The 40 Best Tips from Successful Authors & When to Ignore Them

Editor’s Note: This article was first presented in two parts on the blog This Blog Blank in August 2017. It is being shown here in its entirety.

For longer than I have been writing, I have been reading quotes from writers on writing. Some are clever, some schmaltzy, a few invaluable, and quite a few utter bollocks. I’ve decided to spend part of my evening weeding through some of my favorites (and some loathed ones) and share them with you. After having written a half-dozen novels and two short fiction collections, I’ve seen my writing improve enough that I feel qualified to at least comment on the advice given below. Take a look and then decide which ones you can use and which ones you can discard.

01. “As Kandinsky says, ‘Everything starts with a dot.’ Sometimes the hardest thing in writing a story is where to start. You don’t need to have a great idea, you just have to put pen to paper. Start with a bad idea, start with the wrong direction, start with a character you don’t like, something positive will come out of it.”

Marion Deuchars, illustrator and author of Let’s Make Some Great Art

One of the great fallacies is that there is such thing as a writer’s block. This isn’t just excuse-making; it’s more a mistaken belief that you have to have a good idea to start. You don’t. You only need a start. As an example, I had four rough ideas for novels I want to write, but no decent plots that would allow me to start. Rather than continue to mire in inactivity, I decided to sit down and just start writing whatever popped into my head. Within two hours, I had turned four vague ideas into plot outlines and actually wrote the first chapter of a fifth book I’d not even considered. The point is that creativity starts when you remove self-doubt and allow it to start.

02. “Ignore every current trend and movement; pay no attention to what is presently most admired or most mocked; beware fervent admiration of any writer, however lauded, or any style, however praised. Think only of how you can make your writing most perfect, and most perfectly your own.”
Sarah Perry, author of The Essex Serpent

We writers are sheep. Sadly, however, there are no longer any good shepherds to herd us in the right direction, toward literary fame, and in truth, there never were. Around nine of ten books published via traditional publishing never turned sufficient profit to even cover their writers’ advances. The idea that there are great agents, publishers, critics, or even public trends that will accurately foretell which book will be next great success is ludicrous. Writing trends are about as rare as truly viral videos, and have about the same shelf life. Don’t waste time trying to master Toni Morrison’s poetry or JK Rowling’s magic. We’ve read those books and want something new to read. Try writing that.

03. “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
Stephen King – author of All The Books

“To use adverbs [to modify the verb ‘said’] (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.”
Elmore Leonard, author of Fifty-Two Pickup

The road to bad writing is thinking one guy who can’t adequately use a portion of the language means that you can’t. Dear Mr. King, hush. Mr. Leonard comes closer, by stating that adding adverbs to “said,” as in “’Go quickly,’ she said, emphatically,” should be avoided at all costs. In truth, he’s right. It’s just lazy writing, and most of the time, readers won’t even know what the hell you mean. Saying someone “answered obsequiously” isn’t nearly as powerful and describing what the speaker was doing.

In other situations, adverbs can be used effectively, particularly in passages where you’re purposely choosing efficiency over detail. We don’t need four words to understand an unimportant part of your story if a single adverb conveys the thought. THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH ADVERBS. Okay?

04. “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”
George Orwell, author of 1984, party pooper

Oh, boo fricking hoo. If writing is a horrible, exhausting struggle, take up photography or knitting, for Chrissakes. It’s supposed to be fun. If it’s not, you’re doing it wrong. (Or, you’re a pretentious git who’s trying to make himself sound like a martyr.) Plus, personally, when I sit down to write a book, I am attempting to tell a truth (or a lie) but damn if I don’t at least hope to make some art. Here’s a hint: art isn’t always Rembrandt and Swan Lake. Sometimes, it’s Banksy and Footloose (or Shabba-doo, if you’re my age).

05. “If your characters decide to play up by going silent on you, take them for a walk. Mostly, by the time you get home they’ll be chattering away to you again. Walking refreshes everything and chances are you’ll be running to get back to the manuscript to continue with their story!”
Kate Hamer, author of The Doll Funeral

Yes! A thousand times yes. My favorite book to date, a mystery starring my lead Eddie Daley, I wrote almost entirely during my daily two-mile walks around the neighborhood. Now, it’s almost impossible to walk without starting writing in my head. Thank goodness my wife wants us to walk 3-4 miles daily.

