11 Rules for Better Writing

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The other day I was asked to take part in a MOOC.  If you haven’t heard the term yet, you will soon. MOOCs  – Massive Online Open Courses — are speedily revolutionizing higher education, because they have the capability to deliver top-level teaching via the web to thousands of people, for free.

Anyway, this particular MOOC, taught by Professor Denise Comer of Duke University, is entitled English Composition I: Achieving Expertise. Seventy thousand people signed up, from Mongolia to Massachusetts, wanting to develop their skills. All of which got me thinking about writing, which might be the world’s most misunderstood talent.

Here’s the basic problem: people think that writing is this:

the-writer-writing-3647594-640-428

When in reality, it’s more like this: channel-curation-featured-large

This happens to be Proust, but it could be Orwell or Austen or Whitman or Hemingway, who wrote no fewer than 47 different endings for A Farewell to Arms. Point is, writing isn’t wizardry, and good writers are not superhuman. Building a story is not magic. It’s more like building a piece of furniture: you need quality wood, basic design skills, and lots of sandpaper.

So with that in mind, I’d like to offer the following carpenter’s rules that I’ve developed over the years. Some have to do with structure, others with practice, and all of them are 100 percent unscientific.

  • 1) Know the difference between a topic and a story, which is this: A topic sits still, and a story moves. A topic is an answer, while a story asks a question that connects to the reader’s heart and mind. For example, I got fired from my job yesterday is a topic. I got fired from my job yesterday and this morning I began planning my revenge — that is a story.
  • 2) Don’t fly solo. Find the best writers who’ve written in this vein and study them like a detective. Figure out how they attacked the problem. They are your coaches.
  • 3) Figure out what your subjects/characters want — what they really, truly, deeply want — put it up top, and and let that question — will they get it? –  fuel your narrative.
  • 4) Inside the narrative, obstacles are your friend. The bigger the obstacle, the better the story.
  • 5) Seek out opposites. For example, if you were describing something rough and crude, you should use images of elegance and refinement (i.e. “the abandoned Chevrolet was a lacework of rust”). Or, if a 330-pound defensive lineman enters a room, focus on how delicately and balletically he walks. Sentences are like batteries: opposites create energy.
  • 6) Outline like crazy, and revise those outlines constantly. I use two kinds of outlines: big and small. The big outline is for the entire narrative arc; the smaller outline is for each chapter. Like construction blueprints, outlines sound dull, but in fact are the opposite: the place where the most important creative moves happen (Check  J.K. Rowling’s outline for chapters 13-24 of Order of the Phoenix.)
  • 7) Figure on a 10:1 efficiency ratio — that is, 10 pages of rough drafts and notes for every one page of quality writing. Which you’ll have to revise over and over again, of course.
  • 8) Read like a thief. Underline good stuff, and read it over and over again until you figure out how they did that. When you find a passage, image, or description you love, write it down on a card and keep all those cards in one place.
  • 9) Ignore small criticism.
  • 10) Listen intently to big criticism. If someone doesn’t “get” your writing, it’s not their fault. It’s yours.
  • 11) If you get stuck, get busy. Revisit outlines. Seek out new material. Keep plugging until something clicks. “Imagination” is overrated; creativity comes from making fresh connections.

A couple weeks, along with several hundred Ohio middle schoolers, I got to attend a writing competition called Power of the Pen. It works like this: students receive writing prompts, then have 40 minutes to write a piece, which is then judged. There were four rounds, and it felt like the NCAA tournament, partly because the kids write really well, and partly because there’s a team vibe, but mostly because the kids are not trying to be artists. They’re just building lots of stories, over and over, in a way that reveals the real nature of writing. It’s not an art; it’s a sport.


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44 Responses to “11 Rules for Better Writing”

  1. Rich Kent says:

    Terrific summary, Daniel. I’d add novelist Ron Carlson’s advice to the mix: “The writer is the person who stays in the room.” This is to say… stay in your chair, in front of the computer, and work with your words.

