After Grade 2, I became a writer. My stories about Gizmo from Gremlins were all written in crayon. As I grew up, my skills as a writer improved. Crayons became pencil crayons, then pencil, then pen, then eventually, a keyboard. My stories changed from Gizmo adventures to horror stories to super heroics.
My journey to becoming a writer took time. I’ve certainly evolved from my days of Gizmo stories. I wish I had kept those old scribblers as wonderful mementos. I especially wish I’d kept my coil scribblers with all my short horror stories.
To be a writer, it’s very simple: you write. If you can write or type out your thoughts, you are a writer. After all, writers write. Even if you never get published, know that you are a writer simply because you write.
But maybe you want to hone your skills. Maybe you dream of seeing your name on a book cover, sitting on a bookstore’s shelf. Maybe you’re young and want some tips on how to progress as a writer. Maybe you’re much older and want to tell that story you’re sure people will read. Maybe you’re a parent with a child who enjoys telling stories.
Well, I can’t guarantee these tips are for everyone. It’s advice I’ve heard or learned over the past three decades. Regardless, I hope it inspires you in some way.
10) READ: Every writer worth their salt should read as much as possible. Reading opens your mind to other ideas and worlds. Reading inspires you. Reading helps you see new styles of storytelling, formatting, grammar, punctuation, and even marketing.
If there’s a particular genre you want to write? Read as much as you can within that genre. This is great for two reasons: it checks to see if someone else hasn’t already used your idea, and it’ll inspire your own work. Reading Mickey Spillane, for example, helped me realize how I want to write Dill’s adventures.
I’d also recommend reading books outside your usual comfort zone. Branch out; try some different genres or even mediums. If you’ve only read novels up until now, try reading some short stories or poetry. Heck, try reading stage plays or screenplays. You never know what will inspire you.
9) WRITE: A writer reads, but most importantly, a writer writes. Do you have an idea rattling about in your head? Write it out! You don’t even have to write it out fully. Even writing some rough notes gets an idea down on the page, where you can play with it. No idea should be ignored. If you have an idea that you think is completely stupid that no one would read? Write it, anyway! Maybe it’ll turn out to be crap and maybe you’ll never show it to anyone. You don’t have to show it to anyone, but you still wrote it! It’s still an idea you moved from your brain to paper (or computer screen). It’s still practicing your writing skill. It’s still something that you hadn’t written before. Be proud of that. I’ve written or started writing countless short stories that have only been viewed by me.
My oldest and best friend, Mitchell, gave me the best advice: “Write. Just write. Even if it’s crap, write. It’s better than writing nothing at all.” He once wrote a poem about his own butt. It was horrible; hilarious, but horrible. But he still wrote it.
The thing about writing something down as opposed to leaving it in your head means it’s something physical you can see, that you can visualize. An idea in your head can be forgotten. A friend of mine used to tell me about a play he was writing. I said I’d love to read it sometime. He shook his head, then tapped his forehead, and said, “I haven’t written anything. It’s all up here.” Months passed and I never heard about that play again. And that was almost a decade ago.
8) BRAINSTORM: Some of my best ideas came from picking a friend’s brain. Neil Gaiman has told stories about times his friend Terry Pratchett called him to pick his brain. A friendly contest among writers to tell a scary story inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to tell a scary story.
Even though writing is mostly a private process, don’t be afraid to talk to friends or family about your ideas. Personally, I recommend doing this within a private setting, with people you trust with your ideas. Maybe it’s chatting online with a friend. Maybe it’s with a small group of friends. I wouldn’t suggest shouting out your ideas to a wide audience, especially on the internet, if it’s an idea you’d like to perhaps sell or market someday. Not everyone out there will hear your idea and let you keep it. But if you can find some trustworthy people, bat around ideas, answer your questions, then you’ll become a better writer as a result. These people could be friends, family, even teachers or instructors.
7) FIND CRITICS: Similar to brainstorming, I have an even smaller circle of friends that I trust with my work and can give me honest, constructive feedback on it. Whenever he completes a new book, Stephen King sends the manuscript out to four or five trustworthy people to edit it. Similarly, I suggest finding a few people who can read your work and say more than, “Yeah, it’s great! You’re such a good writer!”
