The Only Two Writing Tips You’ll Ever Need: Read and Write

writing tips read and write

Read and write!

I love collecting writing tips. You never know when you’re going to stumble across a golden nugget of wisdom that will make your writing richer and more vibrant. One of the reasons I started this website was so that I could share the many valuable tips that I’ve acquired over the years. I figure that if some bit of advice helped my writing, it’ll probably help other people’s as well.

But writing tips are funny things. What works for me might not work for you. Maybe you’re naturally inclined to show rather than tell whereas I need someone to say, “show, don’t tell.” Or maybe you only write nonfiction and have no use for tips on creating believable characters or riveting plots. Maybe you only write far-out, abstract poetry and could care less about good grammar.

We writers are a varied bunch with different needs, goals, and standards. But we all do have one thing in common: we write.

And because we all write, there are a couple of writing tips that apply to each and every one of us. In fact, I’d argue that there are just two things that every writer absolutely must do in order to succeed.

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” – Stephen King




Stephen King’s statement is one of my favorite quotes on writing. It should be repeated often and expressed in as many ways as possible.

Writers Must Read

Writing begins with reading. It is through reading that we learn how to tell stories, how to choose words and craft sentences. The books we read will inform and inspire the books we’ll write, and there’s a lot we can learn from the authors who have gone before us. How can we write if we don’t read?

If you’re not well read, it will show in your writing. More than once, I’ve reviewed written work and asked the author, “Do you read much?” Almost always, the answer is exactly what I guessed. If the writing flows effortlessly, the writer reads a lot. If the writing is jagged, confusing, and amateurish, then the writer is not a big reader.

Can you imagine a musician who never listens to music? A film director who doesn’t watch movies? These are the arts. You’re in it because you love it, with fierce passion. You’re going to need that passion if you want to get anywhere, and you’re going to have to be immersed in the art to which you aspire. For writers, that means reading. Lots and lots of reading.

And if you read voraciously, you’ll reap the benefits:

  • You’ll naturally grow your vocabulary and pick up better language skills.
  • You’ll learn new information or be entertained by books, articles, and stories.
  • You’ll be able to speak intelligently about literature and writing.
  • You’ll observe a cacophony of styles and your own voice will emerge.
  • Your grammar, spelling, and punctuation will improve drastically, especially if you have high reading standards.

There are many more writerly perks that come from reading. Can you think of any to add?

Writers Write

It goes without saying, yet it has to be said again and again: If you want to be a writer, you must write. But how much must you write?

According to neurologist, Daniel Levitin, to become a true master at anything, one must put in 10,000 hours:

“In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or 20 hours a week, of practice over 10 years… No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.“ – Daniel Levitin

Allow me to repeat the time it takes: 10,000 hours — three hours per day (or 20 hours per week) for ten years. That’s to become a master writer. Maybe you just want to be a published writer. In either case, you’re going to have to do a whole lot of writing. Take a few minutes today to think about how many hours you’ve spent writing (or reading, or both). A few hundred? A few thousand? Maybe you’re halfway there. Maybe you’ve passed the finish line and just need to start putting your work out there.

There’s no point sitting around daydreaming about becoming a writer, thinking someday I’ll write that novel. Someday is here. Someday was yesterday. It’s today. And it’s tomorrow. Someday is right now. So start writing — today and every day.

Learn from the Masters

Stephen King is an accomplished writer. He has sold an estimated 300-350 million copies of his novels and short stories. Many of his works have been adapted for film and television, including Carrie, Cujo, The Green Mile, and “The Body,” (which was made into the popular film Stand By Me). Mr. King has won numerous awards and received much critical acclaim. The sheer volume of his output is astounding. His success is vast, perhaps unparalleled. In fact, he’s one of the most successful writers of all time — if not the most successful.

Stephen King is exactly the kind of writer from whom the rest of us need to learn. Not just because he’s published (and published a lot), but also because his fans adore him, Hollywood loves him (writers make big bucks when they sell film rights), and of course, there are all those awards and all that acclaim. But most importantly, Stephen King succeeded in doing what the rest of us writers strive to do — he makes a living as a writer.

Guess what writing tips Stephen King offers the rest of us? (Hint: watch the video below to find out).

Other Writing Tips

Like I said, I collect writing tips. I have a whole bunch of them clanking around inside my head. Some have been vital; others I could have done without. I will keep collecting these tips and sharing them with you, but none of them will be as powerful as read and write.

