Erik Deckers’ 8 Rules of Writing

I’ve been so inspired by the Brain Pickings weekly installments of Rules of Writing (that link goes to Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules), that I decided to come up with my own rules of writing that I’ve learned over the last 25 years (sweet Jebus! that’s a lot).

1. Write like real people speak. Your 7th grade English teacher didn’t know shit about real writing. If you have to contort your sentences to fit what she taught, drop it. Say your thoughts out loud, and write them down.

2. Short words, short sentences, short paragraphs. Write like a journalist, not a college professor. Smart people sound smarter when they can make difficult things easy to understand.

3. There is no such thing as inspiration, just like there’s no such thing as writer’s block. Real writers sit down and do it every day. It’s a job. You start, you do the work, you stop (sort of). Accountants don’t get accountant’s block. Plumber’s don’t wait for inspiration. They do their job because they have to. So it goes with writers.A Moleskine notebook and Pilot G-2 .05 mm blue pen

4. Write with a pen, never a pencil. Pencils don’t require you to commit to your ideas. You can erase a pencil, you have to scribble out a pen. At least then you can see evidence of your thought process.

5. Never write for other people. Write for you. Write the stuff you want to read. If you write for other people, you’ll never make anyone happy, including yourself. If you write for you, at least someone will be happy.

6. Read poetry. Listen to music by poets and songwriters. Start thinking in metaphors. Even the most boring non-fiction can liven up with a few metaphors. And if you don’t like poetry, listen to some Tom Waits albums. I’m particular to Nighthawks At The Diner and the song “Putnam County.” Now that’s some poetry.

7. Don’t assume you don’t need marketing. “My work should stand on its own merit” is the mating call of the coward. If they don’t promote their work, people won’t find it, and they can protect their fragile ego. Promote your work and get people’s opinions. It will make you a better writer.

8. “Write drunk, edit sober” (Peter DeVries originally said a version of this, not Ernest Hemingway.). This doesn’t extol the virtues of drinking and writing. Rather, it means alcohol lowers our inhibitions. That’s when our real essence comes out, and we write (and act) like we don’t have those voices and filters that keep the “real” us from coming out. Write like you’ve been drinking a little bit, and then edit like it’s the next morning. Don’t smooth everything back to “normal.” Knock off the rough edges, and keep the best stuff.

You Can’t Escape Being a Writer

I’m always writing.

I don’t mean I’m always sitting in front of a computer, churning out words, although it certainly feels like that.

No, the boon and the curse of being a writer is that you can do it anywhere. Many times, I’ll flesh out a column or a blog post while I’m driving, puttering around the garage, or in the shower. An idea will take hold, and I’ll start fleshing out ideas before I ever get a pen in my hand.Erik Deckers' Moleskine & Coffee Tumbler

A couple months ago ago, I cited a Lance Mannion blog post (which is still the macho-est name since Dirk Facepunch) who wrote a great article in 2009 about what writing is.

Standing, that’s working. Sitting is working. Pacing is writing. I do my best thinking then. Looking out the window, that’s writing. Brushing your teeth is writing. Anything’s writing,” Rob says. “The hardest writing is showering.’

On the upside, that means that I can be working whenever I’m awake or have a little downtime. On the downside, that means I’m working whenever I’m awake or have a little downtime.

The problem comes when I get a good idea and start fleshing it out, only to forget it later. I usually carry a notebook around with me, but the Indiana State Police frown on people scribbling down notes while they’re driving down the highway.

I’ve also had a great idea that I wrote in my head and then found out that I had already done something just like it a few months earlier (that’s happened more than once).

Or when I’ve just spent the last 6 – 8 hours working, and I just want to relax and shut my brain down for a little while, I can’t stop thinking about new ideas.

