5 Common Pieces of Writing Advice (And What They Really Mean)

Every successful writer thinks they’ve got this writing thing down and that they’re right about everything. And that’s true—for them. But writing is an art, like painting or sculpture, and you can use words to make all sorts of things in all sorts of ways. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read writing advice, but take it all with a grain of salt and do your thing.

That being said, these are the top five bits of writing advice on the internet, and what they actually mean.

Everything (And Everyone) Sucks at First

Especially when you’re starting out, it’s so easy to think that you’re the worst writer to ever have existed. But that’s totally not true. Writing isn’t just an art: writing is a craft, and like every other craft, it needs to be honed. Listen to Ira Glass on creativity if you’re ever feeling unsure about your skills.

And not only that—almost every writer’s drafts need a lot of work, and remember that most of the books you read have been professionally edited. Remember those guides on how to draw where you start with sketching a bunch of circles? Your first draft is basically those circles—and once you’ve got the first bit down, you can go back in and bring it to life.

Show, Don’t Tell

This is one of those pieces of advice that’s easy to give without explaining what it means. Basically, it means use hints in your description, dialogue or voice to indicate things to the reader without outright telling them. Obvious examples would include giving a character wrinkles on his face rather than stating that he’s old, or getting him to look at his watch five times to show he’s running late.

The essence of this is to trust your readers, and assume they are intelligent enough to pick up on the little things. You can also put symbolism and metaphor and hidden meanings into this piece of advice. Think of your favourite pieces of literature and the symbolism and underlying themes within it; though some readers may miss all of the details in your writing, there will definitely be those that notice all the layers.

Of course, this isn’t something you need to worry about too much in the writing stage—you can always add these details in while you’re editing.

Read. A Lot.

Reading is the most important thing a writer can do! As John Green says, it’s the only apprenticeship we have; we learn by seeing what other writers do and how. Of course, classic literature and books on writing are certainly useful for improving your skills, but they aren’t the only things you should be reading.

It’s important to read widely in your genre, so you can have an understanding of your market and of reader expectations. But it’s also important to read widely and voraciously, and for different reasons. Contrast slow-paced literature with a thriller to learn about the effects of pacing. Pick up a romance to study the bonds between characters, or the latest bestseller to see why it appeals to its audience.

Use Active Voice Over Passive Voice

Here comes the creative writing jargon that isn’t necessarily easy to immediately understand. Active voice is when the thing it is about does something (e.g. ‘he threw the ball’), while passive is when something is done to the thing (e.g. ‘the ball was thrown’). Using the active voice is usually recommended because it puts the character—and the reader—right in the middle of the action. Stuff is happening to them, rather than around them.

However in the right place, with the right narration, the passive voice can be used pretty powerfully too. This is one of those cases where you should take a step back during the editing stage and judge each use on it’s own merits.

Using Adjectives/Adverbs/Exclamations is the Road to Hell

The creative writing world is full of people who have opinions about different tools and types of language. Of course, there’s a grain of truth in each of these opinions, but keep in mind the context. Each of these people write in a certain style for a particular audience in their own genre—what they think may not be what works for you.

Almost everything you can put in a sentence can be used in a less-than-powerful way. Don’t worry too much about the doom-declaring naysayers. Again, forget about this while you’re drafting. Once you’re in the editing stage, you can look closely at each sentence and decide what works best in each place.

 

Free Tools to Improve Your Writing

There’s no shortage of apps and programs on the internet to run every aspect of your writing career, from social media to productivity to organising research to cataloguing the books you’ve read. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in all these sparkly tools, and totally forget that your writing needs attention too.

So we scavenged for the best tools to improve what actually matters: your writing. All of the below tools are free or have a free version, because we don’t think writing should be restricted to those who can afford fancy tools.

Way of Life

While this app won’t touch your words or sentences, it will get you to write every day! Writing is a craft and a skill, and you can’t get better at it if you don’t do it. This app focuses on building habits so you can live the life that you want to.