Praise is good for the self-esteem, but that kind of feedback doesn’t help you become a better writer. It’s good to find someone who can constructively tear apart your writing, point out grammatical or spelling errors, or make suggestions on story changes. Keep in mind that I’m saying constructive criticism. I don’t mean someone who will look at your work and say, “It’s crap. You’re a terrible writer.” You don’t want that.
Constructive criticism helps you approach your writing from another perspective. It helps you look at your story in ways you hadn’t considered before. You don’t even need to change a thing if you don’t want to. If you believe 100% that what you’ve written is fine, and you don’t want to change it, then don’t. But at the very least, listen to the feedback. Don’t get angry about it. Don’t take it to heart. Just listen, think about it, and respectfully consider the advice. You could even go as far as to make the changes or re-write the story with the criticisms in mind. Maybe you’ll like it. Maybe you’ll hate it. But at the very least, keep an open mind when it comes to this criticism.
6) EDUCATION: Due to depression and several breakdowns, it took me over a decade to get my 4-year Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature. But I’m glad I did. Looking back at my grade school behaviour, I regret not paying better attention or appreciating the education. I took my education for granted.
The thing about education is that, like reading, it opens your mind to new ideas. Even subjects you absolutely loathe have the potential for ideas. You might hate reading some books, but they might teach you things about storytelling, character motivation, and everything else. History classes can teach you about the world, why the world is the way it is, why historical figures did what they did, etc. The sciences can teach you how the world works, which might inform your writing, especially if it’s something that requires some sort of science or technology. After all, if you want to be a sci-fi writer, you’ll need to know how those sciences work.
My point is that if you are constantly learning – even if it’s self-taught – you will learn new ideas and thus, be inspired to write new stories. Much like criticism, you should be constantly open to new ideas, even if you disagree with them. Even if you disagree with an idea, you can still use it in your own writing. Perhaps a character has that particular viewpoint. In order to write that character and give that viewpoint justice, it’s best to be as informed as possible. The best writers, I find, are well-read and give constant consideration to the world.
5) RESEARCH: Even when you’re not in school, it’s best to always keep learning. So much of my writing has come from researching on my own. As I’ve said in the past, The Nine-Banded Armadillo: A Natural History is a constant companion in writing Dill.
Do you have an idea but don’t know about it or how part of it works? Research it! Google it! Ask experts! Don’t know who to ask? Ask someone within a related field. They might know where to point you. Don’t be afraid to ask about the subject. Go to the library or the bookstore and ask someone about it. While they might not know about it personally, they can at least point you in the right direction or recommend books. You’d be surprised by what ideas can come from researching.
Every good writer should have a dictionary nearby. I don’t mean an online dictionary. I mean a physical, dead-tree edition of a dictionary. If you’re reading and you see a word you don’t understand, look it up! There are times I’ll be reading and encounter new words. I’ll either look them up right then or write a list and look them up later. This will expand your vocabulary and of course, improve your writing.
4) HONE YOUR SKILL: As I gradually improve as a writer, it’s harder for me to read bad writing; especially your average internet comment. It feels like grammar, spelling, and punctuation is becoming a lost art. I’ll fully admit, though: learning grammar can be incredibly dry. I’m at a point now where I generally know how to construct a sentence and use proper grammar and punctuation. I can fix friends’ sentences to make them sound clearer. However, I usually don’t know why those edits work. Most grammatical lingo, like dangling participle, confuses the hell out of me.
That said, I still work on improving my writing. Sometimes, I read books on grammar and punctuation, like Eats, Shoots, & Leaves by Lynne Truss. Or I’ll notice how my favourite writers construct their sentences and try to mimic it. Because of this, I feel that my writing gets better all the time.
At any and all times, I suggest being aware of your grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Know the difference between “your” and “you’re” (and yore!), “its” and “it’s,” “to,” “too,” and “two,” and “their,” “they’re,” and “there” to the point that it becomes second nature. Eventually, the basics become automatic, where you barely have to think about comma placement or spelling.
Don’t let your word processor like MS Word fix your spelling. Do it yourself. If you’re writing and see a word underlined in red, indicating a spelling error, look at the word yourself first. Don’t right click to see how it’s spelled or make it automatic. Try editing the word yourself and re-spell it until the red underlining disappears. Keep in mind, though, even if it’s spelled correctly, it might not be the right word to use (like couch/coach). So if you’re unsure, double check a dictionary or highlight the word, right-click it, and look up the thesaurus within the word processor. This is excellent spelling practice.
