James Holden: Do lists on good writing say more about their author?

A couple of weeks I stumbled upon a list of “53 ways to improve your short stories”, published as part of the promotion for a new collection of stories by the Irish writer Thomas Morris.

It’s quite a long list, but can essentially be broken down into three sections. Part of his advice was focused on the method of writing. Some of them should be intuitive, but it was great to be reminded of some of the points he raised, and my favourites include:

  • where possible, avoid having characters with names beginning with the same letter as each other. It’s just less confusing this way.
  • count how many characters you have in your story. Can any of the characters be merged?
  • a short story lives and dies in the cadences of each sentence. Read your story aloud. Find the bum notes.

Another of Morris’ tips was “Re-read stories by your favourite authors. Pay close attention to the craft – dialogue, description, transitions, indirect free speech, etc” The second category recommended authors, including Flannery O’Connor, Donald Barthelme and Ali Smith, and he also listed included a couple of specific stories people should read.

The third section felt to me almost like “what to/ not to write about”, reflecting much more on content than on the process of writing. Tips that fall into this category include:

  • if your story takes place at a funeral, you can probably cut that scene about the bad sandwiches.
  • is that an animal you have there? Ooh, is it symbolic? Are you going to kill it at the end? Forget it.
  • when your story is about someone returning somewhere, do not call it ‘The Prodigal Son’, or ‘The Prodigal Daughter’, or the prodigal anything. Please.

These felt to me to be much more subjective. I’m always interested in lists like this, in part because I’m always open to advice, they get me thinking and do sometimes lead to me changing or refining my writing and methods of writing. But because there isn’t a set of firm rules that will lead to a good-writing nirvana, at some point lists like this inevitably tip into authors’ personal preferences. I can’t think of any stories I’ve read about sandwiches at funerals – I certainly don’t feel like it’s something I’ve read often – or why it would necessarily be a problem (I’m really tempted to write one now).

Suggesting authors read their work out loud is one thing, but suggesting they avoid catering arrangements at a funeral is quite another, reflecting preference for avoidance of a particular leitmotif. And to be fair to Morris, his final piece of advice is “ignore all this. You’re a writer. You’re not here to be told what to do.”

You can find Thomas Morris’ list (which does contain some thought-provoking points, even if you ultimately decide to ignore them all) here.

And I’ve previously blogged about lists that aim to similar things by George Orwell here and Michael Gove (yes, really) here.


About James Holden

Brought up in Yorkshire, James has washed up on the shores of London. He spends his days working as a political geek. His short stories have previously been read by the Liars League.
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One Response to James Holden: Do lists on good writing say more about their author?

  1. I do feel I must write about bad sandwiches at a funeral, That one really spoke to me. I agree about the prodigal anything.

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