It's good that you want to become a successful writer, but what tips should you know if you're a beginner?
In this episode, I will share 35 tips to help you become a better writer. These are the tips I wish I'd known when I started my writing career before earning a living from writing online.
These tips have helped me; they've helped successful authors and can help you too.
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It’s good that you want to become a successful writer, but what if you’re new? What tips should you know about if you’re a beginner? Hi, there. My name is Bryan Collins and welcome to The Become a Writer Today. I’m going to give you 35 different tips that will help you become a better writer. These are the tips that I wish I’d known when I started my writing career before I started earning a living from writing online. These tips helped me, they’ve helped successful authors, and they can help you too.
Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Over the years, I’ve stayed up late and gotten up early trying to learn how to write. I’ve even pulled out some of my graying hair to figure out what works and what doesn’t work. I’ve interviewed New York Times bestselling authors and I’ve read some of the best writing books. Here’s what I found out. Here are the practical writing tips that can help you.
Number 1, use a proven writing prompt. I keep a pack of these on my desk. They’re called the Oblique Strategies. They’re basically a type of prompt for writers. Here’s how writing prompts work. Have you ever sat down in front of the blank page and found you’ve got nothing to say? Well, a writing prompt, like the one I showed a few moments ago, is a nudge in the right direction. It could be a question or it could be a statement or a reflection, or you could even create your own library of writing prompts. And if you need a little bit of help, I’d recommend checking out the Oblique Strategies by Brian Eno which you can pick up for about $30 or $40 from his website. They’re basically cars that you will draw which will act as inspiration for your writing projects.
Number 2, free write. Free writing is a little bit like journaling. Basically, open up your writing app, set a timer, and like the author and poet Natalie Goldberg says, just keep your hand moving, keep writing, don’t stop to edit, get the words out of your head and onto the blank page and don’t stop until the buzzer sounds. It’s basically an exploratory form of writing that should help you conquer problems like writer’s block and find better ideas for your creative projects, your blog posts, articles, and even books.
Number 3, embrace journaling. Every morning before I start work for the day, I open up my journaling app, it’s called Day One, and I try to write 150 to 300 words about what I’m thinking about or working on. Now, I’ve been journaling on and off for 10 or 15 years. It’s one of my favorite types of writing because the entries are for me and me alone so I don’t need to worry about grammar and typo mistake. Post journaling is a little bit like planting the seeds for tomorrow’s story. Some of these seeds might take root while others won’t, but you never know if you don’t try. And what’s more, journaling is cheaper than therapy so consider it a form of a writing practice.
Number 4, perhaps my most important tip, show up consistently. As a writer, your job is to be consistent. Much like the weightlifter who practices the same movements in the gym over and over and over, showing up and practicing writing every day will help you improve your craft gradually. Turning up every day in front of the blank page will help you improve what you want to say and how you say it. It will help you commit to becoming a better writer. If you need help showing up, I recommend using the Pomodoro technique. You can combine it with free writing or journaling. Basically, set a timer for 25 minutes and when you show up, focus on one writing project until the buzzer sounds. If you have a bit more time, do this four times and then go on about your day.
That brings me to my fifth tip, copy out writing you admire. Have you ever read the work of a great writer and said to yourself, “How did they do that?” Well, one of the best ways to learn another writer’s style is by taking a sample of their writing and by typing or, wait for it, handwriting it. You only have to copy a page or two to figure out how the author constructs sentences and paragraphs and puts ideas together. And when I was learning the basics of writing short stories, I did this with a collection of Raymond Carver’s short stories and, years later, when I was working as a copywriter, I wrote out some sales pages by longhand to learn the principles of copywriting. So write out one page from something that you love and it will help you learn a little about that writer’s style.
Number 6, learn to self-edit. Editing and writing are two different skills. You need both if you’re a writer, but a lot of new writers make the mistake of doing these at the same time. However, if you’re working on your first draft and then you see a typo or you see a sentence you want to fix and you stop writing because you want to go back and fix that, you’re doing two different things and you’re delaying finishing that first draft. Instead, far better to focus on your first draft when you’re writing and focus on your editing when you’re editing. I personally like to write in the morning and edit in the afternoon. Find a cadence that works for you.