Set yourself a goal and then check off each day as you meet it to build pretty graphs. It’s up to you whether you want to set goals in time-specific (e.g. write for 30 minutes every day) or task-specific (e.g. write two pages a day) formats. Before long, writing every day will be so natural that the graphs won’t matter so much any more.

This app is super flexible as well. If you’ve got the writing-every-day thing down, but you struggle to do other tasks, this can help you keep track. Other writing-related tasks you could track would include working on a specific project, editing your work, reading or studying.

Freemind

One of the most exciting things about writing is coming up with lots of ideas, and starting to link them together to form a story. Good mindmapping software can really help you get your ideas out of your head, and fit them together in a way that makes sense.

There are countless mindmapping tools out there, but this is an old open-source favourite. It’s easy to use, scalable for bigger projects, and of course, it’s totally free to download.

It’s also a good idea to go back and re-mindmap your plot and characters during the editing process. This can be a great way to check continuity, and making sure that no characters or plot points disappear.

The Writers Bloc / The Pen Factor

If you’re looking for feedback on your writing and connect with other writers, online writing and feedback communities like The Writers Bloc and The Pen Factor work to provide just that. By reviewing the work of other writers, you earn feedback on yours. These resources are great, especially if you’re just starting out and experimenting with your writing.

Of course, there are other sites where you can share your writing like Wattpad or on a blog, but these sites are specifically engineered to get you feedback and connect you with other writers. On other sites, you may receive opinions from readers, but not measured critique. You can also report reviews that aren’t helpful to the site.

Do be careful, though—some publishers and publications may not want work that’s already been posted online for free. If you’re working on something you’d like to submit, it might be best to keep that specific piece offline.

Hemingway Editor

Once you’ve written a thing, this tool is great for editing your work—especially if your chosen style is clear and concise, like Hemingway himself. Hemingway is an app that highlights all the bits you might want to eliminate, including adverbs, lengthy sentences, passive voice, and complicated words.

Of course, this might not be the style you’re going for. Plenty of authors write wonderful books with lyrical prose and long sentences galore; this app makes sure that all of those choices are deliberate. We also wouldn’t recommend writing inside of this app, especially if you struggle to turn off your inner editor.

PDF Escape

Another great tool for the editing process, this is a free online PDF editor that will let you annotate, highlight, white-out, and add images and links to your manuscript. All you need to do is save your writing as a PDF, and upload it to the site.

The key here is to look at the manuscript in a different way—consider changing the font or colour of the text, or read it in a different order. Making the writing look different will help you to see it in a fresh way, and pick up on mistakes you may have otherwise missed.

Of course, some writers may prefer editing via pen and paper, but this is a good option for those that like to keep it digital. Whether you’re going through your own work, or adding notes to a critique partner’s writing, this is a great tool for working “on top” of your document.

How to Get the Most Out of a Writing Workshop

Writing workshops are the easiest place to find likeminded writers, to get catered feedback in the areas of writing you love, and to meet industry professionals. They’re a great opportunity to dig deeper in your craft, your career and your passion, and they’re almost always a great source of encouragement and joy.

As someone who works in an organisation that runs tons of these, I’ve been to a bunch. Perhaps I’ve been lucky, but I’ve had a specific take-away from each one, and I’ve always felt that they were worth the cost.

If you’d like to join a workshop but aren’t sure where to start, contact your state writers centre to see if they have any that you might be interested in. If you let them know what you love writing, they might even have some other opportunities to share with you as well.

Take Notes—But Not Too Many

Part of going to a workshop is being inundated with loads of information, and to get your money’s worth, you really do need to take notes that you can go over later. But there is the danger of taking too many notes, retreating into your laptop or notebook, and missing the things the tutor and the people around you are saying.

