John Grisham’s Writing Advice—Also See Strunk and Orwell

John Grisham: Most writers use too many words.

Novelist John Grisham is profiled by Janet Maslin in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. As a bonus, there’s a sidebar of “John Grisham’s Suggestions for Writing Popular Fiction.” He has eight suggestions and admits, “There is nothing original about this list. It has all been said before by writers much smarter than me.”

Suggestions 6 and 7 apply to journalism.

6. DON’T — KEEP A THESAURUS WITHIN REACHING DISTANCE

I know, I know, there’s one at your fingertips.

There are three types of words: (1) words we know; (2) words we should know; (3) words nobody knows. Forget those in the third category 
and use restraint with those in the second.

A common mistake by fledgling authors is using jaw-breaking vocabulary. It’s frustrating and phony.

7. DO — READ EACH SENTENCE AT LEAST THREE TIMES IN SEARCH OF WORDS TO CUT

Most writers use too many words, and why not? We have unlimited space and few constraints.

Number 6 seemed a problem most often with writers who had an academic background. A classic example was a college professor who had written several books and a fair number of magazine articles. He wrote a piece for the Washingtonian on the Civil War and I edited it pretty hard. When he saw the galleys, he said, “You’ve edited out my style.” I almost responded, “Overwriting is not a style.”

Number 7 is classic writing advice.

In The Elements of Style, William Strunk made these suggestions:
1. Be specific, concrete, definite.
2. Use the active rather than the passive voice.
3. Put the statements in positive form.
4. Write with nouns and verbs.
5. Don’t overstate.
6. Avoid the use of qualifiers.
7. Don’t explain too much.
8. Avoid fancy words.
9. Be clear.

In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell had these suggestions:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or jargon if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Cutting words out is much of what editors do. At a magazine or newspaper, where a story often has to fit a certain space, one of the frequent requests from art directors near deadline is, “You have to cut 40 lines from the story about the White House.”

This comes after a story has been edited by two or three people and often the editor’s reaction was “It can’t be cut that much.” Say the story is 600 lines—40 lines is a lot of cutting.

We found it almost always could be done, and when it was done, the editor’s reaction almost always was, “Okay, it’s now a better piece.”

It’s surprising the number of words, phrases, sentences, or paragraphs that can be cut when you’re forced to do it.

As for complaints from writers, I always found that changing their language, not cutting words out, was what really bothered them.

Comments

  1. Phil Semas says

    Exactly right. I used to pride myself on being able to cut a story by taking out needless words in such a way that the writer couldn’t tell where I had cut.

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