The Only Two Writing Tips You’ll Ever Need

writing tips

You only need two writing tips: 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 are 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.

Writers and Naysayers

We writers are a varied bunch. If you look closely, you’ll see that the world of writing is comprised of many different types of writers, each with different needs, goals, and standards. But we do all have one thing in common: we write.


And because we all write, there are certainly 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: read and write.

I can hear the naysayers now — but I only write when I’m feeling inspired; that’s what makes it REAL! I don’t have time to read. If I spend my time reading, how will I find time to write?

These thoughts will mostly get you into trouble. Firstly, if you don’t read and write regularly, your work will be sub-par (at best). Secondly, people will think you’re just plain lazy. And they’ll be right.

The Value Sheer Necessity of Reading

You should know that if you’re not well read, it will show in your writing. More than once, I’ve reviewed written work and asked the author, “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.

What I don’t understand is why anyone who doesn’t love to read would want to be a writer in the first place. Can you imagine a musician who never listens to music? A film director who doesn’t watch movies? These are the arts, people. 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.

If you listen to the masters of any art, you will notice they often mention names of those who inspired them. Writing, like any art, comes with a certain heritage. We absorb the works of those who have gone before us, let them teach us the craft, and then we go forth and create.

Besides, 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 will be able to speak intelligently about literature and writing.
  • You will 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 pretty much 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 their 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 of 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? How often do you write? What other writing tips have been useful to you? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.

Comments

34 Responses to “The Only Two Writing Tips You’ll Ever Need”

  1. I read and write as much as I can every single day! :) I really do think those are the best ways to become a better writer. Sounds simple enough but many people who want to be writers don’t write or read as often as they should.
    .-= Positively Present´s last blog ..a letter to my older self =-.

    • I couldn’t agree more. I also can’t understand why someone who doesn’t like to read would even want to be a writer, but it’s not that uncommon. Long live reading and writing!

  2. Mikel says:

    Number two is why I’ll probably never be more than a mediocre writer. Reading though, I’m pretty sure I passed the 10,000 hour hurdle around before I was 15.

  3. S.D. says:

    *hearts post* :D

  4. --Deb says:

    Ah, all so very true … and if reading a lot is one of the keys for a great writer? I should be INCREDIBLE!
    .-= –Deb´s last blog ..Wanted: Literary Agent of My Dreams =-.

    • Yeah, me too. Marelisa’s written about research that indicates it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill or craft. So, I wonder how that works out with writing. Does reading count as part of those 10,000 hours? Does reading maybe count half as much as actually writing (i.e. two hours of reading equals one hour of practice)? Hmm.

  5. Marelisa says:

    Hi Melissa:

    Funny story: I kept seeing that I was getting visitors from a site for a dance studio in New York. And I kept thinking, “Why are people clicking over to my blog from a dance studio web site?”. Then I realized that near the top of the site it said: 10,000 square feet of space for your 10,000 hours. There was an asterix and at the bottom they cited the same article I wrote which you refer to here (Outliers – 10,000 hours for success). Isn’t that hilarious?

    And I love that Stephen King video. It’s so true that if you don’t read you really have no business being a writer.

    • I love the notion of the 10,000 hours. In fact, I’ve been telling everyone about that. Your article about it is fascinating, so I’m not that surprised that you’re getting links to it ;) Yes, Stephen King rocks.

  6. J.D. Meier says:

    > Writers write.
    Well put.

    I think another key with deliberate practice is, it’s how you write. Some people go through the motions. It’s about writing with the intent of improvement … little chunks with short-feedback loops.
    .-= J.D. Meier´s last blog ..6 Personality and Work Environment Types =-.

    • Yes, I agree, although it’s also good practice to write freely and just let whatever comes into your mind leak out onto the page. That promotes creativity. I think the improvement often comes into play during the revision process. At least, that’s how it is for me.

  7. Since I did not get a converter or cable when I moved I read even more than I usually do and I find I start writing more quickly. Maybe it’s reading so many different kinds of beginnings that means less angst about trying something unusual?
    .-= Deb@G’sCottage´s last blog ..Home is not just where you hang your hat =-.

    • Not having cable is a good thing! Yes, I think reading a lot also helps with angst because exposure to various types of writing opens up all the possibilities.

  8. Charlotte says:

    Many writers decide to start writing because they love reading so much. That was the path for me! As a kid, I always had my nose buried in a book, even while my family was busy being outdoorsy. Not me, all I wanted to do was read. Today, it constantly surprises me how many people I meet who profess to want to be writers… but when asked what they read, they respond with, “nothing.” Um, doesn’t work that way, people.
    .-= Charlotte´s last blog ..Igor the Pug Passes =-.

    • I was the same way – always had my nose in a book. I used to read at the dinner table and during recess at school. Yep, I have run into several would-be writers who don’t read. It perplexes me. I guess some of them have a story they want to tell, but for some reason they don’t want to do the work. And by work, I mean reading and taking steps toward better writing (grammar, syntax, style, etc.).

  9. Walter says:

    Hi Melissa. I thought of myself as a writer but reading your post makes me a bit shy to call myself a writer. Few years before, I can’t even eke out a sentence on a sheet of paper. I was confused because deep inside I want to write yet I can’t.

    After deep reflection I realized that abilities can be honed. With this insights I have espoused the company of books and I discovered that I also love to read. My main purpose of reading is to develop my understanding of semantics and to expand my wisdom, but then I get to love of books.

    Right now I’m happy that I can eke out a paragraph. :-)
    .-= Walter´s last blog ..Powerful blog secret: Affective writing =-.

