Writers have written about writing a lot. Just about every famous author has been grilled about their writing hacks, and many bloggers (including yours truly!) have pontificated on our craft. Ryan Holiday says writers do this because “it’s a way to work and practice their craft even though deep down they know they’re putting off a harder version of it.” In other words, we write about writing because real writing is emotionally precarious and damn difficult.
So, given the oceans of ink that’ve already been spilled on the topic of writing, I’m sure none of my suggestions for writers are new or revolutionary. But the following tips work for me, and I’ve shared them with many a young writer who’s sought my mentorship. I hope they help you, young grasshopper!
1. Write a lot, in a lot of different genres. As with anything, you won’t get good until you practice. Put in your 10,000 hours. Young, cocky writers often think they’re already good and have already found their voice, even if they’re just babies in the grand scheme of things – and I know this because I used to be one of those young, cocky writers. I thought the portfolio of work I submitted with my journalism school application in 2012 was the best stuff I’d ever written. Now I read it and it makes me cringe!
There are so many different types of writing, and each can hone your skills in different ways. I don’t regard my journaling as “real writing” so much as emotional processing; however, it’s still a vital backbone to all the other writing I do. And although most of my writing is hardboiled nonfiction, I’ve sharpened my wordsmithery by writing fanfiction, poetry, 50-word stories, and even corporate copy. Any opportunity to stretch your writing muscles is bound to be useful. Stay curious, keep challenging yourself, sidestep stasis at all costs. Write, write, write, and write some more.
2. Read a lot. Almost all writers suggest this. It’s a boring thing to suggest. But it’s important.
I don’t think you need to have your nose in a book all the time to be a good writer, but I do think you need to read something, consistently. I don’t read a lot of fiction anymore, because that’s not the kind of writing I do; most of my reading is longform feature articles online and nonfiction books. But when I do pick up the odd work of fiction, I notice a change in my writing almost immediately. I’m more focused on prosody; my voice becomes temporarily influenced by whatever writer I’m reading. And that’s a good thing, so long as you’re reading diversely, because the more tricks you pick up from reading other writers, the sharper your own voice will become.
Read analytically. Read for structure, word choice, imagery, pacing – whatever skills you’re trying to polish in your own work. When you find a line or a paragraph or a chapter that really works, ask yourself why you feel that way about it. Try to replicate the effect in your own writing, so you can add it to your toolbox. Don’t be an outright copycat – although, Austin Kleon says all good artists steal, so maybe copycatting isn’t totally evil.
3. Do your morning pages. Three longhand pages of stream-of-consciousness writing, done immediately upon waking, every morning. I don’t know how, I don’t know why, but morning pages are miraculous. They make me more clear-headed, inspired, and productive. Esmé Wang likens them to clearing cobwebs. To me, they feel like I’m pushing all the bad writing and ugly thoughts out of my system first thing in the morning, to make room for good writing and beautiful thoughts. Don’t knock ’em til you try ’em; I thought morning pages sounded pointless and weird, too, until I tried them and saw what they do for my brain.
4. Avoid clichés. George Orwell said you should always “take the time to invent fresh, powerful images” rather than relying on commonly-used idioms/metaphors/similes that everyone has heard before. I’m inclined to agree: the power of a metaphor is in the image or feeling it evokes, and if we’ve heard your metaphor a dozen times before, we’re less likely to see it in our mind’s eye and feel it in our body.
The exception is if you’re subverting a cliché, or employing it in a novel way (e.g. using the phrase “beating around the bush” to describe someone jacking off onto someone else’s pubic hair!). It’s rare to stumble across the perfect opportunity to flip an idiom on its head, but it can be done, often to great effect.
5. Write what hurts. If there’s a notion or story that gets your heart thrumming and your gut roiling every time you think about writing it down, then you need to write it. Be brave and write the hard stuff. If [x] makes you feel something, you’re in the perfect position to make your readers feel something about [x], too.
