The 31 Best and Weirdest Pieces of Writing Advice I Can Give You

A list of tips for those who want to word-wrangle better.

John Gorman
Aug 2 · 6 min read

Alright, I’m not like … an expert at this, or anything, but I do love to write and I’m not terrible at it. Maybe you’d like to be “not terrible” at it, too. I don’t often write about writing, so when I do, I like to at least be useful.

I’ve learned a few things in my (almost) 12 years of wrestling with words to create coherent thoughts and feelings that people want to read. I’ll share them with you here in highly obnoxious listicle format. They’re not in any order. They’re highly specific to me. Your mileage may vary. Enjoy!

  1. Write immediately after doing 30+ minutes of cardio. My best writing ideas come to me while I’m running. I’ll marinate on them while on the road, come home, and dump them onto the keyboard while they’re fresh and I’m feeling that endorphin rush.
  2. Read — or listen to — people you want to sound like. So, listen, I don’t read books. I read essays. Who do I read? Essayists. Ta-Nehisi Coates. Umair Haque. Sarah Kendzior. Shane Bauer. Eli Saslow. Hunter S Thompson. Also, importantly, my writing voice comes from musicians: Springsteen, Kendrick, The National, Hendrix, Janelle, Solange, Mike Doughty, Wu-Tang. Lyrics are poetry. Poetry’s writing.
  3. Outsource, or delay, your editing. A lot of you point out my writing is littered with typos. Great. I’m not an editor, and, if I could tell you a little secret — it’s much harder to edit your own work than it is to edit someone else’s. I will often edit after I hit publish. I do better on a re-read after I’ve had a chance to step away from a piece for a while.
  4. Take a bunch of notes when experiencing something that could make a great anecdote to add to a story or create a standalone. I have a notepad file on my phone that’s just snippets of my life I find interesting: quotes, events, coincidences, theories, phenomenon I’ve observed in the wild.
  5. Experiment with your life. Break the mold. Seek out novelty. Color outside the lines. Broaden your worldview. Indulge in psychedelics. Say “yes” to new experiences. Work from different coffee-shops and bars.
  6. Write while micro-dosing. Edit sober.
  7. Specific language sells. The more specific, the better. Arcane cultural references. Bizarre metaphors. Don’t say, “she stood there, smoking a cigarette.” Say, “she leaned against the wall, puffing her Lucky Strikes.”
  8. Em-dashes and colons are underrated. They’re what I call rhythmic pieces. I use em-dashes to go on stream-of-consciousness asides, and colons to dictate when I’m about to rattle off a serial. They dictate reader pacing.
  9. My pieces, typically, follow this five-act format: Story. Backstory. Insight. Effect/Result/Challenge. Callback — either a new-twist on Story #1 or a parallel story that incorporates the revealed pieces from acts 2, 3 and 4. The climax/thesis bridges the end of act 3 with the start of act 4. [Roughly two-thirds of the way through the piece.]
  10. End with a flourish. The finale is for the fireworks. Go big. Be memorable. Drop the mic. I typically do this by calling back to a seemingly innocuous line from the opening salvo of the piece, or twist the plot, or go wide-screen emotive.
  11. Coin neologisms whenever possible. Some of mine: clickbait-and-switch, gappiness, swordfish (as a verb). They add color and continuity to your body of work.
  12. Write about what you’re interested in. You’ll naturally write it better. And it’s okay if your interests change. I used to be a sportswriter, after all.
  13. Take a job writing ad copy. You force your writing to become more compelling when you’re forced to convey something powerful in as few words as possible. Freelance if you don’t want a 9–5.
  14. Travel. Far and often. Places are settings. People are characters. Cultures are moods. Events are plot points. Variety of experience increases your range. And you want range, lest you become one-note.
  15. Be okay with sucking at this for a while. If you’re new, you’re probably a solid 5–10 years from being any good. My old shit makes me cringe. So, if you don’t absolutely love the art and science of writing itself, perhaps … don’t.
  16. Write at the grade level of your target audience. My target audience are moderately-educated progressive people around my age in large metropolitan areas around the world. And so I use big words and complex sentences, but not too many so as to appeal to Ivory Tower “academics.” I’m elitist, but I also endlessly subvert that elitism.
  17. Swap gender pronouns. I default to “she” and “her” a lot, particularly in the context of presenting a hero character in a traditionally male-dominated setting. Just for fun and because not a lot of dudes do it.
  18. For white writers: Code-switch, but only if it comes naturally, and only if you’re fucking careful. I grew up in New York. I’ve occasionally lived in majority-minority communities. I’ve probably listened to more Jay-Z and Wu-Tang Clan than you have. AAVE slang naturally flows through my verbal dialogue and I drop it into my writing from time to time. I use it to serve a specific purpose (usually as an audience selection device, or to skewer the blandness of white American culture in ways white Americans won’t understand) and try to give credit to its source in either overt or covert fashion. Above all: Do not force this. Everyone can tell and it’s awkward for all parties involved.
  19. Outrage is a spice. Not a base ingredient. When I get ghost-pepper hot about something, I do it as a one-off, or as a zinger. Yes, I’m upset over the state of the world, too. I don’t need to constantly rewrite the same saber-rattling social justice diatribes every time I step to the plate. [This is a sub-tweet on Medium.]
  20. SEO is overrated if your writing’s already good. Keywords? Tags? Metadata? Conversion rates? Listen, Brad, I just want to read something that makes me feel something. That’s what I’m sharing. Get better at writing and let people who specialize in SEO take care of that for you.
  21. Write your greatest autobiographical hits. Remember those times you felt your heart absolutely shattered into three million pieces? Write those.
  22. I call this “E3:” Be effective. (Make your points well.) Be efficient. (In as few words as possible.) Be engaging. (And in as interesting a way as possible.)
  23. Never write for less than an hour. However, if you get to a point where you reach an impasse after that hour ends … just stop. Writing is all about momentum and flow state. Lose them? Live to write again another day. That’s what the Drafts folder is for.
  24. Somewhere, there’s a Venn diagram between “aspirational” and “relatable.” Try and find the middle where the two overlap and hammer that sweet spot over and over. You want to come across as that perfect mix between “someone I’d like to slam whiskey with” and “someone I wish I could be more like.” Too degenerate? You lose your credibility. Too awesome? People won’t see themselves in your work. Kris Gage does this exceedingly well.
  25. Stop reading Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace. Really. This is just general life advice.
  26. The devil’s in the details. What color red? Was it a line or a queue? Did it snake or stretch? Was he crying, sobbing or misty-eyed?
  27. Deploy callback humor and references at least once per piece, but probably no more than three times.
  28. Do not write drunk. It’s overrated as a creative lubricant and your diction will get sloppy. You are not Hemingway. Coffee is far superior. As are any of the following: cannabis, MDMA, ketamine, psilocybin, LSD, Adderall.
  29. If you don’t feel it, don’t publish it. People read to feel first, learn second. “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader,” I think, is the mantra this correlates with.
  30. Syllables matter. Every piece, you’re stringing together syllables. Alliteration. Consonance. Prosody. Rhythm. Tone.
  31. When crafting a serial of three or more things or ideas, start with the shortest word or phrase and work your way to the longest. In other words: begin (2), crescendo (3), and watch the magic happen (6).

John Gorman

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