Becoming a Writer: 25 Tricks of the Trade

By Barnard Law Collier

Barney Collier

The late Isaac Asimov was Earth’s most prolific and brilliant sci-fi and literary science writer and I was privileged to edit many of his non-fiction scientific articles for a few years. His was a marvelous mutant mind and he took easily and gratefully to editing after quickly learning to trust its perpetrator.

He confided that he was profoundly “in love” with writing and writing loved him back. Once Isaac was asked what he would do if he knew he was going to die in 24 hours.

His reply: “I’d type faster.”

If you fulfill the requirement of #3 on this list, then herewith 25 tricks of the trade. (To get the 75 others requires sweat, persistence and determination.) These hacks may help and console you in your profitable writing career.

1. The cliché is your arch enemy. The cliché is a deadly curse on your ability to write words that pierce the anti-humdrum defenses of a reader’s mind. Learn to spot the lurking clichés; mercilessly hunt them down; obliterate them; and replace them with your fresh words, poignant insights and observations, and delicious, original, vivid expressions. As any experienced editor will verify, sometimes an entire story and most of its ideas is a cliché stitched together with clichés.

2. Never underestimate the power of immortality. Your name and written words will be sewn like crystals into the fabric of time immemorial. They will be read and perhaps learned from by generations yet unborn. It’s a true responsibility to write and publish a book. It’s not like cooking a great meal, which is fertilizer the next day. Or sewing a fabulous garment, which eventually frays and fades away. Books, especially now, are enduring and they hold the power of immortality.

3. The finest writing issues from writers who are in love. Loveless and lonely writers paint the world full of rote, synthetic feelings and a cruel emptiness. Writers in love with life and “lifes” fill a book’s world with a deeper, more intimate understanding.

4. A good book, to entertain the readers, must contain a true structure, even if the structure is a soap bubble. A good writer takes elaborate care with the architecture of the structure. A lesser writer jerry-builds a shack. You want to be sure a book won’t collapse under the weight of one’s plots.

5. If you write in English, you must own, study, and use the Oxford English Dictionary. You will constantly learn the structure and nuanced meanings of several hundred thousand English words, and in many cases, you can see the words used in context by good writers. The OED ought to be your palette in word-smithing.

6. You must carry on the joys and tribulations of your daily life and yet routinely write anyway, even when you feel sad, frustrated, weary, and bereft of ideas. (You will feel much more reft after you write a while.)

7. You must read what you write aloud and with all the inflections. Every single word of it, over and over again, aloud. You will be astounded how much of what any writer writes the first time round will not trip lightly off the tongue. Maybe a word or a tense is wrong, maybe a phrase is too complicated, maybe the narrative rings stale or stilted. But if it’s not quite right when you speak it aloud, you will change it.

8. If you write for publication then write exclusively for your grandchildren, or somebody’s, who may not be conceived yet. Allow these progeny to see in their time in the future what you see in your time in the past. If you think your current vocabulary will be unintelligible to your grandchildren, then explain dead words. Do the same for fashionable moods and mindsets. To write for one’s grandchildren is the finest discipline a writer can self-impose.

9. Apply every available sense to your writing. With your full mind you must probe your subjects and their actions with sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and intuition. Unobservant or lazy writers produce “stick” characters out of common and banal adjectives . . . [“pretty, handsome, flawless, beautiful. . . ad nauseam”] . . . without even hints of real human mind and sensuality. (Can you imagine an arousing sex scene in which the “beautiful” woman smells like mildewed paper and tastes like bitter ink, and the “dashing” man feels like cheap cardboard and dresses like a cartoon? What if you had only a sense of smell with which to describe a character, how would you do it?)

10. Care about what you write enough to stand up for it, yet be wide open to making it better. Then readers will stand up for it, too. This requires self-understanding of a tall order, especially when it hurts. Even writing humor hurts. One famous comedy TV writers’ room had this legend posted on the wall: Hide all the razor blades!

11. When you get to what you believe is “the very last draft,” that’s when to start getting tough. Never be afraid to cut, to meld, to distill, to remodel, to reinvent, to illuminate.

12. When writing any story, no matter how many words, remember: Begin at the beginning, deal with the middle, get to the end, and sit down!

13. Read at least two good pieces of poetry each day. (Pablo Neruda will always get your creative juices raging.)

14. Decide upon and practice the voice you will use. You can call upon many more voices than you think, so try them out. Voice is dramatically important to any good book. A boring voice puts you off in a paragraph. A rich voice keeps you listening even in the fluffier parts.

15. For variety’s sake, artfully change your perspectives and your characters’ when telling a long story. A single perspective is deadly tiresome, and the surest sign of an unintelligent writer.

