Tips for Writers
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Are you a beginning, discouraged, or
struggling writer? Here are some tips to help you with your writing --
and your writing life.
Look for archive links at bottom of page for more tips.
UNIVERSAL WRITERS' TIP:
GET A CAT. It worked for Mark Twain, Collette, and
Henry James; it'll work for you.
pictured is Sid.)
For some football-flavored advice, go here.
TIPS for 2016 :
a little stuck right now on a play in progress, and I just got my first
smartphone. So I'm using the voice-activation memo app to
blather-blather-blather until some that sounds like dialogue arrives. It's
actually working, I think because it's not the blank page I'm looking at.
I'm just looking at blank air, which is somehow less intimidating.
forget to stretch when you're writing. Studies have shown that simply moving
your head can "shake out" an idea. Isn't that fascinating?
new novel I have coming out shortly, The One in a Million Boy,
is a big fat lesson in writerly persistence. I spent four years writing it,
from 2004-2008, at which time I delivered it with great confidence only to
have it rejected by my longtime publisher. Sparing you the details of
devastation, I will say only that I put it aside for five years -- during
which time I wrote a memoir and a play -- then resurrected it, spent about
eight more months on it, and sold it almost literally overnight. Ergo, I
have a big sign in my workspace, just one comforting word: WAIT. And, while
you are waiting, write something else.
the last tip I posted I've written a play and seen it come all the way to
the stage. Which reminds me how important it is to read our work aloud.
Especially dialogue. An audience is unnecessary, but those oral (and aural)
clues are important, especially in the final drafts.
I have started
color-coding everything: speakers in scenes, time periods, even tenses in
flashback scenes. I like any visual clues to the structure of a piece, and I
often find clunky, overwritten passages this way, or stray bits that either
don't belong or should be expanded.
If you fear frittering away your
precious writing time, try working on more than one thing at a time. I never
used to do this, but now I'm finding it effective. It helps if the two (or
three) things consist of one big thing (a novel or play) and one small thing
(a 1000-word essay). When you come to an impasse on the first, the second
I keep things in colored folders now, and lay them out like a
work plan. It looks so organized that it makes me feel more confident.
TIPS for 2012 :
Haven't been writing much.
But I have recently employed some advice I always give to busy adult writing
students: Write for 15 minutes every day. Just 15 minutes. It's amazing
Make friends with other writers. It will be a balm to your soul. Don't
neglect these friendships; they're essential to your writing life, as
important as an agent or editor. They UNDERSTAND. Nobody else will, not
truly. So, go call one of them right now and arrange a date.
Go through your draft and look for every instance of doubleness.
"You ass!" she shouted. Ditch the "she
shouted." It's already clear from the dialogue.
He loved the yeasty smell of baking bread. Your adjective here is
obvious, because we already know what baking bread smells like: yeasty. So
pick a more unusual modifier to make the sentence do two things rather than
one thing twice. E.g., "unsettling smell," "clarifying
smell," or "hometown smell" gives us information about what
the character might be feeling.
Try reading your own work as if you were a reader and not
a writer. It helps to print out a version in which you change all the names
to something you'd never choose. In other words, don't stop at an inclement
clause or crummy construction; instead, tear through it ONLY for story.
Don't have a pen in your hand. Does the story hold up? If it doesn't, your
revision is not about sentence structure, it's about compressing time,
collapsing scenes, adding pressure to the characters. Sometimes we get so
hung up on making lovely sentences we forget what they're really for:
A related exercise to to write out a blow-by-blow of the
plot--in utterly pedestrian prose, no cross-outs or do-overs--to see if what
you have looks interesting. Put up a sign in your work area: STORY STORY
STORY. The rest is frosting on the cake.
TIPS for 2011 :
This advice I got from an interview I read with Richard
Russo, who was asked how he manages such long, long novels. He explained, so
wisely, that a writer can't do it all at once. "If it's Monday, you
just do your Monday work." I found this indescribably helpful, because
I'm one of those writers who try to do it all at once, and panic if I can't.
