Common Sense for Writers

The internet is full of blogs and websites that tell us what to do.  As writers, we are especially prone to finding posts and forums dedicated to what every writer must do to succeed

Query advice abounds.  POV, tense and style are big items of concern.  Everybody has an opinion on web presence and platform.  It’s amazing that writers stay sane with all the differing commentary on what absolutely, positively must be done for a writer to succeed in this business.

We can spend endless hours researching our next move, only to find ourselves more confused than when we started.  In my experience, I’ve learned that we create more problems than necessary by trying to keep everyone happy.  It’s simply not possible.  Nor is it desirable.  At least in my opinion. 

I just got done writing my parent handbook for my preschool.  In it, I wrote our House Rules so parents know going in what is expected of their children.  The rules are simple and can apply to our lives as writers. 

  1. Never hurt anyone on the inside or the outside.  Kids pinch, bite, hit or call names as reactions to their emotions.  Sometimes they lash out with the intent to hurt.  Other times hurting someone is a by-product of unchecked behavior.  Writers are often guilty of loading a manuscript with messages or agendas.  We have been known to use our writing as a platform to air our side of the story.  However, our utmost responsibility in writing fiction is to give our readers a pleasure trip.  If we want to rail against abuse, we should write an article for a magazine, not couch it in the form of a novel, because ending our tales as a moral lesson will feel like a slap in the face to our readers.
  2. No Swearing.  A wise person once told me that people swear because they have limited vocabularies.  While I don’t feel this is entirely true, the gist of his statement is.  We use comfortable and familiar words when we communicate.  They might not always be the best choice, but they are readily available and therefore over-used.  When writing, we must choose our words carefully.  Every word must matter.  So, edit, edit and edit some more.  Avoid clichés and shock-value words.  Pull out run-ons and echoes.  Then edit once again.
  3. Respect the Environment.  Kids think nothing of dropping a gum wrapper on the ground or scribbling on a chair with permanent marker.  At least until they learn the impact of their actions on the world around them.  Writers have been known to forget the impact of their words on the environment as well.  It is easy to hide behind an avatar and say something we otherwise would not say.  Anonymity allows for a certain comfort level that invites heated commentary and slanderous debate.  We have a responsibility to respect the world around us and those who populate it.  To do otherwise can make the difference between getting published or not.  In short, the way we conduct ourselves can make or break our writing careers.  
  4. Respect for Elders.  Kids simply must learn who is in charge.  They must learn to follow the expectations of the adults in their lives even if they don’t understand them or always agree with them.  And if they disagree, they must learn to express this respectfully and discuss things appropriately.  In the writing biz, agents and editors are our elders.  We work hard to impress them.  We ask them to spend their time and money backing us.  Yet, writers have been known to spout off after a rejection or a disagreement.  They haven’t learned that respect is earned and that we get what we give.   
  5. Abide by Personal Space.  Everybody has a comfort zone.  Kids will come right up and stick their noses into someone else’s business.  Literally.  Writers, this is a mistake we don’t want to make.  It’s called annoying at best and stalking at worst.  Don’t submit fourteen manuscripts at one time.  Don’t slide your manuscript under the bathroom stall at a conference.  Don’t send a potential agent a box of her favorite chocolates and a picture of you in the buff.  Writing is a professional business.  If you wouldn’t stalk the principal at school or the CEO at the office, certainly don’t annoy the agents and editors who are in charge of your destiny. 

My advice: Know the Rules and Be Consistent. 

Kids want boundaries.  They want to understand how to interact with their peers and their elders.  They thrive when they know what is expected and why.  Kids inherently want to be good.  But dangit all, they also want to have fun.  So do we. 

Writer, know thy craft.  Read books to better understand the genre you are writing.  Then write the story you feel in your heart.  POV doesn’t matter as long as it is consistent.  Tense won’t make or break your story.  Don’t write to a trend.  Your job is to write–consistently and well. 

Tell your story.  By trying to incorporate every slice of advice you’ve ever read, your story no longer belongs to you.  It will be a regurgitated, lifeless lump of words that nobody will want to read.  Even you. 

If you decide to break a rule, do so consciously because you think it will better your story.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  But the point is, if you break the rules without understanding them (grammar, punctuation, POV, personal space, respect, tense, etc.) you’re just being naughty and deserve to be punished with a rejection.  If you can justify that certain circumstances require bending the rules, you just might succeed. 

But above all, be consistent.  If you break POV, don’t do it one time when the MC is knocked out cold and simply cannot relate what must be relayed to the reader.  This is a cop-out.  Find a way to break outside your POV in a way that is consistent and works for the story you tell. 

If you must send an agent a box of chocolates, do so because it makes sense.  For example, the recipe is your award-winning concoction that you sell at your own confectionary boutique and will be included in the book because the unique candy is the key to solving the murder mystery. 

But always, and I do mean always, withhold the picture of you in the buff.

What have you learned along your writing journey that you wish you had known before starting out?

28 responses to “Common Sense for Writers

  1. I think I was fortunate, in a way, in coming to writing (seriously) later in life. By the time I’d decided to get serious about writing a novel, I’d already become accepting of my utter ignorance. I had a hell of a lot to learn, and I was going to make a ton of mistakes. I simply vowed to make them and learn from them, and to take criticism from everywhere with some degree of grace. And the few times that I veered off the path and uttered something impudent, I remembered those two words, “I apologize.”

