Question time: tips for aspiring writers

I asked you to throw questions at me. You did.

Khalid Marzook asks: “What are your top 5 tips for novice & ‘aspiring’ writers?”

I could sit around all day, or all week, and talk about writing. But I’ll try to pare down my tips to five:

1. Read. It’s virtually impossible to write well without reading widely, extensively, and constantly. Read books in the genre or on the nonfiction topic you’re writing. Read to get a grip on how storytelling is structured, and how plot works. Read to get a sense of the voice of your favorite authors. Read to see how they put together sentences, or write dialogue, or create suspense. But don’t stop there. Read good magazine articles. Read a classic now and then. Read a few books you think are awful, so you can figure out why they don’t work — and so you can avoid the author’s mistakes. Read a few good books on writing. Here are some that have helped me:

  • Stein on Writing, Sol Stein
  • Story, Robert McKee
  • Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott

2. Write every day. Even if what you write is a short blog post, a clever email to your best friend, a thank you note, or an awesomely witty grocery list, write something every single day. Some days you might write 3,000 words of your novel in progress. Others you might write a haiku on a Taco Bell napkin. Write every day. That’s the way to make your writing a priority. That’s the way to learn how to keep going when inspiration seems absent. Sit your butt in the chair and write.

You need to keep up the momentum. You need to be developing your chops. Do it. Go for it. Love it, hate it, rewrite it. It’s trite but true: write a page a day and you’ll have a book in a year. But writing a novel’s a big project. It takes time, it takes patience, and it takes lots and lots and lots of practice. There are so many balls to juggle: plot, character, pacing, voice, conflict, dialogue, suspense, tension… you can’t learn it all at once. You’ll need to work on all the elements individually before you can keep all the balls in the air simultaneously. Work on short projects to build up your skills. Finishing a short story or an essay helps build your confidence and gives a sense of accomplishment. Writing every day builds momentum, which is vital, and helps get you in the rhythm. It’s like an athlete building muscle memory: You have to work out.

3. Rewrite. When you think your work is done, and ready to send out for publication, revise. Punch it up. Squeeze the fat out. Polish it with a belt sander until it gleams so bright your eyes water. Revise, revise, revise. Be ruthless. Your work will be stronger for it.

And before sending out work for publication, please, please get somebody to read it. Not your mom. Not your spouse or best friend. Find a critique partner who knows something about writing. Join a group or take a class. Listen to their comments. You might not take their advice, but pay attention. They’ll see things you haven’t. Things you can fix.

4. Develop a thick skin. All writers face rejection. It’ll happen. It’ll feel like being rammed in the stomach with a two-by-four. But it’s a fact of nature: Not everybody will like your writing. You can win the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the Nobel Prize, and you’ll still get one-star Amazon reviews. Toughen up.

5. Write with passion. Write what’s true. Write from the head and heart and gut. Throw everything into it and leave nothing in the tank. Give until you bleed.

And, because I told you I could talk about writing all day, here’s another one:

6. Don’t stop. If writing is your passion, don’t let anybody dissuade you. Keep at it. Write.


6 responses to “Question time: tips for aspiring writers

  1. Thanks for pounding the message into me one more time–I must write every day. When I do, the words fly. When I don’t, soon I’m neck-deep in peat.

    The advice and encouragement are great and much appreciated.

  2. Dan Simmons is an award winning author in several genres, including science fiction and horror, who follows his muse wherever it may lead him. He maintains a very active forum on his website that has a section entitled On Writing Well, and he has an archive of a series of long essays on writing here, and he was a public school teacher for the better part of two decades with a proven track record of teaching elementary kids how to write.

    I think he’s worth the time of anyone interested in the art, business, and craft of writing.

  3. Good stuff.

  4. Great post, Meg. Now with this, and wishing someone Happy Birthday on Twitter, that’s nineteen today. So far (twenty-two).

  5. Find some type of support, someone to encourage you to keep going (note: not someone to tell you everything you write is golden). A critique group or accountability writing partner would be good.

  6. What are your thoughts on contests? And pay-to-be-read publications?

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