Number 7, run the alien from Mars test. A couple of years ago, I was working as a journalist for a local newspaper. I spent a couple hours writing a 2000-word story, which was going to be the head story for the newspaper for the week in question. My editor got my story, struck through about 1000 words in red pen, and put a big X through the introduction. He told me it was too long, too difficult, and too hard to understand. “Why is it so difficult to understand?” I said, and he said, “Bryan, if an alien from Mars came down and I handed them this story, would they know exactly what you’re trying to say and what it’s about?” I paused for a moment, but I knew he was right. My introduction was full of confusing terms and expected too much from the reader. So the next time you’re writing or editing something, ask yourself could you simplify whatever it is you’re writing so that an alien from Mars could understand it.
Number 8, write guest posts and write on Medium. Writing guest posts and writing on platforms like Medium is a fantastic way to practice different genres without investing a lot of time in it. It’s perfect for nonfiction writers and it’s a strategy I followed to earn a couple $100 a month when I was starting out. Not only that, but you’ll actually get free editorial feedback from the editors of these publications in question. Now, it’s quite difficult to land a publication or land a guest post on a big blog these days so I recommend starting with Medium. Any writer can set up on Medium and start writing. Once you’ve attracted a few followers on this social media network, then you can start pitching your articles to publications on Medium using the Medium proprietary tools, then you can start getting feedback from readers, from editors, and start exploring different genres ’til you figure out what you want to write about.
Number 9, support your writing career through freelancing. Freelancing is similar to guest blogging except your goal is to get paid to write. Now, I worked as a freelance writer for most of my 20s and early 30s. These days, I’m 41, in case you’re wondering. Freelance writing can be difficult but it’s a nice way to supplement your income. I struggled when I relied on freelancing to pay the bills full time. However, when I started Become a Writer Today and I started self-publishing books and so on, I was able to supplement getting the site up off the ground and supplement hiring an editor for my books through freelancing. It’s a nice way also to build up a portfolio of writing samples and also to explore working in different genres or niches. And freelancing is actually what led me to become a copywriter.
Number 10, write a book. Learning how to write a book is a big creative project. Won’t lie, it can take more time than you can imagine to turn your idea or story into a first draft. Typically, it’d take about three or four months to write a book if you turn up consistently. But if you feel you have a story inside of you and you can write, then it’s worth starting your book today. Here’s why. Writing a book will teach you more about the act of writing than anything else I can talk about, and that includes blogging. It teaches you consistency, it teaches you how to work with editors, and not only that, but it teaches you how to connect readers, because when you write your book, you have to promote it and sell it. And after interviewing dozens of successful New York Times bestselling authors, I’ve found most of them don’t find success with book number one. It’s only through writing several books and building a back catalogue they start getting paid to write. But it all starts with that first book.
Number 11, self-publish your book. Now, self-publishing a book is different to writing a book because you have to make some creative choices and, chances are, you’re working under a few constraints. What’s your cover going to look like? Deciding what your cover is going to look like will be dictated by how much you could spend to work on a book cover designer. And, no, don’t try and design one yourself because your time is better spent editing. What would the sales copy say that positions your book on Amazon? And on what categories are you going to market your book in? Because writers have to sell their own books, whether they’re self-published or not. These questions will teach you more about marketing yourself as a writer, and if you combine marketing with writing, you stand a far greater chance of earning money from the written word and turning what could be a side gig into a full-time one.
Number 12, write outside your preferred genre. In my mid and late 20s, I mostly wrote contemporary Irish fiction, but after a while, I grew tired of trying to write literary short stories so I turned to blogging and, later, copywriting, and I learned that writing long, fancy, winding sentences are important if you’re writing literary stories, but they don’t work for blogging and copywriting because they bore readers and put them off. Now, it took me quite some time to change my style, but the change was worth it because I was able to apply storytelling lessons from writing short stories in my blog posts and articles. So if you find yourself writing in a specific genre for a few years, pick a different one. Learning the conventions of a different genre could dramatically improve your writing style and you might even find a different genre that you could write in under a pen name to supplement your income.
