General Writing Advice
1. Write because you like writing. Great writing takes passion. You have to enjoy the act itself more than the potential rewards. Otherwise, you won’t enjoy yourself and you’ll be more likely to give up down the road (and then you won’t get paid, anyway).
2. Don’t plagiarize.
3. Write in a conversational tone. It keeps things interesting, as though you were speaking to a friend. Oh, and there’s always a sure-fire way to accomplish this:
4. Read your work out loud to make sure it flows well and is easily readable.
5. Write for one person. Think of someone you’re close to, someone you admire, or someone whose opinion you truly value. Write for them.
6. Know your audience. Who will read your writing? Who do you want to read your writing? Knowing your audience is important for several reasons, not the least of which is targeting and focus.
7. Be your reader. It’s important to see your work through their eyes. How would a reader view what you’ve written? What would be their first impression? Would your target audience understand and appreciate it? Also pay attention to how you feel while reading your favorite novel or blog; why do you feel that way? Why do you like it?
8. Have a schedule, don’t be late. Whether it’s a certain time of day, a certain day of the week, or just a particular word count or page quota, having a schedule is invaluable to keeping up your motivation.
9. Have goals and benchmarks. While similar to maintaining a schedule, having goals, both short-term and long-term, allows you to see the road ahead. A certain number of articles or stories written, or a number of submissions made, will give you a target to shoot for and allow you to gauge your progress.
10. Emulate, but do not imitate. Who are your favorite authors, journalists, fellow writers? Know what has worked for them, but do not imitate them. Reach for the same heights, but don’t blindly follow in their footsteps. Make your own.
11. Write what you don’t know. I’m just being different. When people say, “Write what you know,” I doubt they mean “Only write about the stuff you know and that’s it.” What they really mean to say, I think, is that you should “Write what you want, but use what you know to make it work.”
Take the feelings of past experiences and apply them to your writing. If all you’ve ever done was live in a cave, you’re not limited to only writing about living in caves; you can write about isolation and darkness and an infinite number of things. Take what you know — your past experiences, your emotions, your life — and apply it to what you don’t.
12. Just write. The single most important thing you should do to improve your writing is just that: writing. Stop reading lists and wasting time (yeah, I went there), because the more time you spend reading about writing, the less time you spend actually writing. (And yes, I get the irony of this statement… )
The Technical Stuff
13. Know how to use paragraphs effectively. Break lines of thought into separate paragraphs — it’s all about organizing your ideas and improving readability.
14. Limit the use of adverbs and adjectives. So, that fantastically ominous robot monkey with the gray, shiny arm can easily pick up the white, fluffy marshmallows and slowly put them into his hairy mouth. Just, please, for the love of God, stop using so many adjectives and adverbs.
15. Vary your sentences. Varying the length and style of your sentences will help the natural flow of your writing.
16. Stay positive. People don’t like negative things. The same goes for negative statements.
17. Use the active voice, but don’t forget the passive. This advice can be found in writing circles everywhere. The active voice is strong, but the passive voice still has its uses.
18. He said, she said. Dialogue attributions should be kept simple, so avoid putting adverbs after them. “He said happily” just destroys the integrity of what should be a simple statement, and if you mean your character to be happy, make that obvious in either what he says or in the context of the conversation. Also, don’t use synonyms for the word said.
19. Make good use of transitions. Having good transitions in place maintains clarity and pacing. They link thoughts, and make the progression of those thoughts seem natural.
20. Punctuate. Really.
21. Know the rules so you can effectively break them. You have to know the technical aspects of writing. You have to know the rules. But know them so you can break them and use them to your advantage.
22. Don’t worry about making mistakes. As they say, you can fix anything in post. Don’t worry about the technical aspects of writing while you’re working on your first draft, and even then, know that it’s the content of your writing that’s most important.
23. Avoid clichés. Nothing kills writing like a good cliché. In fact, this list is full of clichés. But, hey, I’m trying to help.
24. “Omit needless words.” William Strunk summed it up perfectly, and it cannot be stated enough: cut out what you don’t need. Pick up a copy of The Elements of Style. Right now. Or at least read it online.
25. Be consistent. Don’t change your writing style halfway through your project (be it an article, essay, story, whatever). Your reader will have a particular expectation when they begin reading; don’t make them feel uncomfortable by switching gears for no reason.
