Micheline Maylor’s Top Ten Writing Tips

Micheline Maylor

  1. Know the nine parts of speech. If you don’t know them, what are you waiting for? Go look it up. Grammar is the main tool of your trade. Knowing how and why these parts of speech create effects is part of your craft. Nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives are easy. But what about prepositions, articles, pronouns, conjunctions, and even interjections?
  1. Expand your vocabulary. Increase your lexicon. Learn new words. Each time you learn a new word, you have one more tool to draw on from your writers’ toolkit. You can make characters sound more diverse, you can make imagery more specific, you can add musicality to the text, and you can capture nuances of language, setting, and scene.
  1. Enliven your verbs. First choice is not always best choice. Make lists of interesting alternatives for words. Understand that all words have specific nuances that make them more interesting and meaningful in the context of a story. Make your verbs active, and use the phrase “specific is terrific”. Great books for learning about interesting word choices are Douglas Glover’s Attack of the Copula Spiders and Constance Hale’s Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch.
  1. Don’t use cliché. Ever. One of the primary jobs of a writer is to tell a feeling of a poem or the story of a character in a way that hasn’t been heard before. Overused language and phrasing can suck all of the energy out of your work.
  1. Remember that imagery is more than just pictures—it engages all five senses. Too often, beginning writers stick with the superficiality of “painting a picture”. A complete scene is understood through the deeper engagement of all the senses. Ask yourself, what does it sound like, what does it smell like, does the air taste of something peculiar, etc? Try for a deeper imagining of your scene or poem.
  1. Think of starting as setting a scene. What should we see first in terms of focus? Begin with your primary character, or idea. Being vague at the start can throw a reader off. Think of your first paragraph as a scene being recorded by a camera. What do you want us to see first? Many beginning writers don’t want to give away all the suspense in the first lines, and end up confusing the reader. Show us what we should look at.
  1. Be brave. Look at the hard stuff. Write a sex scene, a death, something dark. Readers crave honesty from writing. They crave a connection to what they know to be true, and truth isn’t always pretty or vague. Truth can be hard, and ugly, and loud. Until you are brave in your writing, you won’t get far. As Robert Frost says, “no tears for the writer, no tears for the reader”.
  1. Read, Read, Read, Read, Read, Read, Read. Did I mention Read? The more you read, the more you understand that voice is diverse, tastes are diverse, and the more you understand what your own preferences are. You can learn a lot from reading what you love.
  1. Talk to other creatives in your own field, and in any field. Cross-breeding creative ideas can lead to all sorts of inspiration. Other writers can teach you how and why writing works. But a knitter can show you a character’s hands, or a musician can passionately grab your ear. Creativity itself comes from blending new ideas. Talking to other creatives can make new ideas spark.
  1. Be curious and open to new ideas. Don’t shut down. Don’t wait for writers’ block to pass. Walk around and look at things. Go somewhere you’ve never been. If you always go to the Louise Riley Branch, try Bowness. Read something you’ve never read—sci-fi, romance, a screwdriver manual. New patterns in life lead to new ideas on the page. Try anything.

Micheline Maylor is the City of Calgary’s 2016–2018 Poet Laureate, and our 2016 Author in Residence. Aspiring or seasoned writer? Make an appointment with Micheline for feedback on your work or to answer your questions about writing, reading, publishing and the life of an author. Write on!