FAQs about writing

I assume that whoever said there is no such thing as a stupid question never spent time in a writers’ chat room on the internet. If they had, they might have had their conviction seriously tested after being confronted with such questions as “How many words should a chapter have?”

In order to save our readers valuable time—which would be better spent writing—I will attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff by monitoring several online writers’ groups and posting the more intelligent questions below. Rather than presume that I am qualified to answer all these questions, I will scour my library and the Internet to find the best answers from true masters of the craft. (This is a work in progress, and I will be adding to it regularly as questions arise.)

If you have any questions you would like me to address, please do not hesitate to send them to admin@rejectedmanuscripts.org

And for those of you who are still wondering how many words a chapter should have, let me just say you should probably read at least one book before trying to write one.

Q: How can I get ideas for writing?

A: In On Writing, Stephen King writes: “Good ideas come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: Two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”

To put it a little less poetically, King is suggesting you let your unconscious mind do the work. Norman Mailer was also an advocate of this approach. In his book on writing, The Spooky Art, he writes: “If you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your unconscious to prepare the material. You are, in effect, contracting to pick up such valuables at a given time. Count on me, you are saying to a few forces below: I will be there to write.

I think many writers will agree that it is always the best ideas that suddenly appear, more or less fully developed, in our conscious mind. They may seem too good to be true, and we worry we might be accidentally plagiarizing something we read years ago and forgot, but really, our unconscious has been hard at work through the night while we were sleeping, and has delivered “the valuables” to our conscious mind, which then simply needs to act as a stenographer. As artists we can marvel at the mysterious font of our creative ideas, but as scientists we can learn more about actual functioning  of the unconscious in the accessible and fascinating book Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do, by John Bargh.


Q: How can I improve as a writer?

A: In the introduction to the FAQ section, I suggested that one ought to read a book before attempting to write one. I was being facetious, but actually a good number of writers agree that extensive reading is a prerequisite to becoming an accomplished writer.

In his essay Literary Composition (published in the collection of his works titled Miscellaneous Writings) H.P. Lovecraft writes: “All attempts at gaining literary polish must begin with judicious reading, and the learner must never cease to hold this phase uppermost. In many cases, the usage of good authors will be found a more effective guide than any amount of precept.”

Stephen King puts it rather more bluntly. In his memoir, On Writing, he writes: “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”

This is hardly surprising. After all, we learn how to speak by listening, why would we not learn how to write by reading? We would also not expect a musician to become great without listening to great musicians, nor a painter to improve without studying the works of others.

Bibliophiles rejoice! There can hardly be a more enjoyable way to learn a craft.


Q: How can I write better dialogue?

A: Getting dialogue right is tough. One of the problems is we don’t speak the way we write. Dialogue in literature is not simply transcribed speech. “…when transcribed perfectly, conversation is hard to interpret,” writes Steven Pinker in his excellent book The Language Instinct, which any lover of words and language should read. “People often speak in fragments, interrupting themselves in midsentence to reformulate the thought or change the subject.”

On top of this, people use visual nonverbal cues to further their communication in real life, whereas in dialogue we have to rely purely on the written word to convey meaning. As such, written dialogue tends to be an approximation of how people speak. We must adhere to conventions when writing dialogue that help make it intelligible to the reader. This involves writing in a coherent narrative manner that not even the most articulate speaker would manage in real time.

Speakers can rely on shared knowledge of a backstory to help give their dialogues meaning, whereas writers must rely on dialogues to share knowledge of the backstory with the uninitiated reader. Furthermore, a good writer should be able to do this without much additional explanation. Stephen King writes in his book On Writing that even the attitude of the speaker should be clear from the words themselves. As such, he suggests avoiding adverbs with the verb “said”. The content of the dialogue should be able to convey whether Frank said something angrily or sadly without us having to explicitly tell the reader.

On the subject of attributives, Strunk and White offer some advice in Elements of Style as to where they should be placed: “Dialogue is a total loss unless you indicate who the speaker is. In long dialogue passages containing no attributives, the reader may become lost and be compelled to go back and reread in order to puzzle the thing out. Obscurity is an imposition on the reader, to say nothing of its damage to the work. In dialogue, make sure that your attributives do not awkwardly interrupt a spoken sentence. Place them where the break would come naturally in speech—that is, where the speaker would pause for emphasis, or take a breath. The best test for locating an attributive is to speak the sentence aloud.”