Like anything else, writing is a skill, one that must be cultivated and developed.
It is certainly true there are some writers who are born geniuses who probably came out of the womb with a pen in hand ready to write their first lines, but that’s not me.
I’ve spent a lot of time writing and learning and writing some more. I had the advantage of taking a few courses in college-level creative writing, but not everyone has that opportunity or experience. So here below I wanted to provide some tips and some resources about some of the things I have learned that have helped me along the way. There are a probably 1000 other blogs and a 1000 other books that do this (I am going to suggest some too), but I hope that some of what’s here is helpful to those of you reading this.
Resources are at the bottom.
A quick note before we dive in. Recently a colleague of mine (and fellow anthropologist) and myself published a book on worldbuilding. So if worldbuilding is something you are interested in, check out our book Build Better Worlds an Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers on Amazon. This book has all the building blocks needed for building a more authentic and immersive world.
1. Read a lot. But read like a writer, not like a reader.
It’s pretty common advice. Read lots and lots of books and short stories in your genre and outside your genre. Get off social media and actually read, or listen to audiobooks during your commute, but for the love of god read! Yes, this is essential, no exceptions. If you can’t read consistently you cannot be a good writer.
But there’s another level to this that isn’t talked about quite as often. You aren’t just reading as a fan. What’s important is that you are reading as a writer. What does it mean to read as a writer? It means to read and once in a while stop and reflect.
Didn’t like that particular passage? Stop right there. Why didn’t you like it? Think about it deeply. What didn’t work? Was it poorly worded? Did it mess with the flow of the plot? Dig deep and think about it. Part of learning to be a better writer is exploring what doesn’t work. It’s actually helpful to read stuff that sucks once in a while.
Loved a particular passage? Stop right there. Why was the line or passage powerful? What about it struck you? Did that line make you feel a connection to the character? Why did that work at that particular? I call these passages juicy morsels and always look for the ‘recipe’ for how they are crafted.
Are you bored with reading this book? Are you considering putting it down? Again, why? You might not always be able to put your finger on it, but there are powerful lessons if you can.
If you start doing this with every book you read, over time you will build up a solid idea of what makes writing potent and powerful and what makes it terrible. You can even do this with books you love that you’ve read before. Which passages are your favorite or least favorite, why?
A quick note here:
No, you don’t have to keep all of this shit in your head as your writing. Write and reflect, write and reflect and yes, you should do more writing and reflecting. No professional athlete ever became that way by reading about technique over and over again. They watch others play, and yes they might read, but they go out there and experiment with these things and find out what feels good to them and what works and what doesn’t. All of my thoughts here are just that, things for you to consider and try, if they don’t work discard them. I am just sharing with you what has helped me on my writing journey.
Which leads me to my next bit of advice:
2. Play play play
Why are you writing again? Seriously, think about it. Why are you writing? You like it, that’s why. If you don’t like it, stop. No one is making you write that novel. Do it because it’s fun and you enjoy it.
But here’s the other thing, experimentation is important. When I was learning guitar, I tried many different styles of music. Why? Well first because my teacher insisted, but then I started to realize that exploration made me better. It helped me to understand the things I favored in a new way. If you are a sculptor and you only ever use clay, how do you know what’s possible in other mediums?
Do you only like to read and write science fiction? Well, have you tried to write something else? Try writing a short-story in historical fiction, take a flash fiction workshop, read and write some horror, or try some romance on for size. Why? Because it will make you a better writer and you might learn something about yourself and your writing you didn’t know before. Hell, try to write some spoken word or lyrical poetry. Those things are really hard and if you can do them half effectively then you will have expanded your skill set and learned more about your own style.
Have fun, play and explore, remember to keep the joy of writing on your mind, because sometimes it is tedious. When it is, try something new or explore. Mix it up, people!
3. A large portion of what you write is going to be garbage
Seriously, accept this. Honesty about your own work is a really powerful tool. Notice I said honestly and not being overly critical.
How many times does a baseball player strike out, or hit fouls? How many hours do they spend in batting practice or batting cages? How many times do they swing and miss? Do you honestly believe that writing is any different?
There is absolutely nothing wrong with writing garbage. There is nothing wrong with looking at those 5 pages you forced out of your brain for the last hour and saying, damn this sucks and deleting it. You have not lost anything by doing this!
Shitty writing is part of the process. My first published book, Mimi of the Nowhere, was my fourth attempt at a book. The first 2 are complete garbage and the 3rd one, Upon Stilted Cities, required a lot of reworking to make it what it is today. They will never see the light of day. I’ve probably written several dozen short stories that are total shit. I would go so far as to say that a quarter of what I write is absolutely terrible.
