As a writing coach and consultant, I’ve been helping writers sell their work, finish projects, improve their voices, and get better habits for nearly 15 years. Below are my 10 Tips For Writers. And no, they’re not the ones you’ve heard a million times before!
I’ve been writing almost daily since I was 7 years old, when I typed the first pages of a fantasy novel on my mom’s new and at the time cutting edge Apple IIc computer. (The book was about how awesome dragons are. That project remains in the unfinished bin, mostly because no one needs convincing that dragons are awesome.) In the 33 years between then and now, I’ve gotten my BA in creative writing, taken writing workshops, joined writers’ groups, pursued my MFA in fiction writing at University of Massachusetts, and more.
The bad news is: Most of the advice I’ve gotten along the way (and paid for) hasn’t been very good. There are two primary problems. First, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to writing. Writers, and their aesthetics, have different temperaments, different obstacles, different desires. But writing is rarely taught that way. As a result, as an emerging writer, I often felt like I was being asked to be the writer my teachers and peers expected me to be, rather than the writer I knew I was. The other problem was that the advice was generally just…bad. Vague. Ultimately meaningless. Stuff like, “What are the stakes here?” and “I don’t think the character would do that.” None of it was helpful, because one of it really meant anything.
The good news is: In wading through a lot of bad advice, learned a great deal about what really helps writers. The main thing being, if you want to write well, you have to be a better writer. Before you say, “Duh!” let me explain. The best advice for you as a writer, whether in the beginning of your career or the beginning of a new project, is advice that helps you discover your individual creative desires and process, then builds from there. It’s advice that helps you understand your relationship to writing and the things you write about and how you write, not some generic idea of what your writing is “supposed” to be like. That’s why this is a list of tips for writers, not writing.
Read on, and be the writer only you can be!
1. Writing is a part of who you are, not just something you do.
Writing is like conversation, it’s free; free financially and free in its contours and where it goes. A few rudimentary tools are needed, but other than that, it’s up to you. Writing playful. It’s totally unbounded except by its form: symbols. You can write anywhere. You can, like conversation, write from any state of mind, whether you’re happy, motivated, tired, sick, drunk, or anxious.
Have you ever met someone who doesn’t know how to shake hands or who simply can’t have an introductory conversation without being rude or abrasive? Writing is like that: When it’s good, it’s a sign that someone has done inner work. When it’s bad, it’s a sign that there’s inner work yet to be done. So my first tip is really just a concept that the rest grow from: Writing is a part of who you are.
2. Even though writing is free, it deserves some sacrifice.
To be made healthy, writing demands sacrifice. This means inner or behavioral development in one way or another. It means developing a different relationship to your life overall. Most commonly, that takes the form of reorienting to and creating time. People love to say, “I just wish I had time to write!” As a writing coach, I help writers create time. I have clients who have 9-5 jobs, 7-6 jobs, clients with two jobs and three kids, and guess what? They write.
There are ways to do it.
If your dream of writing is big enough, you’re willing to give up the lie that you don’t have time to do it. Make that your first sacrifice. And after that, keep in mind that a foundational question of being a writer is: What are you willing to give up?
3. Writing well requires rhythm.
That means picking a time to write and keeping your commitment to writing each day. Why? Another lie writers tell themselves is that they can only write when they’re inspired. But writing needs, instead, to be ritualized. If you write only when you feel inspired, or if you don’t write when you’re sick or tired or unhappy, you will not continue to write. Why should good writing show up for you if you keep changing plans?
Turn yourself into a rhythmic person who writes every day. I work with my clients to get them in writing patterns that are rhythmic and sustainable. When you get into a groove like that, the writing starts to appear more often, and it gets better and better.
4. Not writing is part of writing, so be a person who enjoys sitting.
When you become rhythmic, making yourself an address for writing to show up in, there will still be days when it does not come. But don’t deceive yourself into thinking you’re not doing the work. Sitting is the work.
It’s a bit like owning a store: you open the shop, sometimes people come in and buy stuff, sometimes they don’t, but you still open the store each day.
Before you yawn, think of how amazing that is: You get to just sit and think about your creative project, dreaming about it, considering it from different angles. That’s not a drag. That’s awesome.
5. It’s not about being finished, it’s about knowing when to stop and when to keep going.
As a writer, you may never feel totally satisfied with your work. When you’re done with a story/essay/article/book/screenplay/etc., you may continue to feel a longing. Or at the beginning of a project, you may be plagued with doubt. I offer a service called a Writer’s Assessment. It’s a 90 minute meeting in which I talk to writers about their work and process. Very often they want to know “Am I a good writer?” This is a question that’s based on the idea that someone will realize that they’re good and then the doubt will go away and that’ll be that. But it’s a not a worthwhile question, because even if you’re good, even if you’re like Joyce Carol Oates good or Seamus Heaney good or fill-in-the-blank-with-your-favorite-amazing-writer good, you can still be better. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of being good is wanting to do better. (Note here though, “do better” is subtly different than “be better.”)
