The Golden Rules of Writing
Ernest Hemmingway wrote: “I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that feed it”. Wise words from one of the greatest modern-day writers, and sage advice to someone challenged with emptying his study, but hauntingly sad given the periods in his later life where – paralysed by depression and paranoia – he was unable to write.
I’ve found there to be no such thing as writer’s block. As Terry Pratchett wrote, “there’s always an angle, and always a way”. Writing, however, is closely linked to sensitivity and perception. It encourages happiness, contemplation and creation. There’s much to be found in the quiet loneliness of silent observation. It’s where genius sparks like midnight lightning on a moonless night. But it’s also where dark clouds consume us when our muse goes quiet.
Managing one’s writing output is easier when one’s emotions are in check. Also when one learns from experience and follows a process. Which is why I’m going to share some tips with you. I call them my Golden Rules of Writing.
Fennel’s Golden Rules of Writing
- Know and stay true to your brand. Every word you write must support your brand promise and values.
- Know your voice. Dare to be different. How does your message, or how you say it, make you unique? What can you write about, in a way that no one else can?
- Be clear about your message and mission. Decide what you want to say, and the reaction (or action) you seek from your reader, and then make your point quickly – ideally in the first paragraph. Or, more interestingly, by describing something in an abstract way that forces your reader to take notice and see things as you do.
- Be clear about your message and mission. Sounds familiar? It’s so important, I’ve listed it twice. It means writing with purpose. Know exactly what you want your reader to know, understand, do, or feel as a result of reading your writing. Begin with this end in mind. Have a macro message (that readers will know you for) and a micro message that will be the focus of your book, chapter, or article.
- Have an angle. Decide the perspective you wish to apply to a subject, then use the story to ‘show not tell’ your observations to your reader. The goal is to make the reader observe something they perhaps hadn’t thought of before (hence why I developed my rule of ‘Inspire, Inform, Entertain’ – selecting one or more as the goal for each chapter or article I write).
- Keep things simple. Have just one message, angle or argument in your writing. Reinforce it (ideally three times), either from different perspectives or by giving supporting examples. The Rule of Three is invaluable.
- Structure your writing. Each book, chapter and article should have a beginning, middle and end. The beginning sets the scene, providing the background and context of what you will write next. The middle is the story that supports your message, and the end is either the conclusion (learning), page turner (cliff hanger), or call to action. Again, The Rule of Three.
- Don’t circle. Keep the tense and timeline consistent. If you’re telling a story, the reader expects you to guide them through a logical timeline, so don’t ‘circle’ from past, present, and future events or tense.
- Write passionately. Whilst you might temper your emotion, never temper your passion. Always, always, write passionately. People are unlikely to remember your exact words, but they’ll remember the story and how you made them feel. So make them feel your passion. Always consider and shape the emotional reaction you want your reader to have at various points during the story, and especially how you want them to feel at the end.
- Inspire your reader. There’s a marketing rule that says ‘people react to wants, not needs’. For example, if you’re a food writer, you could write about the nutritional value of the muscles on a pig’s back. But you’d inspire your reader more if you wrote about how amazing it is to wake to the smell and sound of bacon frying in a pan. Make them want to take action.
- Use Plain English. You’ll lose your reader if he or she has to keep reaching for a dictionary. As you gain experience and confidence, use the thesaurus less and less. Always speak with language appropriate to your audience. Less is usually more, so use words economically, removing superfluous text and unnecessary adjectives. The first word you think of is usually best, so don’t feel compelled to be ‘clever’ with your word choices.
- Speak with a conversational tone. It makes your writing more accessible. Use ‘it’s’ not ‘it is’ unless you’re stressing a point or writing for formal or academic publications. Usually, though, people like to hear your voice when reading your words, so write as you would speak. Use simple word choices and make only one point per sentence. If you get stuck, use a Dictaphone and then transcribe your words to observe your tone and style. I bet you use shorter sentences and paragraphs than you realised. This is good.
- Writing is entertainment. People choose to invest their time and money in reading, so make it worthwhile. Give them something they value, and sometimes things they didn’t expect but then come to love. Your writing has to compete for their attention, not just with other authors but also with television programmes, films, computer games, and a whole host of recreations.
- Make your writing personal. Always write as if you’re talking to one person, not a group. Remember: you’re one person, your reader is one person. Always try to picture the person you’re writing to. If it helps, have a photo of them on your desk and start your article or chapter with ‘Dear …’ (then remove the ‘Dear’ bit during editing). Also remember that ‘you’ and ‘we’ are power words that get the reader on your side.
- For your reader, everything is now. You might have written the material many years before, but it’s present in the reader’s world today. You may have moved on in your interests, tastes or research, but as far as your reader is concerned, your words are a snapshot of your world right now. So provide continuity or a gradual evolution of the messages and values communicated in your writing. Take the reader on your journey, but at their pace.
- Make your reader smile. Conflict presents an opportunity for comedy. The classic sitcom is based on this principle. It entertains your reader and makes your story more memorable. Remember Ted the Postman’s replacement, or the man on the train doing the crossword? What memorable ways to emphasise the allure and power of words.
- Make it real. If you’re introducing characters, ensure they support your overall story. There are three types of character: Protagonist, Victim, and Rescuer. Each character relates to the other. In Fennel’s Journal, protagonists include harsh employers, urban places, blind acceptance of modern technology, and sedentary indoor lifestyles. They make me the victim. Rescuers are Mrs H, nature, writing, traditionalism, and outdoor adventure. They free me from the victimisation caused by the protagonists. See how it works?
