Q4U: Writing Advice

Before we get to today’s Q4U, I just want to say thanks once again to all of my faithful blog readers. You’re awesome! I spent the week trying to answer reader questions and as usual, YOU addressed them better than I ever could. That’s the great thing about this little community we’ve got here. I never have to worry that I didn’t adequately cover a topic in a post because I know you’ll all chime in with your wisdom. So, thanks!


Most of us spend a good portion of our time learning about writing. We read books about writing, attend writers’ conferences, take workshops, participate in critique groups. And of course, we read Randy Ingermanson’s blog which contains some of the best teaching about writing on the web these days.

Along those lines, today’s question is:

What’s the best or most helpful writing advice or inspiration you’ve received? Share the goods with us. At some point I’ll create a blog post with my favorites.

For my entry, here is something I read recently about writing and “art.” (The Writer magazine, April, 2008.) It’s not advice per se, but I liked the quote and found it to be liberating.

Art is a very big word, in its exact meaning, and the percentage of writings of artistic stature in any day or any field is very small. Writing is merely a means of communication, of expression; art lies in the man, not the medium. The work of art—the great book, the great story—is usually the result less of intent than of happenstance, the miraculous conjunction of a true talent at the height of its power with a subject perfectly suited to it. Shakespeare wrote not for posterity but for an audience of his contemporaries; most of us can afford an equal modesty. Posterity has a way of making up its own mind, and besides, it is hard enough to write anything without having to write a masterpiece.

Allen Marple, 1963.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Timothy Fish on June 28, 2008 at 10:39 PM

    >In writing what we know, another way to state that is to write in such a way that even a caveman would understand. Writing what we know isn’t about a city slicker never writing about a country bumpkin or something similar. Hollywood talks about engineers all the time and I have seldom seen them portray them well, but that doesn’t prevent people from enjoying the story. In fiction, writing what we know is more about writing about the emotions that we have experienced. We can put a love story in modern times, in the Victorian era or on a spaceship, but if we don’t know love then all the research in the world will not allow us to write about it. We must write about emotions that we have experienced, no matter what the setting of our story.

  2. E.A. West on June 28, 2008 at 7:03 PM

    >I agree with just writing the first draft even if you know it’s garbage, then go back later to revise and rewrite as necessary. Editing while trying to write tends to kill my creativity and give me a major case of writer’s block.

    My other favorite piece of advice is to not take “write what you know” too literally. Instead, write what you can learn because by the time you finish your research, you’ll know it. I actually blogged about this piece of advice a few months ago because it freed me as a writer and has helped me expand my writing.

    As for inspiration, I believe you can be inspired by anything. A conversation with your best friend, watching people walk through the park, just letting your mind wander aimlessly. Sometimes I think my best inspiration comes when I least expect it.

    By the way, I love the last line of the quote you posted: “Posterity has a way of making up its own mind, and besides, it is hard enough to write anything without having to write a masterpiece.”

    Remembering that will take off a lot of pressure.

  3. Pam Halter on June 28, 2008 at 1:36 PM

    >”Do or do not … there is no try.”
    Jedi Master Yoda

  4. Ariel Allison Lawhon on June 28, 2008 at 12:09 PM

    >Great questions Rachelle! Three things come to mind.

    1. “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” – Thomas Mann (Ain’t that the truth!)

    2. “I believe in writing your way to the end. Write a sloppy first draft so you can se the shape of the thing. All you ask of the second draft is that it be better than the first.” – James Magnuson

    3. “A book is a big thing. How do you go back and revise it? Take the worst chapter and make it the best. Then do it again. It’s as if you are raising poles under a big circus tent. What was sagging is now elevated. The whole thing begins to take shape.” – James Magnuson (This is my all time favorite piece of writing advice.)

    So there you have the three mantras I’m living on during this season of my writing life.

  5. Rebecca LuElla Miller on June 28, 2008 at 11:49 AM

    >From my critique group, not a direct quote but in essence the following: Don’t insult your readers’ intelligence. Let them imagine and give them credit for “getting it.”


  6. Timothy Fish on June 28, 2008 at 8:05 AM

    >Gwen’s comment brings the thought to mind that there is a difference between art and technique. When I was in kindergarten, I used to make up songs, singing whatever came into my head. I doubt my pitch was great and I know the rhythm had some abrupt changes, but it was art. In writing, we spend a lot of time talking about technique. That is good, because many of us need to improve our technique, but I wonder if we should also be looking for ways to improve our art. I throw that out here, not having completely thought through the implications of that, but it is art, not technique, that pulls the reader’s heartstrings. I don’t think it is as simple as expressing our feelings with abandon. That may be find for children’s art, but maturity should produce something better.

