My Top 10 Writing Tips

I was procrastinating when I should have been writing (see point 1) and I came across this cool website listing writing tips from novelists and screenwriters (www.writingclasses.com/toolbox/tips-masters). I haven’t really looked at the rest of the site but I read through a few of these. Poe’s isn’t real but it’s funny. Elmore Leonard’s is famous and if you only read one that’s the one but George Orwell’s is brilliant advice. As is Neil Gaiman’s. His one I didn’t read till after I’d written mine below (honest) but some of mine mirror his though he manages to say them with far fewer words but then he is Neil Gaiman.

1. Writers write. It’s easy to procrastinate (see intro). Easy to find something else to do to avoid actual writing  but try and write something every day or at least every day you intend to write. If you work all week and can only write on the weekend then make sure you write on the weekend. Set yourself a realistic per diem goal. 500 words for example is not too hard. It’s about two double-spaced sides of A4. They don’t need to be the best 500 words ever written (see point 2). Set a realistic goal. It’s better to write 500 words than fail to write 1000.

2. Writers don’t write, they rewrite. No one sits down and just vomits words onto a page and when they’re finished it’s done. Everything can be improved. Over the years I’ve met a lot of aspiring writers and I can’t tell the ones who will make it but I do know the ones who won’t. They’ll be the ones who will write one or maybe two drafts of something and if it’s not met with overwhelmingly positive approval, they’ll tire of that idea and move onto something else and write one or two drafts of that. I’ll write anywhere between 6 and 26 drafts. And by “draft” I mean a version of a screenplay or manuscript that is significantly different to the previous draft and not just a version that has had some typos corrected or minor superficial fiddling.
Writers don't write, they re-write3. Writers read. It might seem obvious but I’ve come across too many aspiring writers who don’t read for pleasure. Frankly I don’t get it. Isn’t that like being an aspiring footballer who’s never watched a match or an aspiring chef who doesn’t like food? If you want to write, read. Use libraries. They’re an amazing and endangered resource. If you want to write children’s fiction then educate yourself about what’s out there. If you want to be a screenwriter then read screenplays. Watching movies is not enough. You need to read screenplays both current and classic. There are plenty of websites that collect screenplays (such as, Drew’s Script-o-rama “www.script-o-rama.com” or Simply Scripts “www.simplyscripts.com”).

Don't tinker4. Don’t tinker till you’re finished. It is common for new ideas to present themselves as you’re writing so when you realise that the duchess with the squiffy eye and the hairy mole is the real killer and not the stuttering taxidermist that you thought was going to be the killer when you started don’t stop and go back to the beginning. Make a note but wait until you finish this draft and then go back (see point 5)

 

5. Don’t over-write. Know when it’s time to stop. This is something that only comes with experience. I will write a first draft. As soon as I write “The End” I will go back to the beginning and read. I will try my best to pretend I’m reading it fresh, with no idea how it will play out. Of course that’s not really possible but I will at least try. I will make notes and read it again. I will start a new document describing every scene in a line or two or every chapter in a short paragraph. In this way I’ll distill a 120 page screenplay or a 300 page manuscript into a 5 or 6 page overview. Next I’ll go through that overview document noting all the changes I plan to make in the second draft based on the notes I made during my two reads. I’ll grey out anything to be deleted and write new additions in bold. My 5 or 6 page document will probably be 8 or 9 or 10 pages by the end of this process. Then I’ll start draft two and I’ll work through from beginning to end. When I get to “The End” this time I’ll repeat the whole process. I’ll repeat this as many times as I think is necessary. This is usually three or four drafts. Then I’ll get a read or two from people whose opinion I trust (see point 9) and I’ll repeat the process all over again. I’ll keep going until I feel the screenplay or manuscript is as good as I can make it. Sometimes a little distance from the project is the only way to see what’s working and what’s not. Of course if this is a paid assignment, you’ll most likely be working to a deadline so the luxury of taking your time with numerous drafts won’t be viable and you’ll have to do the best work you can in the time available.

6. Choose an idea that will keep your attention so that you finish what you start. This is harder than it sounds. It’s easy to come up with an idea and be super excited by it but will you still be excited on day 55 or day 255?

7. Find the way that works for you. I plot and plan before I start writing a screenplay or a book. With a screenplay I will be more organised. Beginning, middle and end. Sample scenes. Sample dialogue. Detailed information about characters. Mid point. Act breaks. I will know my ending before I start. With a book some of that is true but I plan to discover a lot as I write. When I write a first draft I write fast. I get words on the page, even if I know they’re the wrong words because I’m going to rewrite (see point 2). This and what I do afterwards (see point 5) is just the way that works for me. There is no right or wrong way, just your way and it will develop the more you write.

8. Find your voice. Almost anyone can write but no one can write like you. You’re unique. Put a thousand monkeys in a Monkeysroom with a typewriter and you’ll end up with a typewriter covered in faeces. Give a thousand writers the same starting point to a story and you’ll get a thousand different stories. They might not all be vastly different but they will be different. Embrace that. Don’t try and write a script like Tarantino or Aaron Sorkin because you can’t. Don’t write a book like J.K. Rowling or Elmore Leonard because you can’t. It’ll end up reading like a poor imitation. Better to be the best version of you than an inferior version of someone else.

9. Find honest readers whose opinion you trust to read your work. Don’t take them for granted. They are few and far between. Especially if you want them to read a book. It’s a big thing to ask someone to read a book for you. A screenplay can be read in a couple of hours (or days if it’s really bad) but a book is going to take days or weeks even. Also don’t write a dark, twisted horror story and give it to someone who hates that sort of story. They are not your intended audience. You are unlikely to convert them and their opinion will be coloured by their dislike of the genre.

Also, don’t give your work to someone until it’s ready to be read. You can never get a second first read. By this I mean you might be lucky enough to find someone who is willing to read your work multiple times but the second time they read it they’re reading it with some degree of bias based on having read it before.

10. Be a cruel god. When you write you are creating everything that exists in your world. You choose what happens to those poor, unsuspecting puppets that inhabit your pages. Don’t go easy on them. Whatever it is your protagonist wants to achieve or acquire, make them work for it. Make it as hard as you possibly can. Inexperienced writers will make everything too easy because that’s simpler to write.  Write yourself into corners and amaze yourself with how you then get your protagonist out of that corner. You are your first reader. Start by entertaining yourself.

Be your own God

About David

Screenwriter and Novelist.

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