Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way: There’s a lot of advice out there about how to become a better writer, and if you’re reading this, you’ve probably already seen your fair share of it. With thousands of blogs, articles, videos, and books already available, you might be wondering why another writer is tossing another chapter into that anthology.
Honestly, that’s a good question.
From my perspective, the amount of writing advice out there has created a bit of a good news/bad news situation. The good news is that most of the advice is great. The bad news is that most of it is just repeating tips that already exists — and spoiler alert, there’s a bit of that in this blog, too.
I’ve been a professional writer for most of my adult life, and during that time, I’ve spent hours reading blogs just like this one, hoping to stumble across that one bit of wisdom that would open my third eye and catapult me into the Literary Hall of Fame.
While that hasn’t happened just yet, I have stumbled across tons of valuable lessons. I’ve also seen the same suggestions over and over again. Things like this:
You get the idea.
Now, to be fair to these tips, they’re great. In fact, doing these things really might help you become a better writer. After all, writing (just like all other skills and art forms) requires practice. There’s no simple way to instantly improve the flow of your language or the richness of your imagery. If you want to do that, you have to write — and you have to write a lot.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking: There has to be something I can do right now to improve my writing, right? Sure there is. These are usually referred to as “practical tips,” and they’ve been covered ad nauseam ever since the dawn of blogging. I’m sure you’ve seen a few of these already:
Here’s the thing: Tips like these, in my opinion, are a lot like training wheels. For new writers, they can be great for tightening up your language, introducing consistency into your work, and making your voice sound more authentic.
However, at the end of the day, most writers break these rules (and they do it all the time). That’s because everything we learn as a writer is just another tool in our toolbelt, and there is a time and place for everything (including exclamation marks).
In the end, writing advice is a lot less like a set of laws and more like a stir fry, where every ingredient in the wok is a tip, trick, or bit of wisdom. As a writer, you’re allowed to pick out the things you like and leave the rest in the dish.
Remember: You are your own writer. What works for me may not work for you, and what works for you may make another writer want to pull their hair out.
That’s okay. That’s how it should be. As a writer, you have to find what works for you. That said, as a member of the writing community, it feels like my responsibility to share what works for me, because it might just be your new favorite tip, too.
That’s why I’ve put together a list of my favorite writing advice — the bits of wisdom that actually helped me become a better writer. Whether I’m writing poetry, advertising, fantasy — and yes, even this blog — these are the tips and tricks I come back to time and time again.
1. Read your work out loud.
If I had to get one piece of writing advice tattooed on my body, it’d be this one. This one command has transformed the way I write, and I use it every day (and anyone who’s worked in a cubicle near me can attest to that).
Ever heard the phrase “you eat with your eyes first?” Well, as it weird as it sounds, you read with your ears first. Language is, after all, an auditory medium. We didn’t start off writing. We started off speaking, and the fact of the matter is: If it sounds weird, it reads weird.
When you read your work out loud, you’ll get a much better sense of how the language flows, and you may notice words or phrases that looked great on paper but sound terrible. If that’s the case, chances are your readers will stumble over it. Here’s a bonus piece of advice: If you stumble over your own words, your reader will too.
So, how can you practically apply this tip? When you find a crunchy sentence that doesn’t sound quite right when spoken aloud, try to understand why. Is it a tongue twister? Is it a garden trail sentence? Massage the language until it reads more smoothly. If you’re still tripping, break one thought up into two, and if that doesn’t fix the problem — scrap it and start over.
2. Learn when to show and when to tell.
Nearly every creative writer on the planet has heard the phrase “show, don’t tell.” It’s practically become gospel for most writers, especially for those who studied writing in college.
In its most basic sense, “show, don’t tell” encourages you to go deeper, to pluck out the details, to let the scene do the talking. For new writers, this mantra can work wonders, and it’s helped thousands of us take our writing to the next level (myself included).
The problem is that many writers assume “show, don’t tell” is a law — one punishable by banishment from the writing community for all eternity.
That’s just not true. Telling is vital to great storytelling (it’s not called storyshowing, after all). Telling provides brevity, clarity, and momentum when you need it most, and in many cases, it’s the only option that makes sense.
Think about it like this: How exactly are you supposed to show someone that you’d like to schedule a meeting for 11:00 AM on Wednesday via email? You don’t. You just tell them, because that’s how communication works.
However, showing is also vital to great storytelling. Showing helps your reader connect with your words on an emotional level. That’s why you’ll never see a (good) ad that says, “Drink this soft drink. It makes people happy. Look how happy all these people are. Don’t you want to be happy, too?” Instead, they show it. Then, near the end, they’ll use a call-to-action to tell you what to do.
Great writing strikes the perfect balance between showing and telling. Showing provides richness, imagery, and flavor. Telling provides structure, movement, and direction. Learn to use them both, and your writing will dramatically improve. Here’s a great example of a blog that leverages both showing and telling to create a powerful (and enlightening) story about brand building… and pirates.
3. If you didn’t have fun writing it, your reader won’t have fun reading it.
You never really know which words of wisdom will stick with you for the rest of your life. In college, a professor of mine once said, “If you didn’t have fun writing it, your reader won’t have fun reading it.” She said it in passing before moving on to another topic, probably didn’t even think too much of it, but those words never left me.
The general message here is that a writer’s attitude toward their work is reflected in the finished product. If you’re slogging through a project, totally distraught and uninspired, your reader will feel that.
Nine times out of ten, if there’s a problem with my work that I can’t quite pin down, it’s this. The challenge here is that not all projects are “fun” in the traditional sense of the word. So how do you get around it?
