Writing advice is everywhere. There are so many tips and recommendations to choose from that following them all can be overwhelming. Not to mention that sometimes different authors, editors, and other writing gurus can contradict each other’s advice because every writer is different, and what works for one person may not be the best advice for everyone else.
The good news is there are a few ideas that seem to pop up regularly in professional circles. I have found 9 things that professional writers agree are important to the writing craft. Here is how to improve your writing with 9 proven tips from respected authors.
1. Write Regularly
“I only write when I’m inspired, so I see to it that I am inspired every day at nine o’clock.” – Peter De Vries
The details of this advice seem to vary by writer, but they all come down to the same basic idea. In order to write well, you must write often. Some professionals say that the best way to do this is to write every single day, while others give themselves a goal for reaching a weekly word count.
For me, having a weekly goal is more realistic than expecting myself to write every day. Most of us are not at the point yet where our writing career can cover all of our bills and expenses, which means we have other jobs or sources of income that take up our time. Writing on the side makes it hard to schedule a daily practice because we are often fitting it in whenever we have the opportunity.
That’s why I recommend setting a weekly goal instead of a daily one. Setting a weekly goal gives you the flexibility to schedule your writing sessions for different times during the week, like while your daughter is at soccer practice, or Saturday morning when you are off work, but it still gives you something to strive for. Having a set goal helps you get in the habit of producing word counts, even when you don’t “feel” like it.
2. Read Often
“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.” – William Faulkner
Trying to produce brilliant writing is pointless if you don’t know what brilliant writing sounds like. In order to train your mind to recognize good writing, you must expose yourself to a lot of it. In his book “On Writing,” Stephen King says that in order to learn to write well, you must read both good works and bad works. Only then will you be capable of recognizing when bad writing shows up in your own work.
And this works both ways. I have noticed, from time to time, that when I am reading something I really enjoy, my own writing sometimes takes on characteristics of that author’s writing style. This is normal and even quite common for amateur writers. According to King, this is part of developing your own writing style and not something that should discourage you. In fact, the more you read, the more you will discover about your own writing and how you would like for it to improve.
3. Don’t let perfectionism stop you
“Resign yourself to writing lots and lots of rubbish. You’ve got to get that out of your system.” – J. K. Rowling
It’s hard to make yourself sit down and write when you know that what you are writing is terrible. No one wants to write something that sounds like what your dog left in the grass outside, but the experts seem to agree that you have to do just that. From J. K. Rowling and Anne Lamott, to Steven Pressfield and Stephen King, the greats agree that bad writing always comes before the good stuff. You must sift through the mud and get all the junk out on paper (or keyboard) in order for the few golden nuggets in your writing to eventually come to the surface. That means you need to keep your perfectionism in check.
Perfectionism isn’t actually real, anyway. “Perfection” is really just a fancy word for fear. When we get stuck in a perfectionist mindset, we are giving in to the apprehension that others will judge our writing and think that we are not good enough. Or worse, that we will judge ourselves and feel like a fraud. So we protect our fragile egos with this idea that if it’s not perfect, it’s not worth writing.
This is a lie.
Professional writers deal with this same fear. They have to fight their own egos just as hard as the rest of us. Some of them deal with it every time they sit down to write a sentence. The difference is that they recognize the fear for what it is, and they choose to write, anyway.
4. Tell the truth
“All fiction has to be as honest as you can make it.” – Neil Gaiman
Honesty and truth are perhaps the most important elements of any well-written story. Honest words speak to the reader’s soul and validate their own thoughts and feelings. Even in fiction, the best writers are the ones who are not afraid to tell the actual truth, whether or not it’s flattering. That doesn’t mean that the narrative has to be something that actually happened, but it means that whatever happens in the story must feel like it could be possible, no matter how fantastical it actually is.
To tell the truth in your writing, you must observe the world and the people in it authentically and then portray that authenticity as best as you can. The best writing transports the reader into the story and makes them feel like they are actually a part of it. They can see and feel what the characters see and feel and picture themselves in the scene. Writing in this way takes lots of practice and feedback from others.
5. Show your emotions
“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” – Robert Frost
Emotions give your writing flavor and interest. Showing your own emotions in your work goes hand-in-hand with telling the truth. Good writers are not afraid to show the reader how they really feel. Sometimes this is hard to do when circumstances have left you feeling unhappy or vulnerable, but your readers have felt those same emotions before. Not only will they understand, but they will find it easier to connect with you when they see themselves reflected in your writing. If you want to reach into your reader on a deeper level, pull them into the emotion of your story. The best way to do that is to use your own experiences and describe how these emotions have affected you and people you know.
On the flip side, don’t try to write about emotions that you know little about. This can lead to flat writing and phony cliches. Instead, talk to a friend or expert who can give you authentic details about that experience. For instance, if you are writing about someone having an anxiety attack, but that isn’t something you have ever had to deal with, talk to a few different people who can give you a detailed run-through of what that attack feels like for them. Having multiple opinions and descriptions of the same type of experience can help you connect with that emotion before you try to write about it. Remember, if the emotion isn’t real for the writer, readers will see right through it.