I will say, however, that I think the best writing comes from calm reflection on intense emotions. You probably can’t do your best writing from the (literal or figurative) battlefield, because you’re busy fighting that battle. But if you wait til you’re back home in your nice safe bed, and then do the brave work of revisiting those battlefield memories so as to write about them, you should be able to recapture those wild highs and lows from a more settled place. That’s the sweet spot for emotional writing, I think: a cool head and a hot heart.
6. Have a ritual. So much of productivity is about tricking your own brain into performing better. Of course, you could just will yourself to write, but that’s not always easy. You’re better off using the power of Pavlovian conditioning to trigger your creativity whenever you need it.
At home, I’m usually too lazy and distractible to write, so I do the bulk of my writing at coffee shops. Schlepping my laptop to a café is, itself, a signal to my brain that I am about to get to work. I settle in with my coffee, muffin, and headphones – always sitting in the same window seat, if I can help it – and the ritualized familiarity kicks my muse into gear. Hone your own writerly rituals so that they best serve you: think about food, drink, music, environment, even the clothes you wear. It all matters, if you say it does.
7. Maintain your momentum. Get a shitty first draft written before you worry about editing or fact-checking any of it. It’s far more important that you carve out the basic shape of the thing. If you get stuck on a particular point, just skip it and keep going; you can come back to it once you’ve written through the rest. Use placeholder text if you can’t come up with the exact right metaphor right now or can’t remember the exact statistic you want to cite. Once you luck into that juicy creative flow, your goal is to stay in it for as long as possible – because that’s the zone in which you get shit done.
Journalism school taught me this skill. Sometimes we’d have same-day deadlines for news articles: I’d do research and phone interviews all morning, and then I’d have an hour or two to write the actual story. There wasn’t time to agonize over the construction of every sentence. I learned to whip up a first draft at breakneck speed, and then go back in and fix things later, once the story’s basic structure was mapped out. The hardest part about writing is the part before you find your momentum, so once you’re in it, stay in it. Fuck details; stay the course.
8. Do it because you love it. Writing, as a career, is not lucrative or fruitful – unless and until you throw so much passion at it that the passion converts to skill, and the skill converts to success. Most people never get to that point, because they’re expecting something (money? overnight fame? an instant book deal?) that never comes.
If you write, you have to do it because you love to write. Or at least because you hate doing it less than you hate doing most other things. The actual act of writing has to be fun for you – or if not fun, then at least gratifying. We humans are happiest when we pursue goals for their intrinsic rewards (e.g. the joy you feel when you write) rather than extrinsic ones (e.g. the money and fame you hope writing will bring you). If you write for the love of it, you’ll have already succeeded before you even click “Publish.”
9. …But don’t devalue yourself. When some writers talk about the importance of loving the craft, they make it sound like some high-minded endeavor, in which money should never be a consideration. If you were a real writer, this line of logic goes, you wouldn’t care one way or the other if you got paid to write.
This is a nice idea, but the reality is that we live in a capitalist society, and all of us (yes, even writers!) need to earn a living. Writing is a skillset, and if you write well and people enjoy your writing, you deserve to be compensated for that. There’s something to be said for building up a portfolio of pro-bono work before you start charging, but at some point or another, you should start getting paid for your work. Don’t be afraid to ask for money, or to ask for more. Don’t be afraid to say no when publications offer to pay you in “exposure.” Don’t be afraid to assert your worth as a writer and as a person. ‘Cause dammit, writing is work, and work costs money.
10. “Operate like the world is already listening.” Know how no one at the party wants to listen to that person who talks like they have nothing worthwhile to say? The same is true for writers. You’ll enthrall an audience much quicker if you write like people are already enthralled by you. I don’t mean you should write with egotism or self-aggrandizement; I just mean you should write with purpose and with confidence, like you would if your audience was huge and gleefully gorged on every word that dripped from your pen.
From the beginning, I wrote this blog as if hordes of sex nerds were already reading it, because that’s what I wanted. And sure enough, now I’ve got that sweet, substantial, sex-nerdy congregation I always hoped for. Think about who you wish was reading your stuff, and then write stuff that those people would like to read. They’ll find you. And in the meantime, write like they already have.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?