Foolproof tips on being a writer

You might have come across a lot of articles purportedly telling you the one amazing secret to great writing, or the three lessons that will make your writing successful, or even the six mistakes you don’t know you’re making, but you definitely are.

Surprise! This isn’t really one of those at all. Or, if it is, it’s in a very cunning disguise. Welcome to five tips about why you don’t need tips about writing.

Tip 1

Write every day

Carry a notebook everywhere. Make sure every time you have a free moment you use it for writing. No excuses. Everyone can find a few minutes in the day, even if it’s when you’re sat on the bus or waiting to go into a meeting. Get up half an hour earlier. Use that half an hour in the evening you spend watching tv and unwinding. Mark each day off in your diary or wall planner so you can see that line of continuity. Have some discipline, dammit. Take your writing seriously!

Err, fuck right off.

No, really. Don’t let yourself be browbeaten into feeling like a failure if you don’t find time every single day of your life to write. That’s ridiculous. Yes, carry a notebook. Sometimes ideas and impulses will strike you at the oddest times. Or take notes on your phone. But don’t carry a millstone.

We can’t all write every day; because sometimes our kids are ill, or we have to work late, or we’ve got too much washing to do, or we’re just plain exhausted.

And sometimes we simply can’t write today. It’s just not happening, for any of a million reasons. And that situation can last anything from a few days to a few months, to years. That doesn’t make us failures. It doesn’t make us lazy. It doesn’t stop us being Real Writers. It just makes us human.

You will be able to write again. Don’t give up. Don’t feel defeated and don’t stop feeling like a writer. Keep researching, keep looking for inspiration and ideas, and making notes whenever that odd thought hits you. It will be back, and sometimes when you least expect it.

Look after yourself so that you can write better tomorrow. Whenever tomorrow may come.

Tip 2

Make a special space to write in

Set aside part of your house that is sacred to your practice. Make sure you can shut out the outside world, as much as possible, and find true peace for concentration. Surround yourself with things that you find special, and you can even have a writing ritual like lighting a candle or burning some favourite incense…

Nope. Nope nope nope.

I mean, really? If you’re out of patchouli then you just don’t make that deadline? You’re much better off practicing being able to write wherever you are, whatever the background.

The time you spend lining your cushions up, arranging your desk toys and lighting candles in colour order is just displacement activity. Obviously, displacement activity is one of the most important parts of writing, along with taking long walks and staring blankly into space. But why make it harder for yourself to write?

The real problem is that most of us simply don’t have a spare bit of space that we can set aside for ourselves, never mind any time we can spend on our own. They are both luxuries that are out of our reach, and it’s unfair to tease us with them like that. Lots of us are out here writing in scrappy notebooks or on our phones and tablets in snatched moments on the sofa whilst the kids are distracted by the tv. A writing nook with a closed door and scented candles is frankly laughable.

Ha ha ha.

See?

Tip 3

Write what you know

Authenticity is key. Your voice is unique, and no one has your lived experience. Remember you have a story to tell, and you have your own amazing perspective to share. Write about what you know.

Yeah. About that. Whilst she’s not exactly my favourite person, J K Rowling has almost definitely never been a boy wizard, and that didn’t stop her. The great thing about human beings is that we have an imagination, and you should use it.

Your lived experience will influence how you tell your stories, but you can write about people and places and events that are completely created by your own mind. We’ve used parables and fairytales to get our messages across for centuries.

Find your voice and your own style, whatever that may be, and if one person doesn’t get it, that doesn’t mean no one will. Listen to criticism, though. Keep refining your writing, and your technique, and keep going. You will find an audience.

There is a lot of debate around appropriation, and who should feel entitled to write in voices that are not their own. It’s an important topic, and you should choose your subjects with care, and always write as an ally, having listened to the voices of your subjects first. Do your research and be always write from a position of respect.

You can write about others, if you do it well. We are all capable of understanding, empathy and creativity, and great writing combines all of those. Literature would be so much less if we could only write about ourselves. Whoever who choose as your subject, your stories will by necessity be populated by a range of different characters, and they all need to speak with their own voices. There is no moratorium on who or what you can write about – just on doing a shitty job of it.

