Those of us who spend a lot of time studying the craft of writing inevitably come across bits of writing advice that we hear over and over again: show don’t tell, write what you know, and kill your darlings. These writing tips can be a bit cryptic, but the one about revisions is crystal clear: writing is rewriting.
The intention is to get ideas out of your head and onto the page (or the screen, as the case may be) as quickly as possible without worrying about grammar, spelling, and punctuation. You don’t need to get the details right. Just get that rough draft completed. You can clean it up later.
Like most writing tips, this one is debatable. Some writers prefer to labor over each sentence while composing a first draft. This means fewer edits later. Others use the drafting process to navigate through their ideas. This often means more revisions when the drafting is done; in other words, the bulk of time is spent on rewriting. Read more
Characters are the heart and soul of every story.
Almost every great story is about people. Plot, setting, theme, and every other element of fiction is secondary to realistic characters that an audience can connect with on an intellectual or emotional level.
There are exceptions, of course. Some readers enjoy plot-driven stories, but they never seem to achieve the massive popularity that stories with rich, layered characters achieve. Why do fans adore Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen? Because they feel like real people. Read more
If there’s one piece of writing advice that took me years to truly understand, it’s write what you know.
When I first heard this instruction, I thought it was odd. I don’t remember where I first heard it, but I do remember thinking that as far as writing tips went, it was absurd.
What about writing from your imagination or your feelings? How do genres like science fiction and fantasy fit into the idea that you should only write what you know?
It all seemed rather limiting. Was I supposed to write about American suburbia? That’s what I knew, and it was the last thing I wanted to write about.
One of the reasons memoir doesn’t appeal to me as a writer is because I don’t want to write what I know. I don’t want to relive my life. I want to use writing to live outside of my life, to explore what I don’t know.
I decided to disregard the advice and write whatever I wanted. Read more
As a writer, it helps to be thick-skinned.
Professional writing is a highly competitive and saturated field where criticism is omnipresent for two important reasons:
1) It’s the most efficient way for writers to increase their skills, and
2) Written work is often positioned to receive much criticism upon publication.
And guess what? Everyone’s a critic — because everyone has an opinion. Anyone can read a piece of writing and opine that it is good or bad, weak or strong, or that it succeeded or failed. Read more
The first time I heard the advice “Show, don’t tell,” I was young and it confused me.
Show what? Isn’t writing all about telling a story?
At the time, I shrugged it off as some kind of mysterious double-talk, but the phrase kept popping up: show, don’t tell.
It rolled off my teachers’ tongues. I spotted it in books and articles on the craft of writing. A couple of times, it appeared in red on my papers with an arrow pointing to a specific sentence or paragraph. Then, I took a poetry class and had a big aha moment where show, don’t tell became abundantly clear. Read more
Wikipedia defines writer’s block as “a condition, primarily associated with writing as a profession, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work.”
However, I have come to believe that in most cases, writer’s block is a symptom, not a condition.
Before we can cure writer’s block, we have to diagnose it.
Writer’s block is almost always presented as some mysterious disease. A writer sits down to work and nothing happens. The ideas are gone. The words don’t come. It must be writer’s block!
At times, writers certainly lose their inspiration or face challenges that prevent them from working. I’m not saying we shouldn’t call this writer’s block. What I am saying is that in my experience, there’s usually some underlying cause, and it’s often something that’s easily remedied. Instead of blaming our inability to work on a vague condition, we can figure out what’s really preventing us from writing and fix the real problem.
Today, let’s dissect writer’s block and figure out what causes it. We’ll also explore some solutions for curing writer’s block, and I’ll share some writing tips that have helped me stay inspired. Read more
Have you ever gotten stuck in a writing project, and just when your frustration reached its peak, you heard some bit of sage advice that helped you see how to move forward?
There aren’t many writing problems that a few good writing tips can’t solve. Whether you need to develop your voice or use fewer clichés, quick tips can contain exactly the wisdom you need.
I keep a file of quotes by authors so that I can refer to their expertise when I need it. I also have several books, notebooks, and other documents filled with writing tips and techniques, and I like to review these every so often to see what I need to bring into my own work. In many cases, these tips are just quick reminders of all the lessons I’ve learned before. Read more
Writing a book is a big deal. It takes a lot of time and effort, especially if you want to do it right, which means creating something that people will find entertaining or useful and then polishing, marketing, and promoting it.
It all begins with an idea. A concept. It might start with a few characters or an intriguing plot you’ve dreamed up. It might start with an audience you want to write for or a topic you want to explore.