So keep taking notes. Look for new ways to get inspired, fresh approaches to language and story. Jot down all your favorite writing tips and tricks in your journal. Use the ones that feel right and make your writing better.

But if you don’t do anything else, keep reading and writing.

Do you read every day? How often do you write? What other writing tips have been useful to you? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

Sources:

Adventures in Writing The Complete Collection

Five Grammar Habits Every Writer Should Adopt

good grammar

Do you have good grammar habits?

Can you imagine a nutritionist who eats exclusively at fast food restaurants? A personal trainer who never exercises? A writer who can’t be bothered with grammar, spelling, and punctuation?

In most professions, best practices and tools of the trade are mandatory. If you want to be a doctor, you have to earn a PhD. If you want to land a job in accounting, you need math skills. But writers can easily finagle around best writing practices, especially with the increasing accessibility of self-publishing.

Basic grammar skills used to be mandatory — not just for writers but for all high school graduates. These days, you can get out of college with a degree but no clue how to properly structure a sentence or differentiate between they’re, their, and there. Read more

10 Reasons Writers Should Master Grammar

good grammar

Should you learn good grammar?

Each writer has a different perspective on how accurate grammar needs to be.

Some are sticklers who insist on adhering to the highest standards of the literary order. Others are comfortable taking creative liberties and believe that breaking the rules is an art unto itself and a practice that should be embraced.

Me? I’m somewhere in the middle. I believe that a writer who is dedicated to the craft will take the time and invest the energy required to master the most basic tools, grammar being foremost among them. But I also believe there are situations in which it’s best to break the rules — as long as you know which rules you’re breaking and why. Read more

8 Common Creative Writing Mistakes

writing mistakes

Are you making any of these common writing mistakes?

We all make mistakes in our writing. The most common mistake is the typo — a missing word, an extra punctuation mark, a misspelling, or some other minor error that is an oversight rather than a reflection of the writer’s skills (or lack thereof).

A more serious kind of mistake is a deep flaw in the writing. It’s not a missing word; it’s a missing scene. It’s not an extra punctuation mark; it’s an overabundance of punctuation marks. And these mistakes aren’t limited to the mechanics of writing: plot holes, poor logic, and a prevalence of bad word choices are all markers of common writing mistakes that are often found in various forms and genres of creative writing. Read more

Writing Resources: Grammar Girl

writing resources

Writing Resources: Grammar Girl.

As a writer, it’s only natural that I pay attention to the mechanics of my craft, which is why I’m always on the lookout for new and useful writing resources.

Back in 2007, when I discovered the Grammar Girl podcast, my interest in grammar piqued, and I started writing more consciously than ever before. Sure, I still break the rules of grammar now and then. That’s what creative writing is all about, right?

But if you don’t know the rules, then you shouldn’t break them — otherwise your writing will come off as amateurish. Good news: Grammar Girl has a few resources that will fine tune your grammar skills quickly and easily while rounding out your own collection of writing resources.

Grammar Girl provides short, useful tips on grammar that are easy to remember and easy to put into practice. Her tips are available in audio format as a podcast, in text format on her blog, and as a full-length, comprehensive book that is informative and fun to read.

Her podcast has received much critical acclaim. In fact, Grammar Girl has had appearances and mentions on The Oprah Winfrey Show, The New York Times, and USA Today, to name a few. In fact, Grammar Girl is highly credited with sparking a fresh interest in grammar throughout our culture.

Listen and Learn

Each episode of Grammar Girl is available in both audio and text format. You can subscribe to the podcast through iTunes (search the iTunes store for “Grammar Girl”), or you can access the audio and text versions through her RSS feed. New installments are produced each week and each one lasts about five minutes or less. You’ll gain a wealth of information in that small amount of time. No matter how acute your grammar skills are, they’ll become even sharper! Visit Grammar Girl’s website for more details.

Buy the Book

Grammar Girl’s expertise is also available in a full-length book, which is available in paperback and for the Kindle. Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing impressed me because it’s a resource book that you can read. A lot of grammar and style guides are designed to be reference books. You crack them open when you need to look up something specific. Grammar Girl’s book reads comfortably from cover to cover. She has a casual and friendly voice, and the book is packed with fun tips and mnemonic devices to help you remember the rules.

Another thing I love about the book is that it’s for general usage. Grammar Girl lets you know when something is a rule and when it’s a style issue. She also provides her own style preferences and supports them with logical reasons. I found her positions on style agreeable and well explained.

