On Writing

June 16, 2016

10 Writing Tips

I get a lot of emails about writing — how to start, how to improve, how to overcome writer’s block, how to find your voice, how to earn a living as a writer… And while I don’t have all the answers (especially not the last one), it seemed like it might be fun to discuss. So I asked a handful of writers, editors, agents, and all-around brilliant communicators for their favorite tips — as short as a sentence or as long as a paragraph. Here is what they had to say…

Don’t write drunk.
You will become an alcoholic without a book. Do edit. But don’t be a lazy lizard about it. Go line by line with a fine-toothed comb and detangle the snarls of your sentences. Don’t be an idiot and think your first draft is brilliant. It’s not. Don’t be an idiot and think your first draft is hopeless. It’s not. Do think your tenth draft is brilliant. It is.
Veronica, TV Writer

Your ideas are like babies. Protect them.
Writers’ groups can be wonderful places to refine your work, but when I’m in the first draft stage, I prefer to keep my ideas close at hand. I won’t even discuss them with friends or family. If an early reader responds to an idea in a skeptical or unenthusiastic way, suddenly my enthusiasm is tampered, too. Once you’re happy with what you’ve created — once your baby idea is more like a toddler who can walk on their own — go ahead and share it with your trusted tribe.
— Sandy, Screenwriter

Do not concern yourself with what other writers are doing.
It’s one thing to educate yourself about the market — which books are doing well, which editors are buying what, which agents are selling what. It’s another to worry about who has turned into a shooting star overnight, whose Facebook post is getting hundreds of likes, who’s the prettiest belle at the (Brooklyn) ball. There’s always a hot new book, a hot new author, and their name is everywhere and their photo is everywhere and now every publisher around the world is looking to replicate that success and OH MY GOD, you think, I SHOULD BE WRITING THAT KIND OF BOOK! This is not productive. This is a distraction from your purpose, and a painful one at that. The best thing you can do as a writer is to get clear about your writing, get clear about what you’re trying to do on the page, ground down in your purpose, and refine, refine, refine. Writing is not glamorous. Publishing can be, to be sure, but at some point the party ends and the guests go home, the morning sun shines through and you’re left with yourself (and the blank page) again. Writing is revision, writing is incremental perfecting, writing is work. If you’re worried about what other writers are doing, if that’s all you can see, then you can’t see the work at your own feet, the work that is here for YOU AND ONLY YOU to do. The next hot thing will be the next really good thing; that’s what agents and editors are after. That’s enough.
Rayhané, Literary Agent at Lippincott Massie McQuilkin

Snacks!
A well-fed writer is a productive writer. Sustenance aside, snacks often provide a lone flicker of joy amidst grueling hours of isolation and self-doubt. The difference between authorial snacking and regular snacking is that authorial snacking is all about quantity. Envision for a moment an everlasting cocktail party without the booze* and people — just you, your laptop, and the canapés. (*Booze is okay too.)
Anne, Author and Editor at Abrams

Go to the dark side.
In order to write flawed characters (the most interesting kind!), you have to relate to them. Whether you’re creating a supervillain or just describing an uncomfortable memory about your own questionable behavior, you have to approach it without judgment in order for it to ring true. The bad guys don’t identify as bad — they justify their choices just like everyone else. Get to the heart of that justification, really understand it, even empathize with it, and your character will be fully-formed and three-dimensional — not to mention compulsively readable.
Jessica, Senior Editor at Penguin Random House

Write drunk, edit sober. In spirit.
Hemingway has been famously misquoted as saying “write drunk, edit sober.” While I don’t agree with following that advice exactly, I do like the general idea. First drafts should be sloppy, wonderful, horrible things. It usually takes me until draft three or four to figure out exactly what I’m trying to say. And if you can’t get started, a glass of wine doesn’t hurt…
Danielle, Author

Stay alert.
To me, one of the most important aspects of writing authentically is to keep alert and immersed in the culture at large. Whether the most literary of fiction or reflective and narrative of nonfiction, the most apt prose is often reactive, forming a dialogue with the issues and circumstances that surround its creation. Then, with any luck, you’ll catch the cultural eye, hopefully sparking impassioned conversations, spirited and sly barbs over glasses of wine, or whatever it is that you most hope your work will push people towards realizing, reading, or hell, even hate-reading.
Jesse, Editor at Penguin Random House

Don’t be intimidated by grammar bullies.
Remind them no one has ever said, ‘I love that writer because he/she has such great grammar.’
Veronica, TV Writer

…and I would add:

Read your work out loud.
You’ll hear the parts that sound awkward. You’ll notice if it feels sincere. You can also speak your way through writer’s block. Talking about a thought or a memory can help you find a way in to how you’d like to write about it. Pretend you’re telling the story to a friend, instead of writing it for an invisible, terrifying audience. Then transcribe what comes up.

Keep digging.
This sounds pretentious as f*ck, but I always think of writing as being an emotional archaeologist. Ideas don’t just land in your lap with a blueprint for how they’d like to be written. You have to dig around to discover what it is you’re working with, and you often don’t understand the structure, or the point, until you’ve gotten a little dirty and unearthed the majority of your draft.

Read everything you can.
Read work you like and work you’d ordinarily never pick up. Read fiction and nonfiction, short form and long form, satire and science fiction and serious literature. The more voices you’re exposed to, the more your abilities will stretch and grow.

***

For advice from the masters, I recommend the brilliant guides by Anne Lamott, Stephen King or — the single most helpful book I’ve ever encountered on the subject — Dani Shapiro.

***

Thank you, everyone, for sharing your wisdom! Please feel free to share your own tips in the comments.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

5 Comments

  • Write every day. I hear that one a lot. If I could just find the time. (Bet you hear that one a lot, too.) Someday. It’s my (pipe) dream to write but for now, the day job, kids, husband, house, waistline, wine and MN summer are beckoning me.

  • This is all awesome, Caroline, thank you!

    I’d add that it takes a tremendous amount of time to become good. Just because your teachers told you growing up that you were “such a good writer!” doesn’t make it true. Write as often as you can, as much as you can, and know that lack of success in the first year (or even in the first decade) is not an indication of failure. I’ve written two whole books so far (and countless parts of others) and I’m still refining both of those, after seven years of writing seriously, and I still believe in getting published someday.

  • Thank you for this post! “Bird by Bird” & “On Writing” are my 2 favorite writing books, so can’t wait to read “Still Writing”!

    I like this tidbit from Natalie Goldberg: “Go for the jugular. If something scary comes up, go for it. That’s where the energy is.”

    • Oh yes, Natalie Goldberg! I read “Writing Down the Bones” when I was a teenager and it was so wonderful. I should really read it again! Thank you for reminding me. 🙂

  • This is gold. I am currently bouncing back on my laptop between my first manuscript and internet browsing (err…procrastinating) and I’m so happy to have serendipitously stumbled across this post.

    One thing I’d add: That awesome Ira Glass quote on the creative process. I think of it often whenever I’m aware I’m no where near as good as I wish I were.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PbC4gqZGPSY

    My favorite part: “It’s normal to take a while. And you just have to fight your way though it.”