How to Be a Better Writer

In her book, 10 Rules of Writing, Elmore Leonard advised would be authors to – ‘Get an accountant, abstain from sex and similes, cut, rewrite, then cut and rewrite again – if all else fails, pray’. Whilst Ernest Hemmingway famously wrote, ‘There is nothing to writing. All you do is just sit at a typewriter and bleed.’

But surely there’s more to great writing than simply praying and hemorrhaging at your desk… I’ve analysed advice by famous authors in an attempt to discover how to become a better writer.  My favourite tips are listed below; let me know what you think of them.

1. “Find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!” – Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451

How to use it:

At first glance it seems Bradbury is advocating a sort of voodoo magic in the creative writing process whereby protagonists take care of the plot for you. However I think what he’s really saying here is that your characters should be so well developed they could just walk off the page and that their traits not your plot requirements should determine the action they take.

2. “If you have other things in your life – family, friends, good productive day work – these can interact with your writing and the sum will be all the richer.” – David Brin, award winning science fiction author.

How to use it:

What a great reminder there’s a life outside the writing shed! Inspiration doesn’t come from staring inwards, it comes from living in the real world and interacting with real people.

The genius of a novel can begin almost anywhere- a childhood memory, dramatic scenery, an eavesdropped conversation never quite understood. Toni Morrison’s novel, Sula starts in this way whilst Tony Hillerman’s novels were inspired by the southwestern landscape and William Faulkner’s masterpiece The Sound and The Fury was born out of a childhood memory of a ‘little girl’s muddy drawers.’

3. “Write drunk, edit sober” – Peter deVries

How to use it:

Writers like Raymond Chandler and Dylan Thomas rarely put a sentence together without a whiskey in easy reach. However, I don’t think deVries is advocating alcoholism in the writing process. Instead he’s making the point that writing and editing require two completely different mindsets and shouldn’t take place at the same time.

When you write you should be free and open minded. To produce your best work you need to follow your instincts and let the words flow unchecked.

Conversely when editing you need to be brutal. You need to ask if a character would really say or do such and such. You need to check the words you’ve used are ‘the best words in the best order’. And most importantly, as Virginia Woolfe said, you need to be prepared to ‘kill your darlings’.

4. “The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself” – Oscar Wilde

This is my favourite piece of advice and it needs no analysis or explanation. If you agree with Wilde please share of your top writing tips (famous or homegrown) in the comment section below.In her book, 10 Rules of Writing, Elmore Leonard advised would be authors to- ‘Get an accountant, abstain from sex and similes, cut, rewrite, then cut and rewrite again – if all else fails, pray’. Whilst Ernest Hemmingway famously wrote, ‘There is nothing to writing. All you do is just sit at a typewriter and bleed.’

But surely there’s more to great writing than simply praying and hemorrhaging at your desk… I’ve analysed advice by famous authors in an attempt to discover how to become a better writer.  My favourite tips are listed below; let me know what you think of them.

7 Things Successful Writers Do

In his bestselling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey presents what he sees as the key principles to achieving success in the workplace. I’m more of a Bridget Jones than a Stephen Covey when it comes to self-help manuals but I thought it might be fun to share the seven things I’ve learned along my writing journey and see if they resonate with anyone else.

  1. Write Even When You Don’t Want To

There are days when the muse just doesn’t sing- when she won’t even mutter under her breath. But you can’t give in to her silence. You still have to sit at your desk and fill the page. It isn’t only about ‘being professional’ and meeting deadlines. It’s also about pushing through the mental block and making something happen. It’s about telling yourself you can do it and not giving up.

  1. Make Friends with Other Writers

Writing is a lonely business and there are some things only other writers can understand. Your writer friends keep you afloat when the seas are rocky and chill on the deck with you when they are smooth.

  1. Look at Your Work with Fresh Eyes

When you’re too close to something it can be difficult to see what’s in front of you- glaring plot gaps, character inconsistencies…One of the most useful things I ever did was to get feedback from a literary consultancy. It set me up with a fantastic editor who propelled my manuscript in a new direction by showing me what I was doing right and (more importantly) what I was doing wrong.

  1. Realise Everyone is Different

Some people plot to the nth degree before opening a new document and typing Chapter One. Others are what the NaNoWriMo organisers would call ‘pantsers.’ They fly (or rather write) by the seat of their pants without knowing where their story is going to end up. Neither method is better than the other. It’s just a matter of working out which one does it for you.

  1. Don’t Stop

I think this is my most important lesson so far. No matter what stage you’re at (querying/on submission/waiting for edits) channel your energies into the next project. The excitement that comes from writing something new will stop you checking your inbox every two minutes and the passion will keep you going- especially when rejections start to come in.

  1. Rejection is Part of the Process

Everyone says you have to have a thick skin to be a writer. When I started out I thought they were talking about the pre-published stage. But it turns out they weren’t. It turns out the rejection never ends and even the most celebrated authors get bad reviews. The trick is not to get bogged down by it (easier said than done). The truth is sitting on the sofa in our pyjamas watching Netflix with a tub of Ben and Jerrys isn’t going to get any of us on the bestseller lists. But telling ourselves rejection happens to everyone and getting off the sofa just might.

  1. Celebrate Your Successes

Given the amount of rejection we all face in this game, I think it’s crucial to celebrate our successes whenever they come along. No matter how big or how small the achievements we must relish them!

Bringing Up Baby

Likening the writing process to a journey is probably one of those yawn inducing clichés Stephen King would urge us not to use. Although there are certainly lots of steps along the path to publication that any author has to navigate, I wonder if there’s a better metaphor for the agonies we newbies go through on a near daily basis as we struggle to bring our creations into being.

When I think back to how my novel would keep me awake at night in the early days and tug at my sleeve as it grew, I wonder if rather than being travellers up a mountain we are in fact more like parents to demanding children.

Like new parents we read all the self-help books we can lay our hands on (I defy any newbie to say they haven’t read On Writing and scribbled notes in half the margins). Like new parents we are woken throughout the night by nagging thoughts about our novel’s development (is there a twist we could add here or a character tell we could add there?) And like new parents all we want to do is talk about our darlings- though the only people who will listen to us are other writers going through the same sleepless nights.

Perhaps that’s why creative writing courses and writers’ groups are so useful. Not just because of what they teach us but also because of the people we meet through them. After all, like being a new parent, being a new writer can be terribly lonely if we don’t have anyone to share our experiences with.

Connecting with other writers helps us feel we’re not alone. It shows us we’re not the only ones struggling with plot details (or later in the game finding an agent or publisher) and there’s huge value in that. Only a fellow writer will truly understand how we feel after the nth rejection or how utterly buzzed we are to have won such and such a competition. And only a fellow writer will be able to inspire us to pick ourselves up when we get knocked down. But that’s not all. In the same way new parents connect with each other to share information and advice (as well as to stay sane) so too the newbie can learn and develop through his/her relationships with other writers.

Ultimately though just as ‘it takes courage to raise children’ (John Steinbeck) I believe it takes real bravery to be a writer. All the self-help books and writers groups in the world will amount to nothing if we are unable to keep going in the face of set-backs and grow rather than shrink from rejection.