Number 13, study the work of great writers. All you got to do is read the best writing books. Some of my favorites include The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, On Writing by Stephen King, and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. You can also supplement your reading by taking online writing classes, just remember to document your lessons in some sort of note taking system.
Are you still with me? Because now we’re on tip number 14. Track your writing. When I’m working on the first draft for a book, I typically keep track of my daily word count in a spreadsheet. I set a word count for the entire project but then I also set a smaller daily word count that I want to hit day by day. This type of self-quantification helps me gauge my progress and figure out when I can expect to finish the first draft and send it to an editor. So, for example, if I decided to write 500 words a day, I should be able to produce 2,500 words a week, should be able to produce at least 10,000 words a month, and then a book draft within three months. Now, later during the editing process, it doesn’t make as much sense to track your daily word count. Instead, track the amount of time you spent editing your manuscript instead.
Number 15, mind map writing ideas. As a writer, one of your biggest challenges is organizing and arranging all in your story ideas and research. Now, sometimes you can do this on a computer, but let’s face it, computers can be a little bit confining, which is why I recommend learning how to create a mind map. Now, you can’t see it here but I actually have a large whiteboard next to the desk where I write, and when I’m stuck on a creative project, I will sometimes mind map what I want the project to look like before I begin it. Once you understand the basics of mind mapping, that is, picking one central idea and branching out from it, then you can start using mind mapping software. But it’s a nice way to visually think through your writing ideas before you start to organize them and write that first draft.
Number 16, interview your ideal reader. This one goes back to the book marketing tip I mentioned a few moments ago, because good writing focuses on one single ideal reader and what’s keeping them up at night or what entertains them in some way. So if you have an email list, ask the questions or interview them. You could set up an interview with them over Skype or Zoom and spend time getting to know them. This is particularly helpful if you write nonfiction. And listen to what they have to say and use it for your future works. Similarly, if you’re writing fiction, learn about what your readers expect from the genre in question and be sure you follow the conventions of that genre.
Number 17, study copywriting. Copywriting basically describes writing words that sell products and services. It’s a type of writing typically associated with businesses, but it’s not simply writing that sells. Aspiring writers can use the principles of copywriting to sell and position their books, products, and courses. And even if you’re not into business writing, copywriting can help you express your ideas clearly online and capture the attention of readers. It’s pretty easy to learn the basics picking up a good copywriting book. I have some resources on the channel for you so check those out.
Number 18, keep a notebook. A notebook is different from a journal because it’s less personal and more related to your work. The famous children’s author, Roald Dahl, famously said about his ideas, “You work it out and play around with it, you doodle, you make notes, and it grows.” My favorite story about Roald Dahl and notebooks involves the time when he got stuck in traffic without a notepad or a pen. He thought of a breakthrough for a story he was struggling with while in traffic and he looked around, this was long before mobile phones, and realized he had nowhere to write the idea down. He was terrified he was going to forget it. So Dahl got out of his car and climbed around and wrote in the dirt a single word onto his vehicle. This thing the word was enough for Dahl to remember his idea and continue working on the story later on.
Number 19, read widely and deeply. If you’re a writer, reading is your job. The Internet casts a wide net around the world’s information, but books can cast a deeper net around a particular subject or theme. I use apps like Pocket and Instapaper to read articles on the go when I’m bored, like at the dentist’s waiting room, but I also sometimes read on Kindle, and if it’s a particularly big book or challenging book, buy the print version instead so I’m less likely to get distracted by the Internet and other distractions. Typically, I read nonfiction in the morning and fiction at night. So read widely, read outside of your comfort zone, and consider some of the books you read as part of your job.
That brings me to number 20, annotate what you read. Annotating what you read is a good way of getting to grips with information and marking it up for future use. It’s easy to do it on Kindle because you can underline critical phrases and important passages and then using a button, you can send them to your email. If you’re going to do this on paperback, I like to take a photograph of a section with my phone and then send the phone image to my favorite note taking app. Either way, once you’ve built up a system for capturing annotations, the next step is to review them regularly and not just forget about them.