Here are a few of my go-to strategies for finding the joy in any project:
Whatever you do, find ways to enjoy the process. Write for yourself first. If you have a blast writing something, there’s a good chance your readers will get a kick out of it, too.
4. Don’t think. Write.
Ray Bradbury, one of the literary world’s most prolific sci-fi writers, was full of wisdom for other writers (and I encourage you to read all of it that you can find). When my creative director shared this blog of some of Bradbury’s best bits of writing advice, I was blown away. Each one seemed to resonate with me more than the last, and I think I absorbed them all in one sitting. I couldn’t help myself.
There was one, however, that stood out above all the rest. Two simple words:
According to Bradbury, “intellect is a great danger to creativity.” He explains that the more we think (or rather, overthink), the further we stray from our own basic truth, sabotaging ourselves in the process. In other words, get out of your head. Feel your story. The right words are already in your heart, and often times your brain just gets in the way, causing you to doubt yourself, your work, and everything else. That’s why Bradbury kept a sign above his typewriter for 25 years which read, “Don’t think!”
I think that’s advice we can all use.
5. Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings.
Pretty metal, huh? This is another one of those time-tested bits of wisdom, and there’s a reason it’s hung around for as long as it has — it’s good advice. You’ll see this phrase take a few different forms, but the sentiment is always the same: If something isn’t working, stop wasting your time. It’s that whole “square peg, round hole” thing.
This advice is given to basically all creatives — designers, painters, poets, novelists, etc. — and it means the same thing to each of them. In its most basic sense, this advice gives you permission to toss your work in the garage. In fact, it encourages it. If you can learn to let go of the things that aren’t working — especially if you love them — you’ll save yourself a lot of stress, time, and hangovers.
When you’re having trouble getting a scene, sentence, or piece of collateral to work, take a step back. Ask yourself, “Can I make this work, and is it worth the time it will take?” Be honest with yourself, and if the answer is no, kill it. Your next idea will most likely be better, anyway.
6. Write honestly.
Writers have a bad habit of pretending to be something they’re not — and I’m as guilty of this as all the rest. We’re always looking for ways to sound smarter, to be more eloquent, to seem wiser — and most of the time, we fall short. Why? Because our readers know when we’re not writing honestly.
One of the easiest ways to avoid dishonest writing is to stop using pompous language. Words like plethora, endeavor, and synergy don’t make you sound smarter. If anything, they typically have the opposite effect. Relying on elevated language is a surefire way to build distrust between you and your reader.
After all, people like to be spoken to like people. Readers appreciate authenticity, so lean into your voice. Own it. Be confident in yourself and in your words, and don’t worry about “selling” your expertise with a manufactured vocabulary. Just speak — and do it honestly. Your readers will naturally trust you more, and more importantly, they’ll enjoy what they’re reading a lot more.
7. Write first. Fix it later.
Can I be blunt for a second? Your first draft of anything is going to suck. It’s supposed to suck. Don’t worry about editing your work as you go, because it’s ruining your creativity (and you’re going to have to fix it later, anyway). As Ray Bradbury said, “I’ve written thousands of words that no one will ever see. I had to write them in order to get rid of them. But then I’ve written a lot of other stuff too. So the good stuff stays, and the old stuff goes.”
You must learn to separate your brain into two halves — the writer half and the editor half. When you try to edit as you go, you can’t help but kill your momentum. That sudden interruption completely disrupts your train of thought, and you’re almost certainly losing ideas when it happens.
Just write. Get your ideas down on paper. You’re going to edit one way or another (and probably rewrite entire sections while you’re at it), so let your ideas fly freely — the good ones and the bad ones.
Once you’re done and ready to pick up that red pen, force yourself to stop. Walk away and give your work a chance to breathe. Heck, give yourself a chance to breathe. You’ll often hear people suggest coming back with “fresh eyes,” and it’s advice you’ll want to follow.
Neil Gaiman once said, “[Editing] is the process of making it look like you knew what you were doing all along.” I think that just about covers it. Don’t force yourself to nail the first draft. Putting that kind of pressure on yourself as a writer will kill your creativity, and chances are, you’ll still rewrite a ton of it anyway.
8. Talk about it.
Writer’s block affects every writer (anyone who says otherwise is lying). There’s nothing more frustrating than staring at a blank page, fingers hovering just slightly above the keys, with absolutely zero words in your brain to fill it.
Luckily, there are about 3,000 tips out there for how to manage writer’s block. My personal strategy is to get up, walk away from my desk, and find someone who will listen to me rant for about five or ten minutes. When I’m trying to solve a problem, or write a script, or develop a strategy, but the words won’t come, I talk about it.
There’s magic in conversation (I’m convinced). Something happens when I start trying to formulate my thoughts enough to share them with someone else. I have to provide the context for the project, describe the idea I’m working on, and then explain why it isn’t working. And somewhere in there, I always find my answer.
Whether it’s because the listener provides a bit of insight, or I just stumble across it on my own, 99 times out of 100, the idea is sparked. I’ve sprinted away from conversations mid-sentence shouting “thank you!” to an understandably confused coworker more times than I can count. And the idea showed up, after all that struggling and stress, because I simply got up and talked to someone else about it.
I recently led a writer’s workshop that was discussing things like voice, tone, and having a purpose for your writing, but before I began, I started off with a quick session zero. I told the attendees that I really hoped they found all the upcoming workshops valuable, but if they walked away with nothing else, to take these eight tips along with them. They’ve done more for my writing than years of writing courses in college ever did (though, admittedly, I did pick up several of them in those courses).
While every writer is different, we all share common goals: To write well. To create something that people connect with. To do something valuable. That’s why we’re always striving to get better, and these are the bits of wisdom that helped me more than any others. I hope they can do the same for you.