Writing is rewriting
The first draft always sucks
Writers are people who find writing more difficult than other people
I love that last quotation from Thomas Mann. The more I write, the more I find it’s true. The first two statements may seem off-putting, but once you’re into a story, and you find out they’re actually true too, they’re strangely reassuring.
So how to write? How to write well? Here are my top 3 tips. They sound boring, but they work. Try them …
- Write! Just write! Every day if you can. Practise different styles. Learn what you enjoy. Try writing 500 words a day, for example. It could be a diary entry or a blog post. Get used to those words flowing on the page. When, at 14, I asked the great journalist Susan Marling for advice, that’s what she told me, and she was right.
- Read! Honestly! A lot. Whatever you can lay your hands on. Genres you enjoy, genres you think you’ll hate (you may not), good books, ‘bad’ books – keep reading. You may enjoy it too much for it to feel like work, but it’s that too.
- Share, if you can bear it. Find a supportive group of people to read your work – and be prepared to read theirs too. We all benefit from constructive criticism, and even the act of reading our work aloud to others can teach us a lot about what works. I’m still learning.
And here are a lot of other tips I’ve gathered. Some are mine, some I’ve borrowed from other writers. Don’t try and follow all of them. Just pick a couple of things that appeal to you and think about those.
And if an idea sounds wrong, or if you think I’ve missed something crucial (which is bound to be the case), then please write in and let me know.
Here goes …
- You know how your English teacher has spent years teaching you to use lots of adjectives and adverbs? Well, aspiring professional writers spend years learning how to avoid them. Adverbs and adjectives are magical literary creatures. Use them sparingly and make them count.
- Start in the middle. You don’t have to do this of course, but consider it as an option. Get the reader gripped from the word go. You can go back and fill in the backstory later.
- Surprise yourself. You must surprise your reader, and your reader is always cleverer than you think, so make sure you’re one step ahead.
- Read what you’ve just written aloud. Especially if it’s dialogue. Does it bounce along? Does it work?
- If you’re serious about being published one day, try reading the essays in the ‘Writers and Artists Yearbook’. I think they’re very good and they certainly helped me. Doesn’t matter what year you pick – they’re all good.
- Ditto ‘How not to write a novel‘, which is funny as well as useful.
- Read anything by Elmore Leonard, especially if it’s about writing. And bear in mind that he writes all day and throws much of it away, until his bin is overflowing with scrumpled up pages of yellow legal paper. If Elmore Leonard can chuck all but the best stuff out, so can I. And so can you.
- Don’t spend ages working out alternatives to ‘she said’, ‘he said’. What matters is what they said, not how you frame it. Elmore Leonard: ‘If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.’
- Don’t (only) believe your mother! She will, of course, love it. That’s her job.
- Don’t be surprised if you hate any form of criticism of your work. We all do. But some of it’s right and we have to listen to it. However, the writer reserves the right to work out how to fix it.
- The story’s the thing, but spelling and grammar will eventually matter. While I loved that funny little piece about the kings invisable overcoat, I spent half the time wondering about the writer’s spelling and the other half searching for the kings invisable apostrophe. But don’t let it hold you back: you can always get your computer spellcheck or a teacher, grownup or friend to help you out.
- If you’re stuck for inspiration, look out for writing competitions in newspapers, your local library, the BBC writersroom website, or the rest of the web. Having somebody else’s deadline to work to really helps concentrate the mind. The Booktrust has a really good page listing short story competitions here and magazines that accept stories here. Check them out! (Entering competitions worked for me.) They also have loads of writing tips of their own, here.
- Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote Eat, Pray, Love, has since done a lot of research into creativity and inspiration. Goodreads put together 10 of her top tips for writers on staying inspired. I dare you to read them and not feel inspired yourself.
- If you want more practice, find opportunities to write whenever you can. Offer to write for free. Review stuff for blogs, local papers and magazines. Writing for other people will force you to hone your style, fast.
- It’s work! ‘Writers are people who find writing more difficult than other people,’ remember? Don’t worry if it’s hard. It’s supposed to be. The fact that you can do it at all is fantastic. When I come back from a difficult day at the library or in the shed, struggling with character and plot, my husband is totally unsympathetic. He’s right. It’s what I chose, I love it, and I’m lucky to be doing it at all.
- If in doubt, cut. Works almost every time. *Delete.* Works every time.
- Check out writers’ blogs and websites to see if they have any suggestions. Oh yes, you’re doing that. Go you!
If that’s not enough, try this article from the Guardian, written in February 2010. It’s lots of tips from different writers. Some great advice and some, frankly, dubious suggestions, but hey, it worked for them. This link to the article had 20,000 hits the last time I looked, which was only days after it came out, so I’m obviously not the only writer who thought it looked useful.
Look out for Neil Gaiman’s tips. I particularly liked those. (I worked a couple of them in here. See if you can spot them.)
And if you need even more ideas, here goes …
First of all, there’s my whole podcast series on the subject: Prepublished.
For younger writers (aged 8 to 14), the Descriptosaurus by Alison Wilcox comes recommended by the National Literacy Trust. An action/adventure version comes out in October 2015. I have mixed feelings about this book. Remember the bit I said about using adverbs and adjectives sparingly? This is all about knowing lots of amazing, descriptive words and ideas (good thing) and incorporating them heavily into your writing (sometimes a good thing – if you’re not Ernest Hemingway). It will definitely help you perform well at school, because schools like lots of descriptive writing, so if that’s your goal, go for it. It might also give you some great new ideas for planning your stories. But if you’re a minimalist rule-breaker who rather thinks that short, plain sentences can be expressive and effective, then don’t worry if you don’t always agree.
For older writers (14 and up) I’m looking forward to The Anatomy of Curiosity – a book of short stories by Maggie Stiefvater, Brenna Yovanoff and Tessa Gratton. It comes with a commentary from the writers on the creative process, and I’m sure it will be fascinating. Maggie Stiefvater is one of my favourite YA writers in the considered, insightful and funny way she reaches out to her fans. Check her out! And golly, if you want an insight into how a good writer edits her own work, then this is the best I know of: From Rough to Final, a Dissection of Revision.
And how about the words of the master? Stephen King has sold over 350 million books. Here are his top 20 tips for writers. I like them. Check out his book On Writing, too.