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Friday Features: Four Rules In Four Years

By Joseph Dodd

When I decided to use this article to present my writing advice, I wasn’t really sure what I would say. Which is surprising, given that, at the time of writing, I’m about to begin my fifth and final year of studying Creative Writing at university. Having spent all that time learning from practising writers, there had to be some pearls of wisdom I could share in this piece.

I’m not an intellectual snob who thinks every writer must go to university. Passion, talent and commitment are the best starting points. But, in my case, I wouldn’t have learned half of what I now understand about writing and publishing without my studies.

But I’d fill an awful lot of pages condensing four years, an undergraduate degree and half a postgraduate master’s into one article, and I’ve only got 2000 words!

I’ve decided to focus this piece on the principles of writing I try to apply day-to-day; whether I’m putting stuff down on paper, or just thinking about it. Some of them have grown out of my degree, but most I devised myself, after taking time to work out what I consider truly helpful and important. Just to be clear, I don’t mean writing techniques, schedules, or approaches. Every single writer has their own version of those. Personally, I’ve always been quite a meticulous planner – I try to know the story and characters clearly before I write anything. I’m now starting to find this method a bit restrictive, so I’m pushing myself to trust more to imagination and instinct, with only as much planning as is necessary. That’s why I didn’t want to write about my individual technique; any author’s approach will change over time and depending on the project, and I didn’t want this article to be rendered obsolete in the next few years!

Instead, I’d like to share my four best-loved writing rules, which I try and keep the same, whatever story I’m working on.

The Exclamation Mark Rule

Here’s a nice simple one to start with. I learned this practice from one of my lecturers, and it’s mainly on the list because it makes me laugh.

Before you end a sentence with an exclamation mark, try to imagine the wonderful Brian Blessed delivering that line with his famous booming enthusiasm. If you think that level of emotion works for that sentence, keep the exclamation mark. If not, don’t use it! (See what I mean?)

Never Throw Anything Away

I don’t know about you, but one of the hardest things to be reminded of, as a writer, is that you must stay in practice by writing as often as you can, even if you’re struggling. If I haven’t written for a while, or I’m simply not in the mood, what I produce often isn’t very good, and that makes me apprehensive about even trying to begin again.

Sometimes, the reverse is true. I find it very hard to stop myself having new ideas, even when I’m working on an important project, and I often end up spending a day seriously pursuing an idea I just had, rather than one I started work on ages ago. Usually, a day is all that new story gets. I’ll see where the concept takes me for a few instinctive pages, and then leave it alone.

This rule of not throwing anything away, however, applies to what I write on both bad days and good ones.

It’s a great professional practice to keep as much of what you write as possible, because you never know when it will be useful. You might reuse a single phrase or piece of description, or recycle a character, or you might return to a story you abandoned a long time ago and it turns out to do really well. That’s why you should hold on to everything.

Case in point: during the first lockdown, I spent one week writing a short story to entertain my friends, inserting a character I’d made up years earlier into a new narrative. A few months later, I improved that story and submitted it to a writing competition. To my amazement, it was shortlisted, later winning an award, and through that shortlisting, I was given the chance to write this article. So, by keeping and editing that single week’s work, itself a hodgepodge of previous ideas, I got not one, but two, amazing new opportunities, which I think proves that holding on to even the smallest piece of creative work can do great things down the line.

Don’t Be Afraid To Ask Questions

I’ve only begun trying to build a writing resume fairly recently. This means that I’m quite new to thinking about my projects as real work, rather than as hobbies or pieces of coursework, and this new proactive approach also extends to research.

These days, finding information to support your writing has never been easier, thanks to the Internet. But sometimes, hands-on research can be essential. You might need to question someone with a personal understanding of what you’re writing about, or perhaps walk the space your characters will walk.

Obviously, this can be logistically difficult. But the way I’ve gone about it so far, is by seeking out the right person to make first contact with, and it’s turned up great results. What I’ve realised is that, when you know who to approach, you mustn’t be afraid to ask questions. This ties back to what I said about being proactive.

Currently, I’m planning a new story set on my university campus. The main characters are all in their first year and live in student halls. It’s been three years since I lived in a campus flat, and I had almost completely forgotten the layout, smell and feel of such a place. So, I emailed the accommodation manager of my old college and asked if she could let me into a vacant flat to have a look around.

A few weeks later, I took the bus to campus, was handed a spare key fob, and given all the time I wanted to wander around two empty floors of the building I used to live in.

