My Advice for Writing

Author’s note: I attend a writer’s group, where I tend to lecture on, quite pedantically, about how I feel writing must flow and ebb.  No, that’s not quite true, but I do offer a lot of advice on writing.  I figured that I would share some of that here, with the lucky few writers that check in.

As I told my friend John, in the writing group, “Put in a comma when your brain runs out of breath.”  While this may not help all the time, depending on the lung capacity of your brain, it is a good guide for using commas in sentences.  Commas create pauses, which help prevent run-on sentences from overwhelming the brain with a barrage of information.

Consider the following sentence:

My dad Jonathan was always a fan of woodworking but my favorite memories of him were when I came down to his workshop while he was working on his pride and joy a hand-crafted canoe that he would never finish but always held up as the ideal of his ability.

Holy cow.  I can’t even make it halfway through that monstrosity of a run-on sentence, and I wrote it.  Anybody’s brain will shut down and fizzle before it reaches the period.  But now, we throw in a handful of commas:

My dad, Jonathan, was always a fan of woodworking, but my favorite memories of him were when I came down to his workshop while he was working on his pride and joy, a hand-crafted canoe, that he would never finish, but always held up as the ideal of his ability.

Still a run-on, but much easier to read!  The commas help tell the brain where to pause, collect its breath, and then forge on ahead after recovering.

Another quick-and-easy method for commas is to read your work out loud and put a comma wherever you pause.  This is especially good for stream-of-consciousness writing.

And don’t forget, commas are important!  They make all the difference between
Eating out dudes
Eating out, dudes.

Using similes in writing is like using garlic in cooking; they should both be employed sparingly.  (See that?  That was a great simile.)  There are two main rules to follow with similes:

1.  Don’t overuse them.  Nothing distracts from plot-intensive writing or a good narrative like an overabundance of similes.  A little garlic in a pasta sauce or on a pizza can add a hit of powerful flavor, enhancing the taste.  However, if you throw cloves of garlic into everything, you will overwhelm your dinner guests and leave them gagging.  Same thing with similes.  Try to keep them down to one per page, at most.  Otherwise, readers will be so distracted by the comparisons that they’ll lose the thread of the plot.

2.  Similes can only go one way; they should compare something more obtuse to something more commonplace.  For example:

The sound of the wormhole opening was like nails on a chalkboard.

This is great – not many people know what an opening wormhole sounds like, but everybody recognizes the painful screech of nails on a chalkboard.

Her nails, scraping down the chalkboard, sounded like a wormhole opening.

This simile, not so great.  Unless you are trying to drive home the point (as subtly as a sledgehammer) that your narrator listens to a lot of opening wormholes, this simile compares something obvious to something that is unknown to the audience.

So remember, use similes sparingly, and make sure they run downhill – they compare something less well known to something more obvious!

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