  7. Gwen Stewart on June 28, 2008 at 4:26 AM

    >I’ve received wonderful bits and pieces of advice from many sources. I won’t give a laundry list; a good deal of it is mentioned above or would be known by most writers.

    For inspiration: fellow writers, blogs, book and online sources and most especially, my students.

    Your quote about art above made me ponder, Rachelle–this is a good thing! As a teacher I consider art a process, not a product. Therefore, a kindergartner playing a tambourine off-beat is art to me, as is a fifth grader with a recorder (heh). I’m looking at process. Of course, others see it differently: it’s product that defines what is art and isn’t. And that’s valid too…in fact, probably more valid than my teacher-view.

    My students inspire me not to be intimidated in creation, whether it’s art or not. Put a bunch of kids in a room full of instruments and tell them to get with buddies, have at it and compose a song and watch what happens. You get songs. Maybe not be great songs; maybe not “art”, but you get songs. Do the same for adults and you get intimidation and excuses; laughter and self-consciousness. Can’t, won’t, shouldn’t, don’t know how.

    Like my students in a room full of instruments, I write. I worry about whether I can afterward, attempt to refine, and leave the judgment of the rest to those who would know.

  8. Mark Adair on June 27, 2008 at 10:07 PM

    >Hmm…good stuff. Although Rachelle’s question specifically mentions writing advice or inspiration, I’d like to toss out just a couple of quotes (from fiction works) that have given me permission to explore, in my writing life and beyond.

    “Not all those who wander are lost” Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien

    “It is the heart that is not yet sure of its God that is afraid to laugh in His presence.” Sir Gibbie, George MacDonald

    In christian writing and life, it seems our American sub-culture tends toward the anal. Even though it is for living, breathing, and giving freedom that He set us free, we really like our rules, boundaries, and lists of “what’s okay” and “what’s not okay” – better safe than sorry. Sure, they’re chains that bind us, but at least we’re in charge of putting on the cuffs, and determining the proper procedure for cuffing oneself…not to mention the acceptable words to use if one should accidentally pinch one’s wrist in the cuffing process.

    I see a direct correlation in my life between legalism and creative constipation (i.e. writer’s block). Creativity grows only in the soil of grace and permission and freedom. We get to wander; we get to laugh; we get to create; we get to put on our walking shoes, pick up our nap sack, and follow the road to places that forever change us and others.

    Some of the best writing (and life) advice I’ve received came from hundreds of different characters in a myriad of fictional genres, worlds, cultures, and phrases: just say ‘yes’ to permission.

  9. Timothy Fish on June 27, 2008 at 10:03 PM

    >You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it. — Mark Twain in letter to Orion Clemens

  10. Randy Ingermanson on June 27, 2008 at 7:18 PM

    >The best advice I ever heard on writing was this: “Get it written. Then get it right.” I heard it from Jim Bell, who was quoting someone else.

    It’s good advice. You can be so intent on getting the first draft perfect that you can’t write a word.

  11. Rachelle on June 27, 2008 at 2:57 PM

    >No worries, I’m a big fan of breaking the rules.

  12. Anita Mae on June 27, 2008 at 1:41 PM

    >Write your story, then go back and drop the first scene or chapter because invariably, those have been written because you needed to write them. But the reader usually doesn’t need to read them.

    Write the way your heart directs, even if you’re bending rules like the CBA guidelines. Why? Because it’s easier to take out a few words or scenes that don’t work than it is to inject the same level of ‘heart’ in a scene without them. An editor/agent can see it there. Can imagine it. Can decide for themselves. But if it isn’t there to start with…?

    Sorry, Rachelle. I usually don’t condone breaking the rules, but you did ask.

  13. Timothy Fish on June 27, 2008 at 1:34 PM

    >During my second freshman year in college, I took my obligatory writing classes. Nolan Porterfield, a published author, taught one of them. It must have been our first writing assignment when one student asked, “how many words should it be?” Dr. Porterfield looked at the student and said, “I don’t like that question. If I tell you how long it should be then some students will stop writing when they reach that point and others will add words to make sure they reach that point. Write enough to cover the topic and no more.” He was talking about short writing assignments, but I believe it applies to novels as well, though I think novelists tend to have the problem that they don’t know when to shut up rather than not writing enough to cover the topic.