And of course I can't! Nobody can! So, if today's work is fixing one page,
so be it. Do your Monday work. Save your Tuesday work for tomorrow.
Time yourself. You'll be amazed what you can accomplish in
25 minutes (if these are electronics-free minutes: see below).
Set a watch or timer and see what happens. Keep the pen on the page,
the fingers on the keyboard. DON'T STOP. At the end of 25 minutes,
congratulate yourself and have a Reese's peanut-butter cup. Or a cup of
green tea, whatever rewards you.
I recommend an excellent book on the fiction-writing
process. (As opposed to technique.) Ron Carlson Writes a Story by Ron
Carlson. Inspiring and smart and often very funny.
In a stuck place? Move. If you normally work at a desk at home, spend two
hours in a library. A change of venue really, really helps.
What else helps? Turn off all vibrations/alerts/alarms on your
phone/computer/tablet/gadget-du-jour. Make a specific time to check texts, updates,
emails, tweets, all the many intrusive etceteras that are the enemy of
concentration. Yes, we love them. Maybe we can't live without them at
this point. But be honest about what they are doing to your creative
life. To repeat, in case a text message was coming in the first time you
read this: The enemy of concentration. If you are serious about
writing, hit the "off" switch for your world, at least for a
couple of hours. You will be amazed at the increase in your
Writing prompt from poet Patrick Donnelly: Write a letter-poem (or just a
letter) to someone to whom you may no longer speak. (They might be dead, or
imaginary, or in jail, or otherwise gone from your life.) Use few abstract
words ("love," "pain," "curiosity") and many
concrete words ("house," "Church of England,"
"penny," "subway"), that is, words that allow the read
to hear, feel, taste, touch, or see something.
I've been writing a lot of nonfiction lately--short essays, mainly.
What I've learned, the hard way, is that an 800-1000-word essay is about
ONE THING AND ONE THING ONLY. Early drafts of this form usually
introduce three or four concepts that the author tries in vain to
connect in too few words. Simplify, simplify, simplify. That's my
advice. What you toss from those early drafts might become essay number
two, three, and four.
Example: Let's say your first draft is about the time your father bought a new truck
with money your mother wanted to spend on a bedroom suite. (This is an
example from a former student.) Your Dad was a
hunter and the truck meant waaaay more to him than just a way to get around.
Your mom, at the same time, put a lot of care and effort into the house,
etc., and the bedroom suite--well, oh la la, lots of symbolism there, lots
of info about the probable state of their marriage. He invites for a ride,
she refuses, but finally relents.
By the second draft you've tossed the bedroom stuff but the diverted
money is still there, trying to find a place within the man-truck-angry wife
By third draft, you've cut the money part and now Dad and truck rule the
piece. Truck is Dad's instrument of identity but also of seduction, as Mom
finally gets in. Depending on your language, imagery, the piece can now work
on literal level but also with all kinds of implication about the state of
their marriage on the day Dad brings truck home.
The trouble with nonfiction is that it contains too many truths. (Dad and
Mom never agreed about money. Mom liked money better than sex. Dad used
hunting as a way to get away from Mom. Mom used house-decorating as a stay
against loneliness. Dad loved Mom. Mom loved Dad. I didn't know Dad loved
Mom till I saw him hoist her into the new truck. I didn't know Mom resented
Dad until I saw her...etcetera forever.) Pick one. Write about that.
(The student's essay turned out pretty good!)
One of my current students at the Maine Correctional Center has come
up with a great way to keep pen on paper. She uses crossword-puzzle
answers as random nudges, a version of an exercise I use in class called
"word-a-minute," in which I call out words which the students must
insert instantly into what they're writing. With no "caller" available
most of the time, Lynn simply lines up words in advance and checks the
list, in order, whenever her attention wanders or her confidence fails.
