My Most Valuable Writing Tips
I'll be the first to say it: I'm no Stephen King. I'm not Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, or Chigozie Obioma. In other words, I'm not a familiar, respected name in the writing world.
At least not right now. I'm working on it.
But as a long-time member of said writing world, I've researched and picked up processes that work for me. Here I'd like to share the most useful tips I've gathered from famous authors, grammar and editing books, literary agents, podcasts, and blogs.
Everyone works differently, of course; in a previous blog post, I talked about the difference between pantsers (people who write "by the seat of their pants," so to speak) and plotters (people who outline, plan, and follow a schedule), so I won't tout these as rules that everyone should follow. However, I've found that writers tend to share a lot of the same struggles, so I'm hopeful that everyone who comes across this list will find a helpful trick or two!
My Most Valuable Writing Tips
1. Just do it
Well, this is obvious. Not an enlightening way to start this list off, right? Of course, in order to write you have to do it.
The hardest part about writing -- or doing almost anything productive, from what I've discovered -- is actually starting. Even if it's something you really want to do, a mindless activity is much more appealing, especially with the stresses of day-to-day life weighing on us.
I love to write, but when I'm faced with a new project, I'll procrastinate by doing literally anything else. At some point I have to just say, "I'm going to do this. I'm going to get a cup of coffee, sit down, and start." And once I get started, you have to physically pry me from the keyboard to stop me.
Nearly every time I've taken on a new novel or short story idea, a blog post, or even a paper in school, I've had a "just do it" moment beforehand. It's easier said than done, but if you want to form a writing habit or just get that one elusive project written, you have to start.
2. Don't edit as you go along
When I was a younger, newer writer, I fell into the common thought process that what I was crafting had to look just like what I was reading, and if it didn't, that meant I was a bad writer. So I would write a page or chapter or maybe even two chapters in a fevered frenzy, then spend the next month or so editing it to death. Meanwhile, I was making no forward progress, which is why I never finished anything; at some point I would get bored, or disheartened, or just tired of looking at the same story over and over, and I would move onto the next thing, or worse, write nothing at all for the next six months.
One of my favorite quotes from author Jodi Picoult says,
"...you can always edit a bad page. You can't edit a blank page." Nothing slows you down like editing as you go. Only once I started forward-thinking -- just writing with the end in mind -- did I finally finish my first novel. The next time I finished a novel, I wrote it in the amount of time it used to take me to edit a couple dozen pages. That novel, We Are Eternal, is now published.
I read numerous quotes from successful authors stressing the virtue of saving editing for a completed manuscript. When they said that it's okay if your first draft is terrible -- that it is, in fact, normal for it to be terrible -- and that they all struggle with the same sense of insecurity about the quality of their first draft, I felt free to suck. I felt free to just write. I felt free to keep going.
Write now. Right now. Worry about making it perfect later. If you're lucky, you'll have a professional editor doing that for you down the line anyway.
In the writers group I facilitate at my job, I met a writer who says he absolutely cannot write without editing as he goes. That's perfectly okay! This tip isn't for everyone, but it helped me get out of my head and keep pushing forward. If you're more productive when you have pages you know are up to your standards, by all means edit as you go.
3. Don't be afraid to change your characters/let them tell you who they are as you go along
As I've warned you before, I'm a pantser, so I use this tip as another way to not stifle myself productively or creatively. I don't make outlines or any sort of strict charts when it comes to any aspect of planning a story, but one of the first things I envision when coming up with an idea is the cast of characters. I think of what they look like (and even use real-life actors and other public figures as references, sometimes Frankenstein-ing two or more to fit my vision). I also think of their voices, their mannerisms, their habits, and their personalities. Then I let them tell me their story.
Sometimes who I envisioned them to be isn't who they want to be or doesn't match the story. I've decided this is fine. I change them as I go along. I think of my characters as my children: I don't tell them who they need to be. Because, just as with our real children, if we let them be who they are, our relationship will be less volatile. If we don't force them, they won't rebel against us.
