Writing advice is as common as sliced bread. It comes from instructors and mentors, peers and parents. Google “tips for writers,” and inevitably you’ll find pages of insight about where to find inspiration or how to craft the perfect paragraph.
Forget all that.
In order to break through the noise, learn from the pros. Here are six writing tips provided by renowned authors and advice to put their suggestions into practice.
1. Maya Angelou on creating a productive writing environment
Best known for: “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”
Her advice: “You have to get to a very quiet place inside yourself. And that doesn’t mean that you can’t have noise outside. I know some people who put jazz on, loudly, to write. I think each writer has her or his secret path to the muse.”
To be productive, a writer needs to limit distractions. It’s hard to fully immerse oneself in a character or an analysis of a passage when the phone is blinking and the TV is blaring the dramatic dialogue of “Law and Order: SVU.” Go to someplace where you have a sense of quiet and peacefulness. If this means locking yourself in your bedroom sans phone, do it. If it means playing some music (even loudly), do it. Go wherever you can stay focused on the task at hand.
2. Neil Gaiman on getting started
Best known for: “Coraline” and “The Graveyard Book”
His advice: “This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It's that easy, and that hard.”
Like exercising or flossing, the hardest part about writing is getting started. Often, we have an idea, ready ourselves to write, and then the blank page (or the blinking cursor) taunts us. We struggle to find the perfect first word. As hard as it may be, push past the impulse to edit yourself before you begin. Allow your ideas to flow forth. Yes, what you create may be rough, and you’ll likely make changes in the end. However, you cannot edit what doesn’t exist.
3. Ernest Hemingway on keeping the ideas flowing
Best known for: “The Sun Also Rises” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls”
His advice: “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel, you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you, so try to remember it.”
Once you’re in the zone of writing, it’s hard to break from it. Words come with ease. It’s easy to get caught up in this momentum, and want to write until you are completely spent. This leads us to create paragraphs that don’t necessarily need to be there and makes it harder to start back up the next time.
Instead, quit while you’re ahead. The ideas that matter will remain; those that don’t will retreat to the nether regions of your brain. The engine that is your project will never come to a dead end. Instead, it will keep running until completion.
4. Sylvia Plath on creativity
Best known for: “Ariel” and “The Bell Jar”
Her advice: “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
Sometimes, I’ll sit with a student who wants help on a piece of writing, and before we begin, she’ll say something along the lines of “it sucks.” All drafts are rough, and I have found myself feeling the same way about my own writing. Still, doubt can be a dangerous thing. It poisons our ability to accomplish a task before we get started. If you feel your work is weak, that’s one thing; to believe you are incapable of doing a good job is another. Before allowing doubt to take hold, seek out a teacher or a trusted peer. Get a second set of eyes on your work. This way you can figure out which direction you can head in to make it more successful.
5. William Faulkner on revision
Best known for: “The Sound and the Fury” and “As I Lay Dying”
His advice: “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”
How often have you fallen in love with that witty one-liner or that profound, worldly conclusion? How often have those same sentences not made sense to your overall goals for the piece? When revising, the hardest thing to do is to assess our work honestly. You worked hard for those words and are understandably reluctant to part with them. But sometimes, it’s necessary to do so. Aside from having someone else read your piece (which is a good practice), try to look at it with a readerly eye. If something doesn’t work, no matter how beautifully written, get rid of it.
Note: There is a lot of debate around who really came up with the phrase. You can read about it here.
6. Terry Pratchett on the importance of grammar
Best known for: The Discworld Series
His advice: “Let grammar, punctuation, and spelling into your life! Even the most energetic and wonderful mess has to be turned into sentences.”
While grammar and spelling tend to be lower-order concerns (why place a comma in a sentence that may be deleted later?), they are important. These rules form the bridge between your ideas and your readers’ understanding. Be sure that before you publish, before you submit your work to the teacher, you read and reread it to check that what’s on the page is actually what you mean.