19 Tips Anyone Can Use To Start Writing

If you read enough books, you'll eventually get the feeling that you might like to write one of your own. It can't be too hard, right? Who needs writing tips? Just create some neat characters, a cool situation or two, and voilà! Book!

OK, no so fast. If you actually spend the time writing, you'll figure out that putting together a book isn't so 1-2-3. So, lots of people who give writing a go will quit before they do anything worthwhile, because they get discouraged. And, as far as I'm concerned? That's really a tragedy. Regardless of whether you're "a natural" or not, you should try to if you want to.

So, if you want to give this pen-to-paper (or whatever your version is) a shot, it's best to break things down to the basics. You're a) not going to want to try to write your opus right out of the gate, but b) you should also heed these these 19 writing tips that break things down to super-basics — the kind of stuff that's really, really helpful if you're just transitioning from reader to writer for the first time. After all, they're straight from the authors who taught you to love words in the first place. They know what they're talking about.

Right on. Or, well, write on.


"Write. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down. Finish what you're writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it." —Neil Gaiman

It isn't difficult to start writing, but it can be incredibly easy to stop. Writer's block, family emergencies, illness, and running out of potato chips can all inhibit your progress. Don't let them. Write, and keep writing.

Keep Reading

"If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time — or the tools — to write. It's as simple as that." —Stephen King

Keep reading, too. Writing is a field like any other. Doctors don't stop reading medical studies when they get their licenses; they keep doing research and learning more about their work. You have to do the same. So please don't stop reading to write. They go hand-in-hand.

Believe in Yourself

"The hardest part is believing in yourself at the notebook stage. It is like believing in dreams in the morning." —Erica Jong

Being the crappiest writer in the world doesn't preclude you from having a little self-confidence, yeah? Believe in your own success. You don't have to worry about getting yourself published until your work is ready for publication, so don't let fears about the future stop you from honing your craft today.

Don't Try to Please Everyone

"Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia." — Kurt Vonnegut

If you've ever been through a writing workshop, you'll already know that you can't make everyone happy. What one person loves about your work, another will hate. So, write with a single individual in mind, and no one else.

Write Badly

"The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later." —Anne Lamott
"You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it." —Octavia Butler
"I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try." —Maya Angelou
"If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word." —Margaret Atwood

No one puts words down on the page and gets them all right on the first try. Let me rephrase that: EVERYONE HAS TO EDIT. Don't get caught up in striving for perfection. No one ever has to see your worst sentences.

Kill Your Darlings

"Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of." —Kurt Vonnegut
"‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings." —Arthur Quiller-Couch

Kill everything. Kill adverbs. Kill backstory. Kill characters. Kill the hero. Don't play it safe. Raze it all to hell.

Use "Said," and Only "Said," to Describe Dialogue

"Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But 'said' is far less intrusive than 'grumbled', 'gasped', 'cautioned', 'lied'. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with 'she asseverated' and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary." —Elmore Leonard

No one needs to exclaim, or laugh, or cry, or chuckle. Ever. Your readers should be able to discern the characters emotions, tones, and pitches through their own words. Using "said" over and over again might feel mind-numbingly repetitive, but its plainness will force you to improve everything else about your writing.

Don't Use "Very"

"Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very'; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be." —Mark Twain
"So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose." —Robin Williams, as John Keating

Very is lazy. It's also an adverb, and adverbs will choke the life out of good writing. ... Ignore my adverbs.

Keep Your Toolbox Full

"You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there's no free lunch. Writing is work. It's also gambling. You don't get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you're on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don't whine." —Margaret Atwood

Many writers will disagree with Atwood's assertion that you need a thesaurus. You don't want to run for Roget's to make yourself sound smarter or more eloquent. But sometimes there's a word just out of hand that you can't quite remember, or you've called a thing a thing one too many times and now need a doohickey instead. In those instances, a good thesaurus is your best friend.

Be Kind to Yourself

"Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible; double space, or write on every second line. Regard every new page as a small triumph..." —Roddy Doyle

You will always be your own worst critic, but that doesn't make it OK for you to go around ragging on yourself for not being as prolific as Stephen King, or as respected as Toni Morrison. You can have cheat days, pages of automatic writing, cat video breaks, and superfluous bubble baths, if they make you feel better about yourself and your writing.

Don't Wait for Inspiration

"You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club." —Jack London

Just start writing. It's OK. Even if the story that comes out of you is silly, it's still a story.

Keep a Journal

"Keep a diary. The biggest regret of my writing life is that I have never kept a journal or a diary." — Geoff Dyer

Journals are a great way to keep up with ideas and inspirations as they hit you. They're also the perfect place to write when you're away from your laptop or tablet and need to jot out a quick poem or paragraph. Start carrying one with you, and make a point of using it.

Show, Don't Tell

"Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." —Anton Chekov

This is one of the most difficult things to master, and it's not an easy skill to teach. If you're having trouble: read a lot, ask advice from fellow writers, and experiment; none of these things will hurt.

Turn Off the Internet

"It's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction." —Jonathan Franzen

Go distraction-free when you write. Having an infinite source of information at your fingertips seems like a writer's best friend, but the Internet really isn't much more than a procrastination-enabler. If you have to download an app, pay for a service, or pick up a pen and paper in order to keep yourself off the web while you write, do it already.

Don't Do It for the Money

"Write what you need to write, not what is currently popular or what you think will sell." —P.D. James

Unless you are a unicorn, you will not get rich as a writer right away. Don't quit your day job. Don't expect to pay your bills with your novel, and don't write as if you are going to. Sure, that's the dream, but if you tailor your writing to what makes money, you will — ironically — never achieve it.

Make Time to Write

"Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you." —Zadie Smith

Miss your appointments. Order takeout instead of cooking. Sleep less. Do whatever it takes to carve out time in your schedule to write. Even if you can only spare a half-hour a day, you'll still be writing more than the person lamenting he doesn't have time.

Don't Panic

"Don't panic. Midway through writing a novel, I have regularly experienced moments of bowel-curdling terror, as I contemplate the drivel on the screen before me and see beyond it, in quick succession, the derisive reviews, the friends' embarrassment, the failing career, the dwindling income, the repossessed house, the divorce... Working doggedly on through crises like these, however, has always got me there in the end." —Sarah Waters
"DON'T PANIC." —Douglas Adams

Don't panic. Repeat that to yourself as often as you need to. Pages can be rewritten, and the rotten ones can be tossed out. Unless you're two hours and 45 pages out from a deadline, there's no reason to pull out your hair.

Only Listen to People You Respect

"Take no notice of anyone you don't respect." —Jeanette Winterson

"Don't take anyone's writing advice too seriously." —Lev Grossman

If someone is a sh*tty writer or reads sh*tty books, hear her out. Hear anyone out you can tolerate. But don't take anything that anyone says to heart unless there's a mutual respect between the two of you. This is a boundary you have to learn, and it takes a certain degree of grace to draw. Listen to no one, and you're pigheaded. Listen to everyone, and you'll get pneumonia. Listen to the right people, and you will be successful.

Stay Positive, but Brace Yourself

"Keep a light, hopeful heart. But ­expect the worst." —Joyce Carol Oates

Being a writer invites unwanted criticism. Grow a tough skin, stay gold, and keep on keepin' on. It's not an easy profession, but it's all worth it in the end.

Images: Gary Bridgman; Giphy (19)