I recently asked my editing, writer, and reader friends, “What do you most wish editors would tell writers (and that writers would take to heart) about writing?” I thought the answers were worthwhile and illuminating. Here are some of the responses I received:
“Many years ago one of my favorite editors encouraged me to find my own voice as I developed a writing career. No need to imitate the style, vocabulary, etc of others. It was very freeing advice.”
Betty Flowers’s four stages of writing and tell my writing friends about it a lot. It’s great especially for editor types with highly developed critical faculties who are paralyzed by their own knowledge when doing their own writing (they jump to stage four too fast). Madman/woman, architect, carpenter, judge. Here it is: www.ut-ie.com/b/b_flowers.html“
“1. Write the way you talk. People who read my books frequently say that they can hear my voice as they read. 2. Teach only what you’ve lived. Having lived it determines the livability of your ideas.”
“Know your audience.”
“What does your audience want to hear about your work and what do they need to hear and can you incrementally permeate the writing, taking them where they appreciate going, and imagining that they knew this all along and love it that you helped them better understand the subject? And secondly not to add a second thing or use run-on sentences.”
“In an interview, Ernest Hemingway, when asked to identify the characteristics of great writing, is reported to have offered, ‘In order to be a great writer a person must have a built-in, shockproof crap detector.’ (I discovered this wisdom via Neil Postman, Teaching As a Subversive Activity.)”
“Less is more. Understatement is powerful. Oh, and don’t be afraid to be funny.”
“Conservation of verbiage. Say it once, say it well . . . say it in a way that people will remember and want to quote. If it’s not memorable or advancing your story or thesis, cut it out; it’s superfluous.”
“Get rid of most of your adjectives.”
“For most non-fiction writing, structure is the author’s friend! Nothing is more difficult for an editor than having to wrestle with a disorganized mass of prose and trying to help the author find some semblance of the inherent structure within.”
and proofread out loud. If it sounds wrong to your ear, then it probably is, or at least you could (most of the time) write it better without changing the meaning.”
“Please write multiple drafts before turning it in. I promise, rewriting helps.”
One friend, however, was a bit sour (or should we say realistic?) about the whole enterprise:
“Unless you really know you are a brilliant author – don’t write. The bookshops are full of boring – both in terms of the English language and in terms of truth – biblically, theologically, philosophically.”
I also heard slightly different opinions about editors. One wrote:
“Don’t feel obliged to take an editor’s word for something. In my experience (10 books & 700+ articles/chapters/reviews), editors collectively have batted about .500. The really good ones? About .750. None were infallible, just as I am not. So I’m grateful for editors, but also willing to engage them in friendly discussion-cum-argument, and I encourage other authors to do so. (And I gave this advice to authors in the four books of essays I’ve edited, too–just for the record . . . )”
On the other hand, a couple others said:
“Everyone needs a good editor.”
“I wish writers wouldn’t be afraid of the editing process. A good editor is there to help and enhance and clarify–to make the writer look good and make the work . . . work! So many writers confessed to me afterward that they had been nervous about it beforehand. In all my years, I only ever had ONE unhappy writer–and she was a megalomaniac and possibly mentally ill! Most writers get happy about their edited work.”
So what is the best advice you’d give about writing?
2 thoughts on “What Writers Most Need to Know”
This is a helpful post. The point about knowing your audience is challenging because I think the audience I want to reach does not have the reading habits or perspectives I do. How does one figure out way a lay/popular Christian audience is like? Some of what I see published for that audience I would never want to write.
It’s very tricky, Ken. I think some models of books that do what you probably have in mind are the trilogy–God Behaving Badly, Jesus Behaving Badly and Paul Behaving Badly. The all have up to date scholarship in the background but they deal with it from the perspective of the pressing questions on the minds of students and lay folk–God seems mean, if not cruel in the Bible. Why did Jesus talk about hell so much and tell followers to leave their families? Wasn’t Paul anti-woman and anti-sex? And the authors all write in a casual way with regular examples and illustrations from contemporary culture.
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