It's kind of silly to think that I could have anything to say on the matter of writing, but I suppose that's only natural. I've had plenty of time to form opinions and biases about writing stories, due in part to my (brief) experiences as an English language arts instructor. It's something I see new writers and students alike struggling with, so I figured I'd throw my hat into the ring and offer a handful of tips on how to write more, write better, and write more often.
1. Write what you love
This is perhaps the first, most crucial step a new writer needs to take when they set out to write anything, be it a short story, a novel, or an essay where they have the freedom to pick their topic. Write what you love and what you're passionate about. I've written essays on Left4Dead and made lengthy commentaries about gaming communities and design decisions in the past, largely due to the fact that I was passionate about something at the time of writing. The same can be said for writing stories, too.
I stick to high fantasy worlds. Swords, sorcery, monsters, dragons. I love it all, and I feel that's where my skill lies. I have had a handful of people suggest that I write romance/erotic fiction under a pen name for Harlequin Romance to get some work out there. This is not what I love though. I feel no passion about that genre, and I know that this would impact not only my quality of writing, but my speed as well.
It's easy to tell when someone doesn't care about their work. It might not be something easily defineable, but it can be felt when looking at their work. Always write what you are interested in. Forcing yourself to write something you don't like or believe in will only hurt your work in the long run.
2. Love what you write
I suppose this one sounds a bit redundant, but I feel it's different enough to highlight here. No matter what you write, you need to love it unconditionally like you would your own children (or pets, or whatever). If you like your work, no matter how mechanically bad the writing is or how outlandish the ideas contained within are, you will inherently write it better.
This can be applied to almost any art form that requires creativity and dedication to succeed at. I know when I'm sketching, if I don't love the sketch that I'm working on, I grow frustrated, make more mistakes, and eventually scrap it. The same could be said for a story that you don't like.
Love your writing, no matter what it is. You can always fix it up in editing, but getting that first draft down can be one of the hardest things to do if you don't like what it is you're writing. You're more apt to quit if you try to slog through it.
3. Don't fret over terrible first drafts
First drafts are always "bad", but that's why we proofread and edit our work afterwards. Sitting down and critiquing your writing before you've even gotten it down on paper is going to leave you second guessing yourself constantly, thus slowing down your progress, thus getting less down on page, which leaves you questioning your skill more and more and.... you get the idea. ;)
Before you can have a good story, you need to get it down on paper first. Write the first draft. Let your fingers fly. Try some stream of consciousness writing. Sometimes you'll be surprised where things take you and how things turn out. You might be afraid of what you'll read when you go to edit it, perhaps you'll write too much and have to par it down to a more manageable size, or perhaps you're scared someone might read it before you clean it up. That's fine, those are all natural reactions. Set it aside after its written and edit it later, which brings me to #4...
4. Writers block is a myth
There is no such thing as writer's block. I would even go so far as to argue that it's an excuse to comfort a writer who is perhaps struggling to put pen to paper. I don't say that to place blame on anyone, it's simply what I believe. A lot of it comes down to your lifestyle. Just ask yourself a few things:
- Are you stressed because of work, family, or some other goings on in your life? It's going to make it more difficult to work. This is true in all walks of life, and I saw it all the time in the classroom. Stressed individuals can't work, and there's plenty of studies out there to show that being in a state of constant stress reduces cognitive functions. Resolve whatever is bothering you, and then get back to writing. If you force yourself to write when stressed, you might find you can't write anything, which then could lead you to questioning why you can't write, further hampering your progress in an endless cycle.
- Are you tired? Get some sleep. People need 8 hours of sleep a day, more if they're younger and still growing. Getting sufficient sleep can do wonders for your mood and can help the brain function better. Same with exercise.
- Are you surrounded by distractions? Television, video games, other people, music, even traffic can be distracting for many people. Even if these things aren't turned on or around, they can still be distracting. I know I have difficulty getting myself to sit down and write rather than play video games even when my systems are turned off... but once the games are out of reach (such as at work, school, or on a long car ride) all I can think about is writing. Get away from your distractions. Make yourself a little slice of heaven somewhere in your home and retreat there to write. Tell everyone to leave you alone, and make it a regular habit. You'll get writing.
- Are you still failing to get words down? Change up your method a bit. Try going traditional and writing on paper with a pencil or pen, preferably one that "feels good" to write with. Or, try using the computer if writing traditionally is your usual thing. Write at different times of the day. Sometimes you'll do better first thing in the morning than in the evening.
5. Take a break once in a while
Rest once in a while, don't burn yourself out. Usually after big stints of writing, I'm too exhausted to keep going for a few days (NaNoWriMo and the month following usually has me feeling so burned out I don't write anything for quite some time, though I'm sure the holidays don't help). If that doesn't work for you, remember that you don't need to write a lot. I remember hearing once that, if you wrote only 300 words a day, you would have a novel in a year (or one novella every 6 months). That's pretty good, and 300 words a day doesn't take that long.
Being able to write several thousand words a day is great, but you need to give yourself time to rest and relax so you can recharge your batteries. This has the added benefit of allowing you to return to your manuscript with fresh eyes. You can edit it better, and you can perhaps continue in a different direction than if you had pushed ahead and kept trying to get ideas down.
Bonus Tip: Read great literature
Because what was I thinking when I picked the number 5? There's so much more to writing! But this one is too important to leave off the list.
Take time to read from great authors. Don't be afraid to branch out from your genre either. You'll learn more about how plots are laid out, how hooks are used to reel readers in, and what words work well by seeing it in action. It's the same kind of study that goes into other creative pursuits such as music or art. All those chores that English teachers had you doing in school, such as summarizing plots and learning new words are skills that become invaluable as a budding writer. It's time to put them to good use!
There's perhaps more I could say on the subject, but maybe I'll save that for another day. I believe that everyone has in them the capacity to write something great as long as they put in a bit of effort. Keep on writing, folks, and I'll see you next week!