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Best Writing AdviceWhat advice have you found most helpful in writing?  For me, it's...

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jamie-wheeler | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted March 21, 2008 at 1:08 PM via web

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Best Writing Advice

What advice have you found most helpful in writing?  For me, it's probably "The art of writing is applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair."

As for texts, I couldn't live without the slim little volume, Hemingway:  On Writing.  For both my students and myself, Ann Lamott's Bird by Bird can't be beat.  As we get older, especially, so many things compete for our time:  kids, jobs, house, etc.  Here's an excerpt:

Close you eyes and get quiet for a minute, until the chatter starts up.  Then isolate one of the voices and imagine the person speaking as a mouse.  Pick it up by the tail and drop it into a mason jar....Drop in any high-maintenance parental units...children...anyone who is whining in your head.  Then put the lid on, and watch all these mouse people clawing at the glass, jabbering away, tyring to make you feel like shit because you won't do what they want.  Then imagine there is a volume control button on the bottle.  Turn it all the way up for a minute, and listen to the stream of angry, neglected, guilt-mongering voices.  Then turn it all the way down and watch the frantic mice lunge at the glass and try to get to you.  Leave it down, and get back to your shitty first draft.

A writer friend of mine suggests opening the jar and shooting them all in the head.  But I think he's a little angry, and I'm sure nothing like this would ever occur to you. 

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Scott Locklear | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted March 21, 2008 at 1:42 PM (Answer #2)

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The best advice? As a surly prof once told me:

Look. Chances are pretty good no one will ever read your stuff or care when you're dead. So write with honesty; put all the dirt right there on the carpet and roll around in it. You have nothing to lose.

As far as manuals and the like go, have a gander at this: Simple and Direct. A rarely perused treasure these days that will get you bonus points at copy-editor cocktail parties.

Scott Locklear

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clane | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

Posted March 21, 2008 at 3:19 PM (Answer #3)

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Scott, I actually own it! :) The best advice I ever got was from a philosophy professor. Writing about philosophy is much different than writing about or for English. He told us,

Cut the crap, cut the fluff, cut the big words, cut everything, every word in there should serve a purpose. Then if an eight year old can pick it up and get it, then you've achieved what you set out to do- write philosophy. It complicated enough to wrap your mind around philosophical concepts without using big words and fluff to make it worse.

I have found in teaching high school kids to write, that this advice is pretty good since most of them are trying to add fluff to reach a page number or word count. I tell them the same thing, if it isn't building on your thesis then cut it out. When they become more confident then I allow the fluffier language to find its way back in and students who do this often can write much better, meatier, if you will, papers, stories, reports, you name it.

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linda-allen | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted March 21, 2008 at 5:14 PM (Answer #4)

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I spent twenty years as a copy editor/production editor, so you'd think I'd have lots of great advice. The best writing, whether in a reference book or in a novel, is that in which you feel as if the author is talking directly to you. The best nonfiction I've ever read are Alison Weir's books about the Tudors. You feel like you're reading a novel when you're actually reading a history textbook.

I had so many authors who could write well enough to pass their doctoral dissertations but who couldn't put two sentences together and make sense. Most of my authors are the top theologians and religious scholars out there, and they're often presenters on those "who wrote the Bible" shows. You'd be surprised how poorly many of them write. I had one author who was so afraid of offending anybody that he actually wrote this phrase: "the spouse of the deceased male person." Uh, you mean the widow?

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leagye | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Assistant Educator

Posted March 30, 2008 at 10:34 AM (Answer #5)

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I very much agree with #3. As an English teacher, one of the first lessons we cover when we being crafting essays is the one I call "Writing Tightly." I basically cover what writing concisely means, and it doesn't necessarily mean "shorter" or less words. It means using specific words to make your point, especially action verbs. It means eliminating redundancies and empty phrases from paragraphs and sentences. I learned the phrase "writing tightly" when I was enrolled in a technical writing program at SDSU. I didn't complete the program, or go into technical writing, but when I began newspaper journalism several years later, and subsequently began teaching high school English, I realized that tight writing is what sets great writing apart from mediocre writing, whether one is penning a short story, essay or technical manual.

