10 Writing Tips from Charles Dickens
Years: 1812 - 1870
Notable Works: A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Hard Times, Bleak House
Quote: “What greater gift than the love of a cat.”
Trivia: Shakespeare wasn’t the only one to introduce words into English. Dickens introduced 247 new words or use of words, including cheesiness, fluffiness, and butterfinger.
1. “I think you are too ambitious, and that you have not sufficient knowledge of life or character to venture on so comprehensive an attempt.”
Before you start writing, make sure you’ve LIVED. This doesn’t mean you have to be 90 to start writing. Go have rich experiences and meet the kind of people you don’t ordinarily associate with. Study what makes these experiences and people unique and colorful. Doing these two things will ensure a far more interesting manuscript.
2. “I write with great care and pains (being passionately fond of my art, and thinking it worth my trouble), and persevere, and work hard.”
Do I really need to elaborate on this one?
3. “You must remember that in all your literary aspiration, and whether thinking or writing, it is indispensably necessary to relieve that wear and tear of the mind by some other exertion that may be wholesomely set against it. Habitually, I have always had, besides great bodily exercise, some mental pursuit of a light kind with which to vary my labors as an Author. And I have found the result so salutary, that I strongly commend it to the fair friend in whom I am deeply interested.”
Again, I don’t think I need to elaborate too much. Go have a hobby other than writing that you enjoy. Everybody needs to give their brain a break, so why not enjoy yourself with reading, playing tennis, or DIY-ing? Who knows? Maybe you’ll get your next great idea while enjoying non-writing pursuits.
4. “. . . [I] don't think that it is necessary to write down to any part of our audience. I always hold that to be as great a mistake as can be made.”
Absolutely do not treat your audience as if they’re idiots. I have read several manuscripts and books that tell outright to the readers what a metaphor means, for example. DO NOT do this or anything like this. Your readers can read between the lines. In fact, assume your readers are smarter than you are.
5. “. . . [T]he conceited idiots . . . suppose that volumes are to be tossed off like pancakes, and that any writing can be done without the utmost application, the greatest patience, and the steadiest energy of which the writer is capable.
Well said, Mr. Dickens. I am surprised by how many writers return their manuscripts to me, only to have ignored most of the advice I’ve given them. Let me reiterate what I wrote in a much earlier post: We editors know and respect how much time and effort writers put into their works. Having said that, one of our jobs is to make your work the best it can be. When given advice on how to improve your writing, go back and reread ALL of the manuscript to see where that advice can be applied. Don’t just fix the spots that were pointed out. Have the patience and diligence to go through the whole work. Otherwise, your editor may reject your work.
6. “Prowling about the rooms, sitting down, getting up, stirring the fire, looking out the window, teasing my hair, sitting down to write, writing nothing, writing something and tearing it up…”
I like this quote because Dickens shows that writing is hard for him, too. Don’t give up on yourself. If you don’t like something you’ve written or you have found something in your manuscript just isn’t working, throw it out. Dickens was not above this, and just think of the masterpieces he gave the world.
7. “I hope, when you see it in print, you will not be alarmed by my use of the pruning-knife. I have tried to exercise it with the utmost delicacy and discretion, and to suggest to you, especially towards the end, how this sort of writing (regard being had to the size of the journal in which it appears) requires to be compressed, and is made pleasanter by compression.”
Again, Dickens is giving you WONDERFUL advice here. You don’t need to be wordy or flowery in order to make a great book. Take out the scenes, sentences, words, etc. that are extra, that don’t add anything to the story.
Let me give you an example from a manuscript I recently rejected. One of the main characters, let’s call her Sarah, is nervously waiting for a relative to get out of surgery. Her aunt is there, too. The aunt suggests to Sarah they go down the hall for a snack or drinks. They go, and while there, Sarah gets a call that some family and friends have arrived. Sarah reports this to her aunt, who then suggests they return to the waiting room.
This is an example of what my colleagues and I call a “travelogue.” We don’t need a scene telling us every little detail of conversation or movement. We only want the details that are pertinent to the story. So, were the paragraphs detailing the movements described above necessary to the story? No! If there had been any important details in the dialogue (and there weren’t), it could just have easily been in a scene with the two women in the waiting room.
8. “I think the probabilities here and there require a little more respect than you are disposed to show them, and I have no doubt that the prefatory letter would have been better away, on the ground that a book (of all things) should speak for and explain itself.”
This quote is more about what you do after your book has been published. That is, don’t tell the readers what the book is about. Let it be up to interpretation.
I do, though, want to apply this quote to some advice I gave earlier in this post. Don’t tell readers outright what you’re trying to say as you’re saying it. For example, let’s say your scene is of a man and his girlfriend having a disagreement. The woman tells the man he’s being a baby. This is a metaphor (albeit, a lazy one – and very cliché). You, the writer, then do not have to write about how the man felt bad about being accused of being immature. You just don’t. Your readers are smart enough to know what you mean, as long as you write well enough. I just hope your writing is better than my example.
9. “I saw the name "Blunderstone" on a direction-post between it and Yarmouth, and took it from the said direction-post for the book.”
I actually had a close friend in middle school who did this very thing. She was an aspiring author, and she’d write stories all the time. If she needed a name for a character, she’d just look around and wait till something clicked. There’s nothing wrong with you doing the same thing.
10. “I cannot help objecting to that practice (begun, I think, or greatly enlarged by Hunt) of italicizing lines and words and whole passages in extracts, without some very special reason indeed. It does appear to be a kind of assertion of the editor over the reader—almost over the author himself—which grates upon me.”
Don’t italicize something unless it needs to be italicized. There are style rules in every style guide to help you on knowing when to italicize a word or phrase. Your editor should be familiar with these rules or know where to find them.
Thank you to the people at Dickens Fellowship, The Daily Express, Cloud of Witnesses, Eve Yohalem, Project Gutenberg, and Writer’s Relief.