Lessons learned from Brandon Royal’s The Little Red Writing Book

Posted: February 20, 2014 in lessons learned, writing
Tags: , , , ,

If you can’t get the basics of something right then the rest is just a waste of time. It’s a point that applies to juggling (make sure you can catch before you try to catch fire), cooking (make sure you don’t burn pans before you try a soufflé), and of course to writing. That’s why I enjoyed reading Brandon Royal‘s The Litte Red Writing Book. It’s a good guide to writing, aimed at non-fiction but with lessons for any writer, that gives twenty useful principles and a grammar guide. A lot of it will seem familiar to anyone who’s ever written an essay, but even when it was covering principles I already knew I found its clarifications and reiteration useful.

So here’s three particularly useful things I picked out from this book.

Royal LRWB


Favour verbs, not nouns

This one was totally new to me, but fitted my recent experience.

Last week I was doing edits on a story, and a lot of the feedback was ‘too many uses of the word ‘she’ here’. It was a tricky thing to tackle. I didn’t want to over-use the character’s name, or put other nouns in its place as that could get clunky. It took me ages to work out those edits because while I could see that the editor was right I just couldn’t see another option.

This is it. Structure your writing to lean more on verbs than nouns. It’ll help keep it active and interesting, and help you avoid getting bogged down in pronouns like I did. Above all avoid nominalising – turning verbs and adjectives into nouns. It often makes for ugly writing.

Six basic writing structures

I like having structures to plan my writing around. They aren’t to stick rigidly to, but to give me a framework to start from. Royal sets out six basic structures that are useful for writing things like articles, essays and blog posts. I write a lot of blog posts, not just here but also for freelance clients, so having these is handy. I’ve already put them into my blog planning template.

Describing all six would take a whole post in itself, but they include things like evaluative, chronological and causal, and he explains briefly how to structure each one.

Support what you say

I already know that I need to provide evidence when making a point, but Royal provides a good reminder of the fact that your evidence should be concrete and specific. Not just ‘Larry is a great communicator’ but ‘Larry is a great communicator as shown by the rousing speech he gave to his minions, which inspired them to conquer Quebec’.

One for reference

This book is going on my writing reference shelf, to be kept handy for all occasions. It’s worth a read if you write at all, whether for pleasure, for work, or just out of that itch that drives us to put pen on page.

Anybody got any favourite books on writing? I can always do with recommendations in this area, especially now it’s my work as well as my hobby.

  1. everwalker says:

    ‘Self Editing for Fiction Writers’ by Browne & King is a phenomenal craft book that literally changed the way I write. Can’t recommend that highly enough.

  2. glenatron says:

    That opening line is one of the most important things that you can learn about anything. When you begin in an endeavour you see experts doing fancy stuff and it looks amazing, but the truth is that as you gain in expertise you realise that everything that matters is the basics. Either the fancy stuff is just the basics applied with finesse or it is something you can avoid if you don’t need it. This has been my experience with almost everything I have ever acquired any useful amount of skill in.

    The only book on writing I have read recently was How Not To Write A Novel which is a pretty good read- it just lists 200 things ( each one with an example and a bit of discussion ) that you can do as a writer to guarantee that your work will never be saleable. As far as educational texts go, it is funny and readable, although a lot of the examples were fairly obvious to me there were certainly a few things that made me pause and question whether I was getting caught on that.

    • Turns out there are several books called How Not To Write A Novel – clearly a very marketable title – do you remember who the author was?

      I really like your point about fancy stuff being basics applied with finesse. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but it has the ring of truth to it.

      • glenatron says:

        Sandra Newman and Howard Littlemark, apparently.

        The thing about basics was something I first noticed as I got better at ninjutsu and all the things that had once seemed like complicated movements and techniques started to become more transparent to reveal a certain simplicity at their core, when I got my black belt I was often still working on the same basic kata, but my technique was more refined. I see almost exactly the same thing in horsemanship which is an area where almost everything comes through feel – almost every book on riding contains more or less the same information ( just phrased a little differently ) and it is equally correct for a beginner or an expert, but how you understand them changes as you develop in skill and experience. There are a few advanced movements that you start to learn at the highest level – the top level dressage stuff like piaffe and passage – but really those are just refinement on basic techniques. The same with programming- you really can write any code using almost any technique and unless you’re John Carmack I’m probably more interested in code I can read and understand than something clever and complex.

        I see it in music, which brings me onto another thing slightly – for years as a musician I was a little worried about the fact I’m not an amazingly fast – or intuitive- player and I felt as though there was something really good guitarists knew that I didn’t. As I started to appreciate the principle that good basics are most of the effort I realised that there are no big secrets – perhaps another important realisation – that I have all the tools I need to play the way I want to. That gives me the confidence to pick up my guitar and play in front of an audience or in a studio ( way more stressful than people realise ) because I know what I need to. Also I realised that when you play fast, it’s basically impossible to make out the notes anyway, so unless you’re looking for a purely textural effect, there’s not really any benefit to it, might as well play a simpler and more memorable melody. Good basics.

        Of course, there are secrets, there is a jump in ability, but I think that jump comes at the point where you realise that your basics are good enough that you don’t have to worry about them. The moment where you make that change is not something you can synthesise, you have to work until you get there but it frees you up to experiment in a more uninhibited way- you know enough that you have a buffer of skill to fall back on. That liberation is where you can begin to make serious progress.

        This is really a blog post in itself, I might even get around to writing it.

        • Freeing yourself up to do the advanced stuff sounds like it’s key – getting well enough practised at the basics so that they happen largely on instinct and you can get on with the rest. I look forward to reading that blog post on the subject.

          Also, I had no idea you were such a bad-ass. I’m now picturing you in the lead role of some surreal martial arts movie, galloping over the horizon with your guitar on your back and a fist set for vengeance. Crouching Tiger Hidden Buckaroo Banazai, something like that.

          • glenatron says:

            I don’t know how practical any of it is, but basically my 14-year-old self would entirely approve of these life choices. Except the horses. I totally didn’t see the point in those until my mid twenties. Which is a shame. If I had been a male rider in my teens it would have been way more rock and roll than being a musician ever was, and I would have been a commensurately bigger hit with the ladies…

  3. north5 says:

    Can you elaborate on the “Favour verbs, not nouns” point? How did it avoid you using the word “she”?

    • Looking back through the document, it seems that the verbs vs nouns thing was more of an inspiration to my editing than what I actually did. It inspired me to look at where a strong verb could carry the sentence without the peripheral bits that were loading me down with pronouns.

      For example, ‘She leapt and twirled’ became ‘Leaping and twirling’. ‘She let her feet become the beat’ changed into ‘Her feet became the beat’. I stopped trying to make my central character the centre of every sentence, leaving me with sharper, more active sentences, without changing the fact that she’s at the centre of the story.

      Using verbs instead of nouns helps to cut out some of the other clutter. So ‘reduction of costs’ becomes ‘reduce costs’ – shorter and more active.

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