Writing: An FAQ

This is my writing FAQ. There are many like it, but this one is mine. The purpose of this FAQ is largely to dissuade people from asking questions for which there are stock answers. These are all questions that I’ve seen a lot that I don’t want anyone to ever ask me unless there’s some nuance or texture to their particular formulation of the question. Let’s get to it!

How do I get good at writing?

Read a lot. Write a lot. Edit a lot. Read the Good Stuff. Engage in criticism of what you’ve read and especially of what you’ve written. Read the Good Criticism of stuff you have both hated and enjoyed.

How do I start writing?

Just start, it’s that easy. Open up a blank document and throw down some words. General advice is to start as close to the inciting incident as possible, but that’s not always correct, since sometimes you want to establish setting and character first. It’s way better to get some words down and then decide they’re bad later than to try to theorycraft some words and avoid having to throw words away.

Can I write

Yes, absolutely you can. Everything is about execution. A better question would be ‘what do you suppose the challenges and pitfalls of attempting to write █████ are?’, which is something that might actually get you a useful answer from another person, and which will be more interesting for everyone. Before asking a question like this, think about it for five minutes on your own first so you have something to bring to a potential conversation.

What do I do if my idea isn’t original?

Execution trumps everything. You can have the blandest idea in the world and still write a good novel around it. Having a unique hook is more of a marketing thing than a good writing thing. It’s easier to entertain if you’re being wildly innovative and original, but you can just be better than those who have come before you. Mostly I wouldn’t worry about originality too much.

How do you find inspiration?

You learn to look for it everywhere. I don’t even really consider this to be a writing question, but people keep asking it in writing communities. Some people have the urge to write, but don’t have anything they want to write about, and that’s a personal problem. Think about what’s neat or interesting about things you’ve read or watching, the interesting parts of your life, the things you wish were different, areas of personal interest, things that you want to say something about, etc. If you do all that and still can’t think of anything to write about, I don’t consider that a writing problem, I consider it a personal problem.

How do I deal with writer’s block?

There are a couple of different things that are all called writer’s block.

  1. You don’t know what’s going to happen in the story and can’t figure out how to connect two bits of muscle together, or you’re stuck on what the ending should be, or whatever. Best advice here is to sit down for a good brainstorming session, or if there’s someone who knows your work well enough, to ask them. Sometimes perfect is the enemy of good here, and you have to accept a compromise.
  2. The writing just isn’t ‘flowing’. In my experience, this is sometimes a mood thing, which can be helped by removing yourself from the keyboard and going to do something else for a bit. Eat some food, drink some water, get some rest. There are certain brain chemicals involved in writing, you might just need to give them some time to refresh. Also, it can help to go work on something else for a bit, which can help to diagnose whether it’s this thing that’s not flowing or all things. These have different remedies.
  3. You want to write, and have an itch to tap away at those keys, but the idea zone is blank. See above.

My worldbuilding

Worldbuilding is important for scifi and fantasy, but it’s not writing, it’s a prerequisite for writing. Most of your worldbuilding will not be used in the story itself. Look, worldbuilding is this separate thing from writing, so don’t do it in a writing community unless there are very specific writing things that come from it. “What about this magic system I made?” is not a writing question.

My general advice for worldbuilding can be found elsewhere, especially when it comes to magic. The short version is that you should think about the inherent tensions and points of conflict from which stories might arise, and do your best to distill the reader-facing stuff to whatever is cool, interesting, edifying, evocative, etc. Make sure that if it’s going to the reader, there’s something that justifies it. If you start listing off the major nations of your world, I will be extremely annoyed.

How do I deliver (good) exposition?

First, don’t do that if at all possible. There are different ways to communicate things to the reader, and it’s usually better to deliver that information in other ways where possible. If possible, skip it or leave it implicit. Especially don’t do exposition if it’s fake exposition (e.g. technobabble).

Second, make sure that your exposition isn’t all clumped together in a multi-page dump, and make sure that you’re doing your best to be clear and compelling. Exposition can be fun! It can be interesting! Modern encyclopedia style is not what you should be doing in prose, where the dry style isn’t something that people are reading for.

Third, it’s helpful for the exposition to be diegetic in some way, as in one character explaining things to another. If we like the character, and they’re interested and engaged, it makes it easier for a reader to be interested or engaged.

Stock Advice

I’m obviously not married to the FAQ format, here’s some stock advice that solves a lot of very common questions.

Write What You Know

It’s easier to write things that you’re already knowledgeable about. Part of writing is describing things, and it’s easier to describe things you’re familiar with. Choosing a setting you know, or one you can easily research, means that you’re not having to make up a bunch of stuff on the fly. Similarly, it’s easier to write a character based on yourself, or someone you know, because it can be easier to think about how that person (or you) would behave in certain situations. Note one thing I feel strongly about is that you can “know” anything if you’re willing to put in the research time, and you can especially know things well enough to pass the sniff test without all that much work. If you need to, try talking to someone who knows what you need for your work: most people like to talk about trips they’ve taken, the neighborhood they grew up in, their job, etc. Go on Wikipedia and read some articles, go read some books on the subject, etc. This will all help make the writing more authentic, vivid, and compelling.

Show, Don’t Tell

Paul was a slovenly man.

Paul’s shirt wasn’t tucked in and his hair was greasy.

The essence of “show, don’t tell” is that the second sentence is almost always preferred to the first. Examples are better than outright stating things. Don’t tell us that the protagonist is anxious, express that anxiety to us by showing all the outward signs, like biting her nails, tapping her feet, etc. Generally speaking, I think this is good advice, but some people take it a little bit too far. Showing almost always takes longer than telling, and you can mix showing with telling, especially if your telling is mixed with metaphor, e.g. “It seemed like every fifteen minutes the anxiety would wash over him anew, like his own personal mental tide”. Part of the reason for “show, don’t tell” being the absolute most common bit of writing advice is that showing is almost always more evocative than telling, and engages readers better, which helps with investment in the story. Showing helps you sink into a scene better and to understand a person’s point of view.


Creating Interesting Magic (and Characters, Plots, and Worlds)

How to Write a Web Serial

Rational Fiction as Narrative Focus

Serial Writing, An FAQ

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Writing: An FAQ

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