So here are a few things I do stop thinking about writing for a while:

  • Keep a pen and paper on my bedside table. When I have an idea just before I drop off to sleep, I write it down.
  • Use Evernote on my mobile phone. I store all my ideas, interesting articles, and notes on my Evernote. And one thing I love about mobile Evernote is that I can record an audio note. When I’m in my car, I just hit the Evernote Audio button, and record the idea. It’s uploaded to Evernote, and it downloads to my laptop the next time I fire it up.
  • Carry a notebook at ALL times: I’m a Moleskine snob and am very picky about my pens — blue Pilot G2 .05mm — and I make sure I have it with me. That way, I’m always ready when inspiration hits.
  • Use a notes app on my iPad. For whatever reason, I’m not a big fan of the standard Notes app on my iPad, so I bought Draft a few days ago, and I’ve been enjoying that. I use it to take notes at sporting events I’m covering, and even use it when I’m watching TV. I also set it up to forward my notes to Evernote (which is also a note taking app, but I couldn’t tell you why I don’t use it instead. Certainly would’ve saved me $2.99).
  • Just write the damn thing: I was trying to enjoy a quiet lunch when this blog post popped into my head. I kept thinking about it and thinking about it until finally I just pulled out my laptop and wrote it. Took me 30 minutes, and now I’m done. Of course, lunch is over and I have to go back to work. . .

The idea behind these strategies is that if I write an idea down, I get it out of my brain where it’s been rattling around. That frees me up to think about other stuff, or at the very least, stop thinking about that idea. I can shut down my mental writing for a while and focus on something else.

Fewer Words, Greater Impact: How to Write Like a Minimalist

My family and I have gone through some major downsizing over the last 10 years, as much by choice as by circumstance. We realized we had reached the point of super-saturation of stuff when our big house in a small town was crammed with needless stuff.

In preparation for a move to Indianapolis, we filled a 4 cubic yard dumpster three times with unusable stuff. I donated more than 600 books to my local library. And we gave away toys and children’s clothes by the carload. It was all stuff we had been hanging on to, but never really needed. As we moved to Indianapolis, we used more than 60 feet of moving truck, taking several different trips, and still had too much stuff. After four more years of paring and weeding, we could get almost everything into a single 24 foot truck.

It’s a wonderful feeling of freedom, but we could get rid of a whole lot more.

As we de-crapified our lives, we started thinking like minimalists, trying to get by with the least amount of stuff we could.Crammed bookshelves

One myth people have about minimalism is that it means going without. A minimalist washes dishes by hand instead of using a dishwasher. A minimalist owns four dishes, instead of 12 full place settings, plus a set of china. A minimalist has very little furniture, and their rooms are nearly empty.

That’s not minimalism. That’s spartan living. There’s a difference.

A minimalist doesn’t have very much stuff, but they make sure that what they have does the most and is the best they get.

For example, a minimalist will have gotten rid of their 600 books, but kept their very favorite ones in all the world. A minimalist will have 12 place settings, but they’ll skip the china, and they’ll have something that can stand up to a lot of abuse, but still looks nice. A minimalist will own a dishwasher, but it will be the best one they can afford so they don’t have to buy a new one every three years. A minimalist will have give up VHS tapes for DVDs, and then give up DVDs for Netflix and their local library, or burn their favorite DVDs to a 2 TB hard drive.

What Does That Have to Do With Writing?

Just like a minimalist chooses the things that mean the most to him or her, minimalist writers choose the best words laden with the deepest, richest meaning they can find.

For example, a minimalist will have a small bookshelf to hold 100 books of his favorite books. And it will be made from a sturdy oak or cherry wood. It will not be made out of pressed sawdust that sags when you put more than 30 books on it.

The minimalist writer will also use the best words to describe that bookshelf.

He stared at his collection of well-thumbed books lining the heavy oak bookcase, now in its third generation of owner. The man ran his hands along the sides, feeling the tool marks from where his grandfather had hand sawn and planed the boards as a young man, building it from the farm’s oak trees. The heavy case was over 80 years old, and still showed no signs of sagging, unlike her pressed sawdust shelves that tilted precariously against the apartment wall.

If you read closely, you can see a few important facts that we were able to convey with just one or two words.