Tip 4

Show don’t tell

No one wants to read long descriptive passages setting the scene, or lots of adjectives and adverbs. Don’t describe your characters; let their actions describe who they are. Try using all five senses to engage your reader fully in each scene.

No one wants to know what a disused railway station tastes like. If you want to write a long, descriptive passage, and do it well, then go for it. I’ve read some beautiful descriptions that have been deeply evocative because of the level of detail included.

If you write poetically, with adverbs and long words and incidental descriptive passages, then write that way. Be inspired by the portents in the twilight sky, and the strange, blooming drifts of flocks of starlings. Bring your world to life. Do it well, do it better than anyone else has, and do it the best that you can. Edit it well. Make it a joy to read.

‘Show, don’t tell’, is generally a good basis for keeping your writing clear and readable. But like all rules, it exists to be broken. Once you understand it, and why it’s there, you can feel free to bend it to your will. Just don’t go writing lengthy descriptions of each character as they’re introduced. No one needs to know how glossy your hero’s hair is every few pages. Honestly.

Tip 5

Kill your darlings

Ok. You got me. Kill your darlings. Murder your babies. Cut them down in their prime.

This doesn’t have anything to do with being murdering your characters – although you should never be afraid of killing off a character just because you love them, but don’t let that be a reason to kill them, either. I hope your plotting and character arcs are much more subtle than that.

This also doesn’t mean you have to get rid of your most precious writing. But it is about editing.

The hardest but most vital part of writing isn’t knowing which words to put down, it’s knowing which words to take away.

I used to be a remarkable editor. I could actually make a story longer each time I edited it. Every time I removed something, I’d also add something new. And I’d often end up putting back some of the things I’d taken out. I’d even have every version of each story saved, just in case. My computer was an extraordinary mess of files within files, going back for years.

Characters, I could murder with aplomb. Words… They were my precious babies.

I eventually hit on editing by reading my work out loud, and it at last became clear where words and even whole passages didn’t fit.

So I learned to cut them out. Then I went back and cut some more. I even started to find some enjoyment in the grisly task.

It’s still hard to do. But no matter how well-crafted a phrase or paragraph is, if it doesn’t fit, it has to go. Writing is vicious work. It’s not for the faint-hearted.

Getting someone else to read and give you feedback is even better, of course. Listen to them. You do always have power of veto – it is your writing – but if your reason for wanting to keep a section of writing is simply because it is precious to you, then I’m afraid it’s time to slaughter your daughters.

Cutting sections I’ve previously worked hard on, or that I felt were genuinely good writing, or I felt attached to for any reason is always hard. These are your darlings. Sometimes you know you wrote something that mattered, that was important. That character needs to say that sentence, because it’s what he used to hear as a child, and…

Work it in somewhere else. If it’s not working, it’s not working, and your trying to desperately shoehorn it in there is just embarrassing for all of us, now. Cut it out. Take a nice clean blade to it, and we’ll all feel better. Amputate that limb. Murder your beloved and we can move on.

If I feel a passage is genuinely good, I save it into a ‘cut scenes’ file, with the thought that one day, maybe I’ll get to release them all with a Directors Cut version of my best selling novel…

Yes. I know… Leave me alone. It could happen!

But what matters most is making the writing you are working on the best it can be, as a finished piece of work. Everything else is secondary. Sometimes, you have to get ruthless to make great art. And, it can feel quite liberating being ruthless. It’s as close as you will ever come (I hope) to murder, after all.

So.

Those are my not-actually-tips-at-all for not-actually-improving your writing. The real one being, there is no secret. There are no short cuts or sneaky hints that will instantly make you a better writer.

The best way to write is to write, and keep doing it. When you get an idea, put it down. Find a place to get your work seen once you’re happy with it. Send it out into the world. Then, do that again.

You’re a writer. Be a writer. Do words. You’ll find it’s what comes naturally to you. Sometimes they’ll be reluctant, but they’ll always be there. They are, after all, your darlings. Just don’t kill them all and you’ll be fine.

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Dilettante, lush, libertine. Hanger on & hanger around. Will write for food, booze, cash or faint praise. Cynical optimist. Follow me for more fun and frolics!

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S J Tamsett

S J Tamsett

Dilettante, lush, libertine. Hanger on & hanger around. Will write for food, booze, cash or faint praise. Cynical optimist. Follow me for more fun and frolics!

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