writers tips

Writer’s Tip #95: 8 Tips from Janet Burroway

writers tips

Great tips for soon-to-be great writers

When you read your story, does it sound off, maybe you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know you’ve done something wrong? Sometimes–maybe even lots of times–there are simple fixes. These writer’s tips will come at you once a week, giving you plenty of time to go through your story and make the adjustments.

I have a huge bookshelf of self-help books for writing. If I get stuck, I roll my chair around to face my floor-to-ceiling shelves and explore tips from Donald Maass, Bob Mayer, Strunk and White, James Frey on whatever my problem-du-jour is (last week, it was ‘story arc’ because my agent said he was rereading my mss to review the story arc.). These books are a wealth of information and take a long time to digest. I thought I’d take a few of my favorites and distill their highlights.

Today, I’ll focus on the highly-respected Janet Burroway Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (Longman 2003), the first book I ever purchased on how to write. It’s full of ideas, suggestions, and tips, so I’ve picked eleven that made a difference to mean. If you enjoyed this book, please add the thoughts that grabbed you by the throat and inspired your writing under ‘comments’:

  • The process of discovering, choosing, and revealing the theme of your story begins as early as a first freewrite and continues …beyond publication.
  • John Gardner points out that theme ‘is not imposed on the story but evoked from within it–initially and intuitive but finally an intellectual act on the part of the writer’.
  • Very few writers know what they are doing until they’ve done it.
  • Novelist John L’Heureux says that a story is about a single moment in a character’s life that culminates in a defining choice
  • Mel McKee states flatly that ‘a story is a war. ‘It is sustained and immediate combat.’ He offers four imperatives for the writing of this ‘war story’: 1) get your fighters fighting, 2) have something…worth their fighting over, 3) have the fight dive into a series of battles with the last battle … the biggest and most dangerous…, 4) have a walking away from the fight
  • A story is a series of events recorded in their chronological order. A plot is a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance.
  • Generally speaking…almost every occurrence of such phrases as ‘she noticed’ and ‘she saw’ should be suppressed in favor of direct presentation of the thing seen
  • Your fiction must have an atmosphere because without it your characters will be unable to breathe
  • It’s the job of the writer to create a world that entices you in and shows you what’s at stake (from fiction writer Nancy Huddleston Packer)
  • One of the most economical means of sketching a character is simply to show readers a personal space that the character has created, be it a bedroom, locker, kitchen, hideout, office cubicle, or even the interior of a car.
  • Rather than thinking of point of view as an opinion or belief, begin instead with the more literal synonym of ‘vantage point’. Who is standing where to watch the scene?

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Jacqui Murray is the editor of a technology curriculum for K-sixth grade and creator of two technology training books for middle school. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy midshipman.  She is webmaster for five blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.comEditorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing TeachersIMS tech expert, and a weekly contributor to Write Anything. Currently, she’s editing a thriller for her agent that should be be out to publishers this summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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5 thoughts on “Writer’s Tip #95: 8 Tips from Janet Burroway

  1. Pingback: Top 10 Tips for Writers in 2013 | WordDreams...

  2. Thanks, Jacqui, for gathering a handful of tips with immediate application. One of the tips I like to pass on is to read your story out loud. My husband often walks in on me dramatically yakking away to my computer, but what I’m really doing is engaging in one of the most useful tools I’ve ever employed. I’m reading my story out loud. Sometimes I haven’t yet showered or I’ve woken in the middle of the night, so you can imagine how unlovely the sight. But dedication to my muse can’t take a backseat to appearances. It takes much longer to read aloud than “in your head,” but it’s so much more useful. You catch the oddball things that slipped between the covers – the overuse of a word; a repetitive description; lost, ineffectual, or extra words; awkward phrasing; a lapse in story construction; and perhaps most egregious of all: character inconsistency. You sense the drama, or lack of, in your story, you meet your characters head on, you stand on that ground at that moment for you are in your own story. And if while reading, a passage bores you, if your shy leading lady becomes Lady Mac Beth, if the ground gives way to a lazy river meant to become an earthquake, you are more likely to catch the mess. So much more useful to clean up your writing behind the scenes than before the agent you hope to entice. So grab a glass of tea, or whatever lubricates your throat, and be ready to smile at your jaw-dropped significant other, and start yakking at your computer. (I just did it with this note and caught a bunch of uh ohs.)


    • I’ve heard that one so often over the years that I started doing it! And you’re right about everything. I think we need to repeat it over and over until people buy into the approach. Yes–it’s time consuming, but so’s not getting published.


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