  • His grandfather lived in a time before power tools and owned a farm. The fact that he built it when he was younger means that he was pretty handy.
  • The fact that the bookcase hasn’t sagged despite being 80 years old also speaks to the strength of the wood, as well as the grandfather’s skills with tools.
  • The current owner of the bookcase, “he,” reads a lot of the same books over and over. “Well-thumbed” was your clue. He also doesn’t own that many of them, since he can fit them all on one bookcase.
  • Chances are, the man is very selective about his books. We can surmise that he reads high0quality books. Why? He appreciates the quality of the shelves, and he fills them with books he reads over and over. So you know it’s not filled with paperback versions of “Twilight” and “Fifty Shades of Grey.” What’s in it, we don’t know. We could add a further clue if we used a phrase like “leather-bound” or “old,” but we also don’t want to cram too much into the description.
  • He is also in a relationship. You see this in the mention of “her shelves.” He’s either married or living with her, since her shelves are in his apartment.
  • The two are either fairly young, they live in a big city, or they can’t afford a house. Presumably we’ll find out later.

We could have written that passage with nearly five times as many words — describing the condition of the books in a few sentences, talking about the quality of construction, or describing how his girlfriend’s crappy bookshelf should be considered a hazardous area.

But we can convey the same feelings, finding even deeper ones, by writing like a minimalist and picking the words that mean the most.

Photo credit: jonathanpberger (Flickr, Creative Commons

Delete These Four Words to Improve Your Writing Right Now

New writers struggle with writing, not because they don’t have a command of language. They do. Rather, they use a lot of needless words.

Yesterday’s blog post discussed E.B. White’s slight discomfort with the Strunk & White admonition, “Omit needless words,” and how it wasn’t necessary to omit words as long as they actually contributed to your narrative.Number four, as in four ways to improve your writing

When I work with new writers, there are certain words I try to get them to stop using. Eliminating them — the words, not the writers — improves their writing, and makes it much easier to read.

Here are four words you should delete right now to improve your own writing and make it flow, avoid being distracting, and sound more authoritative.

1. That

This is the first thing that I tell writers to get rid of. There are two kinds of thats — ones that you need, and ones that you don’t. When you delete a that, re-read the sentence and see if it still makes sense. If it does, you didn’t need it; if it doesn’t, you did.

Delete: This is the food that I ordered.
Keep: I want to eat that steak.


2. Anything that ends in -ly

You can get rid of almost any adverb in your writing; adverbs weaken writing because they detract from what’s being said. It’s one more unnecessary word that bogs down the narrative, and when it’s overused, can jolt a reader out of their reverie. You don’t want that. You want your reader to stay immersed in your work.

An adverb modifies a verb, but why would you need to? Never describe a verb, use a descriptive verb instead.

Delete: He ran quickly.
Keep: He raced.

Delete: The cannon fired loudly.
Keep: The cannon thundered.

Delete: She ate noisily.
Keep: She gulped down her food.


3. Any dialogue word other than “said”

A lot of new writers who learn how to write dialogue like to show off their newfound skills by using a lot of different conversational indicators. They think it makes them sound like they have a command of dialogue.

It doesn’t. It makes them sound like they have a thesaurus.

There are two words you should use for dialogue, said and asked. And you should use the latter sparingly. Also, if you say “asked,” you don’t need to respond with answered.

Delete: Sang, shouted, yelled, answered, queried, laughed, chuckled, snorted, cried, screamed, thundered, etc.
Keep: Said, asked.

It’s because the word “said” is a non-distracting word. We’re so used to seeing it, we don’t notice it. The only thing better than a well-turned phrase is one that’s never noticed. It’s like a good bass line to a song: you don’t notice it when it’s there, but you definitely notice when it’s wrong or missing.

Stick with said, and make that part of your writing go unnoticed so people can notice the brilliance of the rest of your dialogue.


4. I think, it seems, in my opinion

Unless you’re writing a news article, everything in your blog is your opinion. It’s not a fact, evidence, or an incontrovertible truth. So you don’t need to tell us it’s your opinion by littering it with “I think,” “in my opinion,” or “IMHO.”

If you want to be more authoritative and credible, remove all references to your opinion, unless it’s absolutely necessary to mention it. For example, if you’re writing a news article, but you have to add something you’re not sure of, then drop in a qualifier to to avoid confusing the reader who might mistake your opinion for a statement of fact. Otherwise, make it sound like your every utterance from the mountaintops should be heeded by all the land.

