About every three weeks I am contacted by an aspiring writer searching for advice in advance of writing a story or book. Since it is easy to write but hard to write well, here are 20 things I suggest they consider:
- Have a voice. Do not copy someone else’s style. Find your voice; and once you do, proudly protect it. Hacks have no voice. Pros do. Think, plan, execute, and act like a pro. All of that starts with having a voice.
- Commit to your project. Not mostly, not partly, not occasionally—completely! You cannot cut corners because writing is not a rectangular process—there are no corners to cut. There is a process to follow and proud execution demands commitment, discipline, and effort. If you have a topic important enough to write about … then write it to the very best of your ability. Never cheat a reader. Commit 100 percent.
- A good writer never takes a vacation. While he or she may be away from their keyboard, talented writers know that observation, curiosity, new experiences, diligent research, confronting biases, getting scared and inspired, and stuffing scrawled notes into a file for later are all smart investments. Writers proudly look at the world differently than others.
- Develop a thick skin. You will need it. At the beginning your parents will love everything you write, your friends will like most of it, and strangers will quit reading midway through. Until you have a following, that’s just the way it goes.
- Respect the structure of story. If you write fiction, immerse in a world of imaginary friends. If you write non-fiction, do the required research, double-check facts, and protect the integrity of accuracy.
- Learn the right way to write what you aspire to create. Novels are different than screenplays. Biographies are different than novels. Mysteries are constructed differently than comedies. It is wasteful and disrespectful to a reader if you sit down and bang out 100,000 words of convoluted gibberish lacking professional construction. Invest in the craft on the front end—learning your fundamentals—and your back-end execution will produce far better work.
- Make yourself a very important promise: Always invest your time. Nothing writes itself. We must push each key, polish each sentence, and rewrite as much as it takes to get the work where it needs to be. Creation involves a series of integrated steps that must get completed. Plan your work and execute with discipline against that plan.
- Read great writers. You cannot write well if you do not read superb work. The more accustomed you become to recognizing superlative talent, the easier it is for osmosis to assist. Devour the greats in your genre plus authors whose style your find engaging to read. Once you understand the structure of story, you will recognize key elements in their work.
- Storyboard the project before plowing in. Identify the beginning, middle, and end. Sequence the events. Index cards may help. The more clearly you can see your envisioned body of work, the more beautifully you can paint it.
- Writers write. Therefore … write! Pros write every day in some form or another, so “writer’s block” rarely stymies forward progress. Because writing is a personal pursuit, different writers prefer different times to create, edit, research, and rewrite. Different is fine. Create a process that enables you to consistently produce your best work. I write best before sunrise. I read most happily after sundown. Friends of mine write at night. Dial into a heightened awareness of what process works best for you.
- Write to an audience of one. Know who your audience is. Visualize him or her. Do not worry about appeasing the masses. Dial into one specific person and sustain that focus from start to finish. You will produce much stronger work.
- Create cleverly. While scripts are usually written in sequence from page one because of their formulaic necessities, other things—novels and biographies for example—need not be. Novels can be written as a series of chaptered short stories that are then sequenced and threaded together with necessary back story and foreshadowing. I never write a novel in sequence. I start with the most compelling chapter and write it. Then I jump forward or back and attack the next, the goal being to create a strong collection of integrated short stories.
- When it comes to similes and metaphors, manage quantity and strive for quality. Forrest Gump’s “Life is like a box of chocolates” is a simile. Shakespeare was long on metaphors: “All the world is a stage.” Use only what’s needed and not too many.
- Treat clichés like poison sumac. Avoid, avoid, avoid!
- Embrace coaching. Be open to suggestions but have the courage to make and own decisions. A good editor is hard but fair. Ideally he or she is a good teacher. As you review an editor’s fixes and suggestions, some of their opinions may bother you. Respect their point of view but take full ownership for all decisions.
Since writing is part art and part craft, embrace coaching to learn the craft.
- Build a professional support system. You want and need one. Once written, your work stands or falls on its published merit. Nobody produces good work in a vacuum.
- Seek critique. And puff floating dandelion seed heads at critics. Critiques help you learn. Critics offer opinions. You can’t cash an opinion.
- Tight is right. Never use ten words when seven will do. Six is even better. Your first draft can babble on if that’s what it takes to ride the sliding board of your mind to a landing on the page. After that, I love Stephen King’s process: The second draft must be 15 percent less than the first. The third draft is 10 percent shorter than the second. King’s lesson is clear: less is more. Clarity increases with brevity.
- Avoid the temptation to share unfinished work. Unfinished work is a juicy apple of temptation. Resist! Resist the urge to pass out rough drafts. Unless someone has an absolute need to know, do everyone a favor: Wait until you have a finished, error free product. There is hope in a first time read-through. There is tedium in an error-riddled one.
- The real secret—and by far the most important point of all—is this: You have to believe in yourself! If you do not believe in yourself, why should a reader?
As I mentioned at the very beginning, writing is easy but writing well is hard. Learn the basics, practice diligently, and respect the profession. Whether you write for business or pleasure, smarts, discipline, talent, and confidence can carry you a very long way. Take pride in what you create and strive to continually improve.
In business, professional writing skills are the second most difficult skill to hire for, the first being great listening. Invest in yourself—it always pays off.
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