My first journal entry, July 23, 1977

45 things I learned about writing

I recently joined a Facebook group with a lot of first-time writers. They ask questions like, “I want to be a writer, but I don’t know where to start.” Those questions got me thinking back when I first decided I wanted to be a writer 45 years ago. Then, I think about what I’ve learned about writing since, including nearly 40 years in professional writing with four novels (and a fifth in beta) and a best-selling non-fiction book under my belt. Those experiences taught me things I wished I knew when I started. Fortunately, they can help new writers today.

Here are 45 things I’ve learned about writing over the past 45 years.

  1. This is from one of my first creative writing classes in high school: Notice everyday things. Find the exceptional in the ordinary.
  2. There’s no such thing as an aspiring writer. If you write, you’re a writer. It’s important for you to think of yourself that way. When you call yourself a writer, you’re motivated to put in the work and learn your craft.
  3. Don’t plan on supporting yourself solely from your book writing. You need a regular paying job that enables you to pay the bills and provides health insurance. Ideally, you should find a career you enjoy even if the book writing never takes off. If you don’t have to worry about paying the electric bill or making sure your children have clothes, you have more freedom to create the type of writing you enjoy.
  4. Learn the fundamentals of grammar, spelling, sentence structure, and composition. These are the basic building blocks of all writing.
  5. You must learn the rules before you can break them.
  6. Be clear. It doesn’t help to be witty or show off your vocabulary if readers don’t understand what you wrote. Your goal is to share information with your readers. Clarity enables you to do that.
  7. Use the correct word. If you’re not sure, look it up.
  8. Check and recheck your facts. Don’t assume you know. Also, something that was correct at the time you wrote it might have changed by the time you’re ready to publish. Make sure your information is correct.
  9. All writing benefits from a second set of eyes. (Often more.) Make sure someone reviews your work before you send it out.
  10. Don’t put anything in a manuscript you don’t intend to go to print. I once had a coworker whose husband put a joke in a user guide he wrote. They forgot to take it out, and it went to print. He had to spend a Saturday striking the joke out of 500 copies of that user guide. (He was lucky he kept his job.)
  11. Know your target audience. Find out what they want to learn or experience. Know their expectations.
  12. If you’re writing children’s books, remember you need to attract two audiences: the children and their parents who buy and read those books. Your book must appeal to both.
  13. Audiobooks are books. Comic books are books. Graphic novels are novels. Any media that enables people to consume words and process them through their imagination is valid and worthwhile.
  14. Likewise, no genre is superior or inferior to another. Don’t look down on romance, erotica, sci-fi, fantasy, or any other genre. Nor should you feel bad if you don’t write or read contemporary fiction or other genres beloved by critics and book awards. Write and read the genres you enjoy.
  15. Study the classics. They built the standards and established well-known themes and stories. At the same time, read books from other communities and cultures. Broaden your literary experiences.
  16. Read the books in the genres you like to write in. Get familiar with the expectations and standards for that audience.
  17. You need bad writing to get to good writing.
  18. You don’t have to write every day, hit a word count, or produce a certain number of manuscripts per year. We all have lives and other responsibilities. Do whatever you can for your writing. Also remember that research, reading, watching educational videos, and letting a manuscript sit for a while so you can look at it fresh later—all count as writing.
  19. It’s OK to give up on a manuscript that isn’t working or you’ve lost interest in. You still benefit from the experience of writing and seeing what does and doesn’t work.
  20. Don’t throw away your unfinished manuscripts. I keep mine in what I call the boneyard. When I need ideas for a new project, I look through my boneyard and find pieces I can use. I’ve revived characters and plot points that didn’t work in older projects and found they worked in my new one.
  21. Writing is deleting. Remove anything that doesn’t contribute to your work.
  22. Don’t write only what you know. Write what you want to know and have your audience learn with you.
  23. “The first draft of anything is shit.” — Attributed to Ernest Hemingway
  24. “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” — Terry Pratchett
  25. The beginning of your book must grab a reader’s interest. If it doesn’t, readers won’t stick around to see if it improves.
  26. The conclusion of your book must answer the primary story question. Even if you are planning a sequel or series, you must solve the primary question for that story. The hero must defeat villain A and end the diabolical scheme he tries to carry out in your book, even if that villain will escape to attack again in a future installment. If you leave the primary story question unanswered, readers will feel cheated.
  27. Other writers are not your competition. Publishing is not a zero-sum game. When readers find an author they like, they will seek books from similar authors, or ones the author recommends. That’s why we writers need to support and encourage each other.
  28. Don’t try to be the next JK Rowling, John Green, or Colleen Hoover. Find your own style, develop your own voice, and build your own audience.
  29. Rejection is hard, but it is part of the writing process. Learn from the experience and keep writing.
  30. Planner or pantser? I’ve started projects with an outline, but once I started writing, all bets are off. I’ve started books using the pantser approach and found I had to apply structure as the story became clear. There is no single right way to write a novel. Each project is different. Pick the approach that enables you to complete the book.
  31. My writing has gotten better since I let my characters drive the story. I just wind them up and watch them go. They often lead to exciting places.
  32. The thing you are afraid to write is the thing you need to write.
  33. If you want to write about people of other genders and communities, do it right. Be willing to learn, let go of your stereotypes and preconceived beliefs, beware of harmful tropes, and get feedback from the communities you are writing about.
  34. Seek honest feedback and embrace it. Use that feedback to debug your manuscript.
  35. If you don’t have any bad reviews, you don’t have enough reviews. Your book isn’t for everyone. Learn from the feedback and move on.
  36. Offer to beta read other author’s manuscripts. It’s a good way to support other authors, build relationships, and make both of your manuscripts better.
  37. Don’t depend on editing software and spell checkers. Have a person read your writing before sending it out.
  38. The key to editing is knowing when to stop. No manuscript is perfect. Typos will always slip through. You will find something you want to revise. If you keep editing to create the perfect manuscript, your readers will never see your work. Just produce the best writing you can and send it out.
  39. It’s easy to get lost in the periphery of writing. Social media, promotion, connection building, and service to the writing community are all important. But you have to write the damn books. They are the main way we connect with our audiences.
  40. Every story has a message, even when you don’t intend it to. The characters you choose, the things they battle over, and even the settings of your story convey your values and your beliefs about the world.
  41. Always seek to make your writing better. Learn new skills. Try new approaches. Explore new genres. Challenge and stretch yourself. Find ways to grow as a writer.
  42. The goal of writing is connection. For me, it’s showing people I’ll never meet how to scan a document on a multifunction peripheral, or teaching them how to give an impromptu speech, or sharing a story I made up from my experiences.
  43. Someone out there needs your writing.
  44. If you change the life of only one person, you have succeeded as a writer.
  45. We can build a better world through our writing.

If you would like more writing tips, visit my Tips page and check out my How to Be a Writer series. Good luck!