  2. Bravo, Daniel. And agreed. I’ll add that I favor the “Sidney Sheldon” school. When Mr. Sheldon finished a draft that he liked, it was grammatically correct. That was the version an English teacher would like. But that’s not what he submitted. He then started cutting. He ends with a grammatically incorrect book with a lot of sentence fragments, but it’s a readable page-turner. Using that method he wrote 16 consecutive bestsellers.

  3. Jason says:

    I’m sure you’ve seen this before, but in the event you havent..

    http://alajoann.info/what-success-really-looks-like/

  4. Thanks for sharing your ideas about writing. I was unavailable to watch the hangout live, but will certainly enjoy doing so later this week.

  5. Margaret Gorham says:

    Thanks for the great info. Your idea of writing as a “sport” is new to me. Yet, I was able to capture that vision in the fact that writing as a marathon and a challenge.

    I also enjoy your contention that writing is not “magic,” but takes work. This suppplies hope to us during the times when we may struggle with our writing.

  6. Ryan Hockman says:

    I took a writing course with Wendell Berry. His first three words were, “Writing is painful.”

  7. doc says:

    I like the idea that writers must have sought out and had experiences in life and what they are writing about. Thoreau wrote “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”

  8. Robert Lush says:

    I wanted to take up your point

    10) … If someone doesn’t “get” your writing, it’s not their fault. It’s yours.

    In reviews and publicity for your book I often read: “Daniel Coyle is the New York Times bestselling author.” In the sentence where I first read this you were also described as a “journalist”

    Now, when nouns are used as adjectives, as in the above sentence, there is increased scope for ambiguity, which at times can be humorous (BRITISH LEFT WAFFLES ON FALKLAND ISLANDS, a newspaper headline read). The text about you could have meant several things

    1. Clearly you are not an author and a news vendor who has at times sold more copies of the NY Times than any other outlet

    2. It could be that you are a journalist working for the NY Times, and writing this book on their behalf and that you have sold more books than anybody else they have. This is the meaning I gleaned on my first, cursory reading

    3. It could mean you are a journalist working for the NY Times and you are also an author and that one of your books was a best seller at some time.

    4. What is actually correct is not explicitly stated: That you are a journalist, that you are an author, that you have written a book at some time which was included at some time on the New York Times Bestsellers List.

    The actual aim of the sentence was to enhance the status of the author (you) in a potential reader’s eyes, by squeezing as many positive words–like journalist, New York Times and bestselling–as possible into the space available.

    There is nothing wrong with presenting the facts about ourselves and our experience in the best possible light. In writing a resume, for example, we can and are expected to present our qualifications and experience to make us attractive as a prospective employee. On the other hand this tactic can sometimes reach a stage where the writer may appear to be intentionally disingenuous or misleading.

    I acknowledge I am “Teaching granny to suck eggs”, because you as a journalist, your editor and your agent are well aware of the issues involved. And, since we know we should read publicity copy with a pinch of salt, my analysis would appear to be nitpicking or being tiresomely pedantic. Which it certainly would be, in most circumstances. So, to explain, the reason I read the sentence again carefully, and that I am writing this comment, is that faulty logic and such loose vocabulary permeated the actual body the text to the point that it became distracting and detracted from the credibility of your argument.

    There, I’ve got it off my chest.

  9. djcoyle says:

    Hi Robert,
    You’re right, it’s a glitchy, common phrase. Let’s come up with something better.
    Maybe just say “author of Book X, Book Y, and Book Z” and use asterisks to show which ones were NYT bestsellers? If we did that, I’d have four asterisks. Which, I suppose would be annoyingly repetitive as well.

    Hmmm.

    Yours with British Waffles,
    Dan

  10. doc says:

    Everything Robert said was correct. However, the way I look at it is that almost everyone knows what the sentence is trying to say. I equate it with the use of “muscle memory” when hopfully all us know that muscles don’t have little brains and remember movements. It is just a shortcut and easy way to say it without getting wordy. Anyway, Robert is showing why the English language is so difficult to use correctly.
    All the nuances must drive people trying to learn the language, crazy. See how awkward that sentence is and I don’t know whether it is correct or not.

