It’s hard to come up with definitive “best” advice, isn’t it? Tips that will apply to writers across the board, at every stage of their journey – whether attempting a first draft or braving the world of pitching to publication.
Recently I chatted to podcaster Patricia Kathleen about my writing career (you can listen HERE) and at the very end of our hour-long chat, she asked what top three pieces of advice I’d give to aspiring writers. Because I was put on the spot (i never think quickly on the spot!), it wasn’t until I’d had a chance to think that I came up with “only take advice from someone who’s been published in your genre” but then I started to think about more general rules for writers at any stage.
If i was speaking to the younger me, these are my top ten tips I would give on writing better, nurturing the creative, and generally living a happy writing life.
1: Set Paid Goals
When I first started freelance writing, I had high ambitions for titles I wanted to be published in: Vogue, Cosmopolitan, The Sydney Morning Herald, Sunday Life… this was back when women’s magazines and lifestyle supplements were still a thing…Sure, I could have started a blog (this was early 2000s when blogspot and wordpress had just started) but I wanted to earn money from my writing.
Why? Well, not to become rich ($300 for an article that took two weeks to research, paid 6 months later = #freelancelife) but because i knew that i would grow as a writer, the higher the circulation or more prestigious the publication. I’d work for better editors. I’d get bigger opportunities to grow. I’d have to work harder on my pitches. I’d LEARN faster.
The opportunities available now with blogging and Medium are great, yes, but if you really want to grow and stretch yourself – and learn from the best – aim to get paid for your work. It will make you study the published articles better. You’ll become a dream for editors….
It’s the same with books. I never wanted to self-publish a book because i wanted to learn from those at the top of their game – in a traditional publishing house. This would mean ME getting paid for the manuscript, not ME paying an editor and a designer separately. I wanted an editor assigned to me – someone who knew my genre in and out, someone who knew more than me.
With self-publishing, it’s all up to you, so you don’t learn as much about the craft and business as you do with traditional publishing. So aim to get paid for your work – it will make you strive harder, and write better. Sure, keep a blog if you want to (better yet, make your blog clips of your published work, or the ‘story behind’ your published work), but I truly believe to develop your skills you should aim to get paid for your writing.
2: Move your body
It never fails to amaze me every time i go for a walk or bike ride or even do some dancing in the kitchen, not thinking consciously about the story I’m working on, that simply moving my body unlocks the answer to a story problem. Try it. Aside from the dangers of sitting for too long (i did my back twice while drafting A Letter From Paris! Not fun), moving your body sends oxygen around your body and brings the answers or at the very least, gives you fresh perspective and helps the creative side of your brain come up with new ideas. I don’t know why, it just works!
I used to do the same when i was writing story pitches as a freelancer. I’d always get my best ideas when i was out for a run (then have to race home to write them down!).
3: Keep a handwritten journal
I still remember buying Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way when I was pounding out 60 hour weeks as a waitress, aching to start actually committing to my writing career but never quite pulling the pin. I think working through that book with my handwritten journal and the prompts for morning pages helped me to really understand this concept of creative resistance, and the pleasures and benefits of keeping a handwritten journal. Some of those concepts wove their way into my journalling for memoir course (not showing anyone your writing, having a minimum daily page count…) because I do believe it’s been the most steady, beneficial and enjoyable part of my writing life. A journal forces you to slow down, and the self-reflection involved helps you to ‘catch up’ with yourself every day. I always start to feel a bit lonely when i skip my morning journal for more than a day or so. It’s a nice reminder that though you may want to be published, the real pleasure in writing comes from all that it allows you to consider and learn on the page.
4: Study openings
When you start reading a story – whether it’s a magazine article, a facebook post, a book, an essay… what is it that makes you keep reading? I believe you can learn a lot about pitching and storytelling by studying openings. When i had my first feature articles commissioned for magazines I used to study the first paragraph of comparative features just to see how different publications liked you to ‘set up’ a story.
Similarly, when you read a few paragraphs but don’t bother to keep reading, why is that? You can learn even more from boring writing, too. For me, passive voice always puts me off, and I never saw it more than when i was working in academia.
5: Read the genre you’re writing
This could be one of my biggest tips, actually. Years ago I wrote a fiction novel, and it was never published (and boy, did I try!). Why? Well, for one, i didn’t know what genre it was (!) and secondly, I rarely read anything that’s not non-fiction! Why did I write a fiction when I barely read fiction? I’m still not sure.