The book appears to be, at least in part, a composite of her podcasts and blog posts. As much as I’ve loved her podcast and blog for the past few years, it sure is nice having it all in one convenient package. I especially love the Kindle format because it’s searchable. There is also an extensive index, so you can get quick answers to your most pressing grammar questions.

Best of all, Grammar Girl is perfect for creative writers because she’s not a grammar snob. She keeps it casual and lets you know when you should stick to the traditional rules in formal situations and when you can relax and go with common usage.

Tour the Book

The book starts out with a bunch of short and fast tips. You could easily read through a few pages a day and learn several new grammar rules per session. When you’re warmed up, the book delves into deeper and more complex issues before shifting into proofreading tips and advice for coming up with writing ideas.

Here are some highlights from the book:

  • It includes a discussion on whether to use they or one or he or she as the singular pronoun for unknown entities. (Example: A writer should always carry their/his/one’s/his or her book.)
  • There is an entire section devoted to Internet- and tech-speak.
  • It includes a list suggestions for additional grammar, style, and other writing resources.
  • Grammar Girl offers practical solutions for common problems and scenarios that writers face every day.
  • The book includes information about every aspect of grammar from homophones and punctuation marks to dangling prepositions (it’s okay to dangle!) and split infinitives (it’s also okay to boldly go somewhere!).

I actually think this is a book everyone should own but especially writers. If you’re a new or beginning writer, it will give you a solid foundation in the rules of grammar and sentence structure. If you’re an experienced writer who knows the rules (or most of them), the book works as an awesome refresher course. Plus it encourages you to think more clearly and carefully about how you construct your writing.

Meet Grammar Girl

Mignon Fogarty is the creator and voice behind Grammar Girl. She is also the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Mignon has written for magazines, worked as a technical writer, and is an entrepreneur. Much of her writing experience is in the fields of health and science. She holds a BA in English from the University of Washington and an MS in biology from Stanford.

Get Grammar Girl’s Writing Resources

Since discovering Grammar Girl, I’ve acquired plenty of fresh knowledge about grammar, some of which I’ve shared here in the Writing Forward grammar posts. Whenever I listen to her podcast, scan her blog, or read her book, I always pick up new insight into grammar and writing. I can’t recommend Grammar Girl enough. Creative writers definitely need to add this one to their libraries and writing resources!

Do you already listen to Grammar Girl or do you have any other writerly podcasts or writing resources that you’d recommend? Leave a comment and let us know!

Adventures in Writing The Complete Collection

Practical Advice for Writing Dialect

writing dialect

Advice for writing dialect in your narrative.

Please welcome guest author Alyssa Hollingsworth with tips on writing dialect.

I’ll be honest: I’ve always been terrified of dialect because it’s easy to get wrong. But when done well, it can make a story shine.

When you’re writing in first person, it is important to consider who your narrator is and how she or he speaks (or writes, as the case may be). This is important whether you’re writing contemporary, historical, or fantasy fiction.

When I found myself blundering into a story with a first-person narrator who was from backcountry, I knew I needed to clock hours on the dialect. There are a lot of helpful posts about how dialect should or shouldn’t be done, which can be found on Daily Writing Tips, The Editor’s Blog, or Writer’s Digest.

Before we begin, there’s an important distinction to be made between dialect and accent. Here’s the official definition from the British Library:




A dialect is a specific variety of English that differs from other varieties in three specific ways: lexis (vocabulary), grammar (structure) and phonology (pronunciation or accent).

Accent, on the other hand, refers only to differences in the sound patterns of a specific dialect.

With that in mind, below are some practical steps you can take to equip yourself for writing dialect.

Brainstorm or Research Regional Turns of Phrase

Place and environment often have a big impact on the development of people and language. The first thing I did was made a list of things that would influence this environment. For my fantasy world, these were mostly forests, woods, and farmland.

I tried to think about environmental ways to express happiness, sadness, and anger. How would a woodsman swear? What words from his surroundings would he use to express himself?

This works across environments — whether your characters are seafaring pirates or overcrowded city dwellers, you can use the setting to influence the language.

When you’re relying on a real dialect, do some research and make lists of interesting words commonly used.

Listen and Take Notes

Listen to Real People

If you’re fortunate enough to live near people who speak in the dialect you want to write, spend a lot of time with them or eavesdrop at a coffee shop. But if you’re not near your desired dialect, take to YouTube or to language resource websites.

