Monday, December 15, 2008

Illustration of a scribe writingImage via Wikipedia10 Practical Writing Tips

I did a talk last week to a group of high school students on the joys of writing. Given that most days I feel like my writing would best be accomplished by banging my head on the keyboard until blood flows onto the page, I wasn't sure I was the best person for the job. But I like to think I managed to say a couple things they could use.

To make it easy on myself and on them, I said I'd give them 10 completely practical tips they could use to become better writers, and I'll share them here as well:

1. Always remember my favorite quote: "You can fix anything but a blank page." Write something. Write anything. You can fix it later, but if you don't write it, you can't fix it.

2. Shower often. Good advice for high school boys under almost any circumstances (I know, I raised two of them), but in this case it was about writing breakthroughs. I know quite a few writers who say they get their best ideas while showering. I think it's because you're in a small space with featureless walls, going through repetitive motions.

3. Carry a notepad. OK, maybe not in the shower, but everywhere else you need to have some way to write or record your thoughts. Either store text in your phone/pda or do it the old fashioned way with a pen and pad. My notes for this speech, and I showed them the card, were written on a tiny Levenger's Circa pad I always have with me.

4. Take walks. Walking clears your head and again, is like the shower in that the rhythm of the walking can free up your mind to think creatively. I do recommend against taking a music device or talking on the phone while taking these walks, so that your mind is free to wander.

5. Find your writing music. Not everybody likes to write to music. Not everybody likes to write to the same kind of music. But when I turn on epic movie soundtracks while I'm sitting at my keyboard, it's a message to my brain that if we're listening to "Gladiator" or "Braveheart", it's time to write.

6. Read your work aloud. One of the best ways to catch typos, errors and sentence fragments. Too often your brain fills in what your eye thinks it sees. Reading aloud helps you catch mistakes, and gives you a feel for whether your dialog is working.

7. Change the font. This goes along with "read aloud". If you're used to always typing in Times Roman, change the font on your last read-through to Courier or, my favorite for this task, Comic San Serif. Typos you missed on the 20 other passes jump out at you.

8. Keep your mind open. I like to think that for a writer, all experiences are grist for the mill. A traffic stop, an overheard snippet of conversation, a drive through the country, all these things can be used to add color to your writing.

9. Try to make your own writing space. Not always easy to do, but when you have your own space for studying or writing, it can help you be more focused. But you shouldn't not write just because you don't have a cozy little office of your own. It just makes it easier when you can write undisturbed.

10. Avoid toxic people. People who say "Why do you write that kind of trash? When are you going to write a real book? I could write that crap! Aren't all those books the same?" That's when you go to your happy place and just listen to the waves lapping at the shore. I recommend not telling people you're writing a book until the book is finished. Far too many people share that they're writing a novel and only end up getting dumped on, or made so nervous they never finish.

I don't know if this helped these teens, but I felt I'd offered what I could. I recommended a couple of books, Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird and Stephen King's On Writing, to inspire them. I also recommended they consider getting a good thesaurus, The Elements of Style and The Deluxe Transitive Vampire as basic tools to help one be a more successful writer.

My dream is that years from now I see an author interview where someone says, "Yeah, this romance writer named Marshall spoke at our school one year and gave me advice that's stuck with me."

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Jenny Graman Meyer said...

Great tips on writing, even for not so beginners. :D And I can't wait for the next book!

BTW, you've been Bookwormed, here: Come play with us!


Anonymous said...

Excellent advice for anyone that writes. Thank you for sharing this with us. I need to print out a list and post it on my wall or maybe as my wallpaper on my computer...

Darlene said...

Thanks! Too often I see advice for writers that says things like, "You must make a genealogy chart for your secondary characters and understand their motivations before you can write them into a scene!"

I'd be so obsessed I'd never write the scene! I'd rather write something bad and fix it than get bogged down in advice on How It Must Be Done.