If you’re writing memoir, study memoir. If you’re writing a feature article for The Guardian, study other feature articles in The Guardian. Look for patterns. Try to get even more specific. Is your memoir a quest memoir? Find other quest memoirs. I always think writing stories is like writing music, and you need to study the basics of the ‘genre’ before you can be wildly creative and individual with your own take.
By the way, I sent that fiction novel off to a few friends for their opinion and some said it was a romantic thriller and others said it was magical realism…. So I went to the library and borrowed books in both genres… and didn’t make it through a single one. The fiction stays lurking on my hard-drive…
6: Listen to different music
Music is so powerful, almost like walking, in terms of unlocking different creative ideas and moods in us. I had a really cool Psychology teacher in High School and i still remember a fun exercise she did in class where she played different types of music and gave us the same writing exercise, just to see how it influenced our sentence structure, our output etc.
Music operates on the non-verbal level, too, so it’s relaxing for a brain too entrenched in words and the world of sentences, to play or listen to it. When we were in our never-ending lockdown in Melbourne last year, not allowed out of the house for more than an hour, I used to play different music at about 5pm to shake off the claustrophobia. It really does get you out of a funk and can open up your brain to new ways of considering things.
7: Don’t workshop your work
Oh. My. Lord. The workshop model… Don’t get me started. I watched a masterclass the other day where the author compared workshopping your writing with learning how to fix a car from others who were learning too. I love this analogy! Would you ask for advice or feedback from others who couldn’t change a tyre? NO!
I have no idea why so many writing programs offer the workshop model and I hate it so much. If you really want feedback, pay a published author to look at your work or teach you their method.
For two years at RMIT we had to workshop and I learnt nothing through that process, but it did get me frustrated because all I was hearing was terrible writing, and yet we were told to be encouraging to our fellow students, so…. my guess is, none of them really got any better because all they were getting was great feedback! Once i finished that course, went and started a job in a newspaper, i learnt more in ten minutes with an editor than i had in two years at University.
All I wanted was for the (published) teachers to share what actually worked for them and to give us writing exercises that would open up new ways of telling certain stories. This is a major part of the reason I’ve made 90 Day Memoir the course it is. I’ve written and published two memoirs so this is the complete toolkit I would use to write another one. There are no workshops included in this course – instead, it is everything I wanted from that writing degree I did aeons ago. A published author, teaching me their method.
8: Read out loud
This is a great technique particularly when you’re writing shorter copy, because redundant words and sentences stick out a mile. If you’re pitching or submitting something, reading your email pitch out loud can help you fine-tune it, too, and really make sure it flows.
9: Curate your input
Like a gallerist forms around a theme, consider where you’re going in different seasons of your life and curate your input around that. What do i mean? From media to people we spend time with to movies we watch, books we read and chitchat we make at the water-cooler (hey, there’s some benefits to everyone working from home during the pandemic!) your input deeply influences your output. I think, particularly for creative people, you’ve got to be really intentional about the way you curate your life. From journaling in solitude each morning to watching certain films or listening to music or spending time learning from certain people, it really does make a difference to how you grow and develop in your work. You’ll notice this when you start journalling, too, and you become more observant of how you react to certain stimulus, people, events, music… What helps you feel better, more creative, feel free? Do more of that.
10: Get a cat
In my first year of freelancing I set myself a schedule for pitching and working each day and I was very disciplined in sticking to it, and then my brother asked me to look after his Cairn Terrier. Wowsers – my whole day then revolved around that dog’s meal-times, walks and toilet needs. He was constantly asking for walks, whimpering at my feet or wanting attention.
Cats are far less needy (and stinky) but you still get to pat them! I finally got a cat after my mum died and aside from helping me deal with the awfulness of THAT, Sabrina encouraged me to stay still, calm down, stay home and REWARDED me for doing so with purrs and cuddles. Having a cat to feed and care for each day encourages you to come home a bit earlier, stay home a bit more, and get your work done. And, like writing in a journal, they just make the whole process much more enjoyable and comfortable! Oh and they don’t need you to take them for walks – they are very self-sufficient.
OK dogs get you outside but when you’re really in the flow of writing, it can be really disruptive to have a terrier nipping at your knees for a walk!