For those looking for a UK accent, the British Library has an entire archive for accents and dialects that I found invaluable. They also have this useful map for locating regional variations.

Listen to Celebrities

After listening to locals, sometimes you might find yourself growing used to a strong accent. It helps to then turn to celebrities and celebrity interviews. Their accents and dialects are often much lighter than the common folk you’ve been spending time with, and it’s useful to keep the range of the language in mind while you’re writing.

Listen to Audiobooks

Find one or two audiobooks that are read in the accent you’re working with. It can be helpful to pick a reader who’s the same gender as your protagonist or find books written by local authors in the dialect you’re researching. Listen to a chapter or so before you sit down to your own project; this will help get your head in the voice.

Whichever way you choose to listen, make sure you take notes. Whenever you come across words that are interesting or unique (like “I’m bladdered” for “I’m drunk”), make a note of it. Listen for sentence structure differences or little tacked-on phrases. Especially pay attention to how verbs are used — often there are some hallmark ticks in verbs. You can use these in your writing.

If Appropriate, Do an Accent Lesson

Beyond taking notes, part of the point of listening so much is to help you internalize the language. Even if you will not be writing out the accent (see the links above for reasons why you might not want to), it’s good if you can clearly hear — and even speak — the accent. This helps you hear your character’s voice and can make it easier to fall into the dialect.

I found Access Accents (on Audible and iTunes) extremely helpful for this. These voice lessons are normally under an hour long and consist of people chatting about the accent and how to do it.

Write Your Character Describing Something

You don’t have to wait until you’re fluent in dialect to start writing, because part of learning the character’s voice will be writing it out.

One of the most helpful exercises is to write your character describing something, such as an event or a scene. Sometimes it helps to draft this in a heavy accent before you go back and edit it. But ultimately, you should challenge yourself to write with no accent, and instead use only grammar and unique phrases to create a distinct voice.

Here are a few prompts for things your character can describe:

  • A familiar place she or he loves
  • A place she or he has never been
  • A childhood memory
  • A traumatic event
  • A loved one
  • An enemy

Read Aloud and Revise

Finally, it’s time to read what you’ve written aloud. Keep a pen handy and mark any places where you stumble. Normally there’s a reason, and you might have to give up a few of your favorite phrases for the sake of clarity.

It’s also important to let native dialect speakers read the material. Since they won’t know your characters as well as you do, they can offer valuable advice about how the dialect is coming and whether or not it’s comprehensible.

At the end, you’ll have a beautifully narrated piece that perfectly complements your story.

About the Author: Alyssa Hollingsworth was born in small-town Milton, Florida, but life as a roving military kid soon mellowed her (unintelligibly strong) Southern accent. Wanderlust is in her blood, and stories remain her constant. Alyssa received her BA in English and Creative Writing from Berry College and her MA in Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University. She has been previously published in Lunch Ticket, Berry Magazine and Letter to an Unknown Soldier. She regularly writes about the writing process on her blog.

From Creative Writing to Creative Marketing: Interview with Wendy Burt-Thomas

Creative writing is hard work. You have to master the technical side of writing (know your grammar), deliver work that resonates with readers, and possess massive amounts of drive, ambition, and sheer determination.

It can take months, even years, to write a book. Then you have to sell it — first to an agent, then to a publisher. Finally, you have to sell it to the world.

Many writers believe that once their labor of love is safely in the hands of a publisher, their work is done and they can to move on and start writing their next masterpiece.

Those writers would be wrong.

When the Creative Writing is Completed…

Once your book is slated for publication, the most challenging phase of your project begins. You suddenly have to become a marketer. You have to take your creative writing skills and somehow turn them into creative marketing skills. And sell those books!




Wendy Burt-Thomas is all too familiar with  juggling writing and marketing. She is a full-time freelance writer, editor, and copywriter with more than 1,000 published pieces. Her third book, The Writers Digest Guide To Query Letters hit stores in January 2009. Wendy was kind enough to share her wisdom with us.

You’ve been a mentor, coach, or editor for many writers. What do you think is the most common reason that good writers don’t get published?

Wendy: Poor marketing skills. I see so many writers that are either too afraid, too uniformed, or frankly, too lazy, to market their work. They think their job is done when they write “the end” but writing is only half of the process. I make a living as a writer because I spend as much time marketing as I do writing.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions that writers have about getting a book deal?