6. Take Grammar Seriously
“If you don’t have a rudimentary grasp of how the parts of speech translate into coherent sentences, how can you be certain that you are doing well? How will you know if you are doing ill, for that matter? The answer, of course, is that you can’t, you won’t.” – Stephen King
Grammar is something I think we all hated in school, or at least we brushed it off because it was boring and we convinced ourselves we would deal with it later. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone excited to talk about participles.
However, boring or not, it turns out grammar is important for a few reasons. Grammar helps you get your point across in a neat and coherent manner. Good grammar makes you sound intelligent and lends credibility to your content. It clarifies your intent and makes the information easy for the reader to consume.
Poor grammar, on the other hand, can give the impression that the writer is lazy or unintelligent. It can even leave the reader feeling frustrated or confused with the information they just read.
What’s worse is that poor grammar is usually more obvious to the reader than to the writer. That’s why proofreading and editing are so important, and why book editors can charge a great deal for their services. I also recommend using a grammar checker for smaller works and drafts. I use ProWritingAid for my editing, but there are many options available. Whether you choose to use a software or ask a friend to look over your writing, make sure you do not skip this step. Good grammar in essential if you want others to take you seriously as a writer.
7. Know what to leave out
“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” – Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
As writers, most of us love the details. We spend hours thinking about why our character wears a blue coat instead of a red one and what exactly happened on his way home that made him late for dinner and start an argument with his wife. These are important details, because they paint the picture in the writer’s mind that allows us to tell the story in a rich and compelling way.
However, even though it’s important for the writer to understand these details, often the reader does not need to know about them. In fact, these extra details can cloud up the reader’s understanding of the story, and leave them unsure of which things they should focus on as the narrative progresses. Remember, your reader has not lived in this story nearly as long as you have. They cannot pick up on and remember every detail, and expecting them to do so will only lead to confusion.
This is another reason editing is so important. The initial drafts usually give too much information. An editor will help you cut out the extra parts that can distract from the story and turn the work into something that is more easily digestible for the reader. They will help you kill the “right” darlings, so that your readers can fully enjoy the journey you are taking them on. Knowing which parts to take out can mean the difference between a story that pulls the reader along, versus one that confuses the reader and prompts them to put it down, unfinished.
8. Prepare your writing space
“[The professional] will not tolerate disorder. He eliminates chaos from his world in order to banish it from his mind. He wants the carpet vacuumed, and the threshold swept, so the muse may enter and not soil her gown.” – Steven Pressfield
All writers seem to have a different place where they like to sit down and do their writing. Some have an office with a desk where they sit and type the hours away. Some like to relax on the back porch and write with a pen and paper journal. Some have a favorite chair where they lounge with a nearby teacup and their trusty laptop. But the common denominator in all these situations is that most professional writers have a specific spot where they always write, and so should you.
It doesn’t matter which space you choose, but it should be tidy, comfortable, well equipped with the right tools and should help you reduce distractions during your writing session.
There are a few reasons why preparing this space is so important for productive writers. The first and most obvious being that it reduces interruptions while you are working and gives you fewer excuses to get up and do something else.
The other reasons are more psychological. Establishing a designated “writing space” tells your subconscious that this is going to be a regular thing and encourages you to take your writing habit seriously. Also, by having a specific place where you do your writing, you help prepare your mind in advance. If you sit down in the same chair every time you write, then eventually just being in that spot will trigger your creativity. Dedicating a specific place to write will give you an extra boost for building your writing habit and defeating the dreaded writer’s block.
9. Writing is Magic
“I believe that creativity is a force of enchantment – not entirely human in its origins.” – Elizabeth Gilbert
Most of us learned in school that magic does not exist. However, the greatest writers, artists and thinkers in history have challenged that notion again and again. Most influential thinkers believe that there is more to this world than we can comprehend, but that humans can tap into this greatness from time to time and make extraordinary things happen. Even the ancient Greeks attributed impressive creative works to something other than ourselves: the muse.
Today, there are as many theories as there are artists. Some call it magic, some call it a different plane of existence, and some call it angels and the divine. The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that good writing and art come from someone or something that we do not quite understand.
I think this is as it should be. Humanity has a habit of taking the things we can understand and quantifying them; often shrinking them down to fit inside a bottle or box that fits our purposes. Creativity cannot work this way. It must be free. In order to be true, it must maintain its mystery. Once we accept this mystery, we take a lot of pressure off of ourselves to be “good” or “bad” at our creative work. Instead, we free ourselves up to be conduits for the creativity that wants to travel through us. If you want to be an influential writer, it will take practice, but it will also require you to relinquish the control you think you have and become a vessel for the creative work that calls you.
There are thousands, maybe even millions of books and articles out there that would like to tell us how to be better writers and creative individuals. But these 9 recommendations are the best tips I have found, and they show up repeatedly in advice from respected professionals.
Do you have any writing tips that work well for you? Or are there any important ones that I have overlooked? Let me know in the comments.