelling. lol. two Ls in previous comment. (excellent)

  46. Very good tips. I kept waiting for you to mention Raymond Chandler’s work as a sterling example of most of these. His verbs were muscular, his dialogue hilarious, and his descriptions of the San Fernando Valley so vivid we can clearly see how Hollywood has changed since. Can you guess I’m reading him right now?

  47. Hi, I’ve been reading a lot of tips and revision techniques etc lately, and after a while they all start to sound the same (which I guess is a good thing in some ways, at least there is some consistency!) – but I have to say that this list is quite unique, and very helpful. Thank you!

  48. Excellent advice, Janet. It’s amazing how many of these things you forget during the story process because there’s just so much to think about. I’m going to add this to my bookmarks and refer back to it.

  49. The greatest advice I ever found on dialogue, and so timely while I am struggling with the odds of it. Thank you Janet!

  50. This is an excellent post, Janet, I couldn’t have said it better myself! I’ll be sure to pass on the link to those I know who need the advice.

  51. It’s your housemate from Italy. Your advice last year has really helped me with my novel. I’m going in for yet another revision, and reading this blog is exactly what I needed. A refresher course — without the pasta course. Thanks Janet. I’m subscribing. Hope all is well. Ciao.

  52. [...] the best list we’ve seen of writing tips for every writer, from writer Janet Fitch (hat tip to the aforementioned Nathan [...]

  53. [...] and emotion should go together. Last week, Nathan Bransford linked to some writing tips from author Janet Fitch. And what should we find but this (emphasis [...]

  54. [...] 10 Writing Tips That Can Help Almost Anyone « Janet Fitch’s Blog [...]

  55. alisa wood Says:

    Thank goodness for the Aunt Theas of the world!! I’m glad she was there for you at an important time in your life.

  56. [...] a post worth sharing, I’m going to run with that excuse….in hopes that Fitch’s ’10 Writing Tips That Can Help Anyone’ will positively influence further writing [...]

  57. Sharon Lawler Says:

    I’m not a writer, but I read extensively. Truly wish that writers would adopt this post as a morning mantra ritual.

  58. [...] writing published on Janet Fitch's blog – here's a few especially useful posts: 10 Writing Tips 10 Writing Tips That Can Help Almost Anyone Janet Fitch's Blog Especially like the pointer about paying more attention to writing sentences, not least being [...]

  59. Hi Janet, thanks so much for these great tips. I printed them out and keep rereading them. Your dialogue post was great as well. I’m wondering if you can expand on #9 Write in scenes. Are you saying that a), b) and c) all need to happen in order for it to be an effective scene? Does every scene need to have some kind of tension or show character movement, or is it okay to have a scene that just kind of sets the stage for future scenes?
    Thanks!

    • I will go out on a limb here and suggest that it’s not a scene unless it does at least b and c, and a is how you contain it. A scene where nothing happens is not really a scene, just some writing.

  60. [...] one, content for our website and blog, that grant application — you see where I’m going. These ten writing tips by noted author Janet Fitch, (White Oleander) are mostly geared to writers of fiction. Before you [...]

  61. [...] at WritingaLife.  And I stumbled on novelist Janet Fitch's wonderful blog when someone sent me her "Ten Writing Tips that Can Help Almost Anyone" (yes, it's true, they [...]

  62. [...] On her blog, author Janet Fitch gives 10 writing tips that can help writers of any genre. [...]

  63. Bella Swenson Says:

    Rather cool blog you’ve got here. Thank you for it. I like such themes and everything that is connected to this matter. I would like to read more soon.

    Bella Swenson
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  64. [...] Fitch says Write the Sentence, not just the story: ‘try to heighten in every way your sensitivity to the [...]

  65. [...] “Whereby the character cannot go back to the way things were before…” [...]

  66. thanks. finally I got somethings new for writing…

  67. After years of work writing narrative verse, I have developed a passably decent skill at writing an intense story in ballads and longer narrative poems.

  68. I can’t express how much I admire you as a writer. I’ve just published my debut novel , Rose’s Will, at 59, and thanks to much of your advice, I was lucky enough to find a publisher after sending out my manuscript only twice!

    White Oleander was my favorite novel of all time.

    Thank you.

