Got you with that title, didn’t I? Seriously, though, it’s a reality that all writers — beginners and veterans — want tips. We write about them on this blog freqently. Just in the past few days, I’ve been asked for some by a variety of people. Yes, that’s right. Me.
Writers can debate, and do all the time, what “good” and “bad” tips are. We could write thousands of blogs of writing advice and still not cover it all.
That said, here are some quick tips that I think most writers would agree are universal. They’re probably things you’ve heard before, but that’s because they work.
- The book won’t write itself. That’s right — no matter how many tips, tricks, hacks or whatever, you have to just sit down and write it. If you don’t believe me, read Stephen King’s “On Writing.”
- Write what you “know,” but more importantly, know what you write. There’s nothing wrong with branching out, otherwise we’d all be writing about writers sitting in a room thinking about writing. But make the effort to gain deep knowledge that’ll enhance your book. Visit the sites, talk to people (or at least eavesdrop on conversations), move past what “everyone” knows to the things only a few do. Research has never been easier with the worldwide web. But visit the newspaper archives at the Maine State Library or newspaper.com, out-of-the-way historical societies, read books about your topics — the possibilities are endless. Nuances and insight will enrich any story.
- Read. The more you read, the more variety you read, the more your world and imagination expand. Read everything you can get your hands on and never stop.
- Read bad books. Good books are great, but most readers tend to get lost in the story because, duh, the book is good. I’ve learned more about the basics of writing from reading bad books and seeing what could’ve done better than I ever have reading good ones.
- Know the basics. You don’t have to go get an MFA in creative writing or even drop a ton of dough on writing courses, but put that Strunk & White that you have somewhere around the house to use. More importantly, go online and find information about writing basics and brush up. I was a judge for years in the Writers Digest self-published contest, and can say with certainty that many writers just don’t know the basics. I’m talking about things like clauses that don’t match subjects, a universally chronic issue; misuse of prepositions; innacurate or inconsistent tense; you name it. No one is going to be a perfect writer, but the better you know the basics, the better you’ll be at telling your story.
- Know the bigger stuff. Writers who understand things like point of view shifts, when to use exposition and when not to, how to weave in background, and more will have better books than those who don’t. When I was a freelance editor, I’d sometimes get pushback from writers saying, “But [insert famous writer’s name here] doesn’t [insert writing basic here].” That’s fine for them, but for the rest of us, knowing that stuff and doing it correctly will only help.
- Know your voice. Don’t be afraid to be yourself when you write. There may be people — your writer group, an editor, your spouse — who want you to water it down and be more generic. If you know the craft and understand what your voice is and why you’re doing what you’re doing, let it fly. Yes, I know I said I learn more from bad books than good ones, but one big thing you can learn from good books is how good writers find a way to let their voice shine through. Two of my favorites are Elinor Lipman and Carl Hiaasen, two very different types of writers who have unique voices and write beautifully.
- Don’t be afraid of your imagination. Similar to voice, let your imagination go where it will. Again, if you know the craft well enough, you can make it work. Don’t be afraid of it. But also understand what’s important and what isn’t to make the story work.
- Have a structure in mind. If you are at all involved with writing, you’ve heard the whole “pantser” and “planner” thing. You know there isn’t one “right” way to go about it. That said, at some point, you have to figure out where the book is going, what works, what doesn’t, and give it some structure. I usually start my books with a vague idea of where it’s going and I usually have an ending of sorts, and then I see where the writing takes me. That means I’m constantly outlining, beginning when I get to about the 100-page mark, to stay on track. Then I go back, adjust things, move things, re-outline, etc. until it’s finished. I know that sounds exhausting, but I actually enjoy it. You don’t have to do it my way, but just be sure you at some point start figuring out where you’re going, what’s working, what is extraneous and how it’s all going to tie together.
- Pay for a good professional editor. This is a must for those hoping to get an agent or publisher, or to hit it big with their indie book. It’s also useful for someone with a publishing contract so they can send a nice tight manuscript to the publisher. I no longer do freelance book editing, so this isn’t a plug for my services. But I’ve read hundreds, yes hundreds, of indie books for the Writer’s Digest contest and the No. 1 issue is that almost every single book is not well-edited. Almost every single one. While everyone seems to know someone who’s awesome at finding typos, and that’s a good person to know, that’s not what editing is. When I finish my first draft, I have four to five readers; then, once I’ve done revisions, I have one or two who check for typos, spelling etc. Then I get the book edited. So, for those who have someone who does that for them, that’s great. Once that’s done, send it to a professional editor. Good book editing means not only knowing the things in No. 5, but also the things in No. 6. And, no matter how much you think that friend or spouse, or whoever, will be “honest” with you, someone who is a professional and paid to do it actually WILL be honest.
It’s important to ask around and do some research. Ask other authors, check out books the editors have said they’ve edited. You can find freelance editors at a number of places online, including the Maine Writers & Publishers Association and the Editorial Freelance Association website. I would strongly recommend NOT going through an online editing service (a blog post for another day), but rather find someone through word of mouth or professional references. Reach out to people whose books you like that are well-edited, organizations that help writers and other reliable sources.
An editor can be good and still may not be right for you. You want someone who understands you and your book. That’s why it’s important for YOU to understand your book, and why the first nine tips are important.
If you think editing costs a lot of money, you’re right. It’s one of the most undervalued professions out there, because everyone knows someone who’ll do it for free. Scrape your dough together, though, and find someone who’ll actually do well.A final bonus tip: While it’s hard work, you should also get some joy out of writing. If you don’t get any joy out of it, assess what your goal is and why you’re doing it.
I know I’m kind of a broken record on this, if you’ve been reading my blog posts over the years, but if writing sounds like a lot of hard work, it’s because it is. As a book editor and judge in the Writer’s Digest contest, I’ve found it’s easy to see who’s willing to do the work and who isn’t. One of my favorite quotes is from Thomas Edison, who said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like hard work.”