06. “Set a goal each week for your writing and work to reach it. Wake up every morning and treat it like a job. It’s all about regularity. Read back what you’ve written and ask yourself, ‘Do I enjoy this? Does it work?’ If you’re stumbling over something as you read it, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite!”
Sharon Grenham-Thompson, author of Jail Bird

Here’s the secret to success in life: Success is not determined by what you do best. Success (or failure) is determined by what you do most often.

07. “First drafts are always horrible and ugly. Don’t worry about that – it’s the same for everyone. Just remember that the first draft is as bad as the book is ever going to be, and if you keep redrafting, one day you will look at your horrible book and realise that you’ve turned it into something actually quite beautiful.”
Robin Stevens, author of the Murder Most Unladylike series

There is a general consensus among authors that first drafts suck. They kind of do, and they’re supposed to. However, adjacent with statements in that regard are often statements that claim one shouldn’t attempt to edit during a first draft due to risk of impeding your ability to get the story out. I disagree. I’ve had the most success by tweaking whatever passage I wrote the previous day before I begin the next day’s writing. It tunes the work and ensures that I am in the same rhythm and flow throughout.

Additionally, I don’t start writing Chapter 2 if Chapter 1 stinks. I keep at the first chapter until it’s right and can set the tone for the rest of the book. A bad start gives you permission to suck all the way through. Just remember, you aren’t looking for perfection; you’re looking for “This is what I was trying to say.” Those are two different things.

08. “Read! Read! Read! It’s vital to fill that well of creativity within you. Otherwise you’ll simply run out of words and ideas. By reading other authors’ books, you’ll learn what works, what doesn’t, absorb new words, trigger new ideas, and above all immerse yourself in the world of writing. A writer who doesn’t read can never be an author!”
Chris Bradford, author of the Bodyguard series and Young Samurai series

“Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.”
P.D. James, author, queen of crime novels

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
Stephen King

Okay, here’s where I lose some of you. In my opinion, this is bullshite. The idea that you can learn to write by reading someone else is absurd. My reading Toni Morrison didn’t make me poetic anymore than reading John Milton made me blind. The reason to read is that you like books. The reason writers tell you to read is so that you buy books. Theirs. True story.

Instead of “just read” I would partly agree with Ms. James. Read, but read good writing, if only so you know it when you see it. Don’t read to learn how to write. There are too many kinds of good writing for that to work, and good writing is situational. What works in one place is wrong for another. Besides, the person whose writing you should read the most is yours. Put it down for a month or six. Read and re-read. See if you’re getting better. Don’t compare your style to anyone else’s; instead, compare the reading experience. Did you laugh with your work? Cry? Were you in suspense? If not, revise and WRITE. You get good at writing by writing. Reading makes you good at reading.

09. “I think writing is a lot like acting, or role-playing. You need to create an environment that lets you get into that headspace. That might be about sitting in a comfy chair, or listening to the right music, or burning a scented candle, or whatever, but you can only do your best work in surroundings that support it.

“The most important thing you can do while writing is to spend time absolutely and completely NOT writing. The cliché is taking long country walks, which definitely helps, but so does playing a video game or watching a really stupid movie. Your unconscious brain needs time to process what you’re thinking about. I’m pretty sure my unconscious wrote most of the best bits of Boy Made of Blocks.”
Keith Stuart, author of A Boy Made of Blocks

You can’t write effectively if you’re not alive. Go live. And for the record, the subconscious does most writing, full stop. That doesn’t mean your active mind is disconnected. It means that your brain handles multiple levels of activity simultaneously. It’ll still be writing while you’re out there doing stuff, so sitting there staring at your desk is self-defeating. Just remember to come back in and write down what you’ve come up with (or at least take notes) before you forget it.

10. “Write down everything that comes to you in an adrenalin rush in the small hours, and on waking up. About one-half – truly – will turn out to be useful and it sets you up for the morning’s work.”
Laura Cumming, Observer art critic and author of The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velazquez

“Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.”
Will Self, author, journalist

“Always keep a notebook and pen by your bedside. No matter how much you convince yourself you’ll remember that brilliant idea in the morning, you really won’t. Write it down because sleep has a way of giving you ideas and then stealing them right back.”
Swapna Haddow, author of the Dave Pigeon series

These are at least partly true. If you awaken with an idea, write it down right away. In fact, anytime you get a good idea, write it down. You will forget it later. It’s how the brain works, and there’s no guarantee you’ll ever get it back. Don’t believe me? Well, have you ever written anything and then later wondered who the hell wrote that? Same process.