Number 21, avoid text speak. A well-formed sentence is a thing of beauty, even if you’re writing online, so when you’re writing an email or a social media post, it’s fine to sometimes break basic grammar rules, but if you’re going to become a professional writer, take a little longer to consider how it’s phrased and if adheres to basic grammar rules. And then if you still decide to break a grammar rule, then that’s fine but best know what the rules are before you go ahead and break them.
Number 22, set your writing aside. Stephen King famously leaves his manuscripts in a drawer for days or weeks before picking them up and revising them. Inspired by this creative genius, I usually have my finished articles and stories sit in a physical or virtual cabinet for a few days or for even a week or two, depending on how long they are. To be honest, putting my work away like this is restorative, because later on, I can look back at an article I wrote some time ago that I’ve forgotten about and I can quickly remove clichés and fix troublesome bits because I’m not as attached to it. And this obviously works exceptionally well for your book, with the caveat that you should leave your book aside for longer than an article. But you still need to actually finish it.
Number 23, give and receive feedback. Feedback is the best way to mature as a writer. What should you do if you can’t get any feedback on your work? Well, I’d recommend joining a local creative writing group, because, that way, you can critique the stories by other writers in this group and also ask them for feedback on your work. After a while, you’ll reach a point where this feedback is no longer helpful but when you’re a new writer or author, getting this kind of early feedback on your stories from somebody who’s not a well-intentioned friend or family member can really help you.
Number 24, cut 10 percent. As a rule of thumb, you can usually reduce every piece of writing by 10 percent without compromising your work. So set this challenge for yourself. The next time you finish writing something, see what the word count is, let’s say it’s 2,000 words, challenge yourself to remove 200 words. Chances are, you can lop off the first few sentences in the introduction, cut the conclusion. You could probably even condense some of those subheads. It would be a stronger piece for it.
To help, here’s tip number 25. Look for moments of lazy writing. Lazy writing basically describes when a writer reaches for a cliché or a stale idea or an overused word because they can’t think of anything better to say. Fun fact, “make” is one of the most overused verbs in the English language. There’s always a better verb that you can use instead of “make,” but “make” tends to suffice for a lot.
Number 26, this is a personal pet peeve, just say said. Have you ever read a piece of fiction and the way the author handles dialogue is really confusing? They’ll say things like “She articulated,” “He shouted,” “She gesticulated,” “She screamed.” All of this is unnecessary. Instead, show, don’t tell. And if you’re going to write about dialogue, simply use the word “say” or “said.”
That brings me to my 27th tip, use the active voice. The active voice is the best way to invigorate your writing. It demonstrates continued action on the behalf of a subject. For example, “I threw my first draft in the bin” contains an active verb. “I,” I’m the subject, and “threw” is the active verb. Whereas if I were to write, “My first draft was thrown in the bin,” that’s a little bit more boring and clunky. So look for instances of the passive voice using a grammar checker in your writing and turn them into the active voice.
Number 28, be patient. Great books aren’t written overnight. And learning how to write isn’t something that happens immediately. Writing can be an exhausting, challenging process, but don’t expect things to go perfectly from the start. Accept you have multiple drafts, edits, and ideas that won’t work out. You will have days when you feel like, “It’s not for me,” that this isn’t something you can do professionally. But don’t let that deter you. Instead, take your time and be persistent.
That brings me to my 29th tip, write without judging your work. This is a common mistake that new writers make. They’re overly critical of their first draft and delete whatever it is because they feel like it’s not good enough or not perfect. But the reality is, when you finish something, even if it’s not very good, your job is to get feedback from someone else in your writing group or another writer or reader. Your job is to submit or publish, and then if you get rejected, well, that’s feedback that you can use to improve. How will you know if you never actually take the time to finish something and submit or publish it?
