The Worst Advice I’ve Ever Gotten as a Writer (and the Six Best Tips I’ve Got Since)

I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Always. Since my childhood storytelling days, I’ve picked up other interests, but I have never put down the pen.

In high school, my theatre program was fortunate enough to be a subject of a documentary (Guys and Divas). Because of this, I got to meet my first professional writer. It took me a while, but I finally got around to telling him that I was an aspiring writer and asked him if I he had any advice.

“Wait until you’re older to write,”he told me. This is the sentence which haunts me to this day, though I remember, vaguely, that he told me something about age helping me find my voice and material.

At the time, I nodded sheepishly, “Sure, sure, thanks.” I was embarrassed. I felt like he was telling me that I was wasting my time. While I temporarily accepted this, it didn’t take long for me to become mad. Regardless of how nice the guy was, and he is a nice man, he had given me the worst advice I have ever received in my entire writing career.

Before I even graduated from high school, I had found Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Birdwhich said that anyone who survived childhood had enough material for a lifetime.

Austin Kleon (in Steal Like an Artist) said that all advice is autobiographical. It’s advice that we wish we would have had in the past. Maybe that was what Barry wished he had been told, but it did not work for me at all. The following are the six best writing tips I have ever gotten:

1) Read. A lot.

(My time as an educator and Stephen King)

Ah. I remember the days of roaming bookstores… Back before Covid…

This is one that has always been a part of my life, even before I realized it made good writers. It is something I really saw in my time as a teacher. The best readers were always, ALWAYS the best writers. If you want to write well, you have to read.

It makes a lot of sense. By reading, we are intrinsically learning about grammar, spelling, story, and other elements which make for a great writer. I would also add to this: take in the kind of content you want to create. If you want to podcast, listen to podcasts. If you want to write video games, play video games. If you want to write movies, plays, and television shows, watch them.

(Pro-tip: when someone criticizes you for doing these things, tell them its research for your writing. As long as you ARE writing, you can back it up. Sadly, the IRS will not reimburse you for these expenses…)

2) Play “What-if”

(Improv theatre training, Anne Lamott, Stephen King, and others)

It’s an easy game: you look at the world and imagine “what if” something. It can be realistic, but I quickly end up in the realm of fantasy and science fiction in my head.

What if a teacher was hired to teach students at the lowest rung of poverty? What if we could drink a can of soda and know all the world capitals? What if aliens crash landed in Texas?

You get the idea. Go ahead, come up with one right now. See? Not difficult.

It not only gets the creative juices going, but is a way for you to come up with ideas.

3) Write Daily

(Pretty much everyone who has given advice on writing. Ever.)

Writing is a highly incremental activity. You do not sit down in the morning and write a great novel by sundown. When you sit down to write, set a goal: I’m going to write 500 words a day. That is my current goal.

When I get it done, I put an “X” on my calendar. I also have goals of blogging and creating other content, but that’s because I have the time. When I was a teacher, I set the goal at writing for 30 minutes. That meant that, even if I only wrote 100 words, I was closer to completing my larger goal of a novel than I had been before.

Also, share this goal when you reach it. You can announce when you’ve hit it every day for a week, or when you reach a certain amount. I always announce when I’ve hit 10,000 words on social media. (I’m over 40,000 in my novel right now!)

4) Write a Story You Want to Read

(Austin Kleon)

I spend a lot of time reading and watching content, as I’ve already said. Nothing is more upsetting than seeing something that you feel is terrible becoming a published work. (I’m looking at you Twilight.) This is especially hard when you see an idea you’ve had done poorly.

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably felt this as well. The easiest way to see content that you want to see in the world: create it.

5) Make Your Characters “People”

(Tolkien, King, and, again, pretty much everyone who has given advice on writing)

Characters, even minor characters, need desires and challenges. This makes even the lesser characters interesting and important to the reader. They don’t even have to succeed at the challenge you set for them– people will admire them for the struggle. Heck, now they don’t even have to live through the experience (given shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead).

If you have a chicken crossing the road, it may or may not be interesting. Watching the chicken trying to cross the road to save one of her chicks from going into the ocean as a construction vehicle barrels down the road? Interesting.

6) Finish What You Write

(Neil Gaiman)

This is advice that I think everyone needs to hear: finish things. Nothing can be perfect. Write your best, revise your best, edit your best, but get things done and published. Otherwise, you’ll never become the writer I’m sure you want to be.

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