I have sat on this question since you submitted it so I could think long and hard about it. Here’s what I have for you, in no particular ranking order:
DO YOUR RESEARCH.
Please. If you are serious about writing, please be serious about doing it well.
Learn how to use a thesaurus. Really learn.
Thesauri are not the devil, but they can trip you up if you use them blindly. “Demand,” “order,” and “request” might all pop up if you search for something to use besides “ask,” but not all of them are going to work. If you look up words and just pick one at random, you may end up conveying something completely different from what you want to say.
There is conflicting advice in the world about “concise language is best!” and “descriptive language is best!” The reality is that you need to be good at both, if for no other reason than diversifying how your cast of characters speaks. There will be characters who say “That’s nice” and characters who say “That’s phenomenal” and characters who say “That’s awesome.” Characters speak in different ways—they have different vocabularies and different speech patterns and preferences.
Similarly, there will be times where you refer to something is big, only for the characters to come by a massive thing later on. If you refer to things in the general area of “large” simply as “big” or “bigger,” we will have no sense of the scale of the massive thing. Conciseness is great, but sometimes you need to break out of it to truly, effectively describe something. Your thesaurus can be your friend—just know how to use it.
Find a writing/editing/critique buddy or a writing community to share with.
I still struggle with this, I need to get better about sharing my work. Hearing what someone else thinks about your work will do a few things for you:
- Get you used to critique. Not necessarily good critique or bad critique, but something you will need as a writer if you ever intend to publish is a thick skin. Not all criticism is justified and not all critique is going to make you leap for joy. An invaluable skill to have in your writer’s repertoire is the ability to take critique, evaluate it, and grow from it.
- Get you used to sharing your work. I am incredibly bad at this and I wish I had gotten started with sharing my work a lot sooner. Having someone else read, edit, revise, and critique your work is an incredibly important thing for writers. Sharing your work can be validating, and it can also be terrifying. Putting your work in a public sphere can be scary, but if your end goal is to be published, you will need to be able to handle exposure. This also helps you…
- …Learn where you struggle. When we reread our work, we know exactly what we meant to say, we know exactly what the characters are thinking and feeling and intending to do or the point they are trying to get across. This does not always make it through to the reader. Something very important about critique is having someone tell you what is not working. This is not a failing on the part of the reader or an inherent flaw in your writing style: this is learning where, how, and possibly why a part of your story is falling flat. With an outside perspective, you can gain more insight on where you tend to get caught up in things and forget to give information where it is needed.
Finding a buddy also comes with the double bonus of having someone to talk about writing with. What a wonderful world!
Learn how to write out of order.
This is one of the greatest things I ever learned to do as a writer. The last five things I finished, I only managed to finish largely due to the fact that I could hop around and write anywhere in the plot, rather than restricting myself to writing linearly/chronologically.
Knowing how to outline, even if you prefer not to outline, can also help you better grasp how stories are structured and how pacing can work. If you write up an outline and decide not to use it, this can still help you get a broader view of your story and help keep you on track. I am a big believer in knowing where you intend to go with a story.
It took me a million and a half tries to figure out what worked best for me, and it may take just as many for you. I invite you to give the “out of order” rollercoaster a try: it has done wonders for me.
What I DO NOT mean: Nothing you do will ever be great.
What I DO mean: Not everything you do will be great.
Especially on the first go-around with something, know that producing something perfect is difficult for everyone. Accept that failure is a part of the process, and that it does not reflect on you as a writer or as a person. A truer reflection of you is how you handle and grow from failure, critique, and rejection. Making mistakes is how we learn. Embrace failure as a learning opportunity, rather than fearing it as an obstacle.
Try new things.
Write in a genre you normally shy away from. Hit “random” on TvTropes and run with whatever pops up. Do things that are unfamiliar and strange. They may not be great, and you may never decide to use them again. That is fine. What is important about this is the doing of something new, the practicing and training and flexing (and showing off) of your writing muscles.
The only way to get better at something (at least, until we can download new skills into our brains because technology is amazing) is to practice. Try something new. Practice what you want to get better at. It will not be amazing on the first try, I can almost guarantee (see above).
And that is fine.
End your day on the second sentence of the next paragraph.
This probably sounds like a bizarre thing to mention, but just trust me on this. Especially with Camp NaNo coming up, this is one of the the greatest tips I can give you for writing over long periods of time.
If you leave off at the end of your last paragraph, stretch, and call it a night, chances are you have trouble picking back up in the morning. If you leave yourself something to go from—a sentence or two of what’s to come next—you might find it easier to get back into the swing of things. This way, when you wake up and boot up your document or open up your notebook, you see immediately where you were going and what you wanted to do next.
Learn how to self-edit.
And learn to do it well. Editing is a seriously critical part of elevating your writing from good to great. Figure out what methods work for you to help you catch your own mistakes. The techniques I swear by:
- Read everything aloud. Dialogue, plot-driven passages, dialogue, character descriptions, DIALOGUE, everything. Especially dialogue. I read things aloud with such frequency that I wonder whether or not I should consider a second career as a voice actor. Of course, this is not about the delivery, but making sure that things sound natural and flow well. How better to do that than to read it aloud?