I love resolutions. LOVE them. They tell me how I want to be (more
helpful, more fair, more healthy, more fun), and it's good to keep in
mind that picture of my ideal self. So why not make a list of writing
resolutions to remind you of your ideal writing self? Writing
resolutions work best if they're really specific, for example:
1. Finish section four by 3pm next Friday.
2. Work on the book from 6 - 7:30 on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
3. Read the draft of rejected book by March 1. Then decide
whether to rewrite. If not, put it away for good.
4. Start new story/poem/essay/etc. every Monday morning for four
5. Submit X for publication on the first of the month.
You might also trick yourself into keeping resolutions fresh in your
mind by tying your task to a time:
1. Finish section four by four o'clock on the fourth.
2. Send out third story on February 3.
3. Finish Chapter 14 by June 14.
And so on. Good luck!
TIPS for 2010:
I've been reading lots of student work lately--judging various
competitions. Herewith are some tips for polishing up that final draft.
1. Get rid of any dialogue tags that are just sitting there doing
nothing. Tags should be almost invisible, existing only to occasionally
remind the reader of who is speaking, or to break up a line of dialogue
in a rhythmically pleasing fashion. Stick to the simple stuff: he said,
2. Please don't begin your story with a character waking up,
especially to the sound of an alarm clock. You wouldn't believe how many
writers do this. Really, you WOULD NOT believe it.
3. Think in terms of suspense, for every scene. In other words, we
should know something at the end of each scene that we didn't know at
the beginning. Never, ever include in the final draft a scene you put in
there merely as a bridge to the next scene. Skip it and jump to the next
place in the story, preferably with a transition sentence that's
interesting in and of itself.
TIPS FROM 2009:
Make yourself a "writing kit"
for the long, cold winter to come. Here are the ingredients (doing this in a
group is more effective and loads of fun):
1. A huge list of words you love, either
for their sound, meter, meaning...
2. A list of 10 questions, headed
"How." Example: How do they train monkeys to assist the
handicapped? How does one interview for a toll-collector job?
3. A list of 10 questions, headed
"Why." Example: Why did my aunt paint her house that color? Why
did a woman like Sarah marry a man like Mike? Why do Sundays always feel so
4. A list of 10 "pairings." With
a friend, put together three columns: People; Places; Situations. In each
column, write 10 items. (People: a priest, a hockey player, a hotel clerk, a
little boy, a Russian doctor. Places: a park bench, the United Nations
building, a backseat, the produce aisle. Situations: a burning house, a
stolen suitcase, a bounced check, a betrayed secret. Taking items randomly
from these columns, put together a list of 10 pairings. Examples: A priest
meets a hockey game; a Russian doctor's house is burning down; a hotel clerk
finds a stolen suitcase...
5. A list of 10 titles of stories you'd
like to read or write.
This little packet of stuff should help
you jumpstart a laggardly writing session. Grab a word to fix a sentence, a
pairing to begin a story, a "why" to deepen character, a
"how" to embark on a research project, a title to get started.
Tip 2 (written for summer):
Try to forgive yourself for summer
distractions, but make them work for you. For example:
Pack a notebook into your beach bag.
Add some books on writing and/or writers
to your summer list. I'm reading the letters of Steinbeck along with
Take advantage of the long days by writing
at night. Even an hour a day will get you somewhere.
Write about heat: both literal and
Summer television stinks. Turn it off.
Set an end-of-summer deadline to finish
one thing: a chapter, an essay, a whole book, a first draft. My birthday
falls in mid-August, so my first draft of a new novel is "due"
then. Looks like I'm gonna make it, too.
The scrolling marquee on my laptop helps.
Every 60 seconds it reads, in humungous letters: DEADLINE DEADLINE
DEADLINE!!! WRITE FASTER!!! This kind of thing lights a fire under your
pants, believe me.
Here are a couple of tips from
The Pocket Muse Endless Inspiration: New
Ideas for Writing
Write a scene that depends on the failure of a
reasonable expectation, such as:
an anchorman who refuses to speak
a car door that lacks a handle
a radio that receives a single station
a museum guard who touches the paintings
a faucet that delivers something other than water
One-word story shakeup:
Change a "no" to a "yes" and watch
Notice from the Department of Procrastination Prevention:
words: bowl of chips. One sentence, one chip.