Delete: Anything that warns people you’re not absolutely sure of what you’re saying.
Keep: A quiet sense of confidence.

Start excising these words from your writing and make it a regular habit. Whether you’re writing a blog post, an article, or even just a series of emails, drop these words, and focus on avoiding them whenever you can.

I absolutely think that it will greatly improve your writing.

Photo credit: Leo Reynolds (Flickr, Creative Common)

Brevity vs. Poetry: A Writer’s Dilemma

Writer E.B. White “was troubled by the absolutism of such rules” as set out in Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, says*.

White would respond to letter writers who had questions, comments, complaints, and compliments about the different rules and dictums set forth in the book that every college freshman buys, skims, and then never reads again.

“Avoid needless words,” was S&W’s admonishment to the blatherers in English Comp classes.

“Write down to the bones,” said every college journalism professor. “Scrape off all the fat.”

Problem is, this approach oftentimes results in the very life of the language being sucked right out of the piece. It’s the rhythm of the language that makes it enjoyable to read.

Ernest Hemingway

“I think that I shall never see/a lion as lovely as one shot by me.”

Would Ernest Hemingway Make a Good Poet?

I decided a long time ago that my writing style would be concise and simple. Hemingway-esque. Avoid adverbs, that sort of thing. (Although I’m still a sucker for a well-placed adjective.)

This contradicts the writing style students are being taught in colleges and universities: utilizing multi-syllabic, complex words that very few people, including the professor truly understood, but make you sound erudite; long, meandering sentences that endeavor to explain and clarify one’s thoughts with as many extraneous words as possible, which make you sound educated; and, whackingly long Faulkner-esque paragraphs that, when printed out on standard paper, can wipe out an entire rain forest, with bonus points being granted if you can use one sentence for a multi-line paragraph, like this sentence here.

This isn’t writing, it’s vocabulary vomiting. Students are being told that in order to communicate “effectively,” they have to use big words. As a result, when I meet a new graduate who wants to be a writer, this is the first habit I break them of, and teach them to use simpler, more vivid picturesque language. There’s a place for simplicity, but also a place for the beauty of the language.

This usually brings us to a different problem, where writers — especially nonfiction writers — are taught to avoid all adverbs and adjectives, even metaphors and similes, for the sake of simple, scientific, logical writing. (They are all then put into boxes and delivered by the truckload to the Creative Writing department, but that’s a different blog post.)

Use Language’s Natural Rhythm

The problem with this oversimple, journalistic-style writing is the language tends to be dry. Describe the facts, without hyperbole or exaggeration. Present them in the fewest words as possible to save on column inches and to keep readers involved as long as possible.

But, what about the poetry of language? Language has a natural rhythm that makes some words a better fit than others. Some writers are masters at this, and Hemingway was one of the few who could find the rhythm in his sparse style. Other people who do it well are speechwriters. Ted Sorensen, John F. Kennedy’s speechwriter, excelled at it, as did Reagan and Clinton’s speechwriters.

As White said in a letter in his book, The Letters of E.B. White:

It comes down to the meaning of ‘needless.’ Often a word can be removed without destroying the structure of a sentence, but that does not necessarily mean that the word is needless or that the sentence has gained by its removal.

If you were to put a narrow construction on the word ‘needless,’ you would have to remove tens of thousands of words from Shakespeare, who seldom said anything in six words that could be said in twenty. Writing is not an exercise in excision, it’s a journey into sound. How about ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’*? One tomorrow would suffice, but it’s the other two that have made the thing immortal.

Writing is a “journey into sound.” That’s the natural rhythm of language. Tap into it, and people will read your work, long after they swore they would quit. Many times I’ve found myself promising to only read 10 pages before I go to sleep, only to look at the clock and see that two hours have passed.

Roger Angell, the baseball writer for The New Yorker, is a master at finding rhythm, but doing it in long sentences. He uses 80 words to weave an Appalachian Trail of a sentence to make you feel like you’re sitting at the ballpark with him. He still needs every word to do it though. There are very few “needless words” in a Roger Angell article.

