HorrorstorOur thanks to author Grady Hendrix for this guest post loaded with writer wisdom to tighten your writing…

Before I wrote Horrorstör, I wrote everything. I wrote seven-word descriptions of reruns of Matlock for TV channel guides, I wrote garbage-sorting manuals for Hong Kong hotels, I wrote pamphlets hawking fake jewelry, I wrote English-language patter for Chinese television presentations that no one ever watched, and I wrote hundreds of articles for a now-extinct field we called “newspapers.” 

For years, I churned out thousands of words, week in and week out, always with tight word counts and always on tight deadlines, and while I often wanted to blow my brains out, I realized that not everything I learned as a keyboard-clacking hack was totally useless when it came time to write a novel. Here’s what stuck:

1) Strong language for strong times

We live in a world where pornography is available 24/7, and I can watch unlimited kitten videos with a single click. This is your competition for your reader’s eyeballs, and in order to cut through the noise, your signal has to be intense.

Words like “nice” and “good” have no place in modern writing, instead you must pick the strongest language possible and make it sing. Think telegrams, think billboards, think advertising slogans. Achieving an attention-grabbing effect serves you better than being grammatically correct. I’d rather read “Panda babies stormed their brains with unstoppable cuteness!” than “They watched several young pandas at play and were impressed by their adorable antics.” 

2) Never qualify – cut out qualifiers

All of them. Immediately. They are for worthless individuals who can’t make up their minds and why do you want to read anything by someone like that. “He was practically broke, and almost done with living, so he figured he should start leaving soon.”

No. Absolutely not. “He was broke, and done with living, so he needed to leave.”

One is watery tea served with expired milk. The other is black coffee injected into your brain. “I think,” “I believe,” “In a way,” writing to a word count you quickly learn that all that faffing about is pointless filler.

3) Every word counts

There is one important thing when you’re writing a blurb: the word count, be it 7 words, 35 words, or 50 words, you have to make every word count. If you’re using an adjective, it better be a heartbreaker. If you’re mentioning a character trait, it better be relevant to the plot. If you create a character, they’d better be essential to keeping that story moving along.

4) Details, Details, Details

In journalism, it takes about five minutes to learn that strangely resonant details are usually the only thing readers remember from your articles. It doesn’t take long before you’re hunting down these precious details like a truffle pig. The great thing about fiction is you don’t have to sift through hours of interviews to uncover them, you can simply make them up. This is just another way of stating the classic “Show, don’t tell,” but it works.

Example #1: “Jack was a lonely man living on a fixed income who usually ate dinner by himself.”

Example #2: “The big night for Jack was Thursday night, when he allowed himself to go to McDonald’s and buy a Value Meal. He liked to watch the people at other tables and pretend they were his friends.”

Which one makes you want to kill yourself more? That’s the one you want.

5) First effect, then cause

Newspapers love starting stories in media res. “Children couldn’t stop crying for days, the National Guard were given orders to shoot to kill, the mayor declared a state of emergency. It was July, and that meant the annual clown migration was coming.”

People read to find out the answer to the questions you’re asking, so the more questions you ask, the further they need to read. Eventually you realize that everything you write is a question, nested inside a question, nested inside another question. Searching for that answer is how you pull readers through your words, whether it’s catalog copy for rings made of synthetic rutiles or a heartwarming essay about that time your grandmother set the family car on fire.

Let my pain be your lesson. Those five simple points took me ten years to learn, so that’s a decade of my life reduced to under 750 words. Rarely have I wanted to cry harder.

GradyHendrixGrady Hendrix does a job. His job is called “writing” which means that he is completely irrelevant and can be killed and turned into food at any time. He is one of the founders of the New York Asian Film Festival, but he is not responsible for the bad parts of it. He is also not Asian. He has written for Playboy Magazine, Slate, The Village Voice, the New York Post, Film Comment, and Variety.

He writes fiction, also called “lies,” and he writes non-fiction, which people sometimes mistakenly pay him for. There is a science fiction book called Occupy Space that he is the author of, and also a fantasy book called Satan Loves You which he wrote as well. Along with his BFF from high school, Katie Crouch, he is the co-author of the YA series, The Magnolia League. With Ryan Dunlavey he co-authored the Li’l Classix series, which are cartoon degradations of classic literature, and with his wife, and Ryan, he wrote Dirt Candy: A Cookbook, the first graphic novel cookbook in America. His fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Pseudopod, and the anthology, The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination.

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7 thoughts on “Five Expert Tips to Tighten Your Writing

  • September 23, 2014 at 10:26 am

    As an ex-newspaper hack myself I see a lot of truth there. Believe it or not, Journalism 101 – if you had a good prof, gave you the same advice but it takes 10-20 years to sink in. Truthful writing. It hurts to write. It’s amazing to read. It’s incredibly rare.

  • September 19, 2014 at 1:12 pm

    Good one, worth following. Humor adds zing.

  • September 19, 2014 at 11:15 am

    Great article and one that I’ll be sharing with my screenwriting clients. Whenever I ask them to come up with snappy loglines for their projects, they often rabbit on and on and on. I tell them to picture their logline on a freeway billboard which drivers are zipping past ar 70+ miles per hour. It’s a strategy that works wonders in forcing writers to focus on the shortest and punchiest way to get their messages across.

    • September 19, 2014 at 1:59 pm

      Thanks, Christina — Grady has a brilliant way of putting it all into perspective (even for those of us in beer goggles). GREAT idea on the logline… will be sharing that one!

    • September 19, 2014 at 4:01 pm

      Thanks so much! Loglines are amazing because people who don’t write them think they’re easy. I’ve noticed that screenwriters often come up with the logline before they start their scripts because a good logline is not only made of pure gold, but it also helps put the focus on what’s important.

  • September 19, 2014 at 9:35 am

    Some of the best advice I have ever read (and I’m sure I just broke at least three rules here). 🙂 Thank you!!

    • September 19, 2014 at 2:01 pm

      LOL… Break away — rules can be mended (or recycled or just plain stepped on). Thanks for weighing in and agree — Grady hit several nails on the head (whilst they screamed in agony, ha).

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