I post writing tips on my blog on a regular basis. They are all listed below. Also available on this site are posts on the writing process (signalled by the fountain pen icon), How to… articles offering you writing tools and short videos on a writing topic that is close to my heart.
WRITING TIP #1 – BE RUTHLESS
Who is your best friend? Answer: your keyboard’s Ctrl + F: a harsh reminder of the many unnecessary repetitions of adverbs, adjectives, expressions, etc. There’s nothing like removing more than 50 times the same word from a text to be cured from using it ever again. I got to learn about my writing tics and correct them that way. And, once in a while, when I’m about to type words that feel a bit too familiar, I revert to Ctrl + F to tell me exactly how familiar they are. Writing IS editing.
WRITING TIP #2 – BE PARANOID
Nowadays, you have a plethora of back-up options at your disposal: memory sticks, hard drives, clouds, Dropbox, etc. At the end of every writing session, even if all you did was adding a couple of sentences here and there, send yourself every document you have worked on via email and copy the files on an external hard drive. You can also email copies to friends or family members. Computers die overnight without advance warnings, hard drives can be damaged or stolen, so can computers. Being paranoid about protecting your texts will potentially save you a lot of pain and effort.
WRITING TIP #3 – DON’T BE PRECIOUS ABOUT YOUR WORDS
Writing IS editing. And editing IS removing content. Be prepared to remove a sentence, a paragraph, a page, a chapter, ten chapters, if you have to. You cannot be precious about your words. You can enjoy writing said sentence, paragraph, page, chapter, chapters and, after that, you need to ask yourself if they add anything to the story. If they don’t, hit the delete button! And if it feels too painful, cut and paste it in a separate, and dated, document entitled ‘Put aside’. Content will not be lost but it most probably will not be re-used.
WRITING TIP #4 – IGNORE YOUR CRITICAL VOICE
That voice – your evil friend – will find the most elaborate ways to convince you on a daily basis that you cannot write. It will tell you that you are too tired, that you want to surf the Internet, that your oven needs cleaning, that you are not, and will never be, Hemingway, that your syntax is awkward, your grammar wanting, your plot illogical, etc. In fact, were you to judge your creativity purely on the basis of what that voice is telling you, you would immediately feel comforted! So, instead of acknowledging its presence, and therefore giving it more power over you, get on with the writing and ignore it. It’s the worst thing you can do to it and the best thing you can do for you!
WRITING TIP #5 – ENJOY THE PROCESS
Contrary to what most people like to think, writers write because they love it, not because they want to torture themselves on a daily basis! As I explained in my post, it is the need to express ourselves which fuels the writing. So, rather than starting your writing session by giving yourself a number of words to write, how about reminding yourself instead why you sat down with pen and paper (or your computer) in the first place? Writing is your opportunity to explore freely your own creativity. No one is forcing you to write. No one is telling you what to write. How lucky is that! The more pressure, limits, expectations you will put on yourself, the less you will write. If you are happy to explore, the process will be far more enriching and fun. So take a deep breath and start your writing session by asking yourself what is it that you want to write about then go for it.
WRITING TIP #6 – FLEX YOUR WRITING MUSCLE
Writing isn’t a speed race, it’s the long-distance run, the 40K marathon. Expecting to produce content from the word go and being disappointed if you don’t, is the equivalent of deciding that you cannot run, without having once done a warm-up session, put on your running shoes and left the starting blocks.
Contrary to what is usually portrayed on the small or big screen, inspiration doesn’t come out of the void nor out of the blue. It is because you’ve spent thousands of hours at your desk, shaping and reshaping your sentences and plot, that ideas come to you. Writing is a muscle you exercise on a daily basis. And the more you do, the quicker you get to the right idea, sentence and plot. You cannot predict when those moments will take place. What you can do, however, is apply yourself and write as much and as often as is humanly possible. And if, at some point, you stumble and fall, you pick yourself up and keep going. Why? Because there’s nothing like it.
WRITING TIP #7 – FEED YOUR BRAIN
And by that, I don’t mean just reading as much fiction as is possible, but being curious of the world. Go to exhibitions, concerts, events, festivals, search the Internet for new bands, new blogs, new artists. Watch documentaries, series, movies, roundtables, etc. Explore your interests whether it is cooking, architecture or 35mm photography. Your writer’s brain needs the constant stimulation. What you feed it will somehow filter through your writing, though not always in obvious ways. Don’t wait for knowledge to come to you, seek it!