This is all figurative, of course, but it's helpful to humanize your invented people. When we do this, we let them develop, grow, and change, just as real people would. This tip has helped me craft characters readers can relate to.
4. Be concise
Ernest Hemingway said, "Write drunk. Edit sober." Always write with reckless abandon, but tighten everything up later. Let your words flow freely, but don't express a thought in a way that's going to take your reader forever to get through.
As I'm sure you can tell by now, I'm long-winded -- both in writing and while speaking. I didn't know this about myself for a long time, and only through the process of querying have I discovered the value of being concise. It helps you stay on track in a longer work, like a novel; I can't tell you how many times I've gone off the rails and forgotten the original reason for writing something because I got side-tracked by some long, flowery sentence. 99 percent of the time, it's not necessary.
Two years ago I discovered To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing by Robert Hartwell Fiske. Featuring concise alternatives to thousands of wordy phrases, it's basically the essential guide to writing succinctly, and helped me make my novel the strongest it's ever been. I now see how a few well-written words can pack a punch much more effectively than a long-winded paragraph, no matter the author's talent.
Plus, literary agents and publishers need you to catch their attention right away, and keep it. So if you're going the publishing route, you need to get as much said as you can before they move on to the next work. And even if your work is just for you, you'll enjoy it more if what you're saying is really hitting in the heart right away (and not taking forever to get there).
5. Don't info dump
Info-dumping refers to the immediate giving away of setting, plot, and character description in a novel, and in large amounts. Almost every new writer does this. We're so excited to introduce readers to our characters and the story that's been swirling around our heads that we tell them everything right at the beginning in an almost word vomit.
I've found this was a major downfall to my novels in the past, the main reason -- other than the aforementioned editing as I went along -- that I couldn't finish anything. I'd lead with all the information I could from the beginning, and therefore get easily bored with the story. The same thing, funnily enough, happens for a reader: not only does getting the entire story in the first chapter turn a reader off to the rest of the story (because why bother reading more?), but they also get bored reading an entire backstory right off. There's nothing to figure out, and no reason to keep turning the pages.
One of the most valuable things I've learned about crafting an addictive novel is to let the experience be one of discovery for your reader. Leave a little hint of something here, a little there, and entice the reader to pick up each bit of strategically placed information so that they're wondering when the next revelation is coming. If you look at any novel you've ever loved personally, you'll see that's what kept you reading. Certainly not plodding through two whole chapters of backstory at the very beginning; endure that long enough and you begin to think, Where's the story?!
Also, again from a querying aspect, literary agents want to be hooked, and info dumping doesn't hook anyone. If you find yourself info dumping, don't delete it, but find a way to sprinkle it throughout your first few chapters. It'll make a boatload of difference.
Short stories are a different animal, because you have to let your reader know a lot of story in a short span. But info dumping is still a big no-no here. Even short stories need a hook, so you must still spread the enticing qualities of your story throughout. This is where being concise comes in.
6. Lead with action
Continuing with the theme of writing a story effectively, I've found that the way I make my writing exciting for myself (and, in turn, for readers) is to lead with action. This goes in line with staying away from info dumping: start your story in the middle of a scene or an action. You can even start it in the middle of a conversation -- you ever walked in on two people gossiping and they didn't know you were there, so you eavesdropped for a little while? Same idea.
If you try starting your story with action, not only will it not allow you the time or space to info dump at the beginning, but I've found it's a great way to hook readers. Also, action is much more fun to write, so it gets me going and keeps me writing more so than backstory. This tip helps me get started by exciting me about what I'm about to put on the page, gives me something to work toward, and hooks readers all at once. So handy.
7. Don't set yourself up for failure with a daily word count (but do make your end goal 50,000 words)
This tip has helped me with novel writing, but it can help with developing a daily habit in general. I've put a lot of unnecessary pressure on myself in the past, and not only does that pressure prevent me from sitting down to do it, it also takes the fun out of a creative outlet I'm passionate about. I used to tell myself, "You have to write a chapter a day" or "You have to write a [x amount of] words a day" in order to feel like I'd accomplished something. This was very counterproductive, as I psyched myself out and made myself feel like I wasn't accomplishing anything if I didn't hold myself to this standard.
