Mark Terry

Thursday, May 29, 2008

On Writing

May 29, 2008
This is just a reminder to anyone who hasn't explored my website thoroughly. There is here a free 96-page booklet as a PDF, ON WRITING. It's a collection of earlier blog posts that focus on actual writing techniques, and addresses things like character development, description, point of view, etc. Y'know, all that nuts-and-bolts stuff.

Here's a sample:

James Woods directed a film a few years ago and got Melanie Griffith to act in it and in an 

interview he was asked why and he said she was good and she fit the part and "she has 

whatever that 'ooomph' it is that makes somebody a star."  


In writing, we all need that 'ooomph.' There's very little "good enough" in the arts. It's like 

being in school and doing "good enough" to get a B+ or even an A-, and saying that's "good 

enough." But in the world of getting your writing published and then noticed, you need to 

add that something else. You have to not just work on perfection in mechanics--spelling and 

grammar--but shine everything to a high gloss.  


It's a mistake to think editors and/or agents will "fix" the spelling or grammar or other 

mechanical issues if the story is good enough (whatever the hell that is). They're busy and the 

industry has shifted toward editors largely acting as "acquisition agents" and their jobs as 

"shepherding" the manuscript to publication, more than shaping the work and editing the 

content. That isn't to say they don't edit and shape, but it's not their primary job.  


Momma didn't teach you that "neatness counts?" It does. Get the spelling and grammar right 

and all the other mechanics of writing. Here's something I think editors and agents believe to 

be true--spelling and grammar is Writing 101. You're not going to get published until you 

graduate from Writing 401. If you're screwing up Writing 101, you're not ready.  

Mark Terry


Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Hi Mark:
Wonderful post.

I look at it as simple manners, honestly. It is RUDE to take up an incredibly busy person's time (agent, editor) when you haven't even bothered to master grammar and spelling and formatting. Moving beyond that, if you don't "get" "show don't tell," if you use adverbs all over the place instead of strong verbs, if you don't know realistic dialogue and coat your manuscripts with cliches, you are just operating under a delusion that your "big idea" is somehow better than all the rest of us working writer slobs, and "deserves" a big fat contract when you just haven't bothered to take writing 201, 301, and 401.


8:03 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

Dude, way cool. How in the world did I miss this?


8:15 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I agree, Erica, but I'm always running into people--and have for years and years--who say, sometimes literally, "I've got a great story/idea, but I just need an editor/writer to fix the other stuff."

Elmore Leonard has a riff on it in "Get Shorty" that's pretty funny, where they're saying how writing a script is easy, then you just get a scriptwriter to put all the formatting and commas and shit in.

8:16 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...


8:16 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I agree it's important to master craft before submitting to an agent or editor, but I don't think the mechanics of craft has much to do with the "ooomph" James Woods was talking about. I don't think you can learn or manufacture ooomph. Ooomph is related to innate talent and voice, IMO. It's that "special something" an agent or editor can't quite put his/her finger on, but knows it when s/he sees it.

Talent must be developed, of course, but I think there has to be something to begin with. In other words, I don't think anyone, no matter how strong the desire, can learn to be a great writer, any more than anyone, no matter how strong the desire, can learn to be great in any of the other arts.

I could take painting lessons till the cows come home, but my paintings would never have ooomph. I'm simply not talented in that area, and learning all the mechanics in the world isn't going to change that.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Mark!

2:45 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Nuts-and-bolts doesn't have much to do with that "oomph." But the fact is, editors or agents will read a manuscript that has typos or grammatical problems and toss it aside, no matter how compelling the story--long before they can even decide if it's compelling--because it will require too much time and energy to fix.

3:24 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...


I agree. There's absolutely no excuse for turning in a sloppy manuscript.

6:19 PM  
Blogger Edie said...

Mark, this is great. Thanks!

8:42 PM  
Blogger R.J. Keller said...

Great book! Thanks a bunch.

6:20 PM  
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