I turned 37 last August, and then celebrated 20 years as a professional writer in September. Prime excuse for nostalgia or looking backs. And in fact, for a week or two, I toyed with the idea of writing a retrospective, or perhaps sharing some lessons learned. But it felt too awkward, actually unnecessary; not to mention those can come across as quite pretentious endeavours. Why should anyone care? Still, I do know a fair bit as a reader and writer. I also keep seeing advice pieces floating around that read as either too vague, or too cryptic for anyone without years of experience under their belt to fully grasp. Besides, it seems the old mythologising of writing or creativity still has far too much sway.
We may hear or read or even write tales of geniuses flying through a perfect draft in one go done entirely in a single, lonely night. But those are fantasies. When a sentence doesn’t work, or a paragraph falls flat, only technique will do the trick. And it will again be technique that helps a writer know the best ways to develop insightful images, or when and how to revisit them in order to build momentum and leverage symbolism.
So here’s a list of 20 writing tips, 16 reading truths, and one thing to always remember.
1. Forget about the empty page. Write something down, then something else. You can rewrite and perfect the beginning, along with anything else, later.
2. Writing is rewriting, but also knowing when to stop. Don’t be happy with a first draft, don’t let yourself write a hundred different versions. Find a good balance.
3. Some writers plan everything ahead of time, with detailed roadmaps and even schematics. Many decide just on a few crucial aspects—the beginning, the end, a couple of points along the way. Others freestyle as they move through the first draft. There’s no wrong approach.
4. You’ll need grammar, syntax, rhetoric, structure, melody, meaning, and paying attention to all of them at the same time.
5. Any text has more than one layer, even if it happened unintentionally. Watch out for everything the text actually says and implies. Use that.
6. Talent only goes so far; technique is crucial. You must know the rules before breaking them efficiently. And even then you’ll still have to recheck a grammar every once in a while.
7. Keep at least two trusty dictionaries close by, plus one good thesaurus. Turn using them into a daily habit.
8. If you have to read a sentence twice, or stop mid-sentence, or there’s something obstructing the flow, you have to rewrite that sentence.
9. The moment you touch a sentence, you might need to touch the entire paragraph, plus the previous one and the one after. Start reading at least 10 lines before the changed sentence, and keep reading for 10 more after.
10. Stay away from the verb to be as much as possible. It can feel comfortable and natural but, apart from text intended to mimic orality, it often reads as the hallmark of still immature writers. Use it strategically to create emphasis or specific styles.
11. Watch your adjectives. Don’t let them sunk a text into ill-advised grandiosity or vacuousness. If you have three of them in a row, commit all the way and make them five; turn them into a clear stylistic device.
12. Remember that almost anything can become a stylistic device, verbs and structure included. Be intentional.
13. Avoid close repetition of the same words unless it specifically serves the text. Alliteration abides by the same principle.
14. Shake and stir. A good mix of verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and everything else in between arranged in various ways helps to create different rhythms and make a text more dynamic. The same goes for structure. And for genres, too.
15. “Show don’t tell” can have many meanings, and it doesn’t always ring true. Better to remember instead that writing needs narratives, not lists of events or naming of emotions.
16. Narrative is not the same as storytelling, but all storytelling should serve the narrative. Storytelling boils down to structure. Narratives mostly guide readers towards desired impressions and interpretations.
17. Writing should generate moods, atmospheres, sensations but also can’t rely on sentiment alone. Nonfiction, especially outside the realm of autobiography, becomes stronger when facts lead the charge. Fiction needs at least a few events to help readers move along. Poetry stands as a completely separate beast.
18. For fiction and nonfiction alike, assume the reader knows nothing. In fiction you can leverage that.
19. Create echoes. It helps when the first paragraph hints at the main point of a text and the closing one wraps up the thesis or message. In nonfiction that often requires a more literal, spelled-out approach. Fiction can afford less direct ways, not to mention loads of symbolism.
20. Readability matters. As a rule of thumb, don’t make a text cryptic or flowery. None of that will take you into the realms of literature. Also, neither literature nor the literary exclude genres, they simply explore multiple angles and voices, diving into issues while experimenting with form and style.
21. Reading is reading is reading. Books, poems, papers, scripts, magazines, newspapers, blogs, fanfiction, all of it counts as reading, audiobooks included.
22. Read as an omnivore. In other words, do away with prejudices or biases and try everything at least once. Otherwise you’ll miss genres and styles you never even imagined you’d enjoy.
23. Writers must read more than they write. And they must read widely and extensively and while analysing, or at least noticing, the different techniques. There’s loss of innocence in this, but also new riches gained.
24. Read the actual text, not what you would like it to be or say.
25. If you have to interpret or reinterpret a text, read at least three pieces of contradictory criticism. Writers working on new versions of other pre-existing stories have a special obligation here.
26. Read multiple books at once if you feel like it.
27. Stop reading for months if it suddenly suits you.
28. Readers have a right to read only one chapter from a given book and then put it away forever. Or to skip chapters or just read them outside their intended order; you’re moving at your own risk, though.
29. Stop reading a text whenever, wherever, for whatever reason if you feel like it. Come back months later. Or years. Or never finish it, just state so clearly and be fair to the author if you post a review.
30. A library is knowledge-in-waiting, not a deposit of read books.
31. Owning few or no books doesn’t make you any less of a reader. Besides, public libraries are wonderful places.
32. When in doubt, and if you can afford it, buy the book. Even if you still have a ginormous pile of to-read books back home, if you can, just buy the book.
33. Never burn or throw books into the garbage. Selling or giving them away is perfectly acceptable.
34. Don’t annotate books. Do. Use a pen. Use a pencil. Go hard on the highlighter. Do whatever suits you as long as you own the book.
35. If someone lands you a book, treat it as the most precious treasure in the world. Return it in perfect condition.
36. People change. Their tastes in books and relation to reading does too.
37. Always wear sunscreen at least on your face and neck. Even in winter, even while indoors. No one ever regretted wearing too much sunscreen.