Wendy: That they’ll be rich overnight, that they don’t need to promote their book once it’s published, that publishing houses will send them on world book tours, that people will recognize them at the airport. Still, you can make great money as an author if you’re prepared to put in the effort. If it wasn’t possible, there wouldn’t be so many full-time writers.

How much book promotion does a writer have to do? Don’t the publishers take care of most of the marketing?

Wendy: Depending on your publisher, you can expect to do 95 to 100 percent of your marketing. Even some of the larger houses now expect you to do most of your own book promotion. They have less money, smaller staffs, and staff members that are doing the jobs of several people due to downsizing. Don’t be surprised if the biggest help you get is an offer to send out books to reviewers; reviewers YOU provide. And they may put a cap on that at 20 or 25 books!

Would you say that the first step in marketing is writing a query letter and sending it to an agent?

Wendy: Actually, I’d say the first step comes out before a query letter. Christina Katz talks about this in her book, Get Known BEFORE The Book Deal. You might be marketing yourself by blogging, posting on Twitter, developing and promoting your website, or creating a newsletter (eg. future fan base!).

Why are query letters so important?

Wendy: Breaking into the publishing world is hard enough right now. Unless you have a serious “in” of some kind, you really need a great query letter to impress an agent or acquisitions editor. Essentially, your query letter is your first impression. If they like your idea (and voice and writing style and background), they’ll either request a proposal, sample chapters, or the entire manuscript. If they don’t like your query letter, you’ve got to pitch it to another agency/publisher. Unlike a manuscript, which can be edited or reworked if an editor thinks it has promise, you only get one shot with your query. Make it count!

I see a lot of authors who spend months (or years) finishing their book, only to rush through the process of crafting a good, solid query letter. What a waste! If agents/editors turn you down based on a bad query letter, you’ve blown your chance of getting them to read your manuscript. It could be the next bestseller, but they’ll never see it. My advice is to put as much effort into your query as you did your book. If it’s not fabulous, don’t send it until it is.

You wrote an entire book about query letters. Can you tell us about it?

Wendy: The book was a great fit for me because I’d been teaching “Breaking Into Freelance Writing” for about eight years. In the workshop, I covered a lot of what is in this book: writing query letters to get articles in magazines, to land an agent, or to get a book deal with a publisher. Since I’m a full-time freelance magazine writer and editor with two previous books, this was incredibly fun to write because it didn’t require tons of research. I was lucky enough to receive lots of great sample query letters from writers and authors that I use as “good” examples in the book. I wrote all the “bad” examples myself because I didn’t dare ask for contributions that I knew I’d be ripping apart!

In addition to the ins and outs of what makes a good query, the book covers things like why (or why not) to get an agent, where to find one and how to choose one; writing a synopsis or proposal; selling different rights to your work; other forms of correspondence; and what editors and agents look for in new writers.

It was really important to me that the book not be a dry, boring reference book, but rather an entertaining read (while still being chock full of information). I was thrilled that Writer’s Digest let me keep all the humor.

There’s an entire chapter in the book about agents. Do you think all new writers should get agents?

Wendy: Probably 99% of new writers should get an agent. There are lots of reasons, but my top three are: 1) Many of the larger publishing houses won’t even look at unagented submissions now; 2) Agents can negotiate better rights and more money on your behalf; 3) Agents know the industry trends, changes, and staff better than you ever could.

What advice do you give writers who hope to be published one day?

Wendy: Take every opportunity that comes your way – especially when you first start. If someone asks you to write a brochure for their company or content for their website, do it! I never lied to a client about my experience, but I did always say, “Sure, I’ll give it a try.” My “big break” came when the publisher of a business newspaper for which I had been writing (freelance) articles asked me to come on board as the editor. I had ZERO experience as an editor but she put things in perspective by saying, “Wendy, your articles come in so clean, we never need to edit them. Anyone who doesn’t need an editor could probably be one.” So I quit my job, became the editor and learned enough in two years to become a full-time freelance editor and writer.

My favorite quote is “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” I am a very lucky person because I am always prepared to seize writing opportunities.


To learn more about Wendy or her books, visit GuideToQueryLetters.com. If you have a writing-related question, you can post it on AskWendy.wordpress.com.

How do you feel about switching hats from writing to marketing? Are you prepared to market your work? Discuss in the comments!