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timbrady | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

Posted June 12, 2008 at 8:23 PM (Answer #6)

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I agree with all the emphasis on concision and simplicity teachers have already mentioned.  I think the most important thing that has not been mentioned yet is having as exact as possible an idea of what you are going to say before you start ... I think a lot of sloppy writing mirrors sloppy thinking.

As for a text, I like "The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing"  by Michael Harvey. It's concise, inexpensive, and covers all the ground I need with ample (if not copious) examples.  You can check out the online edition at http://nutsandbolts.washcoll.edu/.

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kwoo1213 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator

Posted June 12, 2008 at 9:39 PM (Answer #7)

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The best advice I received was from my Creative Writing course professor named Michael White, who is also a well-known poet.  He told me to always aim to put your reader into the moment in whatever you're writing about, so this is something I teach my own students in freshman comp. 

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jsmckenna | College Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

Posted June 17, 2008 at 4:59 PM (Answer #8)

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I find that reading the other posts gives me reason to pat myself on the back once in a while!  It is wonderful to commiserate and compare and advise, especially with others who have been there and done that.  One thing I live by in teaching writing is the first step, pre-writing.  I hold my college freshman responsible for pre-writing, as well as the other steps of the writing process.  With the access to computers, some students think that just because it was done on a computer and printed out, it is the final draft.  The students have four ways they can pre-write: free-writing, listing, mapping/webs, or reporters questions.  This is submitted first, usually on several different topics for the assignment given.  After the planning process is looked at by peers or by me, we go on to rough-rough draft formulation.  By forcing the students to look at ideas first, I have gotten many to stop the "fluffing" and use more concise supports and valid examples.

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kwoo1213 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator

Posted June 17, 2008 at 6:48 PM (Answer #9)

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In response to #8, I do something very similar in my freshman comp. class.  I am firm believer in prewriting and proper planning before writing an essay!

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asorrell | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Assistant Educator

Posted June 24, 2008 at 6:45 AM (Answer #10)

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Jsmckenna, I love your prewriting ideas.  I'm a journalism teacher too, so I like the ideas of the reporter's questions.  Anyone else have prewriting ideas?

We use Criterion online writing assessment.  (http://criterion.ets.org) They offer a lot of different prewriting tools.  I've never required the students to complete them, but I think next year I'll require they either do the prewriting on Criterion or complete some other kind of prewriting for most of their essays.

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amy-lepore | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted June 26, 2008 at 9:55 AM (Answer #11)

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Prewriting is the key!  In addition, it is important that the kids choose topics that thrill them.  Otherwise, it will be painful for them to write and painful for me to read.  I teach seniors, and with portfolios and the research paper, I read a lot of stuff I wish I didn't have to read.  :)  I try not to write all over the papers, but again, with prewriting exercises they get down to the nitty-gritty and the "So What?" of a piece before they actually start writing.  It helps them to organize, too, which is a huge help for both writer and audience.  :)

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lequam | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

Posted June 26, 2008 at 12:19 PM (Answer #12)

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The best advice that I have gotten about writing is "revise, revise, and revise some more."  Prewriting and drafting are important, but a lot of people (especially students) think that once they have their words down on paper that they are done.  But writing is about revising and improving what you have written. 

A good resource that I have found and really enjoy using is Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. 

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted June 24, 2010 at 11:00 AM (Answer #13)

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I think writing is all about successfully inhabiting a character so fully that you come to be slightly schizophrenic. So research research research is key as you seek to live their life and journey with them.

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Wiggin42 | TA , Grade 11 | Valedictorian

Posted June 29, 2014 at 10:57 PM (Answer #14)

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I've been told to just start writing. Often, the hardest part of writing all the wonderful ideas in your head is finding a place to start. Putting pen to paper (fingers to keyboard?) is the first step and its the hardest step. I just need to learn not to worry about perfection on the first edit. 

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