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Black and white image of Anton Chekhov
Anton Chekhov. Considered one of the greatest writers of all time.

If you’ve been writing for any length of time, or if you're a beginning writer seeking to learn the rules of writing, you’ve heard most of the tips and tricks that get repeated ad nauseum by experienced writers. Some of the tips are make sense, some are more difficult to comprehend unless you’ve been writing long enough to have reached a certain level of self-awareness. Some tips are more critical in nature, as they may apply specifically to your writing habits, quirks, pet words, and so on. Some writing tips an in direct contradiction to other writing tips.

One of the routine things I do when I’m editing, in particular, rather than writing, is to glance at “the rules” of writing, as a reminder of what I might focus on during the editing process. Right now, I’m editing a political novel. I wrote myself a note in a previous edit, where I was focused on a different “rule.” That note: “Make the novel more serious.” It’s a pretty vague note, but as any writer knows, we tend to use shorthand that, while nebulous to some, or at least not specific enough for them to take over, is clear to us. So, that’s what I’m doing right now: I’m making the novel “more serious.”

Today I wanted to share some writing tips from the masters, or at least from those we consider “great” writers. Here they are. While you may know most of them, I hope there’s a nugget in there that’ll be helpful to you as you write your magnum opus.

*As a note, I have left their rules as written, including any British English spellings and/or any errors in formatting, etc.

Anton Chekov (considered one of the greatest short-story writers [and writers in general] of all time, was also a playwright).

  1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of political-social-economic nature

  2. Total objectivity

  3. Truthful description of persons and objects

  4. Extreme brevity

  5. Audacity and originality: flee the stereotype

  6. Compassion

Author picture of Zadie Smith
Author Zadie Smith is a tenured professor in the Creative Writing faculty of New York University

Zadie Smith (Novelist, essayist, short-story writer, and author of White Teeth).

  1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.

  2. When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.

  3. Don’t romanticise your ‘vocation.’ You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle.’ All that matters is what you leave on the page.

  4. Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.

  5. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.

  6. Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.

  7. Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.

  8. Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.

  9. Don’t confuse honours with achievement.

  10. Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.

(The above is borrowed from The New York Times)

Author picture of Elmore Leonard
Author Elmore Leonard wrote approximately 59 novels during his illustrious career, many of them westerns

Elmore Leonard (Novelist, short-story writer, screenwriter, and author of Get Shorty, The Big Bounce, and winner of the 2012 National Book Award, Medal for Distinguished Contribution).

1. Never open a book with weather.

If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2. Avoid prologues.

They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”

…he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

And finally:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

(The above is borrowed from the marginalian)

Author photo of Margaret Atwood
Besides dozens upon dozens of books, Margaret Atwood is the inventor of the LongPen, which allows a person to write remotely in ink anywhere in the world via tablet PC and the Internet and a robotic hand (wikipedia)

Margaret Atwood (Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, teacher, environmental activist, and inventor. She is the author of over 80 books, including The Handmaid’s Tale).

  1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can't sharpen it on the plane, because you can't take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.

  2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.

  3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.

  4. If you're using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.

  5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.

  6. Hold the reader's attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don't know who the reader is, so it's like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What fascinates A will bore the pants off B.

  7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there's no free lunch. Writing is work. It's also gambling. You don't get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you're on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don't whine.

  8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You've been backstage. You've seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.

  9. Don't sit down in the middle of the woods. If you're lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.

  10. Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visualisation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

(The above is borrowed from The Guardian).

Contact Cully Perlman at to discuss editing your novel.


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Nov 08, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Great advice. Appreciate it.


Nov 06, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Thanks for the tips!

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