Writing Tips for Short Stories – Scrawl

As short story entries for this years Scrawl Writing Competition wash in on the electronic tides, we thought we’d browse the interweb for tips and pointers on writing methods and pass them on in a digested manner. There’s the practical tidbits from all over the place, and then the more idiosyncratic offerings from authors who, on this evidence, seem to establish a connection between oddity and talent.

Practical advice:

  • Use correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar.
  • Be wary of adverbs and adjectives.
  • Cut, cut, cut.
  • Use active voice.
  • Show, don’t tell.
  • Put off editing until it is written.
  • Write what you know.
  • Research.

Authorial advice: (Here’s an excellent link to a collection of authors and their advice on writing: Ten Rules for Writing Fiction)

George Orwell

  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Break rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Esther Freud

  • Editing is everything. Cut until you can cut no more. What is left often springs into life.
  • Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained. If you really know something, and breathe life into it, they’ll know it too.
  • Cut out the metaphors and similes. In my first book I promised myself I wouldn’t use any and I slipped up ­during a sunset in chapter 11. I still blush when I come across it.

Kurt Vonnegut Jnr.

  • Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  • Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  • Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  • Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.

Helen Dunmore

  • Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away. It’s a nice feeling, and you don’t want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.

Anne Enright

  • Only bad writers think that their work is really good.
  • Try to be accurate about stuff.
  • Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you ­finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die.
  • You can also do all that with whiskey.

A distilled reading of authorial writing advice boils down to a couple of simple practical principles:

1. The road to hell is paved with adverbs.

2. Cut. Cut some more. Edit a wee bit, then carry on with the cutting. That bit you really liked and spent hours shaping? You should probably cut it. Remember William Faulkner, “In writing, you must kill your darlings.”

3. Get a thesaurus.

4. Write because you like it. Write what you want and what you know, and write lots of it. Edit afterwards. And don’t forget to cut.

5. Rules are for losers. Sometimes.


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