Friday, September 11, 2009

What's your best writing advice?

What's the single most important piece of writing advice that you've ever received? I can name mine easily: Lew Fishman, an editor when I was on staff at Golf Digest's trade magazine, had bloodied up one of my articles. (Rightfully so.)

"Most of the time, the first two or three paragraphs you start with are B.S.," he said, pointing to two red-felt-pen "X" marks at the top of the paper. "Just cut them, and that's where your lead is."

It's a technique that, 20 years later, I use every day. The principle not only works for feature stories, but for web content, advertising copy, emails, press releases, written correspondence, editing someone else's name it. Don't vamp. Get to the point. At first, I felt awful about leaving carefully crafted text on the cutting-room floor. As I came to understand how effective it was, guilt gave way to relief.

For most creatives who are talented enough to make a living at it, trying to explain how you do what you do doesn't come easily, whether you're a writer, designer, illustrator or photographer. (It's a "feel" thing, right?) Nonetheless, it is worth occasionally revisiting the technical aspects of your craft, even if it's only to remind yourself of the power of the simplest tools.


  1. Another good one is to NOT write like you talk. Most people don't speak very well.

  2. I've learned so many pointers over the last 10 years. I guess the most important one is to keep the audience in mind, and always remember you're talking to ONE person, and one person only.

    The minute you start writing for the client, or for an audience of thousands, you've tuned the consumer right out.

    "Pretend you're selling your idea to a friend," is how my first CD put it, in one of their calmer moments.

  3. Good one. That's the approach that Warren Buffett takes for his annual report chairman letters, which are the best in the business. (I believe he pretends he's writing to his mom or his Aunt Betty or something.)

  4. When I have the luxury of a little time, I will write with reckless abandon, reams of words, then stop and put it away. Like a stew on the stove, I let it simmer and come back to it later...usually with the reaction, OMG...what was I thinking?! Writing, like anything, should be a practiced endeavor in order to be skilled at it.

  5. adchick, I really wish I could do that! I've been working for so many years to keep things short & tight that it's challenging to gush freely.

    In an attempt to break through that, I'm seriously considering doing National Novel Writing Month--50,000 words in November. I've got a solid concept, but churning 1700 words a day...yikes.

  6. I find myself in a similar predicament. Twenty years of 3 sentences, 3 sentences, and out, and I wonder at my ability to write something long. I have a feeling that once you get into it, however, it will come. Or perhaps pull a Ray Bradbury and just do a book of short stories!

  7. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Rob. (I wish *I* were as confident about it!) Am I allowed to write 3-sentence short stories?