Online writing tips: From authors to authors

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By Robert Israel

Writing can be daunting, anxiety-provoking work. Seeking online writing tips or turning to books by writers who offer approaches to overcoming these barriers can be reassuring and boost your confidence. It can also help improve your work through tried-and-true lessons. By turning to online writing tips and tips from legendary authors, I have improved my own writing.

Donald Murray: A Writer Teaches Writing

“Each time I sit down to write, I don’t know if I can do it,” Donald Murray wrote just before he died. “The flow of writing is always a surprise and a challenge. Click the computer on and I am 17 again, wanting to write and not knowing if I can.”

Murray confesses something we all fear but rarely share: failing at writing. Yet in the face of his vexing doubts, he rallied. Before he died in 2006 at age 82, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, spent almost three decades as a writing professor at the University of New Hampshire, and penned (among other volumes) A Writer Teaches Writing, an indispensable book I often turn to for advice on how to strengthen my resolve to be a good writer.

When we met at the Boston Globe during his tenure as a columnist, I was impressed how accessible he was and that he never lost his awe (or trepidation) for writing. He taught me to believe in myself as a writer. He showed me how to take deliberate steps before, during, and after writing to make my work the best I could produce.

Written pieces must contain an element of surprise, Murray noted. Without a sense of discovery, a finished piece will fall flat. Readers who are not engaged from the first word will turn away.

Like Murray, I started writing as a teenager. And while I have exorcised most of the pabulum I was force-fed in school, I retained one morsel of wisdom: always use an outline. Today, as I did as a youngster, I outline assignments. I may abandon that outline, but I will always replace it with a revised one. It provides me with a path, a way to check my work, a key to ensure I haven’t omitted key details.

Murray recognized that outlining is a necessary ingredient of pre-writing. He advised first envisioning a goal before embarking on the writing journey. The next step is to open the floodgates and allow the “flow of writing” to gush forth, followed by strenuous rewriting.

“All effective writers know writing is rewriting,” Murray advised in A Writer Teaches Writing. “It is the way in which you fit ideas into language.”

Wisdom from the Greats

Nobel laureate Ernest Hemingway was another writer who influenced me and legions of other writers.

“Prose is architecture, not interior decoration,” Hemingway wrote in Death in the Afternoon. Good writers use well-crafted sentences the same way a carpenter uses tools to build solid structures, he said.

Toward that end, law professor and New York Times columnist Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence, and How to Read One, is another indispensable guide.

“If you know sentences, you know everything,” Fish proclaims. “Good sentences promise nothing less than lessons and practice in the organization of the world.”

Fish points to a sentence written by the late author John Updike, who was seated in the grandstand as Boston Red Sox ace Ted Williams hit a home run in his last at-bat at Fenway Park on September 28, 1960.

“It was in the books while it was still in the sky,” Updike wrote.

Fish contends that an elegant, compact sentence like Updike’s—one that expresses history, action, and awe in just 12 words—can be written by any writer. His book offers useful exercises, first by breaking sentences down, then by instructing you how to write better ones.

Another writer who offers online writing tips and who has published a useful guide to writing is popular fiction author Stephen King, who penned On Writing.

“Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation,” King writes. Like Fish, King provides numerous examples of how to accomplish this purposeful denuding of ego and pretense in order to have greater impact.

The same message about steering clear of self-conscious pitfalls in writing can be found in an essay by the late novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard in The New York Times.

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,” Leonard note. “It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing.” Write with this discipline in your arsenal and your best work will come through you.

Well-crafted words, sentences, and paragraphs form Hemingway’s “architecture” of prose, and they enable writers to produce successful, enduring works. Therein lies the challenge; therein lies the reward.

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Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer and editor. This piece appeared in The Content Standard, published by Skyword, Inc.

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