16. You can do floors, you can do windows, but don’t do irony.

17. Learn to listen! Many people listen to others only long enough to catch the drift and craft a reply. This point is often before the person has finished speaking. Listen to the end! . . . And then some. Let the weight of your respectful and thoughtful silence sink in. Your reply will be that much more powerful, both in reality and in fiction.

18. Learn to plot stories like navigators steer their crafts. You must set a story’s course from the start, meander when you must, take calculated risks. But if you keep your nose into the wind and steer by your lucky stars you will arrive at the end, despite every impediment. Readers must trust that the writer is a skilled navigator who knows the way to port, or they will jump ship at the first obviously wrong turn.

19. Be forever grateful to any good editor who can and will help you tell your tales, just as you would be grateful to an old pilot who teaches you how to fly. (There are old pilots and bold pilots but no old bold pilots.)

20. Read and re-read Rowling’s books, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, John McDonald, Agatha Christie, John Steinbeck (my favorite writer), Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, and (co-favorite) Thomas Mann’s The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man. When you learn to write you are playing their game.

21. Take nothing for granted when it comes to your reader. It is up to you to paint the picture and create the actions and reactions inside the reader’s mind, as well as in the minds of readers yet unborn. You may hope that anybody who reads your immortal words is smarter than you are (as your grandchildren will be), so don’t insult their intelligence with mushy, mealy, nonsense that rots in no time.

22. Be not afraid to use good quotes from others, but always attribute them and give your reasons for using them in your story.

23. Fiction is really much more difficult to write well because the best fiction is a truth told in the form of a lie. The worst fiction is a lie told in the form of a lie.

24. Most good fiction will be ranked on whether it appeals to the brain or the heart. A few writers do both, as did John Steinbeck, Thomas Mann, and Leonard Cohen. Choose your poison. Warning: It’s often most painful to write from the heart, especially when it’s funny.

25. God has concocted a beastly punishment for wayward and spendthrift writers who don’t do right and don’t do good: He makes them editors.
Barney Collier describes himself as “Cultural anthropologist, writer, former New York Times correspondent and bureau chief, publisher, and brewer of the world’s best cooking sauce, Gaucho Green Chimmi-Churri.”



    Dear Jack,

    In no way did I mean to malign editors, but rather to empathize.

    My journalistic and literary life has been studded with a dozen and more brilliant and saintly editors.

    I read once, long ago, a list of the jobs that require the utmost intelligence, and editors were ranked No. 3. Writers failed to reach the top ten.

    That put me in my proper place and I could understand why Mark Twain poked fun at them.

    “How often we recall, with regret, that Napoleon once shot at a magazine editor and missed him and killed a publisher. But we remember, with charity, that his intentions were good.”
    – Letter to Henry Mills Alden, published in the Chicago Daily Tribune, November 11, 1906, pg. 3.

    “In Austria an editor who can write well is valuable, but he is not likely to remain so unless he can handle a sabre with charm.”
    – Europe and Elsewhere

    Best, Barney

  2. I especially agree with #7 — that’s the first thing I tell students….thanks for posting this wonderful lexicon of how to produce the best writing one is capable of.

  3. Barney

    When I say, “Most editors are failed writers, but so are most writers,” it’s with a smile. Both jobs are hard to do well.

    When an editor deals with a bad writer, it’s no big deal. My favorite story there: I once edited a writer and his piece had some good ideas but needed a lot of trimming back. He protested, saying, “You’re editing out my style.” My answer, which I said just to myself: “Overwriting is not a style.”

    When a good writer has to deal with a bad editor, that has to be hard to watch.


    Dear Jack,

    I was almost sure of the smile.

    My initiation as a professional editor (part-time) came when I was a reporter in the NY Herald Tribune bureau in D.C. and down the hall was Art Buchwald, who had a way of seeing life that was great fun for me to share, even though he was more than occasionally morose, grumpy, and morbidly wry.

    Art asked me to edit his tri-weekly columns in exchange for him dishing the dirt on his many Washington friends and teaching me the finer points of gin rummy, for money. He enjoyed the editing process, and so did I since it was so easy. He rarely disputed a suggested change and he took every word he wrote seriously and liked it that I did,too. My job was to make sure he was funny by making sure his stories rang clear and true.

    He also took me for a lot of dough at penny-a-point gin, but it was worth it.

    I don’t know if this is how it is for you, but the better the writer, in my experience, the more they appreciate and enjoy good editing, and the more they get it.

    I’ve encountered only one really bad editor, at Time Magazine when I wrote the PEOPLE columns. He was an arrogant snot who loved his blue pencil and the power he thought it gave him. But the gods balance things up. He had a beautiful wife who was always a joy to behold.

    Best, Barney

  5. Wonderful column. This sentence alone makes it worth reading: ” (You will feel much more reft after you write a while.)” I tend to interrupt and tend to be sarcastic and your emphasis on listening hits home.

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