Writing Tips, from a Writer, for People Who Write
How to write, for those who aren’t defined by it, from someone who is.
Writing is a nonstop soul drip. That’s what I’ve learned from a life of being a writer. I’ve been writing, creatively, as long as I can remember. For writers, writing is a state of being. Being a writer is having thoughts that emerge on the page before you can even realize you’re thinking them. It’s having pieces of your liquid, ambiguous self solidify into sentence structure. It’s seeing a story everywhere, and wanting to tell many if not most of them. It’s viewing the world as a network of narrative, interlaced and infinitely complicated, waiting to be untangled, or tangled further, however you want to look at it. And both the demand for and the corresponding supply of “how to write” articles belie the fact that it’s a very, very difficult thing to boil down into “tips” or “hacks.” To me, writing (as a craft) never fits very well into the genre of “how to,” because “how to” is doing, and writing to me is being–it’s 24/7. My writing operates on an independent schedule from even myself.
I was a writer before I was anything else. I’ve had more traditionally “productive” periods — seminars and awards in high school, workshops in college — but most of my work (2 a.m. essays that I couldn’t sleep without getting down on paper; fiction written in 10 minute between-class pieces) has yet to see the light of day. I’m not widely published, but I’ve done a lot of writing, because that’s what being a writer means. One who writes. The craft is inescapable, inevitable, interruptive even.
Being a writer means writing, but it took me a shamefully long time to realize that writing doesn’t always mean being a writer — in fact, for a lot of people, it doesn’t. I think of hobbies I’ve explored that for other people are a state of being, a part of life, and realize that for some people, this is writing. That’s a weird thing to think about — writing not being the axis of existence; I’ve always been so used to living with pages and pages of thoughts that have screamed their way out that it took me forever to realize it wasn’t how everybody lives their day-to-day life.
And none of this is to say that I’m a better writer than someone who does it as a hobby – doing something 24/7 naturally gives you some level of skill at it, but it doesn’t make you inherently better than anyone else. It’s just that whatever central activity or thing defines your life, the equivalent for me is writing. Sometimes I would love the luxury of writing as a hobby and not being unable to fall asleep until those sentences are on the page, but even that sounds pretentious, and so I’m just going to move on and hope you understand that I just want to share my experience with writing as a way of being and that I don’t, I really don’t, think it makes me smarter or better than you in any way, shape, or form.
I’ve never attempted to formalize my personal ethos as a writer. It seemed, once again, pretentious. It didn’t occur to me that my experience of writing might benefit others who want to write until, again, I realized that not everyone shares this experience. Nonetheless, in the spirit of being a writer who publishes (which is new for me), and in the hopes of maybe helping someone discover how joyful writing can be, I’ve attempted to capture the current state of my personal writing convictions. Make of them what you will.
1) Never, ever, under any circumstances, edit while writing a first draft. Editing and writing are inherently separate processes; you destroy your own art when you combine them. Get it down, let it sit on the page for a bare minimum of 24 hours, though more is preferable. Then and only then should you alter those thoughts. You never know what unrefined phrase is going to seem perfect in its raw form after you’ve slept on it, or potentially inspire something else.
2) If something is gnawing at the very front of your brain, begging to be let out, but it’s difficult to write for whatever reason, it’s definitely worth writing. The thoughts that hunger, the ones that are so close to being embodied in word that they have their own drive for escape, are the most worthwhile things you will write. Have a drink, exhale, and get it on paper.
3) Write first drafts on paper. Physical, floats-in-the-air, made-from-a-tree, not-a-computer-screen paper. I am a massive hypocrite for saying this, but the rare thing I write on actual paper is better 9 times out of 10 than any computer-based first draft. There’s just something physical about it, less ephemeral — you can cross out words in as dark an ink as you want, but you cannot physically remove them from existence.
4) However much or little you’re able to read, read judiciously and actively. Understand what you like to read in order to understand what you want to write. Make notes of what characters seem real to you and how you think the author did that. What scenery can you picture perfectly, and how was it rendered? Do you enjoy a novel with rich vocabulary, or does it pull you out of the story? What books do you remember from your childhood, what are your favorite books now, and what are their similarities? Simply put, what pulls you into a story?
5) Understand who you’re writing for and why you’re writing. What do you want people to take from this story? (Hint: usually, what I want to give the potential reader of my story is something I need or have once needed myself.) Don’t judge yourself for the outcome you desire in an audience; pure entertainment value is more than a good enough reason to write. But if there’s a lesson you want to teach people, understanding what that is might help you figure out how to weave it into the plot, or even just how to move the plot forward in a way that fits that lesson in.
6) Inspire writing via other media. Listen to the music you think your character might listen to on their commute. Google pictures of the type of house you think your character lives in. Make a Pinterest board for your story.
7) Use a character, rather than a situation, as your prompt. Who or what is the flight attendant on your plane going home to? What is your waitress dealing with today? How is your Uber driver coping with his life circumstances? Writing about richly developed characters tends to naturally give rise to interesting scenes; the reverse isn’t always true.
8) Practice writing from yourself in order to build believable characters. Try writing an essay arguing for something; expressing conviction helps you write better argumentative dialogue. Writing about things that fascinate you helps you build a rich inner life for your character. Write about your fears to learn how to realistically express doubt.
9) Channel your dreams into stories. My dreams, and those my friends have told me about, contain some of the most bizarre and creative narratives I’ve ever heard. There’s something vulnerable about those most unedited manifestations of your consciousness, something well worth drawing from. Write down your dreams, if you can remember them. What emotions were you feeling, and what brought them on? Who was there, and what did they say? The story of your dream is your first draft, and you can edit from there.
10) Never scrap an entire story. You don’t have to keep it as a relic, but if you’re positive you’re not going to use it, mine it for good lines that can be used in other work. An elegant turn of phrase isn’t bound to the piece it was originally intended for.
11) There is no minimum number of words or sentences you need to produce a day. Writing to a word count is a fast track to hating every second of the craft.* You need to lose yourself in it. The only thing you “need” to produce is what you feel compelled to say, what you cannot keep inside you — nothing more. You may be stuck for a week, and then write ten thousand words in the span of a few hours. Let your inspiration strike naturally. Pushing words out based on an arbitrary minimum you’ve set doesn’t help you.
(*This is also hands-down the biggest problem with academic writing, in my opinion, but that’s a whole other topic.)
12) With that said, it may be worth sitting down for a couple of minutes and at least trying to write; you never know what your subconscious may have ready for you. This is not to try and force something out, as described above, but to give yourself the time to see if there’s something there that your busy schedule or overactive mind might not have allowed to come to the surface. There are worse ways to spend five or ten minutes than in front of a blank page in the hopes of maybe writing.
13) Writer’s block is often the result of a lack of novel stimulation. If you’ve been stuck for a while, you may just need a break from your daily routine. When in doubt, exercise.
14) To myself, in publishing this, my first article here on Medium, and to you: for god’s sake, if you think you have something half-decent going (that won’t get you in trouble, that is), and you’d like feedback, hit the publish button on a blog or personal website. You can’t sit in anonymity forever, and you never know what might come of it.
This is to say that I welcome feedback, and in my ideal world, this piece will start a conversation. What are your favorite writing tips? How did you know you were a writer? I look forward to hearing what you have to say.