Don't do that.
Oddly enough, the moment I didn't set any sort of strict goals for myself, I finished an 80,000-word novel in 35 days.
Relinquish control and don't beat yourself up, and you'll go so far. If the goal is a daily writing habit, writing a paragraph counts. Writing a four-line poem counts. Writing "I don't feel like writing" counts. You've written. It's enough. If the goal is to finish a short story or novel, don't hold yourself to a certain amount of words or pages. If you're not holding yourself back by agonizing over every word you write (tip 2), and getting in the right mindset to write (tip 1), and keeping the writing exciting (tip 6), the words will pour out of you.
And even if they don't, you haven't failed for the day. Keep the finish line in mind, and any steps you make along the journey toward that finish line are considered successful.
8. Have an honest beta reader
If you're sharing your work with others and seriously considering publication on any scale, nothing is more important than having a trusted beta reader. I like letting other writers look over my work, but designating someone in your life who's honest, straightforward, and a strong reader is just as useful; it can be a friend, relative, teacher, or library worker.
You can ask this person (or persons, but I've read from successful authors that you should keep it to three people at the very most if you're trying to test different audiences) to read for grammar issues, plot holes, effective (and, more importantly, not effective) storylines, and how they feel about your characters. Here's a handy list of questions to ask a beta reader that I've pinned to my "Writerly" board on Pinterest:
This should not be someone who is concerned with your feelings. This should be someone who is eager to read the next bestselling novel, short story, book of poetry, or whatever project you're writing. And this should be someone who will tell you whatever you need to know in order to make your work better. Put your ego aside, listen to what they say, and edit accordingly (but also to your own tastes). With an honest and well-read beta reader, you're bound to end up with a more reader-friendly project on your hands.
9. Designate a space
Atmosphere is very important to me. I can write anywhere if I need to or if inspiration strikes, but in general I find it difficult to just sit down and write if I'm not in a comfortable area and head space to do it. In addition, having a space to call my "writing/thinking space" gets me in the mood to do so.
I have an office at home, but with my busy life, kids, and full time job, I tend to get a lot of writing done during my downtime at work (in fact, this post is being written on my break right now). I work best with a routine, so knowing I have a quiet office to retreat to, coffee in hand, gets my brain geared toward writing, almost like a Pavlov's dog effect.
Having a space for writing and nothing else (out and about and at home) can help you feel like the work you're about to do is special, sacred even, and get you in the mindset to write, and write a lot. This doesn't have to be a traditional space, either -- it could be your bed, your kitchen, your front porch, a book store, a coffee shop, a library, or in your car in a parking lot where you can catch some WiFi.
Wherever you come to think of as your special writing space, you will come to associate that place with being productive, and will therefore be... productive.
This one's obvious, but I saved it because it's the one people often forget. In fact, I almost forgot it... which is why it's last.
I've been a reader my whole life, thanks in part to a natural inclination but mostly to my mom, a reader herself who exposed me to all her books, bought me books, and practices my letters with me from an early age, and my dad, who read bedtime stories to me every night. Thanks, Mom and Dad.
You have to be a reader if you're going to be a writer. The two hobbies typically go hand-in-hand anyway, luckily, but even seasoned readers sometimes forget that to get better at writing, you have to keep reading. Especially if you're crafting a novel for the first time, you reading works from authors you admire and/or are successful is the best way to mirror that success in your own writing. Because when we read, we notice how to use grammar properly, how to structure our sentences correctly, how to structure our story effectively. We need to read novels, short stories, how-tos on writing. We need to read things that inspire and encourage us. We need to read everything, and often.
William Faulker, another favorite author of mine, said, “Read, read, read. Read everything -- trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it's good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out of the window.”
This probably the easiest, most fun, and most tried-and-true tip in this post. If you're reading this as a writer, you probably love to read anyway. I'm saying go do more of that. Right now. Pick up a book and start reading.
And then sit down and write. Just do it.