Many writers start writing as soon as an idea strikes. This approach works for some people, but for most of us, it’s a road to nowhere. If we attempt to write a book every time we get a good idea, we constantly leave previous ideas half finished. If we don’t stop to think about whether the idea is viable, we may get in over our heads or write a book that’s unpublishable or unsalable due to market saturation or lack of interest. Read more
Today, I’m sharing one of the oldest and most popular posts on Writing Forward. This one dates back to 2007, but it’s still one of the most-visited posts on the blog and one of my favorites. I hope you enjoy these writing tips and find them useful!
Brian Clark over at Copyblogger has issued a challenge to bloggers in his post “The Cosmo Headline Technique for Blogging Inspiration.”
The idea is to use headlines from magazines like Cosmopolitan for inspiration, and to write your headlines before composing your article.
I’ve taken Brian up on his challenge and as a result, I bring you the 22 best writing tips ever. Read more
The first time someone told me “show, don’t tell,” I had no idea what they were talking about. Show what? Isn’t writing, by its very nature, telling?
I was a young writer and didn’t yet understand the many elements that go into good writing. But I kept hearing that advice over and over: show, don’t tell.
Then, one day, it clicked. I got it. To tell was to write a synopsis. To show was to write a scene, to take readers through the events with action, dialogue, and detail. Show, don’t tell. Of course. It was so obvious.
Now, every time I read that advice, I have to smile.
You Can’t Have Too Many Writing Tips
Learning often happens through repetition. Oftentimes, the first time we hear something, we forget it almost immediately. Through review and repetition, we eventually memorize new information.
There is an infinite number of writing techniques and skills that the most advanced writers have mastered. We can’t expect to get our writing right the first time around, and we can’t expect to master all those techniques and skills as soon as we become privy to them.
You can’t collect too many writing tips, and you can’t brush up on your techniques and skills too often. In that spirit, I bring you fifteen quick and dirty writing tips. These are just the headlines, designed to jog your memory and remind you of all the writerly things we should be doing at any given time.
Quick and Dirty Writing Tips
This list includes a mix of some of my favorite writing tips and some of the tips I think are most essential.
- Read as much as you can (and make sure you read good stuff).
- Write every day – practice makes perfect.
- Acquire some resources: dictionary, thesaurus, style guide, grammar handbook, and books on writing.
- Join or start a writers’ group and get feedback on your work.
- Lower your expectations and allow yourself to write badly. It’s better to write crap than to write nothing at all.
- Feeling uninspired? Writer’s block is no excuse; find some writing prompts and exercises. Use them.
- Do you want to write a novel? Launch a blog? Submit your poetry? Set goals and then get busy reaching them.
- Be yourself. You have your own voice; let people hear it. Don’t compare everything you write to more successful writers. They started somewhere too.
- Tell your inner editor to take a vacation. Let yourself write freely and creatively. You can always edit and revise later.
- Get organized. All those notes, journals, and all that research! Binders, notebooks, and computer files. Put things in order so you can find what you need when you need it.
- Pay attention to your language: word choice and sentence structure is the difference between an award-winning novel and a book that sits on a shelf collecting dust (poetry exercises are great for this).
- Know your audience. Write for them using language they understand.
- Be creative and take risks. You’ll never know unless you try.
- Revise, edit, proofread, and polish everything you write before anyone else sees it!
- Show, don’t tell (you knew that was coming).
Do you have any writing tips to add to this list? If so, then leave a comment. And keep on writing!
When it comes to writing fiction, we each have our own unique challenges. For some of us, it’s a struggle to come up with names for our characters. For others, it’s hard to write realistic dialogue.
Maybe you’re like me, and find it difficult to write a really good villain–I mean–a really bad villain.
The funny thing about our writing weaknesses is that sometimes all we have to do is identify them and suddenly we start coming up with tons of solutions.
That’s what happened to me a few years ago when I realized I was having trouble writing a nemesis for my main character. Time and time again, it was one of the key elements that was missing from the stories I wrote. I was struggling to create a villain that would give my story the conflict it needed.
Once I noticed this pattern, I started seeing villains all around me–as if merely noticing their absence from my writing made them suddenly appear everywhere in my everyday life.
Villains Are Everywhere
Customer service would forget to return my phone call, and I’d imagine a self-absorbed boss who overworked employees and neglected customers. I’d see a story on the news about road rage and I’d imagine a crazed, angry egomaniac. Dirty politicians, people who committed heinous crimes, and generally creepy individuals all became infinitely more interesting once I stopped viewing them as a consumer of the news and started looking at them through the lens of story.