- Rewrite it all. Completely. By hand. Every word. All of it. Copying and pasting just does not cut it. Taking it word by excruciating, painstaking word will force you to stare your mistakes in the face. They are a million times harder to miss this way (though a few are bound to slip through).
- Change mediums. If you typed it, print or handwrite it back out. If you handwrote, scan it or type it up. Editing in a different medium than you wrote in can give you a new perspective, since you have changed the way you see it.
(A thing to bear in mind: I am a tactile/kinesthetic learner, which means that I need to physically do things for myself in order to understand and learn or benefit from them. This is probably why a lot of these techniques work for me. If your learning style matches mine, you might well find success with these as well. If not, they may only be a bit helpful. There is no best way to do any of this, and trying new things to find what works is a part of the writing journey.)
If you love it, take care of it: BACK UP YOUR WORK.
PLEASE DO THIS IF YOU WRITE ELECTRONICALLY. PLEASE. If you take nothing else away from this post, please back up your work. Email it to yourself, store it in the cloud, use Dropbox, something, anything is better than suddenly losing years of work.
(I know this from experience. I was inconsolable. Do not make this mistake: BACK UP YOUR DAMN WORK.)
Similarly, never throw anything away, where writing is concerned.
Always keep the older versions to look back on. Always. ALWAYS. I cannot stress this enough. Keep a clipboard document to paste things you want to cut out of the story, just so you can have them around if you decide you need them after all.
Learn to recognize and let go of what doesn’t work.
Sometimes you will write something beautiful and amazing and utterly brilliant… and it just will not fit into the story. No matter how you try, something refuses to work with the context, a line is just too out of character, a location description needs changing and that positively lyrical turn of phrase no longer fits.
What I mean here is that recognizing when something is not working and letting it go for the sake of the overall story instead of trying to shoehorn it in where it does not belong is hard, but incredibly important. Learning to put the story first and really, truly editing with the fist of an angry god and a red pen of vengeance is an important, enviable, and useful skill.
(Of course, this is where the clipboard comes in. If you hang on to said scraps of beauty, you may find a home for them elsewhere. Think of it like your own private prose bank.)
Use a procrastination sheet and a bookmark word.
My procrastination sheet for the story I am writing/revising is 24 pages of 10 point, single spaced type. All of it (all of it) is notes on the story, things I need to change, things I need to research, and some notes from a friend of mine about things I need to take a look at. The point of a procrastination sheet is to keep you on track, despite what the name may make you think of. In the course of writing a story, you may hit something that you want to do more research on. “Hmm, I need to figure out what on earth coal mining is like!” The procrastination sheet gives you a place to write that down to do later, so you can focus on writing.
Then, the bookmark word helps you out (though this is only useful for electronic/word processor writing—taking the place of actual bookmarks and sticky notes). Whenever you break sequence from your story for some reason—maybe you feel like skipping this particular scene for some reason, or there is something you need to research in order to make this passage shine, or there is something here that you want to check again later for plot holes or something—you use a bookmark word. Mine is usually pamplemousse—the French word for grapefruit, a word that would never, ever come up in my story. Your bookmark word is a word you never use within your story, so that when you Ctrl/Cmd+F search your document, only instances of “THIS THING NEEDS ATTENTION” pop up. Whenever you want to remember to come back to something, write in your bookmark word and move forward.
A large part of writing is figuring out how to keep moving and getting it done, however you do it. I have found that a procrastination sheet and a bookmark word work wonders for me to power through a rough first (or second or third or fourth…) draft and provide me with a ready-made list of things to look over in the editing and revision.
Do not qualify your writing. Do not be ashamed of it. Do not apologize for it. Love it.
No more “I’m sorry if this is dumb, but…” and “I don’t know if this makes sense, but…” No more “This is really stupid, but…” and “I know it’s lame, but…”
Stand by it. Your words are amazing. Trust me, they are. Never be ashamed to be excited and thrilled and empowered by your writing. Never feel like you need to apologize for rattling on about plot twists and how much you love your characters. If someone tells you to tone it down, rocket away on the glittering wings of your creation because that kind of negativity is not something you need in your life or in your editing circle.
Hearing this from a writer always makes me sad. More often than not, it tells me this is someone who, at some point, was told that their words did not matter. That is absolutely not the case. Get excited. Be overjoyed. Love your writing.
Take care of yourself.
Believe me, I know how easy it is to get into a zone where you are so inspired and the writing of your story is the only thing you can think about. You skip lunch to keep up with it and before you know it, the sun’s gone down and your dinner’s cold on the table. (Or warm, I have no idea what you eat.)
Remember to take breaks. Remember to stay nourished and hydrated. Remember to get up and stretch every so often. If something is hurting, stop. (Story time: Years back, before I had a word processor, I handwrote some essay or something through what I considered to be “annoying” wrist pain. This has caused me permanent wrist damage, and it still hurts for weeks on end sometimes.)
Take care of yourself. You come first, always.
Never forget why you started.
Writing will not be easy from start to finish. It will not be fun every step of the way. Sometimes you will want to pull out your hair because your brain refuses to cooperate, and the words will not come. Or, if they do come, they are far from what you hoped.
Hang in there. Get up and take a break. Remember why you started writing this thing in the first place. You can do it. We have your back.
Go forth and create, tumblbud.