    Another good piece of advice is to write a good tagline first. This was in reference to screenplays, but it applies to other forms of writing as well. I think that if authors would write their elevator pitch and the BCC before writing they begin writing, then write the story to match, they would produce better work. At the very least they would be able to tell other people what they are writing.

  14. Sonja Hutchinson on June 27, 2008 at 11:24 AM

    >I’ve had so many, it’s hard to narrow it down! I’ve read a ton of great books, but the best advice came directly to me during one-on-one sessions with experts. Here are my top two:

    Kathy Tyre taught me that the best villains are those that don’t believe they are evil, even if they do wicked deeds. They think what they’re doing is for the best: either the greater good of their society, or their own greater good. And the more altruistic their goal, the harder it is to pit my hero/protagonist against the villain.

    John Olson asked me: what makes my protagonist so special that he’s the guy to stop the villain? Why is it HIS story? What makes him unique, chosen?

  15. Rachelle on June 27, 2008 at 10:46 AM

    >Anon 9:40 —
    Oh, I love Enzo. And that’s one of my favorite lines of his from the book! In fact, you’re not the first person who’s quoted it to me!

  16. Anonymous on June 27, 2008 at 10:40 AM

    >I’ve heard/read/intuited/dreamed/ignored/followed a ton of writing advice over the years. But my favorite recent bit’o’wisdom comes from the protagonist in the novel The Art of Racing in the Rain. (The protagonist is a dog, Enzo.)

    This is what Enzo says on page 59:

    “For me, a good story is all about setting up expectations and delivering on them in an exciting and surprising way.”

    Doggone it, he’s right!

  17. Kat Harris on June 27, 2008 at 10:40 AM

    >When I was just beginning my reporting career, a magazine editor I know once explained how the beauty of a story is often enhanced by brevity.

    A 400-word story can often say more than a 800-word story if properly done.

    The other piece of advice I find most valuable is the old standby: Write what you know.

  18. natalie on June 27, 2008 at 10:32 AM

    >An editor (and mentor) I’ve worked with for years taught me to “throw up on the screen” (her words). She believes writers block is usually just code for insecurity and procrastination. She told me if I just start typing, eventually something will start to take shape (even if it’s verbal vomit at first 😉

    Here are a few more pieces of advice I lean heavy on:

    Discover something new every day.

    Write what you love. (It’s so standard but it’s so true.)

    Read more. I’ve always thought the whole “you are what you eat” scenario is funny (I always picture the Twinkie costumes at Wal-Mart :). But I have a theory writers are what they read. I think reading, more than any class or critique group, has helped me become a better writer.

    I have a Psalm from The Message hanging on my board too. It reads, “My heart bursts at its banks overflowing in beauty and goodness. I pour it out in a poem to the king, shaping the river into words.” Occasionally I pack up all the “work” and just start writing – no rules, no technical boundaries. Some days I just need to get lost in the overflow.

  19. Cheryl Barker on June 27, 2008 at 10:08 AM

    >Some of the advice I’ve received that’s most helped me as a writer? Connect with other writers.

    An agent (whose name I can’t remember right now) advised in an interview to join a group like The Christian Writer’s View, and not long after that a writer friend urged me to join a Christian writer’s group and/or a critique group. I joined TWV2 and bit the bullet and decided to drive the 75 miles necessary to join a Christian writer’s group. Doing both of those things has helped me so much. I’m now gaining lots of great insight into the publishing world as well as receiving training and the enjoying the camaraderie and support of other writers.

    In other words, hang out with other writers. You’ll be inspired!

  20. Nicole on June 27, 2008 at 9:29 AM

    >”Write your passion.”

    And make sure your motives are worthwhile.

  21. Anne L.B. on June 27, 2008 at 9:16 AM

    >It seems like there’s a million tips about the mechanics of writing that come down to nothing less than practice, practice, PRACTICE (often on four hours sleep and no coffee).

    “Art lies in the man, not the medium.”

    But the message itself comes from a place deep within in my soul, and usually flows from me nearly effortlessly. When I find myself struggling (“writer’s block”), I know it’s time to connect with the One who feeds my soul. If I’m going to write anything truly worthwhile, He must fill me first before something good comes out. Dependence on the Lord is requirement number one.

