Don Williams
Photo by Justin Williams

Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, blogger, fiction writer, sometime TV commentator, and is the founder and editor emeritus of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a Golden Presscard Award from Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists, a best Commentary Award from SDC, Best Feature Writing from the Associated Press Tennessee Managing Editors, the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize from the Associated Press, Best Non-Deadline Reporting from the United Press International, Best Novel Excerpt from the Knoxville Writers Guild, a Peacemaker Award from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, five Writer of the Month Awards from the Scripps Howard Newspaper chain, and many others. In 2011 he was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. His 2005 book of journalism, Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes is under revision for a second printing, and he is at work on a novel and a book of journalism. His columns appear at and have been featured at many other well-known websites. To run his column, gratis, at your website, post this link to a dedicated spot: Need a speaker, panelist, tv commentator or teacher for your group or to lead a writing workshop, in your town? Email

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Break these rules of writing... advisedly
(Copyright by Don Williams, All rights reserved   10/20/2000)

"Just what is it you teach in those writing classes?" I'm frequently asked.Sometimes I answer by handing a list of do's and don'ts to those who ask. It's a list I've compiled from a thousand overlapping sources and examples and my own experience. Always I tell them, writing is an art, not a science, so no rule is absolute. I offer these tips as a place to start only. Maybe some of the following would benefit your writing, whether its a letter to the editor, a Halloween email or the final draft of your novel.

  • Come up with a strong opening line. Sometimes this is found in the fifth paragraph of your first draft. Sometimes it's the last line of what you thought was the final draft. Rarely is it the first thing you set down. Remember, a great opening line should earn the reader's attention, allude to a theme, describe a character, set a tone, place the story, letter or article in motion, or all of the above. It should, in short, contain the DNA from which your story, article, letter or poem will grow.

  • Write efficiently. Every line should advance your story or theme in some way.

  • Use rhythm and alliteration to good advantage. Phrases like "constant chorus" or "silent whispers" mean what they say and say what they mean. "He strode across the room to her" gives us a rhythm of walking. Read lots of good poetry and prose stylists such as John Updike, Annie Dillard, Cormac McCarthy and Gallway Kinnell.

  • Use the active voice rather than the passive voice. Active: "John blew open the safe and took the money." Passive: "The money was taken by John breaking into the safe." The passive voice has been called the voice of Watergate: "Yes, mistakes were made, yes, a break-in did occur." It is a voice that eschews responsibility and stalls for time. It can make for deadly writing.

  • Let verbs carry the action. Read Hemingway, Willa Cather, Raymond Carver and others masters of verb selection. Always go back and look at your verbs. Consult a thesaurus. A good verb will eliminate some adverbs and adjectives. Know when to use "sauntered" for example, rather than "walked leisurely" or "festooned in ribbons" rather than "draped in sweeping loops of ribbons." Good verbs, maybe more than anything else, bring life to prose and poetry.

  • Surprise your readers. Plant mystery-reasons for awe and amazement-in your garden of words, says Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

  • Astonish your reader with opposites. Opposite moods, opposite characters. Extremes in emotions or actions. Show us a little man with huge appetites. A woman with small arms and big hands. Dickens knew the value of contrasts. "It was the best of times it was the worst of times."

  • Teachers admonish writers to "show, don't tell" for a reason. Don't say, "Annabelle was a kindly woman who was good to animals. She loved dogs." Rather, try, "Annabelle held the broken crust toward the skittish collie and cooed his name."

  • Make your characters distinctive. Give them limps, warts, speech defects, obsessions, fears, dreams, mannerisms, scents and styles.

  • Create a world by bringing all five senses into play. Tell us how a place feels, sounds, looks, tastes, smells. "Joe stopped on the stairs and savored the smell of cornbread and meatloaf from his mother's kitchen. He ran his hand along the smooth, worn banister as he sauntered down the steps. The rooms he below were shadow-haunted in the evening light, save for the yellow glow from the kitchen door. He heard his mother's deep voice humming 'Rock of Ages, cleft for me.' "

  • Create a world by cataloging the tack, gear, clothing, and other accoutrements surrounding your characters. "Joe stood in the doorway. His cap was decorated with fishing flies. He had a roll-your-own cigarette behind his left ear. His sportsman's vest bulged with sandwiches and candy bars. He held chest-high the old cooler he bought the day he graduated from high school. 'Wanta come?' he asked."

  • Don't mix metaphors. Be consistent. Use only fresh similes, and ones that advance the theme or illuminate difficult points.

  • Ask yourself three questions about everything you write:

    1. "Whose story is it?" Or who, in the article, story, letter or poem is changed by events discussed? In a story it may be the storyteller, or it could be the "main character," but usually, in a good work, you will be able to tell.

    2. "Why should the reader care?" What universal themes have I invoked. What buttons of sympathy and recognition-life, death, marriage, redemption, cruelty, survival, mid-life crisis, romance, awe and wonder-have I pushed?

    3. "Have I created a world?" Have I brought all five senses into play. Have I shown how the setting smells, tastes, feels, sounds and looks? Have I given impressions and/or catalogued the stuff of this new world of mine? If you can answer these three questions satisfactorally, you are well on your way.

  • Try to get in a zone. Remember, writing creatively is a work of synthesis, not analysis. Leave the analysis for later, then dive deeply into the things that matter most to you.

  • Finally, break these rules. Every writer has from time to time, especially the masters.