11. “When you know your characters inside out, when you know what makes them really ‘comfortable,’ throw the exact opposite at them and observe how they cope. It’s only when we are met with challenges that our true self comes to the fore, and this is the really interesting stuff, for it’s simple and honest warts-and-all reality.”
Tracey Corderoy, children’s author

I hate this kind of writing, but if you’re in the Game of Thrones School of Torturing Characters, go for it. I won’t read your book, but a lot of people will. Yes, characters should be challenged and they must grow. But no, that doesn’t mean your whole plot needs to be torture. Show how they deal with success too. Nobody loves a loser, and success is harder than people think.

12. “Do listen to songs. Some poems need to sing.”
Alison Brackenbury, poet – latest collection Skies

Write to them too. Your lyricism may surprise you.

13. “Fill your life with love and joy and pain. Then fill your books with each of them. All creative acts are acts of love, and vice-versa. Fill your books with love and the act of creation comes easily.”
Christopher Jory, author of The Art of Waiting

See? Joy and pain. Both. Not just pain.

14. “I don’t care if a reader hates one of my stories, just as long as he finishes the book.”
Roald Dahl, author with more than 250,000,000 copies sold

“To defend what you’ve written is a sign that you are alive.”
William Zinsser author and journalist

The first quote is almost certainly not true, unless he meant “just as long as he buys the book”. We want to be read, and then we want them to fall in love. Mr. Zinsser is right. We care what readers think, because we’re human. Just don’t go arguing down reviewers on Amazon. It’s bad form and will backfire.

15. “Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.” — Zadie Smith

This will take some negotiation. Isolating yourself on your private island is cool, if you have one. (Can my wife and I borrow it?) But if not, talk to your people about your job, writing, and set up some realistic time allotments. Also be prepared to come out of your cocoon to interact with the HooMons from time to time too.

Dying alone sucks.

16. “Think of your book in layers. The first layer will by its nature be rough – it’s just a sketch – so don’t get frustrated if it feels too light or is badly drawn. You’ll add to your story as you go, layering more character, deeper plot, better description, and twists and turns; and painting in light and shade.”
Abie Longstaff, children’s author of How to Catch a Witch and others

Yes! Writing is best likened to painting. The first draft should be good, but mostly focused on setting the tone of the book and getting the story in place. You can do wordsmithing, filling holes, and adding detail layers later.

17. “Don’t give up. Take rejection on the chin. My first picture book [was] almost 21 years old by the time it [saw] publication. And two of the poems in my collection, Dinosaurs & Dinner-Ladies, are pieces I wrote over 30 years ago, when I was still at school. One of them was rejected by the teacher in charge of the school magazine for having, apparently, ‘no literary merit.’”
John Dougherty, author and poet

Don’t know what to tell you. I’m still working on this one.

18. Growing up I believed only certain people were allowed to write books – namely, fancy literary heirs who had gone to the right school and university. Not people like me. But of course, anyone can write a book. And anyone should, so that we have more diversity of voices in publishing.
– Julie Mayhew, author of Mother Tongue and others

I’m not an elitist, but NO. Some people shouldn’t write books, mainly those who don’t know how to write. If you don’t, learn, get good at it, and venture to books once you’ve developed skill. Talent is imaginary. Real people have skills. Skills take time and work. And rework.

19. “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” —Jonathan Franzen, author of Purity and other novels

“Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.” —Zadie Smith author of Swing Time and others

Um, no, and don’t use a typewriter either. Instead, develop self-discipline. The internet is great for looking up needed references. If you don’t want to be distracted, don’t be distracted. I have ADHD. If I can do it, I promise you that you can.

20. “Don’t share too much of what you are writing with anyone else – until it’s finished. Every comment or remark potentially derails you and who is to say that anyone else is right? Keep writing, keep focused (without constantly going back to the beginning). Once you have reached the end of your story, then re-read it yourself and be self-critical. After that invite other people’s comments, and listen hard!”
Victoria Hislop, author of Cartes Postales From Greece and others

Everyone should have a first (or prime) reader, the one person they really write for. But don’t invite anyone to give you criticism while you’re still in creation mode. Hell, even after that, but certainly not during. Get it out, get it right, and then get critiques.