  11. Phaneendra says:

    Writing isn’t wizardry – how true… Thanks for the wonderful tips.

  12. Sara says:

    It was so comforting to know that at least somebody is encouraging marking the text one reads. My dad hates it when i mark or scribble on the books and always asks me to retain the information. I am going to continue underlining the text without feeling guilty now!
    All are very helpful tips, i am going to use them while completing this writing course. And hopefully beyond that as well.

  13. ais says:

    I’ve always thought that writing is an art. Only the talented could write well and create interesting story. Being not a writer myself, I feel not confident to write and sceptical to be one. Having read this, I realize that I have not even run long enough to exercise in this field.

  14. Orchid Hao says:

    Thank you for sharing so good ideas here. I like very much the poit:”Ignore small criticism and listen intently to big criticism”,it is very correct and I will take it up in future.

  15. Hema Ravi says:

    Thanks for providing these tips…..they help to introspect, improvise and move on…….

  16. Anthony Furlong says:

    As someone who is writing scripts I can agree with the above tips. It really is a practice that can be learnt and not a natural gift.

  17. Ann Laird says:

    I found this information to be very helpful. I am taking an English Composition class at Coursera online. So many times I have found myself trying to figure out what to write next. This information you just gave has given me a new approach. Thank You for sharing.

  18. Sharmila says:

    I enjoyed every moment of the hangout. So motivating and your style of acknowledging every question positively was something to learn. I am glad to be reading this blog.

  19. Will says:

    Hi Dan.

    a MOOC site, edX, might start using essay-grading software to help out with the workload. Is this technology is going to be a new deep-practice cell? Or are we fools to pretend computers can do this? What do you think?

    NYTimes articles:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/10/business/essay-grading-software-as-teachers-aide-digital-domain.html?_r=1&
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/05/science/new-test-for-computers-grading-essays-at-college-level.html

  20. julieclw says:

    I really like the summary. I found the idea of opposites intriguing. I like the metaphor of the sports. The 10 to 1 ratio is daunting…at least it makes me feel less like a incompetent. Thank you. Julie

  21. daniella says:

    you are a great writer for the way you make talent accessible. i loved the google hang out and i love that you contribute alot to education as a writer and speaker. very cool.
    namaste

  22. Manoj B S says:

    Thankyou, that was an insightful advice.

  23. Silvia M says:

    Hi Daniel,

    Thanks for taking the time to give us extra pieces of advice for us taking this MOOC.
    I kept thinking about your tip No. 10. I actually thought that if someone did not get my writing, was probably because it was not part of my targeted audience. There are people that would never get it, like that guy that wrote an essay to you (hahaha)

    I was smiling as I read your blog because added two images to the text. I am not sure if you did this on purpose or not, but I like this coincidence because our next writing project is about visual images. This is such a great example of the use of images in writing.

    Thanks again!

  24. Olga C says:

    Thank you Daniel. I am one of the students who are taking this course. I love your comment “100% unscientific”. :)

  25. Tony says:

    This may be a dumb question, but what’s the difference between “big” & “small” criticism?

  26. T. Gabriel says:

    Thank you well put and crisply too. It reminded me Rene Descartes(1596-1650); ” You just keep pushing. You just keep pushing. I made every mistake that could be made. But I just keep pushing’.

  27. KBS Krishna says:

    Thank you for the wonderful suggestions. I guess I can call them suggestions, instead of advices.
    I wonder if you would answer a query of mine. You say that we should focus on big criticism and ignore small criticism. But how do we distinguish between big and small criticism?
    Could you please throw some light on this one as well: I am no layman as I teach English literature in a university to post graduates and doctoral students, but I confess that I still do not “get” James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, T.S.Eliot, and Samuel Beckett (without ‘help’). So, does that mean, according to your analysis, that these authors are not good enough?

  28. J.P. Grider says:

    I just came across this post. Wonderful advice. I will be printing it for future reference. And that notebook up at the top – it looks just like mine. lol. I still hand write my books before typing them up on the computer. I feel more creative that way. To each his own, right?
    Thanks again.

