Read top writing advice from authors and writers who’ve found success with the written word.
I love collecting writing advice from best-selling authors and famous writers because it offers a glimpse into their creative process. Read enough of this advice and you’ll start discovering common themes about the creative process, first drafts, editing, rewriting and publishing. Below, I’ll share some of the best advice from successful writers and authors, old and new.
- 1. Read Widely and Deeply
- 2. Creativity Is Infinite
- 3. Keep a Daily Journal
- 4. Art is a Support System for Life
- 5. Write A Little Every Day
- 6. Separate Writing and Editing
- 7. Don’t Fear the Rewrite
- 8. Writing Is Work
- 9. Write One Page a Day
- 10. Stop When The Going Is Good
- 11. Avoid Cliques, Gangs, Groups
- 12. Seek Clarity and Precision
- 13. Every Story Element Has a Purpose
- 14. Work Through Rejection
- Writing Tips From Authors: The Final Word
- Writing Advice From Authors FAQ
1. Read Widely and Deeply
A good writer’s job is to read regularly and outside of their comfort zone. They should take apart these books to determine what works and doesn’t. Writing widely and deeply helps a good writer understand the conventions of their preferred genre and learn more about what readers expect. Stephen King said about the importance of reading:
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time — or the tools — to write. Simple as that.”
Nobel-prize-winning author American novelist William Faulkner almost hammered home the importance of reading a variety of genres and books. He offered this piece of advice.
“Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it, just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”
2. Creativity Is Infinite
New writers often save a good idea for the next blog post, article or book. They worry they’ll run out of ideas or inspiration. But creativity isn’t a finite resource. Usually, one promising idea leads to another one. Plus, a writer’s biggest challenge isn’t finding ideas; it’s putting them to use. Maya Angelou, noted poet and author of the classic I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, said about the creative process.:
“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”
3. Keep a Daily Journal
Daily journaling is the easiest way to build a good writing habit. Anyone can write about their thoughts, feelings and ideas without worry. Usually, these entries are for the writer alone.
A few years ago, I took a writing course by David Sedaris on Masterclass. He explains how his journaling practice helps him write. Sedaris writes up what he does every day, like scenes in a short story. He includes character descriptions, locations, dialogue, colourful anecdotes, metaphors, and even inciting incidents. These scenes from his own life serve as source material for his colorful essays. Sedaris said about this practice:
“I know for myself it’s very important to write every single day… So much happens by sitting at your desk when you don’t have an idea… you need to sit there and not have the internet and see what happens.”
If you want to build a practice, I recommend using a good journaling app. For my recommendation, check out this Day One app review.
4. Art is a Support System for Life
Writers can struggle to find a work-life balance. That’s perhaps because they spend so much time working alone in a room. Working with the written word is an introverted profession.
Finding a balance between spending time alone writing and cultivating friendships, hobbies and spending time with family can take time to get right. I struggled with this when I started taking writing seriously. Then, I stumbled across this excellent piece of writing advice from Stephen King in his On Writing:
“Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”
5. Write A Little Every Day
When Jerry Seinfeld was an unknown but ambitious comedian, he tasked himself with writing one joke every day. He hung a large monthly calendar next to where he worked. If he wrote a joke, he marked a large X through the day’s date and built up a chain of Xs. Jerry Seinfeld said his only job was to:
“Don’t break the chain.”
Seinfeld recently wrote the best-seller Is This Anything? His advice shows writing a little daily is a surefire way to build a body of work and improve your craft and fare more effective than trying to write for hours once or twice a week.
6. Separate Writing and Editing
New writers often confuse writing and editing. They’re two different tasks that engage separate parts of the brain. Editing while writing the first draft is a surefire way never to finish anything.
When celebrated American essayist Joan Didion finished a draft of an article, essay or book, she stuck it in her freezer and left it there for weeks, if not months. After forgetting about the specifics of the draft, she’d take it out and edit and write ruthlessly. She said about the writing process:
“There’s a point when you go with what you’ve got. Or you don’t go.”
7. Don’t Fear the Rewrite
Joan Didion’s approach to first drafts isn’t unique. Tamika Waititi is the writer behind hit films like Jo Jo Rabbit and Thor Ragnorak. He often takes the editing process one step further and will rewrite a script or a draft from scratch months after finishing it. He said about writing and editing:
“I will write a draft and put it away for a year or so. Sometimes it will be two years, sometimes three. Then I’ll come back to it, and I’ll read it two or three times…Then, I’ll throw it all away and start over from page one, based on the memory of what I’ve read.”
8. Writing Is Work
A doctor doesn’t complain of not feeling it before surgery, and a plumber doesn’t complain to a client that they’re out of inspiration. So why is writing any different? Sometimes a writer has to turn up in front of the blank page and hit that word count or publishing milestone even if they’re tired or out of ideas. Often, the only way to become a better writer is by doing the work. Oliver Stone said about creative graft,
“Writing is butt on chair.”