21. “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” –Anton Chekhov, playwright and short story writer

Chekhov is widely accepted as one of the greatest writers in history. If you have his skill level, you likely have an innate sense of when to show (glint of light on broken glass) versus tell (moon is shining). You also probably know how to show lyrically and efficiently. Otherwise, you’ll have to learn it. Books that only show or do so in too much detail for too many things can get bogged down in detail, lose the flow, and get tedious. Readers will skip those pages. (For an example, see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.) You can still earn a Pulitzer or a Nobel Prize, apparently, but your book won’t be as fun to read.

Likewise, books that only tell seem simplistic and amateurish. The magic is knowing how to show what’s important, creating visceral imagery and emotion with your prose and tell what’s not important, so that the pace of the writing stays good. Do both, as appropriate.

22. “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.

“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.” Elmore Leonard

Despite how pretentious this sounds to me, it’s not bad advice. I’d change the first sentence to read, “If it sounds like pretentious, pseudo-literary bullshit, I smack myself and rewrite it.” Other articles on writing advice include the first sentence of his second quote without explanation. This one’s simple: don’t add details that aren’t vital to the story. We really don’t give a shit what your main character is wearing, except when it reveals something about her character. We don’t need to know what’s on the suspect’s work desk or how glorious the flowers are he passed by. Too much detail is simply adding words to the book to make it look impressive.

See how that last sentence bored you? It was unneeded. Just leave out the page fillers.

23. Write the book that you’re desperate to read. Fall in love with your characters. Finish the day’s writing at a point where you want to know what happens next. And keep writing every day. – Keren David, author of Cuckoo and others

Yes. Don’t write for money (you probably won’t make any) or fame (fewer will care than you hoped). Do it for the love. Write because other people’s books suck and yours don’t. Write because you might explode if you don’t. Then keep writing because you like your books, and just maybe others will too.

24. “One thing that helps is to give myself permission to write badly. I tell myself that I’m going to do my five or ten pages no matter what, and that I can always tear them up the following morning if I want. I’ll have lost nothing—writing and tearing up five pages would leave me no further behind than if I took the day off.”
Lawrence Block, crime and mystery author of over 100 books

This is the secret to being prolific. Edit yourself after you’ve finished, but before or during. If you’re a bit off your game one day, you can always edit it the next, so write. One day we’re good at chugging out the plot in boring language, and the next day we’re freaking poets. Creating the balance is what editing is for. While you’re creating, let yourself ebb and flow.

25. Keep generating new writing and new ideas. The more you do it, the better you’ll get. Oh, and make peace with the fact that (in your eyes) it will never be perfect, or finished. – Michelle Thomas, campaigner and journalist

We’ve said this before, but it can’t be emphasized enough. Don’t be your own roadblock. Perfection is death.

26. “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” —Neil Gaiman, best writing advice giver

Word-for-word truth. Get this on a tattoo.

27. “In the planning stage of a book, don’t plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it.” —Rose Tremain, author, short story writer

I included this one to poke at the plotter (planning out the book) vs. pantser (making it up as you go) debate. The answer is to do both. I can always tell a book that wasn’t plotted in advance, because the flow is uneven. It might devote 50 pages to the events of two days and then wrap up the next 15 years in the following 20. They aren’t bad books and equally likely to be best-sellers or award winners as those rigidly plotted in advance. However, in reading them, I’m always left with the feeling I used to get when my dad would drive us through back streets, and I was the only other person in the car, besides him, who knew we were lost. I hate that lost feeling.

This doesn’t mean you should plot every nuance of the book. That is way too limiting. It means you should have an outline and sort of a word budget in mind before you write. It might be something as simple as, “in this section, these two things happen, in around 1,500 words” I don’t start writing a book until I know the ending, but it almost always changes during the book. I can’t see starting if I don’t know when I’ll be done.

28. “It’s important to be inspired by other writers and sources, but when it comes to the actual writing, I swear by going into Tunnel Vision Mode. Pretend nothing else exists but you and your idea. Don’t compare and don’t despair.”
– Emma Gannon, author of Ctrl Alt Delete: How I Grew Up Online

Agree. ‘Nuff said. No one knows your book but you. The other guy’s book is his book. I’ve read Nobel Prize winners that made me want to puke and unheralded books I thought were magic. Own your magic and let no one take it.

29. “Make yourself write regularly. It’s like anything: The more you practise, the better you’ll get.”
– Jennifer Gray, author of the Atticus Claw and Chicken Mission series

This is the skill part. There are NO shortcuts, but any writing is good practice.