Since I'm heading out on the
road, this month's tip is a metaphysical one: When you're NOT writing,
forgive yourself. Life is long. Really. You can fit a
lot in, especially if you quit watching TV.
Tip 5 (for April):
For the "cruelest
month," write about an act of cruelty that yields the
opposite of the intended outcome.
Make a list. Of
anything. Places you visited; boyfriends you dumped; jobs you
quit; letters you never wrote; colors you hate; women you admire; things
you should have named; regrets that laid you flat. See where this
list leads you.
Or, make a New Year's
resolution list for one of your characters.
A couple of prompts
from The Pocket Muse Endless Inspiration: New
Ideas for Writing :
Write about the one who got
away -- and regretted it.
What's the most you ever paid for something you
didn't want? Why did you
fork over the dough?
about the worst holiday gift you ever gave.
Tip 8 (written for
Ah, spring. The birds are coming back,
just as we knew they would. Write about a day when something that
always happens...doesn't happen.
9 (for September):
Because school starts in September, I think of
this month as the beginning of the year. Why not write a few
beginnings -- first lines, to be precise. Pile up as many first
lines as you can manage, and change the tense (present, past) and person
(first, second, third) for each one. Like a squirrel hiding
acorns, you can dig up these lines on some cold, uninspiring day in
To get you started:
1. Papa told us that as soon as he returned he
would spill the whole story.
2. The first thing you notice -- barging into their
apartment, checking your watch -- is an odd smell.
3. I tell this with all due deference to the
harridan who calls herself my mother.
4. In a wide green clearing the boys found a rifle
and a dog.
When was the last time you wrote
longhand? I recently found myself feverish with inspiration and
about two hundred miles from my computer. Hmmmm, what to do, what
to do. After dithering for about half an hour, ruing my bad luck--yes,
friends, I could not think of a way to make thoughts without
technological intervention--I resorted to putting literal pen to
literal paper. An interesting experiment that I highly recommend
to other captives of the keyboard.
Writing tip for warm summer days: One cold, icy
glass of beer/iced tea/white wine/Moxie/cranberry juice for every two
pages you write. Delayed gratification is a powerful writing tool.
Sorry for the long pause between tips. My
excuse is that nobody sends ME tips, so I've been suffering from the
writer's block I always get after finishing one big project and gearing
up for another. All is well now, and off we go.
again: birds and bees, cycle of life,
sunshine and tulips, blah blah blah. Beware, writer friends!
'Tis the season when our worst sentimental impulses take over, and the
Muse stands in the corner rolling her eyes. As the trees
become atwitter with returning birds, write some cold, dark, wintry
prose. Possible kick-starts: a man waiting under a darkened
Wal-Mart sign; four girls in a courtroom; a grim discovery (not a
body) in a winter field.
technique that requires guts and
fortitude is to ask yourself what would happen to the story if the last
line became the first line. Scary. And very effective.
Often we have to write what seems like an entire story in order to get
to the authentic first line. Don't despair if you must discard all
that came before. That's just part of the process. The good
news is that you're starting with something you know about, rather than
starting in the dark as you did with the draft you just tossed.
Tip 13 (written on January
Okay, folks, another year of your writing life
is underway. Time to clear out the workspace. This annual
ritual (which I will have accomplished before week's end) never fails to
inspire me. You have to make the time for it, though, and bring
reinforcements on the order of a great cup of coffee and a box of cherry
chocolates. Schedule nothing else for the whole day.
Exterminate the piles of paper! Re-shelve the unread books!
Toss the leaky pens! File the heap of correspondence! Vacuum
the rug, for God's sake! Empty the trash, already! What,
were you raised in a barn? This is metaphor in action, my
friends! Make ROOM!