Number 30, write in the morning. I’ve experimented with writing early in the morning and late at night and even in the afternoons. I used to like the idea of writing late at night by candlelight, kind of like those French Parisian authors in the 19th century, a candle on my desk, perhaps a glass of wine beside me. But to be honest, that doesn’t really work with family life. These days, I find writing early in the morning works best. It’s when I have most energy, it’s when the house is quietest, and it’s a time of day when I’m most likely to stay focused on a challenging piece of writing. In the afternoon, my creative energy wanes, and in the evening, I’m usually pretty tired or more likely to be interrupted by day-to-day life. So try getting up early tomorrow, perhaps abandon a little bit of Netflix before you go to bed so you can do it, and write for 30 or 60 minutes before you go on about your day.
Number 31, outline, outline, outline. Before you start writing, create an outline for your post or your article. It will keep you on track and give your readers a nice clear path so they can understand what you’re trying to say. I use outlining apps like Workflowy and Dynalist to plan articles in advance for the sites that I run. Typically, I can create an outline for a 2,000-word article in 5 to 10 bullet points. If it’s a bit more challenging, I might expand on those bullet points. And using these apps, I can share outlines with other writers who can produce the same articles. But outlining helps me figure out what I want to say in advance without wasting time staring at a flashing cursor.
Number 32, have empathy for your readers. Having empathy for your readers and their problems will help you create more engaging and exciting posts, articles, and pieces of writing. It’s particularly important if you’re writing nonfiction. You need to understand their problems, pain points, and goals so you can write something that helps them achieve something or helps them feel a certain way. Research is key to developing empathy for your readers. You should know your audience better than they know themselves. Survey them, get on Zoom calls with them, figure out what keeps them up at night, what books they love to read, and also what they’re trying to write too, and then tailor your writing accordingly.
Number 33, keep a list of mistakes you commonly make. Mistakes can turn a compelling blog post or article or book chapter into a terrible one. Some common mistakes include getting sidetracked, spending too much or too little time researching, overusing certain filler words, improperly structuring your content, and so on. Or perhaps you’ve got some certain verbal tics that seep into your writing. Keep a list of all of these and refer to these as a type of checklist when you’re editing. It will help you get to a draft that you can submit or publish much more easily.
Number 34, work on your craft every day. Every writer has room to improve. Even if you’ve been writing for 20 years, there’s probably a different writer that you can learn from who’s figured out a different genre, different topic, or a different means of expression. As an example, I’ve taken dozens of writing classes on masterclass.com This isn’t a promo for Masterclass, but I simply use the writing courses on Masterclass as a way of learning from top authors who are at the top of their game who I otherwise may not have access to. Some of them write in genres I have no interest in writing in, like science fiction, but I still like to take these courses to learn how they approach these genres and these topics. If video courses aren’t for you, you can simply default to reading writing books, perhaps listening to podcasts.
Number 35, write what you love to read. A couple years ago, I attended a storytelling conference by the legendary screenwriter and script doctor, Robert McKee. He’s the author of Story, check that book out. He’s also the guy Pixar and other studios call when they’re having problems with their script. At the end of the conference, I was lucky enough to meet Robert. I said, “Robert, what should I write about? I don’t know if I should write fiction or nonfiction.” He said, “Bryan, go home and look at your book library, because what you love to read is what you should write.” Prior to hearing this advice, I’ve been trying to write thriller books and even romance books because this is what was selling on Amazon, but when I looked at my library, I realized I wasn’t reading these types of books at all. I was reading a lot of nonfiction, business books, and even some business self-help, biographies, memoirs, and so on. So I immediately changed what I wanted to write from fiction to nonfiction. So, take a look at your library. Ask yourself what are the top 5 or 10 books from it and then work within those genres before you try something else.
Hope you found the content helpful, all about best writing tips that you can use that work, whether you write fiction or nonfiction.
Bryan: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode. If you did, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes Store or sharing the show on Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you’re listening. More reviews, more ratings, and more shares will help more people find the Become a Writer Today Podcast. And did you know, for just a couple of dollars a month, you could become a Patreon for the show? Visit patreon.com/becomeawritertoday or look for the Support button in the show notes. Your support will help me record, produce, and publish more episodes each month. And if you become a Patreon, I’ll give you my writing books and discounts on writing software and on my writing courses.