Advice for Writers

By Shelby Yastrow

Since college I’ve really liked to write, and I fancied myself a pretty good writer. I was the guy in the fraternity, if another guy wanted to write a letter to his girlfriend or a teacher, he’d come to me for help. I always had a way of expressing myself and being understood.


As a write and published author, I get asked for writing advice pretty often. My main piece of advice is, “Be understood.” Here’s what I mean. I was speaking to students at Arizona State University, and I told them that I had worked my way through law school as a substitute milkman. Yes, it was that long ago. But people would leave me notes in the morning reading things like, “Two of the same.” Because I wasn’t the regular milkman, I didn’t know the context.


That was a lesson: writing is communicating. You need to be understood before anything else. I’m not a great writer. But I’ve always been complimented on my writing and seldom misunderstood, which is a real benefit in the law, where language has to be precise.


I also love to write goofy poems. I really enjoy the wordplay, and I love to entertain with them. For example, when my wife got her doctorate, I threw a party with more than 100 guests—and I wrote a limerick for each of them about their relationship with my wife, and then had them each stand up and read it. It brought the house down. This is the limerick I wrote for myself to read:


With her morals she’ll never corrupt us

And with her thrift she’ll never bankrupt us

But I really get pissed

With her “Honey-Do” list

I call it “Golfus Interruptus.”


Not Robert Frost, I’ll grant you. But let’s see Frost birdie a par 5.  


Oh, right. Writing advice. My first piece of advice is to tell a story. William Gottlieb, a top agent at the William Morris Agency, said, “If you have a good story, you can survive even if your writing is a B.” Story is everything. If you have a C story, you couldn’t sell it even if your writing is Hemingway quality.


Write clearly and be understood. Style isn’t writing. If people don’t understand what you’re saying, what good is style? I love my wife, but she’ll say things like, “Did you call that guy?” What? She talks like some people write. You have to be clear. I gave an interview once to a Chicago paper and I said, “I know this sounds hokey, but I like to tell jokes and stories and B.S. a bit, and when I’m writing, I like to visualize myself with my feet up in front of a fireplace talking to somebody.” I don’t write in metaphors and symbolism. I just like to tell a story.


Finally, know what you’re writing about. I don’t know how people can write about things they don’t know. I can’t imagine anyone writing Bad Lies who wasn’t a seasoned trial lawyer. Even I talked to a couple of distinguished litigators I know to have them fact check me.


Scott Turow, who’s written huge bestsellers like Presumed Innocent, is a close friend, and he helped me with my first book. His first book didn’t sell, and one of the reasons it flopped was that he wrote it about a city where he had never been. You need landmarks, so people can feel like they’ve been there. Write what you know, or if you want to write something you don’t know about, educate yourself.

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