When you get into the workshop, take a look at any handouts you’re given. How detailed are they? If the tutor has a presentation, is what they’re saying on the presentation in the notes? How much of what the tutor is saying do you need to write down, and how much is common sense or anecdotal?

A strategy I like to use is writing short, snappy notes while the tutor is talking, and then spending 5 or 10 minutes on my break writing a short summary. That way I can be fully engaged with what the tutor is saying, and writing the summary helps me to retain the memories for longer.

Ask Questions & NETWORK WITH THE TUTOR

When going to a workshop, remember that the tutor is an industry professional, and they very well could give you the piece of information that takes your writing or your career to the next level. Of course, this won’t necessarily happen at every workshop, but it is a possibility as long as you’re generous, open and willing to seize the opportunity.

Writing workshops are a rare chance to dissect an industry professional’s brain, so you should! Ask questions and engage with the content. Don’t handicap yourself by being too afraid to ask questions or talk to the tutor. Workshop tutors teach because they love sharing their knowledge and resources with other writers.

Some questions, of course, might be more appropriate to ask the tutor during a break or shortly after the course. It’s never great for the other participants if one person takes up a workshop with personalised questions about their career. Don’t make it awkward for the tutor to leave, but feel free to give them some personal details about what you’re working on and ask for advice. You’ll get bonus points (and better advice) if it’s clear you’ve done some research beforehand.

Talk to Other Writers &  Share Your Work

You’re in a room bursting with other writers and creatives—talk to them! It is totally fine to ask for someone’s email address, or suggest that everyone in the group join an email list. People go to writing courses to meet people who love writing the same stuff that they do, so put yourself out there.

Sharing your work is always terrifying, but it’s the best way to get immediate feedback on your work. The tutor is likely to give you some encouragement or suggestion, and you’re way more likely to actually improve your skills if you’re willing to take that on. And the other people in the room likely have some great feedback for you too!

If you’re not sure how to find writing friends, this might be it. Remember that everyone else in the room is serious enough about their writing to pay to attend the course, and they’re probably writing in the same genre or style that you’re interested in. If you don’t quite find what you’re looking for, contact the organisation running the course to see if they know of any local writing groups that might suit you.

Set a Goal & Action it Within 24 Hours

Before you leave the workshop, set yourself a quantifiable goal to practice what you have learned. Make it measurable, realistic and tangible, and write down exactly what you want to do. You might have an idea of this goal going into the workshop, but the content of the workshop may influence what it ends up being.

Your mission is then to take the first step towards this goal within the next 24 hours. The motivation is always the strongest closest to the workshop, when the knowledge is still fresh. Workshops are some of the most encouraging things you can do as a writer, and the most empowering, but they’re not worth the money if you don’t use what you’ve learned to improve your skills and habits as a writer.

5 Books to Make You a Better Writer: Lyrical Prose

There’s nothing quite like the atmosphere of a truly lyrical book. When an author delights in words, relishing them and writing beautiful sentences, readers notice. Lyrical prose has the power to be truly visceral and evoke emotions in the reader in a totally different way to many other styles of writing. Even if this isn’t quite what you want to do for your project, it’s worth taking a look to see how this kind of writing affects its readership.

Reading is the most important thing writers can do; it is truly the closest thing to an apprenticeship we have. By deconstructing books that work, we can figure out at least some of the magic that the brilliant authors have used when concocting their stories. This is the second in a series of posts which will include recommendations for books that excel at different aspects of the craft. To view all the posts in this series, click here.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

daughterofsmokeandbone

This is a tale of a girl raised by monsters, half in another world, and half in Prague. From the outset, the writing is the first thing the reader notices; the author manages to intertwine laugh-until-you-cry moments with cry-until-you-laugh moments through her lovely prose. It’s almost impossible not to fall in love with this book and its world.