Learn the best places for your punctuation in order to punch up you writing. You’d be amazed what a difference a little comma can make within a sentence. Read something aloud and follow the punctuation to see what impact those pauses have on a writing piece.
Even when chatting online, texting, even using social media, I recommend being constantly aware of your writing. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it’s good practice to be aware of how you’re writing. Don’t slip into typing things like “u” or “r;” type out the full words. Capitalize the beginning of your sentences. Be aware of using the proper homonyms like “your” and “you’re.” Few people will notice or appreciate it, but you will. It’s excellent practice to make those little things second nature so you can focus on what you want to say.
Lastly, I suggest being a Silent Grammar Nazi. Most people hate having their spelling or grammar corrected, especially on the internet. However, it’s good practice to notice it. I constantly bite my proverbial tongue when I see someone improperly use “your” instead of “you’re.” I’ll mentally correct sentences without even responding to the person. It may not help them be a writer, but it’s a good little brain exercise.
3) TAKE A TYPING COURSE: This might seem like a strange suggestion, but I highly recommend it in this modern age. Most writers today will either type out their work entirely or write out a rough copy and later type it out. Since the invention of the typewriter, keyboards have become greatly instrumental in a writer’s life.
In high school, I took a typing course. It taught me where to place my fingers on a keyboard. For example, before I even start typing, I place my eight fingers across the middle row of keys. As I was taught, my index fingers are on F and J respectively, with the rest of my fingers on the keys beside them on either side. So, my pinky fingers are on A and the colon/semi-colon key. Like basic spelling, grammar, and punctuation becoming second nature, so too has my typing. Because of that course, along with my own practice at home (sometimes with typing games like Typing of the Dead), my typing speed averages about 80 words per minute. That speed helped with school essays and of course, my own writing. It’s to the point that my typing speed far out-paces my hand-writing. In fact, I sometimes wonder if my typing speed outpaces my thinking. I don’t know if that’s actually possible, but it feels like that sometimes.
I truly think a typing course can help every writer. It especially helps writers on deadlines or perhaps writing larger pieces of work like novels.
2) PLAY WORD GAMES: I fully admit to being a word nerd. If it’s not obvious, I love words, the English language, and writing. I love learning new words or writing tricks to incorporate into my writing. One way I like doing this is playing various word games. Like being a Silent Grammar Nazi, they’re a great way to practice my skill and mentally keep up with my writing.
I love crosswords, for example (though I’m terrible at geography, history, and anything to do with sports and music). Two of my favourite word-based board games are Scrabble and Scattegories.
One game, which I don’t know the name of, I can mentally play anytime. I’ll see a word – usually a large word with at least half a dozen letters – and try spelling out as many words as I can think of using only the letters in that word. For example: “mentally.” I can spell out words like ally, mental, meal, mean, meat, my, lye, tally, etc. When I was forced to attend church as a youth, I’d entertain myself playing this game with words I’d find in hymn books we had at each pew. When I’m using public transit and don’t feel like reading (it happens sometimes), I’ll find a word on an advertisement and play it there.
I may not be writing at the time, but it’s always great practice.
1) WRITE FOR YOURSELF: If I can leave any writer with any advice, it’s this: write for yourself. Before showing it to anyone else, you need to enjoy your own writing. The jokes should make you laugh. The emotional moments should make you cry. What you get out of your favourite stories should have the same effect on you when you write your own work.
As I said at the very beginning, it’s better to write anything than nothing at all. That still rings true. First and foremost, you should write for yourself. Don’t write because you want fame, money, reactions, reviews, movie deals, or anything like that. Write because you have an idea and it needs to be put on paper (or screen). Write because the idea will drive you crazy if you don’t write it down. Write because you have a story to tell.
You can write thousands of words, hundreds of pages, and never show a soul. And that’s okay. No one even has to know you’re a writer if you don’t want to. The most important thing is that you write because you love it. Me, I write because I will go crazy if I don’t write down my ideas. I write Dill’s adventures because they greatly amuse me. I write these blog entries because they’re subjects I want to write about. If no one reads them, that’s okay. They’re still written. They’re still something I can look back on and know I wrote it.
After all, it’s better than writing nothing.
Any writing tips you have for new writers? Any thoughts or criticisms on this list? Feel free to leave them in the comments!