“Am I a good writer” is a garbage question. Throw it away. Start focusing on helpful ones like: How do I know when to stop writing? How do I know when to keep going? When do I apply my power to do better and when do I just let go and let the piece have its own life without me fiddling anymore?
It’s not about recognizing when it’s done, it’s about recognizing when you should stop or keep going.
6. Finish what you’ve started or abandon it completely.
Writers are haunted by incomplete projects. They’ll start a novel, get 100 pages in and quit. Don’t do it. Don’t stop once you’ve started unless you’re willing to let go entirely. Not only will you never finish the project you’ve stopped, you’ve made yourself unworthy of the story you wanted to create. If you abandon something, abandon it completely. Your thoughts that you “should” be writing it will slow up all future writing. That doesn’t mean you can’t come back to in a few years and rediscover it, but that can only happen when you’re a different person with a different outlook and therefore the whole thing is a different project. Keep going or let it go.
7. Writers read.
I’m astounded by how many writers don’t read. This tip may be obvious but here it is: Writers – the successful and talented ones – read. They read often. Writers need to be inwardly and outwardly woven into a world of books, screenplays, essays, plays, comics, poems, and other writers. If you don’t give yourself over to the international community of writers and literary works, why should that community embrace you? And don’t just stick to reading stuff that’s like the stuff you write. Read widely as well as deeply. Cultivate talent and success as a writer by reading. Give loving attention to the literary world and you’ll be welcomed into it.
8. You can do anything you want.
Writers love to get stuck.
They love writing two thirds of a story and stopping dead in their tracks, unable to answer their own question of ,“how do I get from Point A to Point B?”
Here’s an example from one of my clients: He was writing a young adult novel, and he wanted to have a character sneak into a room to spy on some people. So there was all this twisting and turning to get the character through the only door to the room and remain unseen. How would the people in the room not notice this kid sneaking in? My client kept redesigning the room, trying to create distractions for the characters so the spy could get in, whatever. It was driving him crazy.
So I said, “Why don’t you just have your character in the room already by the time everyone enters?” Oh!
He’d worked himself into such a terrible corner trying to figure out how to deal with the confines he’d set for himself that he didn’t realize that there were no confines because he was the creator!
But there’s more to this tip. When I say you can do anything, I also mean: YOU CAN DO ANYTHING YOU CAN IMAGINE.
Want to write a 300 page novel that has a UFO show up for the first time on the last page and kill your two main characters? Nothing’s stopping you.
So you thought of a famous painting in the middle of your essay and want to include it? Go ahead!
Want to stop mid-play and have a character come to the front of the stage and discuss the merits of plastic wrap? Totally up to you.
Yes, you want to write well. But always keep in mind: You’re making this thing. It exists through and because of you.
9. Style is a mood you generate out of yourself.
Huh? I know, this one sounds weird. But it’s so fundamental. When you’re writing well, when words and sentences and narratives are coming through you and they feel right, pay attention to the feeling. It’s a feeling only you have, and it’s style.
We tend to think of style of something we can observe when we’ve broken a piece of writing down into word choices and sentence structure. Sure, that’s how style emerges when a reader interacts with writing. But style for the author is a mood.
When you’re in that zone of writing well, you’ll get a feeling that is irreproducible elsewhere in life and is unique to you. It’s generated by you in the act of writing, and it’s your guide to when you’re at your best and purest. That doesn’t mean that every time you experience this mood you’re creating a masterpiece. As you get better as a writer, the feeling refines itself, just as when you refine your palate as you get a better sense of food and ingredients, etc. This mood — your style — is refined as you become a better writer.
10. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you how to write. For the most part.
Okay, okay, I’m being a little goofy here. Ending my list of advice with a call to disregard advice. Of course, the difference between this list and many others out there is that I’m focusing, mostly, on what it means to be a writer; the other lists often insist on telling you how you should write. But you’re an individual. You have your own desires, tastes, etc. That’s why writing groups, writing teachers, and how-to books can be disastrous. They can misdirect you or discourage your unique voice or give you a false sense of validation. The important thing is to become the writer that you are, not the sort of writer others are telling you you should be.
But that doesn’t mean complacency. Find the voices that resonate with you in a challenging way. In other words, ask yourself: What challenges feel right? Who’s offering me those challenges? That also means: if you find a teacher that gives you that sense (and yes, sure, it might be me!), keep up with him/her!
And of course, that’s a pitch…
If there’s an 11th tip, it’s this:
Hire me as your writing coach and consultant to take your writing to the next level and to completely transform your relationship to your creative process!
Click here or email me at connerwrites[at]gmail.com for details.