Simple Writing is Not Stripped Down Writing

Simple writing is not just striking out everything but nouns and verbs. It means choosing the very best words.

It’s like how a minimalist decorates their house: they don’t have just a TV and a couch in the living room. They’ll also have books on a bookshelf, but only 50 of their most favorite books in all the world.

Simple writers may use only a few words, but they use the right words that convey exactly what they want to say. They don’t explain the words they use, they use the richest words that hold the most meaning.

The secret to writing poetically and with brevity is to find the most vivid words with the deepest meaning to properly convey the message, and tap into the their rhythm to carry your thoughts.

* If you’re a writer, or you care about words, read every day, and subscribe to the newsletter. Also, follow @BrainPicker on the Twitter.

Stories of Rejection to Soothe the Artist’s Soul

Yesterday, I wrote about how it’s a good idea that some people quit their art after receiving a couple of rejections.

If you really love your art, you won’t let a few haters keep you from it. That’s because it’s a passion, not a daydream. It’s not a whim. It’s not something you do during commercials. It’s what you do instead of everything else, every day.

If you’re easily persuaded to quit, just because someone somewhere didn’t like what you were doing, then quit. Quit now. Quit wasting your time in pursuing something you don’t really love, just because you thought it “sounded neat.” Save the rest us the hassle of climbing over you later.

railroad spike

One of these things could hold a ton of rejection letters.

For the most part, the editors, publishers, and judges are pretty smart. They’re not know-nothing mouth-breathers. They know what their publication or venue needs, and they know you’re not the one to fill the spot they have open.

But occasionally, there are those who, well, pass up a good thing, and will be remembered long after they die as the poor schlub who let [insert blockbuster artist here] slip through their fingers. These are some of the stories we writers tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better after receiving yet another rejection:

  • Stephen King used to hang rejection letters on a railroad spike, because there were so many of them. After he became famous, he found an old, rather nasty rejection letter. He pulled out the original story, which was not very good, and sent it back to the same magazine that had rejected him. They were so excited to get a story from the master of horror, that they made sure it got into the next issue, and emblazoned his name on the cover.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was once rejected with the line, “You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character.” The Great Gatsby went on to be published, with that Gatsby character intact, and is now ranked #2 in Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
  • My favorite book, Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, is #7 on Modern Library’s list. But it was rejected by several publishers, including one particularly facepalming line, “I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. . . Apparently the author intends it to be funny — possibly even satire — but it is really not funny on any intellectual level.”
  • Speaking of Stephen King, his book, Carrie, was rejected with the line, “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.” I always love to hear from editors and producers who “know” what the public wants, only to find out they have absolutely no clue.
  • e.e. cummings’ very first work, The Enormous Room, is considered a masterpiece of modern poetry, but it very nearly didn’t see the light of day. cummings had to self-publish the work, because it was rejected by 15 publishers beforehand. But he at least dedicated the book to the 15 publishers who thought that his work wasn’t good enough.
  • J.K. Rowling was rejected by 12 publishers before Bloomsbury agreed to publish Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone. And they only accepted it because the chairman’s 8-year-old daughter had been given the first chapter to read, and then demanded more. Bloomsbury auctioned the US rights to Scholastic for $105,000, and then Rowling went on to make more money than the Queen of England, over $1 billion. Meanwhile publishers like Penguin, HarperCollins, and TransWorld had all turned the book down because it was 120,000 words long.

In doing my research on this post, I found something interesting, and the biggest, most important lesson out of all of this for us artists: James Joyce, like every other artist, had received many rejections over his career. Dubliners was rejected more than 20 times. But more importantly, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (#3 on the Modern Library list) was only published after he re-wrote it several times.

That’s the key.

Joyce reworked and reworked one of his most famous novels many times before it was finally accepted. While artists like to console themselves with stories about Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, and the idea that our original work is an undiscovered masterpiece, the more common outcome is that we have to take Joyce’s path and rework and redo our original work several times before it meets the acceptance of someone who’s willing to pay for our efforts. We like to think that the people who turn us down are idiots, but with a few exceptions, they know what they’re doing.

