Very Simple Writing Advice from James Wood

  • Writers should treat their fictions with the deference due something real; or, if they don’t, they should show that they understand the consequences of not doing so.
  • They should grant characters their measure of "metaphysical presence," not move them around like pawns in "metafictional games."
  • Authors should be "gravely affirmative" before they give themselves license to be "gravely skeptical."
  • They should "inhabit" their stories, rather than play with them.
  • Details should be sprinkled with a light but deliberate touch (tact, of course, comes from the Latin for touch) and imbued with the weight of what the medieval theologian Duns Scotus called "thisness": "By thisness," Wood writes, "I mean any detail that draws abstraction toward itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability."
  • Dialogue should hold back as much as, if not more than, it says.
  • A good metaphor does not just conform to a character’s worldview; it "hovers around the character, and seems to emanate from that character’s world."

Thisness? Gravely affirmative? Metaphysical presence? Deference due something real?

I guess this is why I’m a mere blogger and at times a wannabe non-fiction writer, not someone deep into the world of fiction and serious criticism.

7 Responses to Very Simple Writing Advice from James Wood

  1. Charlie says:

    My response to Woods is what your response was to Umair’s article…


  2. Dani says:

    I agree, it’s a big ol’ whaaaa….? The only bit that makes sense is the point on dialogue, IMHO.

  3. Krishna says:

    Please don’t take me for a snob. May be I am dumb. But those statements make a lot of sense to me.

  4. ElamBend says:

    I think Chandler had better advice: “When in doubt, have a man enter the room with a gun.”

  5. LP says:

    I was intrigued by the bullet list, and added this to the top of my to-read list. I’m trying to write my first novel, though, so may be in a more receptive state of mind for this kind of thing.

  6. Seems like advice about how to criticise more than how to write. I’m sure some people find this sort of thing meaningful; I don’t find it worth the bother of translating. It’s what I can’t stand about the “literary world”. But maybe that’s just me, as they say 🙂

  7. I can’t stand postmodernism and I’ve never read any grave analyses of literature, but I write fiction and I’m sad to say that I understood every bit of that advice.


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