Writing Tips

“Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”
~ Gene Fowler

My Top Ten Writing Tips

While I have been writing stories since I could hold a pencil, I am by no means an expert on writing. But I have picked up a few things over the years that might help new writers on their journey. The tips below are based sometimes on experience, other times on logic or a personal philosophy, and entirely my own opinion. If you’re really serious about being a writer, consider a writing course – preferably one where you have a tutor who will personally critique your work and help you improve – and get yourself a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing.

Tip One

Read, read, and read some more. Reading will not only teach you what does work, it will teach you what doesn‘t. Ask yourself, what kind of books do you like to read? Why? Can you build those strengths into your own stories?

Tip Two

Set goals to practice your writing. You could aim to write a little every day, even if it’s just a half-page entry in a journal, or pick a daily subject to inspire a few creative sentences. If every day is unmanageable, try once a week, or even once a month – just keep in mind that the more often you do it, the better you will become. Writing improves writing. You don’t become a master scuba-diving instructor by taking a dip in the local pool every six months. If you’re serious about your goals, you need to be serious about the amount of effort you put in to achieve them.

Tip Three

Write what you would enjoy reading. If you’re writing a chapter that’s making your eyelids droop, don’t expect your readers to get excited. Every scene in your book must carry its weight and move the story forward. If it doesn’t, ditch it.

Tip Four

Know where you’re going before you start. All rules are made to be broken, but you can save yourself a lot of headaches (read: re-writes), if you nut out the beginning, middle AND ending of your book before you dive into your first draft. Some argue that the most creative stories come from sitting down without a plan and letting the words flow (this is known as ‘pantsing’). While it might work for some, for me personally, that sounds like a great way to START a book and then NEVER FINISH IT. Plus it is much easier to weave your foreshadowing, your red herrings and clues, into your book as you write it, if you know what they are eventually pointing to. This tip is not for everyone, but if you’re finding yourself STARTING a lot of stories and then struggling to finish them, maybe give it a try.

Tip Five

Do your homework. There’s nothing more embarrassing than someone pointing out a very obvious mistake in your work because you were too lazy to check your facts (and yes this has happened to me – luckily before the book went to print!).

Tip Six

Watch your adverbs. A lot of writers and editors would say this should be tip number one. I struggle with this one a lot. Constantly. Incessantly. Unceasingly! (Here’s a hint: I’m doing it now.) Adverbs have a sneaky way of sounding great when you write them down, but they are the quicksand of the written word, bogging down your writing and sucking your readers into reading the words, and not the story.

Tip Seven

Show, don’t tell. This one is tricky, but crucial to get a handle on. Sometimes it’s easier to pump out essential story information with long chunks of prose, or just say ‘and then this happened…’. Sometimes, it’s even appropriate. More often than not, however, readers want to SEE your character DOING these things, through your character’s own eyes, rather than muddle through something that reads more like an essay. While it might be more convenient to fill us in about Jane’s divorce backstory / the origin of the magic sword / why the town pumpkins are evil in a quick couple of sentences, readers are much more inclined to care about what’s going on if they feel Jane’s pain, if they witness the origin of the magic sword, if they experience the reaction of the townspeople versus the Radioactive Mutant Fanged Pumpkin Clan.

Tip Eight

Let your characters shine with dialogue. Dialogue is a great tool to bring your characters to life without lumping your reader with a list of adjectives. In David and the Heart of Aurasius, we know Counsellor Asheigal is a rotten bully, not because I use those words, but because he sneers instead of speaks, and what he does say is never very nice. We know that Zandar and Thebes are a Monte Carlo short of a packet because of the language they use, and the dim-witted things they say.

On the subject of dialogue, new writers often seem to go out of their way to avoid using the word ‘said’. There is nothing wrong with the word ‘said’, so please don’t feel the need to replace all uses of it with verbs like ‘replied’, ‘commented’, ‘stated’, ‘questioned’, ‘cried’, ‘pointed out’, ‘exclaimed’, etc… Of course, all of these variations are fine IF they are adding new information to the sentence, and the flow is natural. Readers barely look at the word ‘said’ anyway. Open a book and try it yourself … most likely you are only taking notice of who is doing the saying so you can get on with the story, not the word ‘said’ at all.

Tip Nine

Write first, revise second.

The best way to never finish a book is to criticise your writing as you’re doing it. Your inner editor cries, ‘that line is wrong, that’s a bad choice of words, why are you using adverbs? You’re not ALLOWED to use adverbs’. Stop for a moment. Take a breath, sit your inner editor down and tell them that it’s not their turn yet. There is nothing to edit, if nothing gets written. It doesn’t matter if the first draft is rubbish, the point is to get it down in the first place.

This is a brilliant quote by Shannon Hale, co-author of the super popular (and hilarious) Princess in Black series:

I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.

The science behind this is simple. The right side of your brain manages creativity, intuition, emotion and connections. The left side is all about logic, analysing facts, and providing criticism to help us make decisions. Which side do you think should be behind the steering wheel during a first draft? The one that wants to stop and start 50 times to check that you’re following the rules? Or the side that can provide sudden hits of inspiration and lead you down the wonderful garden path of your own imagination? Those golden nuggets of amazing prose and dialogue we find ourselves writing sometimes; those hit-the-nail-on-the-head phrases that seem so right and so natural, ALWAYS come when the right side of the brain is dominant.

The left side of your brain will get its chance to fix things up and make them pretty later. Until then, accept the mess and keep going.

Tip Ten

Get your writing read. Enter short story competitions, write for magazines and e-zines, and build up your writing biography. Publishers almost always ask for a biography with manuscript submissions, and your writing credits will suggest to potential publishers that you take your career as a writer seriously. Not only that, it’s a great boost to your confidence when someone else believes you can write, and this in turn will encourage you to write more often – which can only do good things for your craft.

© Copyright R.J. Timmis, Australia, 2020