  69. [...] (picked for Oprah’s Book Club) and Paint It Black. They discussed, in part, her famous 10 Writing Tips article which originally appeared on her blog, and Janet has kindly given us permission to repost [...]

  70. [...] it was Janet Fitch’s advice to read poetry to learn how to [...]

  71. JUSTICE I.C. NKWOCHA Says:

    Hello Janet,
    I’ve been researching, writing, listening to webinars and even attending writing classes. But i must confess that this piece of writing/guides is the best i have ever come across. If there are better ones, i am yet to find.
    Thank you, please will permit me to share this information on my websites when i comes up soon.
    Author of WHO AM I? 21 Ways To Unveil The Hidden You (soon out)

  72. Dear Janet — how dare you be so practical? You of the evocative, the sensory, the inchoate. Giving those who aspire to your (and yes I’m sucking up) mysterious mastery a paint by numbers prototype. I will use it diligently, fastidiously in the hopes of calling you a colleague one day when both of our necks are lax enough to pack with clothes for a trip to Siberia. xo S

  73. Ronnie Rush Says:

    Dear Janet,
    I’m a “one time” only author. Memoir. What step do you suggest now that I have professional edited my manuscript? btw-if you would like to read, Life of a Roadie the Gypsy in me, I’ll email it to you. having fresh eyes read it would be awesome. Thanks!

  74. Great list, especially #1. Wonderful advice, though I would add to #5: toss out the rest once you’ve discovered that story inside the sentence.

  75. [...] Oleander (picked for Oprah’s Book Club) and Paint It Black. They discussed, in part, her famous 10 Writing Tips article which originally appeared on her blog, and Janet has kindly given us permission to repost [...]

  76. [...] More than many tips this one has stuck with me. Whenever I’m writing I try very hard to think about the sentence I’m constructing, I like to keep in my mind the rhythm of a paragraph or a spurt of dialogue; each sentence is a story in itself really, each sentence should have purpose otherwise it is simply dead weight and useless to the narrative, to me and to the characters. Every sentence must describe something, someone or somewhere, give reason or rhyme. I am ny no means saying I always succeed, in fact I know for certain there is a lot of dead weight in my novel that I’m going to have to cut and it is going to sting to do it, but there it is. I chose this after all, as Margaret Atwood points out brilliantly, so I ought not to whine. Of course I’m not going to list all ten of these tips, instead here’s a handy link to one of my favourite lists of tips: 10 Writing Tips That Can Help Anyone [...]

  77. [...] feel every line like it flows through my body. Erin Morgenstern seemed to have fully understood Janet Fitch’s Number 1 Writing Tip, ‘Write the sentence, not just the story’. And the result is such a satisfying treat. Reading [...]

  78. Thank you for your tips! I love them! #10 is especially important to me. It always seems that I am torturing my characters. A couple of friends have said that they are glad I don’t put the strings to their lives (or something to that effect) because I would be a very unkind puppet master. Of course, I want things to go well in the real lives of people I know and care about but, honestly, I would never write about those people. That would make for very boring reading and writing!

  79. [...] Fitch’s 10 Writing Tips that Can Help Almost Anyone made me [...]

  80. More than these ten, the best writing tip I have ever read was in your Writer Digest’s interview. About tracing your steps when you find yourself in a cul-de-sac. Although I am writing creative non-fiction, your prose on White Oleander and Paint It Black has served as inspiration when it comes to constructing sentences and paragraphs. I only hope I become half as good as you are.

  81. eventmanagement58 Says:

    Awesome post. I tried them and they were so useful.

  82. […] You can visit Janet FItch’s blog to find valuable tips such as ” 10 Writing Tips That Can Help Almost Anyone.”  […]

  83. Reblogged this on Latasha Bilal and commented:
    Great tips from one of my favorite writers!

  84. […] post (EVER). I warn you, it’s long! Margo Berendsen‘s Writing Tips. Janet Fitch’s 10 Writing Tips that Can Help Almost Anyone made me smile. A list of Chapter One Analyses by Moody Writing. Jami Gold’s post The New […]

  85. […] Agent Nathan Bransford  has  a great link on his blog post this week from Author Janet Fitch -10 Writing Tips That Can Help Anyone which addresses the importance of ” writing the sentence, killing the cliche, writing in […]

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