    And then, “All I know that if it’s in you you’re going to get sick if you don’t let it out.”

  22. Lea Ann on June 27, 2008 at 8:55 AM

    >At the writer’s conference I attended recently, I believe it was Stephen James who said, “There is no ONE right way to write! No one else’s formula has to work for you.”

    He proceeded to give advice in complete contrast to the session I’d just attended and it was exhilerating to know I didn’t have to do it someone else’s way, just because it worked for them.

  23. JC on June 27, 2008 at 8:50 AM

    >don’t mind my typos, i am exhausted, am going on 4 hours sleep and no coffee. Sorry.

  24. JC on June 27, 2008 at 8:48 AM

    >I was going to quote exactly what Andrew said, but he got here first.

    Of course there is the motto: Just Write

    Beyong that, I can honestly say I have never gotten writer’s block, and I think it has alot to do with a soemthing I read once(forget who, sorry)that said writer’s block only happens when you don’t know your character well enough. So anytime I have no idea what to write or just feel stuck, I go inside my head and imagine I am the character, I play music that captures his mood at the moment, and the words just come.

  25. Richard Mabry on June 27, 2008 at 7:31 AM

    I’ve received so much advice, some of it good and some not-so-much, that it’s hard to pick one thing. But when I’m struggling with my writing, I go back to these five tips from Lawrence Block’s TELLING LIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT. They are his “tricks of the trade.”
    1. Give writing top priority. (Put it at the top of your to-do list every day).
    2. Set goals for yourself. (Five pages, two thousand words, whatever. And when that’s done, relax).
    3. Stay in the now. (Concentrate on today’s work. Don’t worry about tomorrow’s or next week’s).
    4. Just get it written. (Like Jim Bell’s excellent advice: Get it down, then get it right. You can edit later).
    5. Don’t take it too seriously. (Sure we feel a call to write–most of us–but if we’re not successful, civilizations won’t crumble and empires won’t rise and fall on the strength of our work. Or, as Block says, “It’s only a book.”)

    I’m sure there are among your readers those who will quibble with Block’s advice, but I like his attitude.

  26. christa on June 27, 2008 at 7:26 AM

    >Great quote, Rachelle. It is reassuring to read a work of art is “usually the result less of intent than of happenstance.”

    I like what Marple says about Shakespeare writing for his peeps. Really, how intimidated would I feel sitting before the keyboard thinking, “Okay, sister, this stuff you’re writing will have to survive hundreds of years after you’ve met THE EDITOR of eternity.” Yipes(not to be confused with cripes.]

    Anne Lamott’s writing advice appeals to me because she’s not afraid to talk about the underbelly of petty jealousies, awful drafts, and sheer frustrations of being a writer. And she’s equally unafraid to tell those who want to write to get over all of that and write.

    In a PBS interview,Lamott said, “Really no one cares if you get your writing done, it’s of no cosmic importance that you do. All I know that if it’s in you you’re going to get sick if you don’t let it out. And it’s your memories and your dreams and your versions of things and these characters who’ve selected you to be their typist.”

    That last line slays me every time I read it–the characters who’ve chosen me to be their typist. Characters who won’t exist unless I sit my butt in the chair and type them into existence.


  27. Andrew on June 27, 2008 at 3:46 AM

    >I’ll paraphrase here cos I can’t remember the full quote, actually thinking about it it probably wasn’t even a “quote” as such, just a general gist.

    It’s after reading “On Writing” and he says ‘It’s ok to suck in the first draft.’ then goes onto explain how rewiting isn’t just a bit of line editing, and even Steven King can write some drivel in a first draft. I can’t tell you how relieved I was when I read that.

    Before I’d always thought work comes out pretty much completed and it needs a few adverbs axed here and some clarity there, like touching up the paint on a sculpture. That bit in “on writing” really put into perspective that the first draft – “the story” – is just the shape of the sculpture, rewriting does the job of painting it perfectly.

    Oh and Orson Scott Card. – “What’s “in” are stories that readers understand, care about, and believe in — provide that in one hundred pages and they’ll buy a thin book; provide it in 10,000 pages, and your name is Robert Jordan.”….that helped me finish my first novel (a 287000 behemoth of a first draft) and stops me worrying if I’m over writing or putting too much plot in – If the story is good write it, worry about selling it later