WRITING TIP #8 – USEFUL WEBSITES
While the Internet can be distracting when writing, it certainly is a great platform to find editing tools to shape and improve your writing. Here are a couple of websites I recommend having in your bookmarks and using on a regular basis, especially the first two:
Wikepedia is an open encyclopaedia that can be edited by anyone, with or without the required knowledge or background information. It is therefore wise to take its content with a pinch of salt.
WRITING TIP #9 – LESS WILL ALWAYS BE MORE
Writing IS editing and editing is removing content. You cannot be precious about your words, otherwise your style will not improve. Being able to distance yourself from your text and assess what needs to be removed is a crucial part of the writing process. It does not mean torturing yourself – remember, writing does NOT mean pain – but, rather, being objective and hitting the delete button to get rid of unnecessary words, most of which being adjectives and adverbs. And, at times, it means deleting an entire paragraph, chapter or section if need be. The word count for the novel I’m currently writing is 43,800. Since I started writing, I have removed at least 20,000 words, if not more. Those statistics do not make me feel bad, they are a reflection of what the writing process is, i.e. learning, exploring, improving and… changing your mind! So be brave, follow your instinct and delete.
WRITING TIP #10 – ON ASKING FOR FEEDBACK
Asking for feedback early on in the writing process of my first novel was tremendously helpful. It prevented me from waiting for the moment I considered my writing to be ‘perfect’ to show it to others, removing unnecessary pressure on myself. Secondly, it meant that I could not get precious about my words because I was sharing them with others very quickly. Thirdly, it allowed me to get input at a moment where I needed not only encouragement, but also another pair of eyes on my story and characters.
That said, there is an art to asking for feedback. You need to choose people who have the time and energy to read your text. People who are readers, obviously, and who will be able to give you as honest a feedback as is possible. And more importantly, you need to prepare targeted questions for them. If you send a text to read without guidelines, you are very likely to be told that your writing is ‘nice’ or ‘interesting’ or ‘engaging’ or ‘good’. All valid and encouraging comments, which might reassure you, but will not give you the answers you need. So, decide what it is you want the feedback on and write your questions in a separate document for them to read afterwards so they are not influenced from the word go. And, finally, be prepared not to like the answers. As my mother used to tell me when I was a child: ‘if you don’t like the answer, don’t ask the question!’
WRITING TIP # 11 – COMPUTER OR PAPER?
For some, writing on paper is antiquated, odd even. Often, when I look up from my notes, while writing in a café, I realise a stranger has been staring at me, looking confused. The fact is, taking a break from the computer screen is not only healthy, but incredibly useful.
Firstly, because it allows you to take stock and see how much progress you have made, holding 40 pages in your hands being far more satisfying than the reading page count at the bottom of your screen.
Secondly, because it gives you distance from your text and the opportunity to finally spot the missing words and commas, the odd spelling mistakes and clunky sentences.
Thirdly, because your print-out gives you an at-a-glance view of your story, which a computer cannot.
Fourthly, and crucially, the pen goes quicker on the page than the fingers on the keyboard. Writing on paper is a more visceral experience because you’re faster and more in tune with your thoughts.
And finally, the process of typing your corrections and additional sentences into your Word file after your ‘paper break’ is in itself a very productive editing exercise.
While writing on a computer is obviously the most efficient option, especially when you are writing a novel and shifting content around on a regular basis, regular ‘paper breaks’ are fantastic opportunities to adjust your focus and improve your writing.
WRITING TIP #12 – THE IMPORTANCE OF READING
Reading is what makes a reader wants to become a writer. While it may seem to many of you that I am stating the obvious, this is worth reminding still. Indeed, I have heard students attending my workshops say that they ‘should read’, the way one might speak of doing their tax return, ironing their clothes or having a dental check-up. As baffling as this may sound, many aspiring writers do not always make the obvious and crucial connection between reading and writing, hence this post.
Reading is not only the best way to engage with the world, stimulate your curiosity, and open your horizons, it is the single most important learning process for a writer, the caveat being that you do not read with the view of copying a style, rather, to explore stories and, in the process, develop your imagination.
You cannot write without reading. One feeds the other. Reading broadens your horizons and exposes you to an endless variety of topics, stories, plots, and character developments. Extensive reading helps you develop your writer’s instinct, that positive, internal voice alerting you to the fact that your piece does not quite work, that a passage needs a complete reshuffle, and a character is not fully-formed. If you haven’t been exposed to many different sorts of villains while reading fiction, how will you know what makes a great one, for one thing, and, for another, how will you know if your version does not work? Writing without an extensive reading experience, is akin to attempting to drive a car while being blindfolded, an experience which is bound to be painful, frustrating, and to end badly.