Advice to a Young Writer

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Five years ago, as a favour, I did a manuscript assessment for a young, first-time writer, someone I had known all his life. I didn’t charge for it and reading it back now I wonder if I went a little harder than I would have had he been a paying customer. Perhaps it was just that I was still in my brutally honest phase. (That’s assuming I’m not still in it – the jury’s out.)

But for any young writers willing to take advice on board, there were a lot of really good ideas on how he could become a better writer. If you’re a young writer or even just a beginner, maybe there’s something in there for you. Hopefully, there’s something in there for all of us.

*****

There is no substitute for just sitting down and writing.
“Anyone who can dedicate the time it takes to write a novel is to be congratulated because for every person out there who actually does it, there are a thousand people who talk about the book they want to write but never actually do it.”

All writers are equal – but some writers are more equal than others.
“Get your hands on as many how-to writing guides as possible and devour them – firstly, I would recommend The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jnr and EB White as an essential book (I have this myself).”

You can’t be a writer if you’re not a reader.
“Read everything – the only reason to be a writer is because you can identify something that isn’t being done and needs someone to do it or something that isn’t being done well and needs someone to prove it can be done better. To identify these things, you need to read a lot. All kinds of genres and literary fiction. And from this reading, you identify the good, the bad, the ugly, you learn, you emulate, you stand on the shoulders of giants and potentially you become a giant yourself.”

Enrol in a writing course.
“Not only will this allow you to practice, practice, practice – since you will have assignments, assignments, assignments and deadlines, deadlines, deadlines – it will also teach you the basics and expose you to people who also want to be writers and are at roughly the same level of development as you are – the best thing for any writer is to be exposed to the work of peers who are also developing their craft.”

A few paragraphs of good writing aren’t enough.
“There were moments throughout reading your manuscript when I noted well-constructed sentences and enjoyable groups of words but these were few and far between. In order for a novel to be considered ‘good’, these moments need to happen a lot more. Pretty much all the time, in fact.”

Really think about the words you choose in your writing.
“There are a lot of instances of the use of not quite right words – lids instead of eyes, mischievously not shyly, chores not tasks, see not perceive, overseen not overlooked, temporary not indefinite, bombarding not hoarding, etc. Stop trying to impress readers with big, fancy words, especially when the word you are replacing the original with isn’t quite the right word – sometimes it just looks like you have used the computer’s thesaurus.”

Know your manuscript better than you know yourself.
“On page 133, you use the sentence ‘The moon shone through an open window, brought forth the bitter wind.’ for the third time. It also appears on page 34 and page 72, the exact same words in the exact same order. The third time I read it, I actually thought to myself, Have I read this page before? It took me a few minutes to realise I hadn’t read the page before, I had just read the same sentence twice before on previous pages.”

Know your clichés so you can avoid them.
“It was a dark and stormy night – you must not be aware of the implications of this phrase but it is generally considered to be the worst opening line to a book of all time. In fact, there is a contest named after the original author of this line aimed at finding the worst opening paragraph to a novel each year. Therefore, to put it into your own novel and to expect people not to laugh at it is just unfathomable.”

Know when to let go.
“Unless you are prepared to devote another year or two to rewriting your first novel, consider this one a practice novel, place it in a bottom desk drawer and move on to your next project. Write a few more practice novels, which once complete are also placed in a bottom desk drawer.”

There is more to writing than just novels.
“Consider focusing equal amounts of time on alternative writing forms such as poetry (which based on your novel I suspect you might be brilliant at), short stories, film and television scripts, blogging, etc.”

*****

I’m not sure if this is the greatest advertisement for my ability to be tactful as a manuscript assessor but I can tell you that the writer did take a lot of my advice, so he was able to get past the brutality part and recognise my feedback was honest and truly meant to help him improve. He enrolled in a two-year degree and focused on writing short stories (which he was brilliant at, by the way) while he developed his skills. If only I’d had someone to be as brutally honest with me at the same age.

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