I would notice people’s flaws, mistakes, and bad moods, and think about what people would be like if those flaws were embellished and magnified to outweigh the person’s good qualities and positive traits. Suddenly, my villains were born, one after another, like a little herd of evil trolls.
Film, television, and books also became sources of villainous inspiration. Instead of cringing at them, I started examining them closer. I found some villains were bland and shallow. A villain driven to power for power’s sake lacked depth. A villain driven to power out of revenge for something terrible that happened to his or her family was compelling. Villains whose motivations were understandable, even if they weren’t acceptable, were the most interesting and the most believable.
Tips and Ideas for Creating Villains
I make up characters in my head all the time. Sometimes I write down my ideas, drafting character sketches. Most of them never make it to a story, but the really compelling ones do. Now that I’ve found a surefire way to harvest villains from the world around me, the character sketches have really started to pile up.
If you want to write good fiction, you need a character who creates tension and who is at odds with the forces of good. Even for poets and nonfiction writers, the ability to write a complex villain will improve your writing and help you better understand the subjects you write about.
Here are some tips and ideas for creating complex villains for your stories:
- Choose a model for your villain: an ordinary person, a celebrity, or a notorious criminal from the news; examine that person’s flaws and weaknesses. How have they wronged others? Discard their positive traits, magnify their negative traits, and write a brief character sketch. What’s the character’s name? What does he or she look like? What is going on in the character’s head that allows him or her to treat others with disregard?
- Give your villain a shady past: what terrible things has your villain done throughout his or her life? What terrible things were done to him or her? Some villains are just trouble makers; others are deranged psychopaths. How extreme is your villain?
- Identify the source: what happened to your villain to turn him or her so evil? Was your villain born that way?
- The most interesting villains are not completely evil. They have a soft spot for puppies or they write cheesy love poems. Contrary personality traits add depth and realism to all characters. Describe your villain’s positive traits.
- Put your villain in a scene: make sure you include dialogue so you can work out how the character speaks. Give your villain a distinct voice. Is your villain disguised as a benevolent character? Does he or she spend every waking minute committing evil deeds?
Most importantly, have fun! That’s what fiction writing is all about. Villains are the characters we love to hate because they are the harbingers of obstacles and challenges through which the heroes of our stories prove themselves. Whether you write totalitarian villains like Lord Voldemort of Harry Potter fame or more subtle, complex nemeses like Catwoman from the Batman comics, give your villains plenty of color, character, and complexity.
The more I explore fiction writing, the more complex and multi-layered it becomes. Through the processes of brainstorming, outlining, researching, writing, and revising, I have discovered countless details that authors have to consider as they set out to produce a viable work of fiction.
Over the years, I have collected a vast pile of notes and ideas concerning fiction writing. As I was going through these notes, I figured they could be compiled into a master list of writing tips that might help writers tackle a novel by offering different perspectives and by providing fodder for the creative process.
These fiction writing tips come from countless sources. Some were picked up back in my college days. Others came from books about writing. Many came from interviews with successful authors that I have read, watched, or listened to. And a few came from my own personal experiences as both a reader and writer.
Writing a novel is an ambitious endeavor, never mind editing, publishing, and marketing it. Hopefully, the writing tips below will help make the first part of your momentous task a little easier.
The writing tips below focus on the technical and creative writing process rather than the business end of things. You can take a few of these writing tips or take them all. And add your own fiction writing tips by leaving a comment.
- Read more fiction than you write.
- Don’t lock yourself into one genre (in reading or writing). Even if you have a favorite genre, step outside of it occasionally so you don’t get too weighed down by trying to fit your work into a particular category.
- Dissect and analyze stories you love from books, movies, and television to find out what works in storytelling and what doesn’t.
- Remember the credence of all writers: butt in chair, hands on keyboard.
- Don’t write for the market. Tell the story that’s in your heart.
- You can make an outline before, during, or after you finish your rough draft. An outline is not necessary, nor is it written in stone, but it can provide you with a roadmap, and that is a mighty powerful tool to have at your disposal.
- You don’t always need an outline. Give discovery writing a try.
- Some of the best fiction comes from real life. Jot down stories that interest you whether you hear them from a friend or read them in a news article.
- Real life is also a great source of inspiration for characters. Look around at your friends, family, and coworkers. Magnify the strongest aspects of their personalities and you’re on your way to crafting a cast of believable characters.