30. “Give yourself permission to be terrible. There’s nothing more paralyzing than trying to write a perfect novel in one draft. Do your best to turn off your inner editor and just write. Everything can be fixed later!”
– Sarah Rubin, author of Alice Jones: The Impossible Clue

Worthy of being repeated.

31. “Listen to the criticisms and preferences of your trusted ‘first readers.” —Rose Tremain

If you don’t have any first readers, get some. Again, hear, “Something’s wrong here,” when they have critiques, but you decide how to fix it.

32. “You will inevitably be told be someone that you have to write a thousand words every day. You don’t, in the same way that you don’t have to run every day, or go to the gym every day. Your work is percolating at the back of your mind. So, going for a walk is writing. Watching TV is writing. Staring into the depths of a glass of rum is writing.”
– David Barnett, journalist and author of Calling Major Tom

Writing is the process of inventing a story and characters, including putting them down on paper, but not exclusively so.

33. “I always advise people who want to write a fantasy or science fiction or romance to stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt.”
Michael Moorcock, science fiction and fantasy author

Be really careful about the running the risk of copying ideas, characters, or styles. In fact, just don’t risk it. Read other stuff, and make sure your ideas are fresh.

34. “When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”
Stephen King

This is great advice if you don’t plot your books. They’ll be full of fat to cut. Ahem. I’ll just leave this at that.

35. “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is … the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
Mark Twain

Almost-good writing is bad writing.

36. “Beware of clichés. There are clichés of response as well as expression. There are clichés of observation and of thought – even of conception. Many novels, even quite a few adequately written ones, are ­clichés of form which conform to clichés of expectation.”
Geoff Dyer

Too much of today’s writing consists of carbon copies and formulaic genre fiction. For God’s sake, write something new or don’t write. Don’t use clichés and stay clear of idiomatic expressions (which are usually hackneyed and hard to translate once you’re super famous). Also, stereotypes are also clichés, so don’t get caught up in a “this one’s sort of true” bind. It may be true, but it’s also irritatingly boring, so leave it out.

37. “Only bad writers think that their work is really good.”
Anne Enright

You. Damn. Skippy. If you doubt yourself, you’re probably skilled enough that you’re focused on the areas where you’re less-than-perfect. The reverse is likely true too, sadly. Bad writers don’t know enough about writing to hear the off-key notes in their poetry. Don’t be that guy.

38. “Write. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down. Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”
Neil Gaiman

Preach.

39. “The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.”
Neil Gaiman

Y’all don’t hear me! We having church up in here!

40. “Ignore all lists of writing tips. Including this one. And including this tip. Or at least take them with a big pinch of salt. I have never met two writers who work exactly the same way: One of the hardest, but ultimately most rewarding, things about writing is that you have to work out for yourself who and what you are as a writer, and how you yourself work best. When you’re starting out, it’s very easy to see a piece of advice by [insert your favourite author here] and think, If s/he writes like this, I must do it that way too. That can be unhelpful, and instead I think that every time you hear a writing tip, you have to decide whether it means something to you, resonates with you, or whether it sounds like the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard. It’s your book, you need to learn to write it your way. Now please ignore this advice.”
– Marcus Sedgwick, author of The Ghosts of Heaven and others

“There are no laws for the novel. There never have been, nor can there ever be.”
Doris Lessing, novelist, poet, playwright, short story writer

“Beware of advice—even this.”
Carl Sandburg, author and poet

No one can tell you how to write. They can only tell you how they write. They aren’t you, don’t have your brain, imagination, or experience, and you likely don’t even want to write the book they wrote. Know whose books I wish I’d written? Mine. They aren’t perfect, but I did them the way I was supposed to, and I broke every goddamned rule I could find.

Figure out your process, work at it, keep going. Beware of advice from writers with no social life or with substance abuse problems. Beware of advice from millionaire writers or those hoping to sell at least one book before they die. Beware of the experienced and the novice. Be wary of the falsely humble, the introvert hiding in their dim cave and venting that it’s where you must live. Avoid those who profess to know what’s right and wrong, and ignore anyone who is always negative, especially when it comes to you or your art.

In fact, now that you’ve read this, know that it now resides in your brain, and just go write. To hell with advice. You’re a writer; make shit up. That’s all you do. I hereby bequeath you with a degree from MSU: the school of Making Shit Up.

There’s life to be had out there. Go invent yourself some.

— Bill Jones, Jr.

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