26. Know that “the first draft of anything is always shit.” Don’t worry about the quality of your writing until you’ve begun revision. Otherwise, you’re just hindering yourself and blocking the natural writing process.
27. Pace yourself. This goes two ways: pace yourself while writing, and don’t burn yourself out. But also make sure the pacing of your writing is also natural.
28. Have a clear thesis. Know what you’re writing about, and then:
29. Get to the point. Don’t waste your readers’ time with unnecessary bullshit. Just get to it. See #24.
30. Know your purpose, have a reason, and understand what you’re writing. Know why you’re writing. What are you trying to accomplish? As Ernest Hemingway once said, clear, concise writing comes from the writer who knows what he’s writing about.
31. Show, don’t tell (unless you need to). You always hear it. If you tell your readers everything, you’re missing an opportunity to capture their imaginations. Show them how things are; they’re smart, they’ll figure it out. Don’t hold their hands. Besides, what’s more fun? Having an awesome story told to you, or experiencing it yourself?
32. Stay interesting, be addictive. You want your readers to do more than just casually enjoy your story; you want them to need to read your story. Why was Harry Potter so successful? Because J.K. Rowling pulled her readers in and, through the use of foreshadowing and slow reveals and a constantly tense storyline, forced them to continue. They never stood a chance. The same could be said of the television series Lost.
33. Know how it ends (if you can). It’s always good to know where you’re going. It’s not always possible, but it helps.
34. Be controversial. Make people angry. Question their beliefs. Say something unexpected. But don’t be whiny about it, and don’t be controversial just for the sake of being controversial. Have a genuine goal (shining a light on an important but ignored issue, for example).
35. Make a statement. Be bold. Stand behind your writing and be ready to champion your thoughts.
36. Murder the bastards, kill your darlings. Not everything you like about your writing is necessary, and not everything you like should stay.
37. Revise, but not immediately. After you finish your first draft, leave it. Don’t start revising right away. Give yourself a while to clear your mind and forget, then return to edit.
38. Read. Read everything. Never stop reading.
39. Ignore the people closest to you. They’ll only ever tell you what you want to hear. Usually.
40. Don’t follow the crowd. Don’t listen to every piece of advice spit out at you, and try your best not to follow fads or trends. Avoid conformity if you think it will help. Be strange, be different.
41. Take chances. Try something new. Be innovative. Hang the consequences and the fear of criticism and write in a way that might even force you into exile.
42. Experience the other side. Do something different. Do something you don’t like. Throw yourself out there, jump out in the open. Make yourself purposefully uncomfortable.
43. Don’t burn yourself out. If you find yourself hurting for ideas, walk away for a while. A stale writer leads to stale writing.
44. Take a class. If not for the chance to learn something new, then to have the pure creativity sucked clean out of you. Then, you’ll appreciate how much you actually enjoy just writing.
45. Never stop learning. The more you know, the more you’ll have to share, and the more knowledge you’ll have to pull from when you need inspiration.
46. Avoid the circles. I’ve always had a problem with online critique groups, book clubs, workshops. They just destroy my desire to write. While critiques are a great way to see what’s wrong with your writing, and workshops will help you improve your craft, they are wholly unnecessary. And how can you even trust the writing advice of your “colleagues” when all they’re doing is writing fan-fiction about vampires? Most won’t agree with this, but…
47. Get over yourself. Know that you’re probably not going to be heralded as the greatest writer in the universe, that your crappy poems are probably only going to be published in that one writing chat-room you hang out in at three in the morning, and that no matter how hard you try, there will always be someone right behind you trying to tear you down. Stop worrying about it and move on.
48. Always outdo yourself. Try to improve on your past work. Strive to become better. If somebody points out a mistake and you agree, by all means fix it and learn from it.
49. Be curious. When you were a kid, you didn’t inhibit yourself with the rules or restrictions placed upon you. You just kept going, to hell with the consequences. You were curious, and you should still be curious.
50. Ask “What if?” What if the sky was made of Jell-O? What if my turtle built a jet pack overnight, escaped from the aquarium, robbed a bank and now I’m being arrested as an accomplice? OhgodwhatamIgoingtodo?! Always ask “What if?”
51. Don’t hesitate. There’s no reason not to write. Just do it.
Image credit: Jemimus.