If you ask the average author why they chose to pursue writing as a career, they’ll probably look at you as if you were mad. Those who dedicate their lives to wordcraft tend to do so because they’re passionate about storytelling, about the written word in every form it chooses to take; they didn’t choose to write any more than you may have chosen to breathe.
That said, honing one’s craft is a daunting-yet-rewarding lifelong endeavor in which there is constant evolution, but never perfection. I believe it was Ernest Hemingway who said that when it comes to writing, we are “all apprentices in a craft that has no master,” and he’s right: writers will always doubt their abilities, adjust their prose style, think of giving up, have a love/hate relationship with their editors, and keep plowing forward because we have to.
For everyone whose soul is brimming with tales demanding to be told, here are a few writing tips from some of the world’s greatest authors. Maybe they’ll inspire you, or perhaps you’ll disagree with them entirely, but they’re all worth contemplating.
Whether you’re dedicating yourself to writing 2 pages a day or 2000 words a week, make a commitment to yourself that you will do this, and stick to it.
“All through my career I’ve written 1,000 words a day—even if I’ve got a hangover. You’ve got to discipline yourself if you’re professional. There’s no other way.”
– J.G. Ballard
Keep a Notebook Handy
Inspiration can strike at any time, and it’s not uncommon for writers to scrawl ideas on receipts, napkins, bits of toilet paper, or anything within reach that can be written upon. If you have a good notebook with you at all times, you don’t have to risk losing some scrap or another upon which you’ve written the epiphany of a lifetime.
“Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.”
– Will Self
Write What You’d Like to Read
Don’t write what you think other people want to read: create something that you would fall in love with if you read it. Chances are that if you enjoy something that you write, others will too.
“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
– Toni Morrison
You Have to Read So You Can Write
Imagine going to a restaurant where you’ll be served food that’s prepared by someone who isn’t fond of eating, or having a personal fitness session with a trainer who doesn’t like to exercise. Both scenarios are rather absurd to think about, aren’t they?
The best writers tend to be avid readers, as they have extensive vocabularies, awareness of what makes a story interesting, and a solid grasp of cadence and flow. I’d be afraid to read anything by someone who’s written more than they’ve read. Read all that you can, and not merely the subject matter that you know you enjoy: read outside your comfort level, in subjects you’re unfamiliar with.
“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
Allow Ideas to Flow, Even When You Feel You Have Nothing to Give
Scrawl nonsense. Make up little poems about toast or squirrels. Write out a rough draft by hand on construction paper, drawing little icons alongside written streams of profanity, if necessary. Know that most other writers before you have experienced the exact same doubts, frustrations, helplessness, and bouts of writer’s block as you have.
Go full stream-of-consciousness writing with the full knowledge that 3/4 of what you’re creating is absolute crap, as there will undoubtedly be some flecks of absolute gold within the dross that you can pick out later and polish ’til they shine.
“When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.”
– Kurt Vonnegut
Write Hot, Edit Cold
When you have an idea, write it down. If you wake in the middle of the night with a paragraph fully formed in your head, write it down before you pass out again: you will have forgotten it by morning. Spew forth all you can in the moment, and then go back over it all with fresh eyes later on. This first draft is just the brain-spew that you have to get out, and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll spend far more time editing than you did writing.
“The first draft of everything is shit.”
– Ernest Hemingway
On a similar note:
Write, and Write, and Write. Then Write Some More.
The only way you’ll get anything done is by writing. You may churn out a two-hundred-thousand-word behemoth and then cut it down to a quarter of that length, but you won’t be able to cut and refine anything if all you do is sit on your ass, staring numbly at your screen, not writing anything at all.
Don’t say that you’re writing a novel: write it. Don’t spend all your time researching things and wasting time on Pinterest for inspiration: write. Then write some more.
“Planning to write is not writing. Outlining … researching … talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.”
– E.L. Doctorow
Allow Yourself to Make Mistakes
You’re going to do some great work, but you’re also going to craft some absolute dreck that you’ll look back upon and cringe. That’s absolutely okay: learn from it. Children don’t learn to walk without falling all over the place, right? By recognizing what doesn’t work, we can sort out what does, and move forward from there.
“We learn from failure, not from success!”
– Bram Stoker
Show, Don’t Tell
Many novice writers make the mistake of over-describing items, situations, people, etc. It’s far better to imply descriptions and let the reader form an image in their minds than to spoon-feed every detail.
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
– Anton Chekhov
Last, but certainly not least, one of the best tips than any author could take to heart:
Write What You Know About
Truth is stranger than fiction, and it’s more than likely that you’ve had some incredible experiences that you and you alone are qualified to write about. You’ve had amazing adventures, and you have a special and unique voice with which to share them, so do so.
Have you been struck by lightning twice and lived to tell the tale? Were you raised by ferrets? Have you been abducted by aliens so they could teach you how to knit stuffed animals? Write about it.
“Tell your story. Don’t try and tell the stories that other people can tell. Because [as a] starting writer, you always start out with other people’s voices—you’ve been reading other people for years… But, as quickly as you can, start telling the stories that only you can tell—because there will always be better writers than you, there will always be smarter writers than you … but you are the only you.”
– Neil Gaiman