- Enable your reader to escape. Atmosphere and emotion bring writing to life. Take the reader with you on your adventures as you explore places and subjects. Evoke the senses. Build images in the reader’s mind. Use verbs relating to hearing, seeing, feeling, tasting and smelling. If we can picture it, it’s more likely to seem real and the writer-reader bond will develop.
- Write for yourself... Unless you’re writing marketing copy or ghost-writing something for someone else, write firstly about things that inspire you. Writing for a particular audience’s needs can be draining. Worse, it can dilute your uniqueness as you kowtow to what’s safe and expected. Be true to your unique voice and the worldview for which you’re known. Maintain the angle in your writing. Hold true to it, as your readers want your view, not someone else’s.
- ...but know your audience. Present your passions in a way that resonates with your reader’s worldview. Spend at least 25% of your time researching them. Read about them. Read what they read. Know what excites them. Know their values. Spend time with them (face-to-face or virtually, in forums and on social media). Know what issues affect them. Follow the mantra of: “What do they value most? How can I deliver it better than other authors? And if I write it, and they read it, will we both have fun?”
- Spend less time writing. Follow the 40-20-40 rule: 40% of your time planning what you’ll write, 20% writing the first draft, 40% proofreading and editing.
- Read more than you write. Read all forms of writing, not just your genre. If you get to ‘feel’ the way other writers describe things and structure their messages, you’ll be able to replicate and blend their styles to create the effect you want. Learn the meter, pace and tone used to captivate the reader. Study the writing of the most successful authors in the business: Agatha Christie for whodunnits; Barbara Cartland or Danielle Steel for romance; Harold Robbins for suspense; Tom Clancey, Dan Brown or John Grisham for page-turning thrillers; Stephen King for horror; JK Rowling or JRR Tolkien for fantasy; Roald Dahl for children’s fiction; Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett for fantasy humour; PG Wodehouse for comedy; Arthur C Clarke or HG Wells for science fiction; and so on.
- Always have a notepad and pen to hand. I have notebooks all over the house, and in every rucksack and coat. You’re most likely to be creative when your mind is occupied with mundane tasks, or is sleepy. (Research ‘left-brain and right-brain theory’.) So, as a minimum, a notebook in the car or on the bedside table is a must. The rule? Write things down before you forget them.
- Build a support network. Follow the Stephen King rule of “Plan with the door open, write with the door shut, and edit with the door open”. It implies that although writing is a solitary vocation, always seek the help, inspiration and encouragement of others at the appropriate times. This is at the beginning and end of the process, not the middle. (When writing you need as few distractions as possible).
- Follow a process. Here’s the one I use:
- Brainstorm the subject. Create a mind map that explores subjects, groups ideas and angles, and has bold or dotted lines that link things in obvious or obscure ways. Is the direction of travel for your writing obvious?
- Storyboard. Turn your mind map into a storyboard by structuring it as bullet points in the order in which you’ll write (e.g. one bullet point per paragraph or chapter, with sub-bullets that explore and debate the point in more detail, remembering The Rule of Three).
- Write the first draft. It’s important at this stage to just write and not edit – challenging your fingers to keep up with your thoughts. Don’t worry too much about typos or correcting things as you go – you can do this later. Just get your thoughts down. If you write with a pen, do it with your eyes closed to prevent the temptation of reading or editing as you go.
- Edit and polish up the draft. Correct the typos and grammar, edit out any superfluous text, and check that your intended message is clear. Ensure an economical use of words (balanced, of course, with a reader-friendly conversational writing style) and ensure you’re not over your intended or commissioned word count. Check for the correct use of words, the intended pace and flow (single word sentences are a great way of making an impact. Truth.) Follow the rule: ‘if in doubt, cut it out’.
- Read it aloud. Give it a read through, reading aloud to aid punctuation and to ensure a natural conversational voice. Do a second edit where necessary.
- Put aside the draft. Give it time to ‘breathe’. It’s important to rest your work before you edit it again. As a minimum leave it for a few hours, but ideally for a few weeks. This allows you to view it again with fresh eyes – spotting all the errors that you were blind to before.
- Do a proofread. Perhaps the biggest risk to a writer is proofreading your own work. If you don’t know a rule of grammar, it’s unlikely that you’ll have learnt it by the time you get to the editing stage. Ideally get someone else to do the proofreading – and potentially a third person to critique it. But if you don’t have someone suitably skilled to do this, then print out your work (this is important, as we read differently on paper to on a screen) and read it aloud slowly. If it doesn’t sound right, it probably isn’t.
- Do a super critical – and very slow – final read through. Again, use a printed copy. Use a pencil or pen to track each word, one at a time, checking for typos and misspellings. Anticipate your readers’ reactions and viewpoints, ensure all statements will stand up to scrutiny, and check that your intended message is clear.
- When you’re absolutely happy, submit for publication.
There you have them: 25 points to help your writing. What binds these points together? Clarity of message and brutal editing. As Ernest Hemingway said, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it”. If you are to become expert at one thing, it’s in spotting poor writing and correcting it. (Something that challenges us all.) But don’t beat yourself up if you miss something. When you receive your author’s proof, allow yourself leniency for errors that have somehow remained, or things you’d like to change. There will inevitably be some. I use a credit system, allocating twenty credits for a book and one for an article. A credit is used each time I spot an error or desired chang. (See, I just lost one then.) If I have any credits remaining at the end of the final read-through, then I use them to fund my writer’s reward. And it’s worthwhile, as each of my credits is worth a glass of wine. Like it? What will be your reward?
These are my Golden Rules of Writing. Practise them in the writing you do every day. Seek the story and the angle. Live to write, and write to live. As Douglas Pagels said, “Each new day is a blank page in the diary of your life. The secret of success is in turning that diary into the best story you possibly can.”
This blog is a chapter from A Writer’s Year, Fennel’s Journal No. 3
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