The Best Writing Advice I’ve Ever Received

The Best Writing Advice I’ve Ever Received

by Jake Poinier

If you can consider a piece of red-ink-soaked paper “writing advice,” I received more than my fair share from Lew. Just out of college – and long before starting my freelance career – I was working for a national trade magazine as an assistant editor, and he was hired as the editor to tighten things up in the wake of his rather relaxed predecessor.

Several days in a row, I got back stories with no edits in the first two paragraphs – just two red penbig red “X” marks through them. The first day I was bummed out; the second day, I started to think Lew didn’t like my writing style. On the third, he came over and gave me an explanation. “Most of the time, your first two paragraphs are just clearing your throat,” he said. “Cut ’em. Your story starts at the third paragraph.”

To a wet-behind-the-ears junior editor, this was painful. I mean, those were clever, lovingly crafted, perfectly grammatical paragraphs, and you just want me to hit SELECT and DELETE? Oh, the pain!

The thing is, he was right. As I looked at my stories, I was dancing around rather than throwing a good opening punch. And, as I’ve progressed in my career, I always give those first two paragraphs a long, hard stare, and see if maybe my story should start at graf 3. (For the record, I cut one of my original two paragraphs from this blog post, and radically modified the other.)

In retrospect, I probably should have bought stock in Newell Rubbermaid (which manufactures the Flair pens that Lew emptied by the dozen), because I might have been able to retire on the gains. As it happens, I got rich with his old-school wit and wisdom instead.

To answer in the comments: When you think back on all the best writing advice you’ve gotten over the years – from teachers, editors, peers, writing groups, etc. – what is the one piece that has influenced you the most?

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Jake PoinierA freelance corporate copywriter and editor since 1999, Jake “Dr. Freelance” Poinier blogs regularly on freelancing topics at DearDrFreelance.com. He is the author of The Science, Art and Voodoo of Freelance Pricing and Getting Paid and Help! My Freelancers Are Driving Me Crazy, available in print and ebook versions on Amazon.

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7 Responses to The Best Writing Advice I’ve Ever Received

  1. bethkoz says:

    The best advice I got (and I don’t remember who said it) was to examine the favorite ‘killer’ paragraph — the one that is so clever. Does it really fit the topic? If not, dump it!

    It was hard to do at first, but it’s turned out to be very timely.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jake Poinier says:

    That’s another good one, bethkoz. It can be tough, but it does get easier over time–as does heeding an editor who wants to dump something you’re attached to.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. donnabowring says:

    Best advice: cut to the chase. Your readers are looking for the hook to catch their interest, to immerse themselves in the story, to make them ask ‘what happens next?’.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. David Waid says:

    Lew’s advice is excellent, thanks for sharing it. Some advice I received once is very similar. It was to always count on re-writing the first 4 chapters of any novel. I think it is for essentially the same reason, too: the writer is just getting warmed up.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Marcie Brock says:

    Best writing advice I ever received was from my freshman comp professor at University of Arizona, Homer Pettey. Yep – that was his name. He made us turn our outlines in. I didn’t write outlines at the time, and remember thinking forced outlines were the stupidest idea I’d ever heard. Now, I can’t imagine writing without one (other than blog posts) – and even then, I often have an outline in my head before I begin.

    Can totally relate to Lew’s advice, too, Jake. I’d say about 75 percent of the time, I don’t cut my first paragraph, but I rearrange it a bit and it becomes my conclusion.

    Marcie (aka Laura O)

    Like

  6. Jake Poinier says:

    @Donna, yes, it’s all about cutting to the chase–you just need to figure out the best way to encourage/force yourself to do it!

    @David, thanks for the comment. I’m not a fiction guy (as you may have seen in my NaNoWriMo failure post), but I can see how the same principles would apply.

    @Marcia/Laura, I fondly remember “reverse engineering” outlines from my already-written papers during my school days. But with age, I have come to understand why they’re important. (Funny how that happens.) And to your point about rearranging: The introduction to my freelance pricing book was originally the conclusion!

    Like

  7. Pingback: There’s no crying in freelance editing

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