I’ve heard a lot of great writing advice over the years. To cast away the 5-paragraph essay and staid, over-standardized rules, I think of the succinct quote from Elmore Leonard. “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” To maintain my passion for writing even when it doesn’t feel like fun anymore, I think of a talk Anna Quindlen once gave in which she said, “I don’t love writing. I love having written.” What really unlocked the concept of voice for me at a young age was this missive from Jack Kerouac, “It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.” To understand the importance of a single word or detail, and how what we leave off the page is at least as important as what we write, I look to this quote from George Singleton, “You do not have to explain every single drop of water contained in a rain barrel. You have to explain one drop—H2O. The reader will get it.”
There are dozens—no, hundreds if not thousands—of inspirational and instructional sayings about writing. This can make it seem simple to assume the question can’t be literal and that it’s merely a conversation starter. But there is an argument to be made. Studies have been conducted that use large samples of high school, college, and other writers. The subjects would first produce a writing sample. Then, different subjects would be given a single piece of popular advice, from a list of tips collected by writing instructors. Nearly all the revisions showed improvement, but the results showed that one piece of advice consistently produced higher-quality revisions than the rest.
Now, it’s not like this is something you should say to everyone and every piece of writing, but if you know nothing about the piece of writing or the writer, generally the single best piece of writing advice you can give is: “Tell me more about this.”