- Make your characters real through details. A girl who bites her nails or a guy with a limp will be far more memorable than characters who are presented with lengthy head-to-toe physical descriptions.
- The most realistic and relatable characters are flawed. Find something good about your villain and something dark in your hero’s past.
- Avoid telling readers too much about the characters. Instead, show the characters’ personalities through their actions and interactions.
- Give your characters difficult obstacles to overcome. Make them suffer. That way, when they triumph, it will be even more rewarding.
- Explore the human condition.
- Make sure you understand the three act structure. Every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end.
- Memorize the Hero’s Journey. Use it.
- Cultivate a distinct voice. Your narrator should not sound warm and friendly in the first few chapters and then objective and aloof in later chapters. The voice should be consistent and its tone should complement the content of your book.
- Give careful consideration to the narrative. Is the story best told in first person or third person? If you’re not sure, write a few pages in each narrative style to see what works best.
- Is your story moving too fast for readers or are they yawning through every paragraph? Are the love scenes too short? Are the fight scenes too long? Do you go into three pages of detail as your characters walk from point A to point B and then fly through an action sequence in a couple of short paragraphs? Pay attention to pacing!
- Infuse your story with rich themes to give it a humanistic quality. Examples of themes include sacrifice, redemption, rebirth, life and death, faith, destiny, etc. These are the big shadows that hover over your story.
- Use symbols and imagery to create continuity throughout your story. Think about how the White Rabbit kept popping up when Alice was adventuring in Wonderland or how the color red was used in the film American Beauty. These are subtle details but they give your story great power.
- Every great story includes transformation. The characters change, the world changes, and hopefully, the reader will change too.
- Aim for a story that is both surprising and satisfying. The only thing worse than reading a novel and feeling like you know exactly what’s going to happen is reading a novel and feeling unfulfilled at the end–like what happened wasn’t what was supposed to happen. Your readers invest themselves in your story. They deserve an emotional and intellectual payoff.
- Focus on building tension, then give it a snap.
- Enrich your main plot with subplots. In real life, there’s a lot happening at once. While the characters are all trying to get rescued from the aliens, romances are brewing, traitors are stewing, and friendships are forged.
- There is a difference between a sub-plot and a tangent. Don’t go off on too many tangents. It’s okay to explore various branches of your story when you’re working through the first or second draft, but eventually, you have to pare it down to its core.
- If you write in a genre, don’t be afraid to blur the lines. A drama can have funny moments and a thriller can have a bit of romance.
- Make sure your setting is vivid and realistic even if you made it up.
- If you didn’t make up your setting, then do your best to get to the location and see it for yourself before you finish your manuscript. If that’s not possible, get busy researching.
- Don’t underestimate your readers. Assume they are as smart (or smarter) than you are.
- Give the readers room to think. You don’t have to tell your story in minute detail, including each minute of the plot’s timeline or all of the characters’ thoughts. Provide enough dots, and trust that the reader will have fun connecting them.
- Let the readers use their imaginations. Provide a few choice details and let the readers fill in the rest of the canvas with their own colors.
- Don’t focus exclusively on storytelling at the expense of crafting compelling language.
- Appeal to readers’ senses. Use descriptive words that engage the readers’ senses of taste, touch, and smell.
- Apply poetry techniques to breathe life into your prose. Use alliteration, onomatopoeia, metaphor, and other literary devices to make your sentences sing and dance.
- When rewriting, check for the following: plot holes, character inconsistencies, missing scenes, extraneous scenes, accuracy in research, and of course, grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
- As you revise, ask yourself whether every paragraph, sentence, and word is essential to your story. If it’s not, you know where the delete button is.
- Proofread carefully for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. The fewer typos in your final draft, the better.
- Before your final revisions and before you send your manuscript out to any agents or editors, find your beta readers: join a writing group, take a fiction workshop, or hire a pro.
- Do not send out your rough draft. Go through the revision process at least three times before handing it out to your beta readers. The stronger it is when you bring in editors, the stronger those editors will be able to make it.
- Collect and use these and other writing tips in a file or in your notebook. When something about your story doesn’t feel quite right or if you sense there’s something missing, your notes and other resources might provide you with a solution.
- Have fun. If you’re not enjoying writing, then maybe it’s not for you. If you’re not enjoying fiction writing, try something else like poetry, blogging, or screenwriting. Be open and you’ll find your way.
Did you find these writing tips helpful? Got any tips to add? Leave a comment!