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

wintergirls

Wintergirls is different from the other books on this list, because it is very real. This is about a girl with an eating disorder, told in the first person, and though the writing is beautiful, it is very dark. The narrator wraps the reader up in her compulsive thoughts and self-doubt so convincingly, that it is very easy to understand how the sickness took hold of her in the first place.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

MrsDalloway

Don’t be frightened of this book because of its literary stature; it is full of beautiful prose and interesting writing. Woolf totally revolutionised the way character was written. In this book, every time a new person is seen, even if just for a moment on the side of the road, they get 300 words about them and their worldview and their day. Though there isn’t a heavy plot, it’s hard not to be captivated by Woolf’s masterful writing.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

thebookthief

It would be remiss not to mention this beautiful tale. Here, Death is our narrator, and he sees the world in such whimsical sadness, and it is through his honest but poetic descriptions that the reader finds themselves truly gutted. What would this book be, if the prose were sparse and blunt? It would certainly have a very different kind of impact.

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

thegracekeepers

Imagine a world where there is far more sea than land, and humanity is separated between those that live on land and those who dwell in the sea. We follow a travelling circus boat and a girl who lives alone on an island, performing funerals as penance for a crime. This book is literary, mystical and all-consuming, without ever overdosing on adjectives.

Honorary Mentions

  1. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton, for being filled to the brim with rhythm, whimsy and beauty. It’s hard to beat the atmosphere of this strange little book.
  2. The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, for intertwining a dark and mystical world with interesting writing.
  3. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, for bringing both the ’20s and a sense of neverending longing to life.
  4. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, for being the quintessential circus novel, and a prime example of wonderful word-wrangling.

 

5 Books To Make You a Better Writer: Character Voice

When it comes to narration and point of view, character voice can really set a book apart. Much of getting into a character’s head (or getting the character into the reader’s head) is getting across how they think, how they speak, how they are. Characters with distinctive voices are characters that get remembered.

Reading is the most important thing writers can do; it is truly the closest thing to an apprenticeship we have. By deconstructing books that work, we can figure out at least some of the magic that the brilliant authors have used when concocting their stories. This is the second in a series of posts which will include recommendations for books that excel at different aspects of the craft. To view all the posts in this series, click here.

1. The Catcher in the Rye

catcher in the rye

This is a controversial one: people either love or hate this book, and some of that probably has to do with the fact that it’s often assigned in high schools. But most of the feelings on this book, surround the character Holden Caulfield, whose voice is so real and so honest, that he sparks a genuine reaction in almost every reader. Even if you think you don’t like this book, take a page in it and examine the narration to see if you find anything worth noting.

2. The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

TROUJLH_GLOW

If Patrick Ness has one talent, it’s character voice. He is a master at creating teenage characters, and giving them dialogue and thoughts that feel real and authentic. This particular book makes fun of the ‘chosen one’ trope, focusing on the kids in the background; bits of it are ridiculously fun, bits of it are a tad cheesy, but all of it is wrapped up in the narration of a character that you can’t help but believe in.

3. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

thebelljar

In this book, Sylvia Plath interweaves fiction and memoir to create an incredibly honest portrayal of mental illness and the descent into insanity. It is as dark and shocking as you would expect, but the writing is exquisite; Plath’s poetry has wonderful rhythm and voice, and the way she applies to fiction is wonderful. Pick this one up for both a distinctive narrative voice, and a really well written character arc.

4. Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke

foreign-soil

Foreign Soil is a short story collection of non-white people and their experiences on foreign soil, and it is honest and disconcerting. Some of the stories are written in accent or dialect, and the voices are so distinctive and raw. This is an affecting read, but it is wonderfully crafted.

5. American Pycho by Bret Easton Ellis

americanpsycho

When I picked up American Psycho, I was not expecting it to be so literary, or to have such a strong narrative voice. This book is very, very dark. It is not a pleasant book to read, and I hesitate to recommend it, but it’s worth the experience. The narration here is almost similar to The Rosie Project, despite the contrasting subject matter. Patrick Bateman is a character who walks the line between intriguing and horrifying, and the mystery of who he is and why he is really drives the novel.