And so what if it is? Does that mean I am wasting a quarter of my time? Hell no! The more bad writing you do, the quicker you get to the good stuff, that stuff that works, the stuff that makes readers root for your characters or cringe when something awful happens to them.
A pity party doesn’t help anyone and definitely doesn’t help you become a better writer. Give yourself permission to write garbage, to look at the page and laugh because it’s so terrible. I cannot tell you how freeing it was the day I finally accepted this.
4. Routine is really powerful, so are deadlines and goals.
I belong to a Facebook Group called My 500 Words. It’s a group that seeks to get you to write at least 500 words a day every single day for at least 31 days. Why? To build a habit, to make writing a serious routine. It was not until I started building a writing routine that anything started to happen.
Here is where you are thinking, but I don’t have time for this? I work full time, or I am a parent, or I have other obligations. Sorry to blunt, but, bullshit. What you are saying when you make excuses is that writing isn’t that important to you right now. There’s nothing wrong with that, if it’s not a priority that’s fine, no judgment here sometimes life doesn’t allow for writing to be a priority. Believe me, I understand that more than you can know.
Otherwise though, suck it up and sit at that chair, cause this shit doesn’t happen by itself. Excuses are like assholes, everyone has one. Besides, someone usually says to me they don’t have time right now, after telling me how they just binged this amazing show on Netflix or played through this video game. If you want to write, you’re gonna have to cut some of that TV and gaming time out (again this was hard for me to accept at first too.)
When you’re ready to make writing a priority, do so. No one says you have to dedicate your free time to writing. Do it because you want to because that story is burning in the back of your mind and wants to come to life on a page. Prioritize writing because you love it, not because you feel like you have to. Writing can be a powerful act of creation and joy. If you create a writing routine, you can bring your dream of being a writer to life.
The last thing I want to add here is that setting deadlines is really helpful. Events like NaNoWriMo can be really helpful because it is a community of people who set a deadline and a goal. For me it was setting dates with an editor. This has proven to make sure that I am constantly working on something or else I will have to start staying up all night to finish. I cannot tell you how helpful that’s been for me.
Oh one more thing. Sitting there and telling yourself that your not good enough or that you suck, or that you will never be published isn’t useful at all. Just remember, it’s a skill, like everything else. You can do this.
Note: No one is paying me for any of these recommendations (Though I will happily take a check if someone wants to give me one) These are all things I found sincerely useful in my writing journey.
When it comes to these resources I do not recommend binging these. No, you should not watch an entire YouTube channel on writing in one day! (You should be writing dammit!) Take your time, spend 10-30 minutes at once. Let your brain absorb these ideas and these thoughts so that they are in your subconscious while you are writing. I am a college professor, and what I can tell you is that it takes time to absorb no ideas and concepts. Cramming is only good for the short term, and if you truly want to be a writer, you’re in it for the long game.
YouTube Channels for Writing
Just Write (Episodes Focus on what works and doesn’t in writing)
Hello, Future Me (Focuses on particular Writing Elements such as villains, systems of magic and other key pieces) I particularly recommend the episode on Hard Magic Systems for the Fantasy Writers out there. If you are writing fantasy you may also want to consider Brandon Sanderson’s blog on Laws of Magic
Books on Writing That I found helpful:
For me, this was one of the most helpful books. It isn’t just about editing, in fact, I would argue that it is a critical look about what works in writing and what doesn’t. I can’t recommend this book enough.
A lot of people don’t like Stephen King, that’s fine. But what is impossible to deny is that he consistently writes novels that sell millions of books. There is a reason for that, I have spent many hours critically reading Kings work and that’s largely because of this powerful book on what it means to be a writer. I highly recommend it.
This is a book that is filled with tips and advice on writing that will help you improve your craft. Again, another one I thought was very useful.
Yes, we all need reminders about grammar, unless of course, you are an editor already. This book is really helpful
Another good one for thinking about the flow of your writing and how to craft better sentences and paragraphs.
Bradbury’s book on Writing is a mixture of poetry and the passion he feels for writing. It’s another book that is worth contemplating as you type or scribble your prose.
That’s all Folks!
I sincerely hope this was all helpful. If you have further questions or thoughts or anything to add please feel free to comment below.
Also, shameless self-promotion here, but if you like Science Fiction check out my book Mimi of the Nowhere, the first book in my Science Fiction series, the Chronicles of the Great Migration.