I’ve been writing since…well, since I could write.
Since I was a filling composition books (plastered with stickers and magazines collages, no less) with entries on my elementary school crushes, best friends, and love for Harry Potter. I cringe reading them now, but truly, they were the foundation of my love for storytelling and the written word. I’ve never stopped writing. Now, while my writing consists of e-published tech articles and hastily-written journal entries on twin shenanigans, taking pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) still ignites that fire in me that sparked when I was little. From teachers that supported my love of reading, to visits to the Columbia Journalism School and Seventeen magazine offices, to stints on my college newspaper, my passion grew from tiny embers to full flames as I aged. And here I am.
I in way consider myself a writing know-it-all, but I share these ten simple tips as an offering to writing hopefuls — girls or boys that still pore over Harry Potter like they’re reading the magical words for the first time, those that live for unearthing and telling the life-changing stories they find around them, or grown-ups that can’t seem to throw away their own collection of sticker-covered composition books. These tips have helped me (and continue to help me) along my writing journey. I hope they can help you in some way.
- Always carry a notebook. Okay, real talk: who else buys tons of cute journals and never uses them for fear of “messing them up?” Yep! *raises both hands* You’ve got to get over that fear. Take that adoooorable Rifle Paper notebook you’ve got gathering dust in your drawer and put it to good use. Store one in your purse, one in your backpack, one in your laptop case, one in your car. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that more often than not, writing inspiration or solutions to story problems strike at extremely inconvenient times. I’m talking mid-shampoo, middle-of-the-highway-going-70, changing-a-diaper, otherwise-engaged moments. And if you’re like me at all, if you don’t write those thoughts and ideas down, they’re lost in the black holes of your brain forever. Resist the urge to fill empty waiting-room or microwave-countdown moments with scrolling or tweeting (see #5). Let yourself be bored. These filler moments are when inspiration is likely to strike. Then always keep blank pages handy to jot down these creative bursts. (And for the car, consider keeping a voice recorder handy in your cupholder so you can talk ideas out while cruising or stopped in traffic — I don’t recommend writing-while-driving, for obvious safety reasons.)
- Read — a LOT. For any skill you want to master, or even develop in any degree, it’s helpful to learn from the pros. And while not all published writing is created equal (ever spotted a grammatical or spelling error in a published book and nearly had a heart attack?) Scour reviews and reading lists, dust off your library card (or invest in Amazon Prime), and spend time — everyday, if you’re able — reading quality texts. Read in your favorite genre. Read in your least favorite genre. Read authors of color. Read poetry. Read books written by the opposite sex. Read books about different cultures. Read Pulitzer Prize Winners. Read bad books. Read banned books. Read memoirs. Read books from your Grandma’s book club list. Immerse yourself in the writing of others. Just READ. (Check out the Naptime Reads section of my site for my personal book recs, if you need a place to get started.) Truth is, you need to learn to love reading to learn to how to write. It’s really that simple. Reading not only helps broaden your knowledge and experience, which is important for us as human beings, but it will aid you in learning more about the craft of writing. It’ll also help you with tip # — — discovering your own writer’s voice. (Funny sidestory: to this very day, I remember an article I cut out of the Washington Post that had a lede that I loved — something mentioning Justin Bieber and the phrase “CTRL + DEL.” Something that stirred my little writer’s heart to improve my skills, even if my dreams didn’t come true and I didn’t get to write about about the Biebs for a living. In fact, I have boxes and boxes of these types of articles saved. Be on the lookout for good writing always, wherever you encounter it). And, if you’re having a can’t-look-at-another-page kind of day, try to analyze your favorite shows to identify storytelling techniques, like use of allusion in Stranger Things, character building in The Office, emotional pathos in This is Us, or POV techniques in Wonder. Yes, this is me giving you permission to Netflix binge — in moderation, and with intent. 🙂
- Designate a writing space. We all know from our college days that trying to get work of any kind done lying (laying? I will never get the difference — I’m such a great writer) in bed is a recipe for a resting-my-eyes-turned-three-hour nap disaster. Yikes. I know about that from plenty of experience. Try to avoid writing in bed or on a couch — that’s an all-too-tempting invitation to slack off. Set aside a specific space in your house or room that is clearly designated as Your Writing Space. My writing space is the corner of my bedroom, where I’ve placed a white IKEA chair and sit nestled every morning underneath a king-size t-shirt quilt while I write. When I get set up there, my body and mind know it’s time to get down to business. You can, of course, shake things up and try writing outside or at the kitchen table when things get stale and you need a change of scene, but allow yourself a set-aside writing space to call your own. The routine of it will help you develop a regular and productive writing habit.
- Write Daily. Whether it’s journaling, blogging, creative freewriting, drafting your next novel, or writing saucy love notes (ha!), you need to get pen to paper everyday. Every. Single. Day. You develop your skill as you show up (even if it’s just to your room’s writing space) and put in the hours (see Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours principle). Don’t worry if your day’s work feels like word vomit, unfit to grace even your Twitter timeline or private diary. You’re writing — that’s what counts. Log the time and pat yourself on the back. It’s best to set a schedule (see tip #6) to make that daily writing time productive and consistent in your day-to-day life. Protect that time at all costs. This might mean learning to say a big, fat N-O to some things.
