The Best Writing Advice From 10 of the Best Writing Teachers

The Best Writing Advice From 10 of the Best Writing Teachers

I spent the better part of last year, re-reading my “writing library.” The wisdom packed into those bookcase shelves is too wonderful for me to horde, so today I’d like to share the best writing advice from ten of the best writing teachers in my library.

1. The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot by Charles Baxter

“To make anything interesting,” Gustave Flaubert said, “you simply have to look at it long enough.” (p. 30)

These days, the best and most artful dialogue is marked by the inattentiveness of the characters. (p. 67)

2. Write Tight: How to Keep Your Prose Sharp, Focused, and Concise by William Brohaugh

Apply the ‘SURE’ test to big words. Joe Floren in his Write Smarter, Not Harder presents what he calls a “SURE” test for big words.

  • Is it simpler than a small-word equivalent? For instance, “beginner” is simpler than “tyro,” “frivolous” easier than “inane.”
  • Is it unique—the only way to say the idea? Many technical terms qualify, as do nontechnical ones such as “civilization,” “religion,” “government.”
  • Does it add richness to your writing? To “write like you talk,” you must write in a way comfortable to you. Some of those rich, interesting personal words will be large ones.
  • Does it provide economy, taking the place of several words? That usually benefits the reader.” (p. 100)

3. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King

It’s nearly always best to resist the urge to explain. Or, as we so often write it in manuscript margins, R.U.E.

This tendency to describe a character’s emotions may reflect a lack of confidence on the part of the writer. And more often than not, writers tell their readers things already shown by dialogue and action. It’s as if they’re repeating themselves to make sure their readers get the point. So when you come across an explanation of a character’s emotion, simply cut the explanation. If the emotion is still shown, then the explanation wasn’t needed. If the emotion isn’t shown, rewrite the passage so that it is.” (p. 17)

4. Fiction Writer’s Handbook by Hallie and Whit Burnett

Fiction writers must put themselves in their characters if their work is to have any value in interpreting and recording the state of man’s mind and emotions; it is more necessary with some characters than with others. (p. 51)

…the greatness of the writer has nothing to do with the subject matter, but has much to do with how the author is touched by the subject. (p. 77)

“If there is rewriting to be done on the first part, do it now, before the last words have been written.” (p. 127)

5. From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction by Robert Olen Butler

You’re going to sit or recline in your writing space in your trance, and you’re going to free-float, free-associate, sit with your character, watch your character move around in the potential world of this novel. … You’re going to go into your writing space, you’re going to go into your dreamspace, you’re going to float around, and you’re going to dreamstorm potential scenes in such a novel as this with such characters as these, with such yearnings as these. And you’ll try to float everywhere in the novel: beginning, middle, end—all over.

You’ll have a pad of paper in front of you (and you can do it at your computer if you prefer (I do it by hand on legal pads); you’ll make a list. You’re going to write down on this legal pad six or eight or ten words, not many more, that represent a potential scene. Just identifiers of scenes. Don’t hesitate to put something down, as long as it’s coming with a sensual hook. You’re going to make sure that every scene you list has come to you with some—and it can be very faint, very fragmentary—but some sensual, concrete hook. A little vision of something, a little smell or taste of something, a little sound of something. Do not trust a scene that presents itself to you as an idea. Each scene must have an even fragmentary vision, some sort of a sense impression attached to it. (pp. 87-88)

6. 101 Best Scenes Ever Written by Barnaby Conrad

(affiliate link)

Get to a good scene as quickly as possible in your story, no matter what with [sic] generalization you start. (p. 3)

7. Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life edited by Barnaby Conrad and Monte Schulz

Laird Koenig: “And remember—stories aren’t written—they’re rewritten.” (p. 171)

8. Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life by Elizabeth George

To avoid bad writing, think of events in your novel as dominoes. Let’s call them dramatic dominoes. The first event in the novel—and for that you can read “the first scene”—must trigger an event that follows. In a first-person narrative or a narrative with a limited third-person point of view, the first event will trigger the event that immediately follows it. In other words, something in scene one causes scene two to happen. In the types of books that I write, which have a shifting third-person point of view, the first event must trigger some later event in the novel, but not necessarily the one that immediately follows.” (pp. 42-42)

9. The Writer’s Idea Book by Jack Heffron

If a character is not doing what you’d like him to do, assess your decision to have the character perform the action. Perhaps the action doesn’t feel right for the character because it isn’t right. If he must do the action for the sake of the plot, rethink the plot. Try to find another way to accomplish the plot goal. (p. 161)

10. Beginnings, Middles & Ends by Nancy Kress

…the Swimming Pool Theory. This theory says that structuring fiction is like kicking off from the side of a swimming pool. The stronger and more forceful your initial kick, the longer you can glide through the water. The stronger and more forceful your opening scene, the less your reader will mind a “glide” through nondramatized backfill. In fact, the reader may even welcome the slow-down, as a contrast to a dynamite first scene. Explosives going off all the time can be wearing. (p. 34)

More next week!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What is the best writing advice from your favorite writing how-to book? Tell me in the comments!

The Best Writing Advice From 10 of the Best Writing Teachers

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Thanks for sharing some of the “Writing Wisdom” that you’ve come across.

  2. Sure thing. Glad you found it helpful!

  3. Some of those look downright familiar, and some I’ll have to get for myself. Can’t wait for your next post to see what other books we have in common!

  4. Yes, some of these have been around forever, and some of them I’m shocked aren’t more well-known. They’re all definitely worth the read.

  5. Thanks for your research and tips. I must get to my legal pad and get to work! Very inspiring!

  6. People often say that reading a good novel inspires them to write, but the thing that inspires me most is always a book on writing. Makes my fingers itch to give a new technique a try!

  7. Wow, I’m impressed you read back through your whole library! I should do that… This was such a neat approach, sharing tidbits from the different books.

  8. I read through it periodically – every three years or so. It’s amazing how many tidbits you forget!

  9. Opening my GoodReads to-read page. Then will have to visit amazon.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If you have a local library, that’s always a good place to check first.

      • I have a hard time finding things on fiction writing in my library 🙁
        They have good books on research purpose but not on this topic

  10. thomas h cullen says

    To say only what you want. Best advice. Period.

    Here’s some of my own advice though:

    Realise it, the very thing your instinct’s not telling you to do. The unseemly response. The unseemly course of conversation, or action or characterisation.

    Life is repetition, and pattern. Try to use your intelligence to recognise and then overcome the pattern, be it realising that just because a story is say of perhaps a particular genre, it can still feature an unseemly kind of setting, or thought or behaviour of the character.

    Etc etc.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The most unique thing any of ever bring to a story is our own personal perspective. Always smart to try to leverage that.

  11. Very nice post, Katie.

    I think some of the best advice is that writing is mainly rewriting. I’ve come to realize this first-hand while writing my current novel. I wrote the first draft in 10 days. It’s been a year since then, and I have spent that year rewriting.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ain’t that the truth? Writing that first draft is just a teeny-tiny part of the process.

    • thomas h cullen says

      Same with The Representative. First draft, completed between the mere beginning of November and early-to-mid December 2011:

      Finished The Representative on July 19 – 2013!

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