The Stephen Kings and J.K. Rowling’s of the world are, quite literally, one in a few million. They’re the outliers.

For every Stephen King, there are tens and hundreds of thousands of manuscripts editors will encounter over their lifetime that are an absolute waste of paper. So if you were rejected by a publisher, call them all the names you want in your own home, but never write back and tell them how stupid they were.

Brush yourself off, rewrite your manuscript again, and find another publisher.

Do as Frank Sinatra said, and live the best revenge through massive success, so that one day, your name and your editor’s name will be put on a list like this.

Photo credit: wizetux (Flickr, Creative Commons)

If Rejection Makes You Quit, Good.

Back in 1994, when I was first starting my humor writing career, I had been included on a guy’s website that listed funny writers on the Internet. A few months later, when I was checking the site again, he had removed me from his list.

When I emailed him about it, he replied, “Because I don’t think you’re that funny.”

My first reaction was “well, f*** you!” But I didn’t say that. I said it a lot to the computer, and vented to another humor writer about it, but I didn’t tell him what a little twit he was. I swore I would “show that humorless little bastard who’s funny,” vowing to become the funniest newspaper humor columnist this side of Dave Barry.

Then I did something even better. I outlasted the guy. I worked and honed my writing and my humor year after year. The humorless guy killed his page after about 12 months, and was never heard from again.

But it did hurt my feelings. It made me feel like I wasn’t very good at what I loved to do. But the one thing I never did was quit. I never stopped writing humor. (Mostly because I was so full of myself, I believed the guy was an idiot, and that I was better than he thought. So quitting never actually occurred to me.)

But regardless, that’s the pivotal event that every artist faces: the successful ones keep going, the wanna-bes and poseurs quit and go through the motions.

Rejection Does Not Mean the End

I hate watching American Idol and X Factor because so many people see their rejection as the end of their career, sobbing that this was their one and only chance at stardom.

How asinine are these people? If they were true artists, trying out for a TV show would be just one rejection of many on the road to success. The true artist would shrug his shoulders and say, “Oh well. I’ve got an audition at Cadillac Ranch I have to get to.” But these morons sob like it’s the end of the world and they give up on a dream that was nothing more than a flight of fancy.

That’s how you can tell the difference between a real artist and a poseur. The real artist does their art every day. The poseur waits for inspiration, which comes every few days, but only if they have time for it.

The poseur has plenty of time to stew over the sting of this new rejection; the real artist barely has time to think about their successes, let alone being passed over by the mouth-breathers who wouldn’t know real talent if it kicked them in the ass. (Not that I’m bitter or anything.)

That Which Does Not Kill You Makes You Stronger

If you quit your art because someone didn’t like what you did, you weren’t that serious about it in the first place.

There are plenty of people who quit pursuing what they think is their dream after they receive a couple rejections, believing they’re at the top of their game after a few short months, or even a year or two. They get voted off the show, turned down, or otherwise rejected, and they’re done.

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King tells a story about how impaled every rejection letter he received on a nail. It eventually became so full, and the letters weighed so much, he had to replace it with a railroad spike. This is the guy who has published thousands of novels and a kajillion words. And he was rejected so much that he needed an industrial-sized rejection letter holder.

But he never quit. Never, ever. And now he makes millions of dollars scaring the bejeezus out of millions of people.

We Need Rejection to Weed Out the Poseurs

If you really love your art, you won’t let a few haters keep you from it. That’s because it’s a passion, not a daydream. It’s not a whim. It’s not something you do during commercials. It’s what you do instead of everything else, every day.

If you’re easily persuaded to quit, just because someone somewhere didn’t like what you were doing, then quit. Quit now. Quit wasting your time in pursuing something you don’t really love, just because you thought it “sounded neat.” Save the rest us the hassle of climbing over you later.

But if you’re serious about it, you can get discouraged, you can get sad, you can think the other person is a big stinky jerkface. We all have those moments. We all think the people who told us “no” are know-nothing mouth-breathers.

The difference between the serious artist and the poseurs is that we don’t quit when we get rejected. We impale the rejection letter on a spike and start on the next project.