  29. Aaliya says:

    Thank you so much for these tips, they are really gonna help me with my writing!

    Cheers!
    xD

  30. Patterson says:

    I Initiating the same MOOC you had last year :) o/

  31. Natali Smirnov says:

    I really like the tip “Don’t fly solo. Find the best writers who’ve written in this vein and study them like a detective. Figure out how they attacked the problem. They are your coaches”. Also, based on my own experience, “solo” will not get you that far in terms of writing. Find a true friend or someone who you trust, someone who can review your writing and provide a sincere feedback. It helps to improve writing skills tremendously.

  32. Gaby Gaione says:

    Useful for junior writers like myself, who also teach writing. Thank you.

  33. Pankaj Shah says:

    Brilliant :-) . Can anyone please explain me the 10:1 efficiency rule. I did not get that rule. It would be great if someone can explain that rule.

  34. Jay Oza says:

    Pankaj,

    What he is saying is that you need to have a lot of material to start with as you are writing at this point. Suppose you end up with 10 pages (which is good) and then through revisions and edits, make it one page so that you are crisp, clear and understandable. This is hard and time consuming.

  35. Nathaiel Ifeanyi okoh says:

    Nice one! Topic is truly different from story. I think it’s reasonable to say that, a good writter should be a good story teller.
    It’s also a good advice to read like a thief, but to help gainst plagiarism try to annotate rather than underline.

  36. Anna Suanco says:

    Awesome! Your advice gave my myelin a good kick and brought me right to the zone. Thanks, Daniel.

  37. Faizan says:

    Amazing article. Initially, I criticized you in my assignment on the same MOOC on your first chapter “sweet spot” review. But now after reading this, I really wish I could erase my criticism. That’s because my criticism was small and petty, but your work is great and plenty.

  38. djcoyle says:

    Hey Faizan, Thanks very much! I really appreciate your kind words. I feel like the beneficiary of the best kind of editing.

  39. Manisha says:

    fantastic article!! I was really looking forward for something as this. It has given me a kick. I definitely am going to improve my writing now. And now I feel that all that redrafts that I make is worth.. :) thanks one again.

  40. Shahid Mahmmod says:

    Excellent article Daniel. I wonder how you increase your vocabulary and essentially how the different & right words come to your mind when you start writing.

  41. Aparna says:

    I didn’t understand the logic of Point no. 5… especially if a person is not aware of the contradictory nature of the object described… i.e you describe a thing with the exact opposite adjectives. So how does or rather when does one use this type of writing?

  42. djcoyle says:

    Good question: an example might be a phrase like “a lacework of rust” — where you’re using lace (delicate, lovely, carefully made) to describe rust — which has some of those characteristics. Or, one of my favorites, describing a drunk person: “he produced a thimbleful of vomit.” The thimble, so perfect and tidy, juxtaposed with the vomit, makes you see both in a new way. This opposites idea works especially well with characters. If you’re writing about a priest, seek to illuminate the parts of him that might remind you of a gangster, and vice-versa. Does that make sense? Opposites, like the poles of a battery, create energy.

  43. mohammad says:

    I found this information to be very helpful. I am taking an English Composition class at Coursera online. So many times I have found myself trying to figure out what to write next. This information you just gave has given me a new approach. Thank You for sharing.

  44. Michael says:

    re. outlining and J.K. Rowling’s “outline”:
    This is such a huge topic that I’m surprised you didn’t address it a little more carefully. An outline is a great tool if I have my sub-topics and arguments in a linear order, but otherwise I use a non-linear tool like a mind-mapping to get a sense of the landscape.

    I don’t write fiction, where multiple concurrent themes or characters need to be kept track of, so I’ve never seen a *matrix* like the one Rowling used, and, thief-like, I’m trying to figure out how to use it or maybe some variation on it. It’s fascinating to contemplate, and thanks for the link; but calling it an “outline,” even though those other folks do–even if Rowling does!–is a mistake because it confuses what seems to be quite clear–what an outline is–and waters down your point about (actual) outlines. You should add a rule about not forcing complicated issues to fit the most handy available box!

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