Nothing could have prepared me for how useful that visit has been, which proves that having the confidence to ask questions can be very useful indeed. It’s taken me a long time to build that confidence. But, to fall back on an old cliché, the worst thing they can do is say ‘no’, and at least you tried. However, if you ask politely and are prepared to work with what others can allow, there’s every chance they’ll say ‘yes’, and that can open so many unexpected doors. In my case, literally!

Embrace Learning

This is my most important rule and the one I enjoy following most.

When I was younger, perhaps between the ages of 14 and 17, I didn’t think I needed to learn anything about writing. I thought writers just rattled along on imagination and talent, and when they were ready, they sent their work off to a publisher and then, magically, books came out.

I’ve since realised how very wrong I was. Not about writers needing imagination and talent – of course they need those qualities. But this thing we love to do is complex and always developing, whether it’s in writing, or editing, or the great wide world of publishing. This is why I’ve now thrown myself into finding every possible way to learn more about both the practice and the business of writing, and I’m relishing every moment of it.

I’ve mentioned how, without my degree, I wouldn’t be as confident or knowledgeable as I am now, but these days, my most helpful resources have come from outside my university. They’re available for anyone to access and learn from. Obviously, there are books and magazines to help; you’re reading one right now! But, I’d like to suggest some of the other things I’ve found most useful and interesting in the last year or two.

YouTube is full of short but informative interviews, Q&As, public appearances and addresses from so many great writers. Look for your favourites and listen to what they have to say. I said earlier that I’m trying to rely less heavily on planning before I write, and it was listening to authors on YouTube – from Neil Gaiman to Michael Morpurgo – that convinced me to do this. It’s nothing like talking to them in person or reading their work, but it’s an amazing one-stop shop of ideas and inspirations. If you’re looking for some longer-form content, you could try and find your favourite writers being interviewed on the radio or on podcasts.

There are also online seminars with writers, agents, publishers, and other creatives. If you’re at university, your department probably provides at least some of these, but there are tons of other organisations that can set these events up. Often, they’re free to join, so there’s really nothing to stop you from signing up and spending an hour or so in the company of a professional. If you do join one of these sessions, I have two top tips. Number one: make notes and keep them. I file them so they’re easy for me to refer to. And number two: ask questions. We all know how awkward it can be on Zoom with a bunch of strangers, but I always try to ask at least one question at online events such as these. It can be as anonymous as you like, and you’ll walk away with a piece of advice that feels like it’s just for you. That’s a lovely feeling, and it’s also a great way to get answers straight from the people who know best, specifically tailored to your query.

Lastly, there are writing courses. Now, these often do cost money. I know I’ve had to miss out on a few because I couldn’t afford them. However, if you can, they can provide brilliant packages of learning to work through. I have a couple of recommendations: BBC Maestro offers courses on writing picture books, writing novels for children, or writing TV drama, led by Julia Donaldson, David Walliams, and Jed Mercurio. (These are a little expensive, but the course is permanent once you buy it and there’s no limit on when you can use it or revisit it, so good value. Also, they can be given as gifts). Alternatively, the University of East Anglia organises a regular online screenwriting course through a site called Futurelearn. It’s free to join, and taught me a lot about writing a pitch for a story. Shop around, and I’m sure you can find courses for the area that interests you.

We’re surrounded all the time by advice about writing. You might be studying officially, or searching the web, or reading books. Regardless of what you need, there is no shortage of ways to learn from writers.

Sometimes, though, this can feel a bit overwhelming. This is why I’d like to end by encouraging you to spend time on working out a few simple rules of your own. I hope you’ve found this article helpful, and maybe it’s given you some fresh thoughts, but equally, my ideas might not work for you, and that’s a good thing. So long as a writer feels confident in their own approach, that’s what matters. But, I can assure you, it feels good to have some writing principles unique to you and that you can apply wherever you want them.

Quite apart from anything else, I’ve found that working out my four main rules is a great confidence boost. Knowing what helps you, and discovering ways to put it into practice, is a terrific way to feel sure of yourself as a writer. In amongst the excitement that comes with every new project you begin, having your own guidelines to fall back on will prepare you to take those projects on.


Issue 10  of Write On! Magazine is out now. See it here.

We’re surrounded all the time by advice about writing. You might be studying officially, or searching the web, or reading books. Regardless of what you need, there is no shortage of ways to learn from writers.