Usage note for the new year: Resolve
to use the past tense of "lay" correctly. I have
addressed "lie" and "lay" elsewhere in these tips,
more than once, but nobody's listening. In the two wonderful books
I read over Christmas, this mistake came up. I am seeing this over
and over these days in so-called literary novels. How have writers
gotten it into their heads that "lay" as the past tense of
"to lay" is literary? "Laid" is the
past tense of the verb "to lay." Today you lay
your coat on the back of the chair, exactly where you laid your
coat yesterday. "Lay" is the past tense of the verb
"to lie." Today he lies on the same couch where
yesterday he lay all day."
I'm struggling with two short stories at the
moment: one has too little going on, the other too much. Here's a tip:
borrow from yourself. Take something from one story-in-progress and put
it into another story-in-progress. I'm thinking about taking a musician
from Story A and introducing him to the widow in Story B. Thus, the
overcrowded story gets some extra room, and the undercrowded story gets a
visitor to stir things up..
Tip 15 (for
Welcome to autumn! It's time to get the imagination
humming after the indolence of summer. Here's some help::
all your characters reasonably attractive? Ugly someone up and see what
happens. While you're at it, place the character in a highly descriptive
setting without using color.
When was the last time you wrote
something without the slightest thought about where it might eventually
end up? Do that today.
Usage note: I've already gone over "to lie"
and "to lay." And yet, shockingly, I continue to hear these
verbs misused by newscasters who obviously are not reading this column.
Please, please, if nothing else: Do not say, "It's summer!
Time for laying around in the hammock!" It's LYING around in a
hammock, or LYING down for a nap, or deciding to LIE down for a nap, or
heading outdoors to LIE in the hammock. Remember it this way: When
a good writer LIES down, he's not really napping, he's making up LIES
for his next story.
If you're feeling anything like me today,
the words are coming very hard. Try a word-association game with
yourself to get the creative flow back. Start with an ordinary
word: "tree." Then start associating like crazy until
you come up with something that interests you. Tree, bird, sky,
plane, hijacking. Try it again, with "road." Road,
asphalt, steam, engine, battery, assault. I've just talked
myself back into writing.
Usage tip: To be perfectly precise, use
"persuade" when you mean getting someone to DO something, and
"convince" when you mean getting someone to change his
opinion. "I convinced Peter that our new landlord was evil,
then persuaded him to murder the chump in his sleep."
(for late winter):
If you live anywhere north of, say,
southern Georgia, you've had a hard winter. Subzero temperatures,
ice and snow, burst pipes, the works. Celebrate the coming of spring
(yes, friends, spring is coming) by buying something inspiring: a
new pen, a handmade notebook, polka-dotted paper clips, 24-weight paper,
a book of quotations...a gift that a writer would appreciate. Then
give it to yourself.
Usage note: Why is everybody suddenly mangling the
past tense of the verbs "sink" and
"shrink"? "The ship sank" is
correct. "His hopes sank" is correct.
"Sunk" is used for the past perfect, as in: "The ship had
sunk" or "his hopes had sunk." Ditto the
verb "shrink." "The dress shrank in the
wash." Movie titles notwithstanding, the proper form is
"Honey, I shrank the kids."
If you followed last month's tips, you
must have something new underway. Are you stuck already?
Read over what you've got so far. If there is any dialogue at all,
at some point one character probably answers "yes" to a
question. Change the answer to "no" and see what
Tip 20 (written in
No one who knows me well will find this
hard to believe, but I spent most of the fall anticipating the advent of
the year 2004. Imagine my surprise on New Year's Eve to discover
I'd gained a whole year! Hence, the first writing tip of 2003:
Write about a problem that involves somebody's misunderstanding of
Tip number two: Clean your writing space.
Whoever said cleanliness was next to godliness must have been referring
to the internal ahhhhh that happens when you enter a writing space
that's ready for you. No piles of files, no pencils stubs and old
calendars, just a fresh, clean, organized space ready for another year's
pileup of good work. Don't let your junk cramp your spirit!
Get rid of it.
Looking for more? The last three
years are archived at these links:
Archive of Tips for 2002
Archive of Tips for 2001
Archive of Tips for 2000