    • Peter,

      I would expect nothing but the best from you. You’re a gentleman through and through. You make a great point about embracing what we don’t know. Sometimes the worst part of ignorance is not knowing how truly ignorant we are. Only by understanding that there is something to learn can we become better at what we do.

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. Thanks for bringing back a memory about biting. I used to bite ( who knows why) this girl I went to school with. Her mother got tired of it one day and pulled out a pair of pliers. She made it clear that if I didn’t stop she would pull out my teeth. Message recieved.
    When it comes to writing ( like many other things in our culture) many have this concept that they must be perfect. All that does is put pressure on themselves. I love your blog!

    • Thanks for your warm words. I like having you visit me here!

      You’re right, writers do put a lot of pressure on themselves to be perfect. However, perfection is impossible to attain. We simply need to focus on writing the best material we can.

      I’m glad you didn’t push the boundaries with the biting thing. This is a prime example of respecting your elders!


  3. I think consistency is really important. Somehow there books on the shelves that don’t adhere to this. How they made it passed the editing process, I have no idea. It’s annoying when an author starts out in multi viewpoints and then changes to a single one without indicating it to the reader with a scene break or new chapter.

    Btw, anyone at all may feel free to send me a box of chocolates whenever they want, lol!

    • As long as they don’t come with illustrations, right?

      My big pet peeve in published books is when rules are broken without any ryhme or reason. I have a hard time staying connected when that happens.

  4. So you’re telling me I shouldn’t have sent those nakes pictures of myself to those last two agents…Darn it! I always get that confused, I keep the chocolates and send the pic, lol.

    Great post. There are so many rules for writers to follow and yet I think every novel I’ve ever read has broken at least one of them and look, they’re still around to tell the tale. Writing my story is what comes first, I’ll worry about the other stuff once I’ve done that.

  5. Sending the pics probably wasn’t the best plan! Ha!

  6. Super advice 🙂

    I think your preschool is going to be amazing!

    Love the first rule for all things in life.

    • I can only hope. If we all followed this rule, life would be grand indeed.

      PS. I haven’t been able to leave a comment on your blog in a week. I don’t know why, but every time I try, it won’t let me. Oh well, if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years as a writer is that perseverence pays off. I’ll just keep trying until I hit the jackpot!

  7. Excellent post, Cat. I especially like that part about respecting your elders. 🙂

  8. Doh! I just mailed out the picture! Sorry. Couldn’t resist. I’ve learned the hardway about watching what words I use. One word can convey so many things, especially when there is no body language accompanying them. I’ve hurt many people this way. Never intentionally, but still. 😦

    • Victoria,

      I heard the agent really liked that last photo you sent. Something about the color blue…?


      I think it is well worth our time to remember that everyone makes mistakes. We can apologize for those we have made. It is also within our power to forgive those who have hurt us.


  9. I’m really starting to see that writing is part of my practice, first and foremost. And practice means simply that, to sit down and write. Today, this simplification makes so much sense to me. Now to schedule it in …

  10. Awesome post, Cat 🙂 Hm, something I wish I’d known at the beginning of my writing journey. I wish I’d taken more risks as far as subjects go. My writing isn’t controversial (least not IMO), but I often held back with the mindset, what would so and so think if they read this? It limited me and my stories ended up being unrealistic. I’ve since learned to write the first draft with my heart and not be afraid to explore the darker side of something. In the rewrites, I can always scale back if needed.

    • Oooh, great reminder. I think we all feel a certain amount of angst regarding what others will think when they read our writing. Nobody wants to be responsible for Aunt Edna’s heart attack when she reads about…well, I won’t say it, just in case she’s reading right now.

  11. Remember that all the writing advice you get is merely suggestion, no matter how much the advice-giver tries to sound like an authority. There is no writing authority. And it’s a horrible lesson to learn, but there are some people out there who will tear your writing down just because it makes them feel better. Learn quickly who to trust and who to dismiss just by how rude their critiques are.

    • Ah, yes. Somebody, somewhere will always delight in tearing us down. You make a good point in filtering the advice you receive. Not all of it is worthy of our time. Sometimes it is just not worthy at that time.

  12. You mean all that airbrushing went to waste?! 😉 Great advice. Especially about leaving out the pic. Thanks for the great post.
    Lisa ~ YA Literature Lover

  13. Great rules for writing and life, too.

    I wish I’d known about what was essential in a good query before I buzzed through twenty+ agents with a bad one, but as far as the story goes, I’m glad I wrote it from the heart instead of trying to incorporate all the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” at the same time.

    That’s what editing is for. 🙂

    • Layinda,

      It is all part of the learning process. My youngest was a child you couldn’t tell something to. He had to learn it for himself. I distinctly remember telling him the fireplace was hot. He looked right at me and placed his hand on the glass. Pulled it back and said, “Hot.” as if he was telling me. He never touched it again.

      Writing is like that. Sometimes our best learning is done when we make mistakes, fix them and try again.

      I’m glad your manuscript was not a product of trying to please everyone else. They never work well when we do that. For some reason, the magic gets lost in the rules.

  14. Excellent rules – for writing and for life. No matter what you are doing there are customs and rules and knowing these and understanding them is always to your benefit.
    Thanks for sharing this. I don’t necessarily wish I had more advice before setting out but I wish that knowing the advice and being able to incorporate it into a query were the same thing. I guess we all do sometimes.

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