Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Best Advice I've Ever Received...

Well, folks, it's that time of year again: you can't have missed the going-back-to-school-sales, the crowded parking lots, the flood of new college students (doubling the population, if you live in a small college town).

You might be returning to school yourself, or sending your own children, nieces, and nephews off, or perhaps your grandchildren. Maybe it's the neighbor kids you see trotting down the sidewalk, spiffy new clothes in place.

So I'm reminded of learning. After all, school is a place to learn things. And, indeed, I learned quite a bit during my student career. Unfortunately, I can't think of a single thing I learned about writing in the school system that actually informed my craft.

5th Grade: An essay is like a girl's skirt should be: Long enough to cover the subject but short enough to be interesting.

9th Grade: Nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and this is how you diagram them.

11th Grade: Organize! Make sure you have a thesis and three body paragraphs.

I could go on, but I think your own memory can probably fill in the blanks.

The point is, we're all on this writing adventure together, and I know we've all received advice -- bad, good, and indifferent -- over the years. There's a lot of advice I ignore, yes, but I also define bad advice as something that tells me to do something but fails to show me how. (Organize? Sure, I'd like to -- but what are some methods?) Good advice, on the other hand, tells me how to do something and, usually, why.

Some good advice I've received:
  1. Read your work out loud; you'll catch errors, plot holes, and rhythm issues.
  2. Strong writing gravitates towards strong verbs and specific nouns; eliminate most adjectives/adverbs.
  3. Run the Find feature in your word processor to find -ly words.
  4. Keep a spreadsheet or organizer that details each character.
  5. Color code plots & sub-plots (or use a specific character (e.g. %#&) that you can run a Find for) as a way to keep track of story arcs.
What's writing advice you've heard over the years? Good or bad -- I want to hear it all!


  1. "Read it aloud. Slower. Slow down. God, read slower!"

    -Larry Heinemann

  2. I like the advice you've learned! I've been implementing those points lately myself.

  3. I think the best advice that I received was "Show don't tell" It was a major game-changer for me.

  4. The "thesis and three body paragraphs" made me laugh! Does your state require this from students too? Oh, and with a concluding paragraph to make up the notorious 5-paragraph essay!

  5. I like your list.

    It's hard to pin dow how I learned the best stuff. I took a really good advanced expository writing class in college from an excellent teacher. He was one of those teachers that was the favorite teacher of many. Somehow, I learned about the writing process, reading aloud, and the economy of words. We workshopped our stuff, and that made all the difference.

    My advice would be to get your stuff workshopped with a talented writing teacher. That's advice I would like to take again myself.

    Thanks for the post. It is odd how little good creative writing advice we can get from years of k-12 English classes, and yet one good/inpiring teacher can teach so much.


Join the conversation, add insight, or disagree with us! We welcome your thoughts.