9. Write One Page a Day
Writing a book isn’t always easy. The prospect of writing thousands of words about a single idea or story is off-putting for new writers. It can take months of commitment to turn an idea into a first draft, edit that draft repeatedly and then publish the result.
Instead, far better to break writing a book down into much smaller chunks like a daily word count or a single page. That way, a writer can make small but measurable progress on their book each day. Author John Steinbeck offered this advice in a 1943 interview with The Paris Review:
“Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day; it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.”
10. Stop When The Going Is Good
Turning up in front of the page and not knowing what you’re going to write next is intimidating. It can even lead to writer’s block. Instead, successful authors and famous writers set up the following day’s work in advance. They stop in the middle of a sentence or paragraph and leave triggers for the subconscious to work on a story in the meantime.
These writers ensure they don’t run out of ideas or inspiration when it’s time to write. This practice makes it easier for them to progress through a difficult first draft. Ernest Hemingway said:
“The most important thing I’ve learned about writing is never write too much at a time… Never pump yourself dry. Leave a little for the next day. The main thing is to know when to stop. Don’t wait till you’ve written yourself out. When you’re still going good and you come to an interesting place and you know what’s going to happen next, that’s the time to stop. Then leave it alone and don’t think about it; let your subconscious mind do the work.”
11. Avoid Cliques, Gangs, Groups
I spent two years in a creative writing group. These groups are a useful support mechanism for new writers because they encourage accountability. They also offer a new writer a chance to get feedback on their work, even if they’ve no readers, audience or budget for an editor yet.
However, relying too much on feedback from like-minded peers can hinder progress. A younger or newer writer could start editing their work to please their friends and not because it improves the quality of a piece of writing. They may also start to mimic the writing style of others in the group inadvertently. The same piece of advice holds true if a writer spends hours on social media instead of writing first drafts and revising.
At some point, a young writer needs to break from their comfort zone. Author Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth said to the Guardian cliques:
“The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.
12. Seek Clarity and Precision
I worked as a content editor for a software company several years ago. Executives and colleagues who didn’t write much for a living sometimes sent me their reports to edit. The big mistake I saw? They usually relied heavily on complex words and terminology that hindered the readability of their reports.
The same holds for most fiction. Clarity and precision matter far more than impressing the reader with your knowledge of the English dictionary of a thesaurus. Consider George Orwell, author of 1984, who said:
“Never use a long word where a short one will do.”
13. Every Story Element Has a Purpose
Chekhov’s gun is a famous metaphorical piece of writing advice for fiction writers. If a writer mentions a detail or character in a story, it must have consequences for the characters or the plot.
If a gun appears in act one, it must go off by act three. When a Marvel superhero discovers their powers in Act One, they must put them to use in act three. Chekhov wrote in an 1889 letter to his friend Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev:
“One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”
Ernest Hemingway famously poked fun at this rule by introducing two characters in his short story Fifty Grand that he never mentioned again. Modern thriller writers deliberately break this principle and introduce plot Mac Guffins to confuse and intrigue readers. However, best know the rules before you break them!
14. Work Through Rejection
All writers face rejection at some point in their careers. They may fail to find an agent, land a book publishing deal, or write a best-seller. Learning how to handle rejection and failure is part of the writing process. Usually, writers can use these moments to figure out what aspects of their craft they need to improve. In Neil Gaiman’s Masterclass course, I came across this piece of advice:
“People ask me, ‘How do you cope with rejection?’ … And there are only two ways to do it—one of which is you go down. You get sad. You put the thing away. You stop writing. You go and get a real job, go and do something else. And the other is a kind of crazed attitude that actually the most important thing now is to write something so brilliant, so powerful, so good nobody could ever reject it.”
If you’re looking for some inspiration, check out our list of great writing books to read.
Writing Tips From Authors: The Final Word
Word is a rewarding profession. It’s fun working with the words, creating stories or writing non-fiction readers love. However, it’s also hard work. The most successful writers treat writing like a job and turn up like any good professional. For more, read our guide of author tips.
Writing Advice From Authors FAQ
What are three things that good writers do?
Good writers work a little every day on their craft. They separate writing and revising. And they read often and outside of their comfort zone. When they start writing something, they finish it. They also take steps to ensure their writing appears on the market. They keep writing, knowing that a back catalogue is a key part of earning a living.
What are the traits that make an author’s writing good?
An author’s writing is good if it informs, entertains or inspires the reader. Their writing embraces qualities like concision and clarity. It also draws on the five senses. Usually, it tells a good story that leaves readers with a meaningful and memorable impression. In short, it leaves a reader wanting more.
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