    • I was recently watching an interview with a guy who called himself a screenwriter. The interviewer said “Have you sold any screenplays?” and the guy said “No, not yet.” The interviewer then said, “Then you’re not a screenwriter.”

      I couldn’t disagree more. If you write, you’re a writer. If you get published, you’re a published writer. If you make a living at it, you’re a professional writer. Based on your comment, I think your writing is well crafted, so stick with it and don’t be afraid to call yourself what you are: a writer.

  10. Kelvin Kao says:

    I was thinking, what if you speed read? (Not that I do) Then does that 10000 hour still apply? Of course, the number of hours is not meant to be precise, but yes, to get good at something, you have to consistently do something for a long period of time.

    Ah, I need to read more.
    .-= Kelvin Kao´s last blog ..Why Old People Take Cruises (Blame Hemingway) =-.

    • Speed reading would certainly complicate the math. What about diagramming sentences? Does that count? How much weight does reading a novel get versus studying grammar or reading a resource book about writing? I’m pretty stuck on this idea of 10,000 hours and I just keep wondering how it breaks down. I think about it way too much.

  11. Felicia Fredlund says:

    I have to agree with several others. I read a lot. (People are often surprised I finish around 2-3 books on an average week.)
    But I don’t take enough time to write. Really seriously have to get better at that. And I am… slowly. But if you start with baby steps. After a while a lot of baby steps will get you a long way. :)
    (I have to stop starting sentences with “but” so much…)

  12. Dawn Herring says:

    I have always been a insatiable reader. I usually have at least three or four books from the library. I read memoir, fiction, and spiritual books. I usually have at least one memoir to read at all times. I also read writing magazines every day at lunch and dinner. I write in my journal every evening; I have a novel, memoir, and devotional and several articles in the works. I spend at least an hour a day on writing and on reading, sometimes more. I have a tendency to read while I cook dinner or make lunch and have to wait for something. I always keep a notebook handy when I’m out and bring at least one book to read when I have errands to run or appointments to keep. One tip I see over and over is write what you love. When you do that, you’ll never run out of things to write about.
    Thanks for such a terrific post and great clip from Stephen King. Enjoyed it!

    Dawn Herring
    JournalWriter Freelance
    Be Refreshed!
    .-= Dawn Herring´s last blog ..What time is it? =-.

  13. Very simple and very true. I am too amazed by those who choose to make words their living and they’re not so fond of them. It goes a step further for me as a playwright and I come across writers who hate their audience. Why? Why? Why?
    .-= Lindsay Price´s last blog ..Spread the Love: Agatha Rex – adapted by Lindsay Price from Antigone =-.

  14. I had just written a blog post about writing more so I can get better at it as a craft so this blog post was perfect timing. Thanks for the tips. I had heard the advice about putting in 10,000 hours before so it was a great reminder for me. I guess I better get on with hour number one… :)

    • 10,000 hours sounds daunting but I don’t think it means we have to write for 10,000 hours before we write something worth publishing. And the number probably works out to be different for anyone. The main takeaway is simply that practice is essential :)

  15. Mary Ann says:

    I could NOT agree with you more when it comes to reading. Your point about word flow being the sign of a well-read writer is spot on! Often times I have to gently tell clients that their snarky word choice doesn’t fit a scene or that a certain phrase sounds too cliche. In most cases they have refused to make the change telling me, “It’s staying in because I like it.”

    These types of situations remind me of a faux pas ABC Sports commentator Gordon Maddox. In 1984 during the summer Olympics when describing a men’s pommel horse routine, he said, “He is all over that thing like a naked lady!” I’m sure it made sense in his mind ….

    • I still don’t understand why non-readers want to write books. I get that they have a story to tell but actually writing a book when one doesn’t read… I guess it’s just hard for me to wrap my head around. I wonder why they don’t hire ghostwriters or something.

  16. Emily says:

    Hi, I’m really enjoying your articles, thanks so much! I couldn’t agree with you more, and often find myself torn between the two: to read a great book or spend that time writing. But I am determined if it kills me to make a living from writing, even if it’s only a little living, or for a short time. So writing has to happen! Don’t know that I”m at three hours a day yet, but I will keep on and we’ll see where we get. Of course, the social media frenzy of today does make writing actual saleable content a bit harder – so many demands on your time!

    • Three hours a day is a lot of time! You could read for an hour, write for 2.5 hours, and spend half an hour on social media. I agree, there are a lot of demands on our time. It’s hard to balance everything, which is why prioritizing is so important!

  17. Vicky Pino says:

    You’re dead right. I always say this; to be a good writer, one has to be a better reader. Otherwise, one’s writing will be a load of trivia The trouble is that with the arrival of computers many people think they can be writers, but computers don’t provide with talent, one has it or has it not. I’d like to see many of these wanna be writers at Shakespeare’s time writing with a feathered pen and an inkwell! They’d give it up after a line or two!

    • Did you know that Shakespeare was considered sort of a hack in his own time? I think he was more like a soap opera or genre writer than a critically acclaimed wordsmith. I appreciate your sentiment, Vicky, but I encourage anybody who has a desire to write. It would be a shame if we lived in world where borne talent was a prerequisite when so many artists have worked hard, developed skills, and found success regardless of having a natural inclination for it. Having said that, it definitely takes more than a computer and a dream to become writer. Talented or untalented, there’s work to be done!

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  1. [...] I also remember reading that you need to put in 10,000 hours of love, sweat and tears into anything to become an expert. Over at Writing Forward the two writing tips provided today tie in with my thoughts nicely (click the link to read it) “The Only Two Writing Tips You’ll Ever Need…” [...]