The Best Writing Advice I’ve Ever Received…And Paid Forward
It’s rare that I meet someone who hasn’t dabbled in writing—lapsed poets, one-time songwriters, and would-be memoirists are the most frequent. I’ve found that when asked, most people have an idea for a novel, a film script, or the inkling of a really good story. Some have started the process of stringing words together in cast-aside notebooks or neglected digital folders. Few are actively writing. Yet, those who are speak passionately about fulfilling projects that help them process the world we all share. Choctaw, Cherokee, and Irish author Louis Owens noted, “I write to explore the dilemmas of all mixed-bloods in America. And I write to illuminate our relationships with the natural world. And I write because it is the greatest pleasure.” Writing is a journey and the published work is the destination. Through years of writing, reading, and teaching, I have collected some wisdom for the scribes hoping to take further steps on the path to a completed manuscript. I’m happy to pay them forward.
Make writing a habit. Set a pattern for yourself. The time of day doesn’t matter, nor is one writer’s process applicable to another’s. What matters is that writers write every day on route to a goal that they intend to keep. Some people set daily goals, others weekly, but as a prose writer I have found that anything less than 500 words per sitting is unfulfilling. Poets and lyricists may set their goals by lines rather than word counts, but all will find that success comes to those who put in the time.
Short works demand word variance. With the exception of names or necessary proper nouns, short works should use descriptors exactly once. States have nicknames, so there is no need to keep typing Wisconsin when “America’s Dairy Land” and “The Badger State” are ripe for enlistment. The same is true of words like trailblazer, which can be replaced by forerunner, innovator, or even harbinger. Reusing words is redundancy.
Dialogue attribution mustn’t be muddled. Past tense speakers “said” their words, while present tense ones “say” them. Characters can be “asked” or “replied” to in your text, but they should never be exclaimed, shouted, screamed, hollered, zonked, or sputtered. Writers know that the cardinal rule is that a story should be revealed by showing and not through the authoritative voice telling the reader. Clunky dialogue attribution is the most frequent way to violate this rule.
Adverbs can ruin the reader’s experience. While adverbs help us picture humorous stories— “He dutifully ate the rocky mountain oysters his daughter prepared”—the same is not true in serious works. Phrases like “he dutifully did the dishes” makes for more telling than showing, say nothing of the fact that it’s cringe worthy. If a writer isn’t going for a laugh, then there is rarely a need for an adverb.
Storytelling should be a mutually beneficial undertaking. My advice to any storyteller is to seek projects that are both cathartic to write and beneficial for the audience to read. The word “fun” is often evoked by writers seeking to define their goals in producing their work, but potent, necessary stories about abuse, neglect, and perseverance, such as those shared in Deborah A. Miranda’s memoir Bad Indians, don’t fit into the “fun” category. Still, writing should be rewarding, and readers expect to be rewarded for spending some time consuming another person’s words. Powerful writing meets both requirements, just as works that fall flat fail to do so.
Refer to yourself as a writer. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. Don’t wait for the world to validate your work or your time spent in solitude. Rather, claim the moniker as your own. Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday noted that “we are what we imagine.” While the idea is not limited to writing, it absolutely applies to those amongst our ranks who refuse to claim their space. Further, Momaday added, “The greatest tragedy that can befall us is to go unimagined.” In the case of hopeful scribes, we must see our art for what it can be before the rest of the world will take notice. If you’re a writer, own the title.
Writing is a craft that makes lifelong learners out of us all. Some of us have been at it awhile, others are just starting out, and too many are waiting to begin. My favorite movie quote comes from Cherokee filmmaker Randy Redroad’s The Doe Boy, where an elder states, “Any fool can get old. It takes a genius not to waste time.” My fellow writers, there’s no time like the present to add to your oeuvre. Recognize that time spent writing is time well spent and apply these tips to help navigate the topography of your stories.
Ryan Winn teaches in the Liberal Studies Department at College of Menominee Nation.
Kilpatrick, J. (2004). Louis Owens: Literary Reflections on His Life and Work. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
Miranda, D.A. (2013). Bad Indians. Berkley: Heyday.
Momaday, N.S. (1997). The Man Made of Words. New York: St. Martin.
Redroad, R. (2001). The Doe Boy [Film]. Wellspring.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Writer’s Corner or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.