Honourable Mentions

  1. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, for giving a narrator such a distinctive voice, that many people with autism spectrum disorders thanked the writer for his honest and accurate portrayal, despite the writer never having mentioned any disorders in the novel. If American Psycho is a little dark for you, read this one instead.
  2. The Book Thief by Markus Zusack, for mixing voice and poetry to deliver wonderfully lyrical narration, and for giving Death a voice on human tragedy.
  3. The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer, for a wonderful portrayal of grief and love and loss. Here, the narration is characteristic without ever sacrificing the quality of the writing.
  4. The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader, for finding a story within the mind of a woman who chose to be locked up in a room for the rest of her life.
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, for capturing the culture of Alabama (and much of America) inthe 1930s within a combination of narration and dialogue. While I have issues with some aspects of this novel (including the way race is portrayed), there is no denying that the character voice is brilliantly crafted.

5 Books To Make You A Better Writer: Setting

Setting and worldbuilding can often be something left to speculative fiction writers. But often the best books, even those that aren’t spec fic, have powerful settings. Sometimes they even act as characters, personifying themes or interacting with the story in ways that surprise the reader and deepen the narrative.

Reading is the most important thing writers can do; it is truly the closest thing to an apprenticeship we have. By deconstructing books that work, we can figure out at least some of the magic that the brilliant authors have used when concocting their stories. This is the first in a series of posts called ‘The Writer’s Apprenticeship’, which will include recommendations for books that excel at different aspects of the craft. To view all the posts in this series, click here.

1. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Revolutionary Road

Undoubtedly a modern classic, and set in 1950s Connecticut suburbia, this is the story of an unlikeable couple and their self-destruction. Suburbia in this book is dark and unsettling, and the way it weaves into every corner of the story is remarkably well done. This is an excellent example of a novel where the setting is a minor character; it is always present, but never overpowers the story.

2. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

the-night-circus-uk

Magical from the outset, this setting is incredibly written. This is the closest thing I’ve read to an incidental fairytale, and the prose is beautiful. The circus is enchanting, and I’ve always described reading this book as like drinking a warm cup of hot chocolate. Just know going in that this one isn’t plot-heavy; read it for the atmosphere and the experience, rather than the story.

3. The Secret History by Donna Tartt

thesecrethistory

This is a literary murder mystery, but rather than a whoddunnit, it’s a whydunnit. You know the pivotal point of the novel from the outset, and the reading experience involves examining each of the characters (none of which are particularly likeable, in the best way) to learn their inner motives. This is a campus novel, and this part of the setting is perfect, but it also brings much from Ancient Greece. Here, the campus is not quite a character, but it is vivid and unwavering.

4. Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

anna_and_the_french_kiss

For a fun, YA beach read, this is as good as it gets. The writing itself isn’t complex, but the setting is enchanting, with the main character exploring Paris alongside the reader. This is a great example of a short and contemporary YA with a vivid setting—and readers often comment on how much they love this book’s Paris.

5. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

jeffrey-eugenides_the-virgin-suicides

This book is experimental in a number of ways; the narration is written in an unsettling third-person plural perspective. A group of unlikeable men tell the story of the beautiful and idyllic Lisbon sisters they knew in their teen years, and what happened to them. The story is set in the seventies, and the influence is so vivid.

Honourable Mentions

  • Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell for its terribly bittersweet rendition of the 80s.
  • Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor for its magical Prague, and its even more magical other world.
  • In the Miso Soup by Ryū Murakami, for uncovering a chilling side of Japan that I hope I’ll never see.
  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, for both of its Londons.
  • The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, for its enchanting atmosphere which is every bit as important as the setting itself.
  • Candy by Luke Davies for exploring a dark and gritty underground that felt undeniably real to the reader, regardless of whether it was.

