Monday, May 17, 2010


Posted by Ruby Johnson for Lynn Romaine.

Welcome to day two of Lynn Romain's
Writing Tips from famous authors. The winner of the drawing for LONG RUN HOME will be drawn from those making comments and will be announced on Wednesday. Let us know which tips you liked most. Lynn, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and resources with us. We hope you will come by again.


1. Use short sentences.

Hemingway was famous for a terse minimalist style of writing that dispensed with flowery adjectives and got straight to the point. In short, Hemingway wrote with simple genius. Perhaps his finest demonstration of short sentence prowess was when he was challenged to tell an entire story in only 6 words:

For sale: baby shoes, never used.

2. Use short first paragraphs.

3. Use vigorous English.

Here’s David Garfinkel’s (a copywriter) take on this one:
It’s muscular, forceful. Vigorous English comes from passion, focus and intention. It’s the difference between putting in a good effort and TRYING to move a boulder… and actually sweating, grunting, straining your muscles to the point of exhaustion… and MOVING the freaking thing!

4. Be positive, not negative.

• Instead of saying “inexpensive,” say “economical,”

• Instead of saying “this procedure is painless,” say “there’s little discomfort” or “it’s relatively comfortable,”

• And instead of saying “this software is error-free” or “foolproof,” say “this software is consistent” or “stable.”

5. Never have only 4 rules.

And the most important of Hemingway’s writing tips of all:
“I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit,” Hemingway confided to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934. “I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”

And of course,


1. Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2. Avoid prologues.
They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s “Sweet Thursday,” but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . .
. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories “Close Range.”

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things,unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

And finally, here are my favorite books, all entitled “On Writing”:

Sol Stein “On Writing”

Eudora Welty “On Writing” and

Stephen King “On Writing.”


Lynn Romaine writes romantic suspense within a background of environment concerns. She has three books in print, a fourth due out in 2010. She has a degree in information management and lives in Bloomington, Indiana, Her interest in writing fiction with an environmental theme came from her daughter who has a degree in environmental management and lives in Washington state. Lynn recently won a Midwest Writers Workshop Fellow for 2010. When not writing, Lynn is at work on a project entitled Red Pants for the World--young women facing difficult circumstances discovering their own voices and making a difference around the world.


misa ramirez said...

Lynn, I love these tips, particularly the 'use vigorous language'! Oops, better get rid of that exclamation point or I might suddenly find myself a bad writer! Oops, there I go again.

Fun post!

Lynn Romaine said...

Me too! Love vigorous language! Great idea for a list of words too! (ditto !!!!!)

Lacy said...

very enlightning. now i have to rewrite my opening! oh gees - i like exclamation points!

Seriously, this is very helpful and points i will take as i go through my rewrite.

Lilly Gayle said...

Most of this is great advice. But, I have to disagree with using only the word said to designate dialogue. I think most modern fiction writers alternate words other than said for variety in sentence structure. IMHO, reading said after every line of dialogue gets redundant and doesn't always get the point across. If the speaker is angry, snapped works better for me. Better yet, if you don't want to alternate words with said, then write a line of action or the POV character's thought or emotion before or after the sentence to designate the speaker. Then, you don't have to use, said, asked, snapped, or anything else.

linda_rettstatt said...

Great post. I especially love 'use short sentences.' I'm trying to do that more often. I think they can have much more punch.


Caroline Clemmons said...

Great tips. Now I think the trend is to omit even said and let the action show the speaker.

Jennifer Hudson Taylor said...

Great tips for most of the time, but there are always exceptions to the rule--on occasion. The trouble is--knowing when it's okay to break the rule!

Verna LaBounty said...

May I add ON WRITING WELL by Wm. Zinsser. His book shows how to make writing - fiction, reports, essays, anything - vigorous.

Ruby Johnson said...

A great post. I like the Elmore Leonards tips, but I especially like the one about pesky adverbs.
Lynn, as usual you provided the unusual and very good information. Thanks again for writing with us.

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