- Unplug. This is HUGE. It’s no secret that our world is noisier than ever, and so many things are constantly fighting for our precious time and attention. A fruitful and fulfilling writing life requires quiet, distraction-free focus. For your writing time (and may I suggest, any scheduled brainstorming time) keep your electronics far out of reach. Turn off sounds and notifications. Disconnect your Wifi if possible. Invest in several cheap pairs of those fluorescent earplugs. They are worth every penny (and any possible mocking you might face). Because of our always-on natures in this generation, we check emails on the toilet (really), snuggle with our phones in bed at night, and scroll through the ‘gram anytime we’re stationary. Unplugging will require a conscious effort as you strive to break normal-as-breathing habits and untrain your brain. Unplug from web browsing and social media scrolling and relish the quiet. Right away, you will watch your writing time become more productive and (dare we say it?) enjoyable.
- Find a writing schedule that works for you — and stick to it. We all have some idea of how we work best, whether it’s early the morning, late at night, or for chunks of time with breaks. To accomplish the Writing Daily task (#4), you need to organize your day and schedule a specific time for writing, a sacred time just for writing. For me, it’s early in the morning (before my twin terrors wake up screaming for milk), in my space (#3), with earplugs in (#5), writing for an hour, broken into (I use an adapted Pomodoro Method). Whenever and however you work best, schedule your writing time accordingly and show up every day, ready to work. And if you find yourself with an extra fifteen minutes in the day — use it to write. Resist the temptation to talk yourself out of writing with a few spare minutes (“Can I actually get anything done? I’ll just check Twitter.” — these spare minutes can be productive slivers of time if you can jump in and focus quickly (another practice that takes time to develop). My writing time is precious and un-missable. Make yours that way, too.
- Write, then step away. Just like you wouldn’t (or uhm, shouldn’t) send an angry email or text without giving yourself a buffer period to cool off, you need to give yourself time to step away from what you’ve written before coming back to it and submitting “publish” or “send.” Pat yourself on the back for working hard, then take a break: get outside, eat a snack, have a dance party, take a nap or do something else rejuvenating. Then, when you’ve had a chunk of time away — preferably 24+ hours — come back to your work and revise. Time away from the page gives you the ability to see your writing with new eyes and notice errors or issues you may have previously overlooked. It also helps combat pesky writing blocks and divebombs in motivation — and we’ve all experienced the dread that comes with a blinking cursor and a daunting white page — so consider this time essential. When planning deadlines and setting a schedule, make sure to plan this “stepping away” time into your calendar, even if that means finishing work a day earlier. It will help you produce better work. Truly. Even coming back to this post’s draft after a day or two, I spotted a handful of errors, poor word choices, and other mistakes that needed fixing. I swear by this practice!
- Find your voice. As a writer, you have an advantage over every other writer out there: you have your own voice, unique to you. Trust me, there are people out there who will want to read what you write, in your individual style. It takes time to unearth and develop your voice, but when you do, you’ll be able to produce quality work that you’re proud of. And you will have more of an edge as you seek to publish it (or keep it for yourself, either way). You’ll be able to identify publications or websites that your voice caters to, and you’ll be able to hone a style that you’re happy with. How to do this? Well, return to tip #4. Writing daily will help you identify and develop your voice. Also, pay attention to the days you write and 25 minutes feels like 2. What paragraphs are you most proud of? What sections of your work did you most enjoy writing? About what topic? Clueing yourself into the answers to these questions will help you determine where your voice presents itself in your writing. (A few more helpful tips here).
- Foster your creativity. Just as with any talent or gift, you have to put the necessary time in to perfecting your skills (see #6). Writing is a gift — even if doesn’t seem as outward a talent as marathon-running or concert-piano-playing. That being said, you have a duty to nourish your gift and your creativity. Whether you write for work, or for fun (or both), creativity is key to your craft, and deserves time to develop. Devote time to fostering a creative spirit that will guide your writing (and fuel the fire of motivation behind it) by spending time in nature, immersing yourself in arts and culture, learning something new, brainstorming with supportive friends, or other inspiring activities. You need creativity to be a good writer, so spend time fostering it.
- Restore yourself. It’s just reality: you can’t expect yourself to have kick-butt writing days everyday. But you can have more of those if you take the time to restore yourself as a writer. Replenishing yourself requires having balance and taking time away from the laptop.
Yep, I’m giving you permission to take a vacation and relax! You can’t give 150 percent as a writer without eventually burning out — hard. This restorative time is a valuable investment in bettering yourself as a writer (and a human), so take breaks — between writing chunks, after, every week, and longer breaks every few months (save up those airline miles!) Work hard during dedicated writing times and write daily, then restore yourself. Your writing skills will be better because of it. Pinky swear!