How to Get (Valuable) Feedback on Your Writing

When you’re relatively new to a craft, getting feedback can be a crucial part of improving. There comes a time when you write and you write, and you just don’t know if you’re getting anywhere, or if someone else will enjoy this thing you’re creating.

Getting feedback isn’t hard. People love sharing their opinions (even if they aren’t always wanted), and you can usually strongarm a friend or two to read at least some of your work. But getting valuable feedback—the kind of feedback that makes your manuscript more marketable, or teases out the best aspects of your writing—can be a challenge.

And there’s always the fact that truly valuable feedback can lead to bigger things, whether it’s finding friends who write, or stumbling upon connections and opportunities that will lead to bigger things. It’s always scary to put yourself out there, but so many wonderful things can happen if you do.

A Caveat

Before you ask for anyone else’s opinion, know that you have a wonderful and unique voice. It’s far too easy for people with real talent to be discouraged because their writing didn’t resonate with one person.

Think about it: is there a classic you don’t like? Maybe you thought Lord of the Flies was a drag, or you didn’t understand the hype behind Pride and Prejudice. But thousands of people have found value in those books—just because one person doesn’t recognise your talent, doesn’t mean no one will.

Reading is a collaborative process; the writer does half the work, and the reader brings it alive. For some people, the story you provide won’t be quite right for the cast in their heads, and that’s totally fine. And if someone doesn’t like your story, that can be valuable information; perhaps, they just aren’t part of your ideal target audience.

Writing Classes and Courses

Well-chosen writing classes can make a world of difference to your writing. They can truly expand your mind, give you actionable steps you can take to improve your craft, and they are a great opportunity to meet other writers. Depending on the course, some may involve getting comments on your work from the tutor, or working in small groups and giving other writers feedback (as well as receiving it).

It’s important to choose relevant courses for your writing, and if you’re specifically after feedback on your work, to find out if this will be a part of the class. Contact the organisation running the course ahead of time to confirm. General etiquette is to make sure that the tutor doesn’t spend too much time chatting to you about your work and ignoring the other participants.

There is also the option of taking a formal course or degree. This is a great way to get lots of feedback on your writing, but they can be expensive and may not be practical. Research the university and the creative writing/English staff before committing—when it comes to writing, often it’s your networks that make or break your career. If the staff is well-connected, then they may share those networks with you.

Writing Groups

Finding a writing group you click with can be a challenge, but it’s a great way to get feedback, and it’s (usually) free. It might take a few goes to find the right people, but once you do, you’ll have a small army of people who are loyal to you and your writing, and who will give you honest feedback. You’ll also get the opportunity to critique their work, which will improve your own ability to self-edit and recognise what makes good writing tick.

Contact writing organisations to find groups near you, and if there isn’t one, ask if they can advertise the fact that you want to start one. Go to events and talk to people about what they write and whether they go to a writing group or have a critique partner.

You can also join writing-based Facebook groups and online forums. The key here is to actually participate, and to engage in conversation. Post in the group, if appropriate, asking if anyone is looking for a critique partner, and if a bunch of people are interested, create a Skype or Facebook group to talk writing and give feedback on each other’s work.

Manuscript Assessments and Mentorships

This is a slightly more expensive route, but it’s a great way to get professional, industry feedback on your writing. Manuscript assessments are when you send your work to a successful writer or industry professional, and they give you a written report with information about marketability, plot, character, theme, voice, setting, and the other important elements of your manuscript. Depending on the service, you can ask specific questions. Then, you take that written report and apply the advice to the work yourself.

Mentorships, on the other hand, are a relationship with a successful person in your field of choice, in which you receive advice about your writing and your career. Often, this can involve intense workshopping of a manuscript over a certain amount of time. This can be a great way to build networks, and to receive high quality feedback on your work.

If either of these are out of your price range, consider applying for a grant or keeping an eye out for opportunities. The Australian Society of Authors runs an annual program where 13 emerging writers and illustrators receive fully subsidised mentorships, and there are plenty of other options available.