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10 Writing Tips from the World’s Greatest Authors

10 Writing Tips from the World’s Greatest Authors

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.

Be Disciplined

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.

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“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

More by this author

Catherine Winter

Catherine is a wordsmith covering lifestyle tips on Lifehack.

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Last Updated on September 16, 2019

How to Stop Procrastinating: 11 Practical Ways for Procrastinators

How to Stop Procrastinating: 11 Practical Ways for Procrastinators

You have a deadline looming. However, instead of doing your work, you are fiddling with miscellaneous things like checking email, social media, watching videos, surfing blogs and forums. You know you should be working, but you just don’t feel like doing anything.

We are all familiar with the procrastination phenomenon. When we procrastinate, we squander away our free time and put off important tasks we should be doing them till it’s too late. And when it is indeed too late, we panic and wish we got started earlier.

The chronic procrastinators I know have spent years of their life looped in this cycle. Delaying, putting off things, slacking, hiding from work, facing work only when it’s unavoidable, then repeating this loop all over again. It’s a bad habit that eats us away and prevents us from achieving greater results in life.

Don’t let procrastination take over your life. Here, I will share my personal steps on how to stop procrastinating. These 11 steps will definitely apply to you too:

1. Break Your Work into Little Steps

Part of the reason why we procrastinate is because subconsciously, we find the work too overwhelming for us. Break it down into little parts, then focus on one part at the time. If you still procrastinate on the task after breaking it down, then break it down even further. Soon, your task will be so simple that you will be thinking “gee, this is so simple that I might as well just do it now!”.

For example, I’m currently writing a new book (on How to achieve anything in life). Book writing at its full scale is an enormous project and can be overwhelming. However, when I break it down into phases such as –

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  • (1) Research
  • (2) Deciding the topic
  • (3) Creating the outline
  • (4) Drafting the content
  • (5) Writing Chapters #1 to #10,
  • (6) Revision
  • (7) etc.

Suddenly it seems very manageable. What I do then is to focus on the immediate phase and get it done to my best ability, without thinking about the other phases. When it’s done, I move on to the next.

2. Change Your Environment

Different environments have different impact on our productivity. Look at your work desk and your room. Do they make you want to work or do they make you want to snuggle and sleep? If it’s the latter, you should look into changing your workspace.

One thing to note is that an environment that makes us feel inspired before may lose its effect after a period of time. If that’s the case, then it’s time to change things around. Refer to Steps #2 and #3 of 13 Strategies To Jumpstart Your Productivity, which talks about revamping your environment and workspace.

3. Create a Detailed Timeline with Specific Deadlines

Having just 1 deadline for your work is like an invitation to procrastinate. That’s because we get the impression that we have time and keep pushing everything back, until it’s too late.

Break down your project (see tip #1), then create an overall timeline with specific deadlines for each small task. This way, you know you have to finish each task by a certain date. Your timelines must be robust, too – i.e. if you don’t finish this by today, it’s going to jeopardize everything else you have planned after that. This way it creates the urgency to act.

My goals are broken down into monthly, weekly, right down to the daily task lists, and the list is a call to action that I must accomplish this by the specified date, else my goals will be put off.

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Here’re more tips on setting deadlines: 22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

4. Eliminate Your Procrastination Pit-Stops

If you are procrastinating a little too much, maybe that’s because you make it easy to procrastinate.

Identify your browser bookmarks that take up a lot of your time and shift them into a separate folder that is less accessible. Disable the automatic notification option in your email client. Get rid of the distractions around you.

I know some people will out of the way and delete or deactivate their facebook accounts. I think it’s a little drastic and extreme as addressing procrastination is more about being conscious of our actions than counteracting via self-binding methods, but if you feel that’s what’s needed, go for it.

5. Hang out with People Who Inspire You to Take Action

I’m pretty sure if you spend just 10 minutes talking to Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, you’ll be more inspired to act than if you spent the 10 minutes doing nothing. The people we are with influence our behaviors. Of course spending time with Steve Jobs or Bill Gates every day is probably not a feasible method, but the principle applies — The Hidden Power of Every Single Person Around You

Identify the people, friends or colleagues who trigger you – most likely the go-getters and hard workers – and hang out with them more often. Soon you will inculcate their drive and spirit too.

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As a personal development blogger, I “hang out” with inspiring personal development experts by reading their blogs and corresponding with them regularly via email and social media. It’s communication via new media and it works all the same.

6. Get a Buddy

Having a companion makes the whole process much more fun. Ideally, your buddy should be someone who has his/her own set of goals. Both of you will hold each other accountable to your goals and plans. While it’s not necessary for both of you to have the same goals, it’ll be even better if that’s the case, so you can learn from each other.

I have a good friend whom I talk to regularly, and we always ask each other about our goals and progress in achieving those goals. Needless to say, it spurs us to keep taking action.

7. Tell Others About Your Goals

This serves the same function as #6, on a larger scale. Tell all your friends, colleagues, acquaintances and family about your projects. Now whenever you see them, they are bound to ask you about your status on those projects.

For example, sometimes I announce my projects on The Personal Excellence Blog, Twitter and Facebook, and my readers will ask me about them on an ongoing basis. It’s a great way to keep myself accountable to my plans.

8. Seek out Someone Who Has Already Achieved the Outcome

What is it you want to accomplish here, and who are the people who have accomplished this already? Go seek them out and connect with them. Seeing living proof that your goals are very well achievable if you take action is one of the best triggers for action.

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9. Re-Clarify Your Goals

If you have been procrastinating for an extended period of time, it might reflect a misalignment between what you want and what you are currently doing. Often times, we outgrow our goals as we discover more about ourselves, but we don’t change our goals to reflect that.

Get away from your work (a short vacation will be good, else just a weekend break or staycation will do too) and take some time to regroup yourself. What exactly do you want to achieve? What should you do to get there? What are the steps to take? Does your current work align with that? If not, what can you do about it?

10. Stop Over-Complicating Things

Are you waiting for a perfect time to do this? That maybe now is not the best time because of X, Y, Z reasons? Ditch that thought because there’s never a perfect time. If you keep waiting for one, you are never going to accomplish anything.

Perfectionism is one of the biggest reasons for procrastination. Read more about why perfectionist tendencies can be a bane than a boon: Why Being A Perfectionist May Not Be So Perfect.

11. Get a Grip and Just Do It

At the end, it boils down to taking action. You can do all the strategizing, planning and hypothesizing, but if you don’t take action, nothing’s going to happen. Occasionally, I get readers and clients who keep complaining about their situations but they still refuse to take action at the end of the day.

Reality check:

I have never heard anyone procrastinate their way to success before and I doubt it’s going to change in the near future.  Whatever it is you are procrastinating on, if you want to get it done, you need to get a grip on yourself and do it.

More About Procrastination

Featured photo credit: Malvestida Magazine via unsplash.com

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