10 Essential Writing Tips to Improve Your Craft
“A writer is a world trapped in a person.” Victor Hugo made this keen observation about writing over 100 years ago, but it remains just as true today. We all know how powerful the written word can be; the experience of reading about another world can truly immerse us in it, and that's a magical thing.
But sometimes it can be difficult to find the right words, to tell the story the way you want, or simply to start writing in the first place. That’s why we’ve compiled these 10 essential writing tips for writers like you, to help you get past the biggest roadblocks of the process. Some are directly narrative-related, while some are more about the mentality and setting you need to cultivate. But all have one crucial thing in common: if you take them to heart, they’ll help you become a much better writer — and maybe even pen the book of your dreams.
1. Consider your overall structure
Structure is one of those things that you absolutely need to write well. You might be able to produce a few paragraphs or even pages on hot air and coffee alone, but you’ll soon find yourself grasping at straws if you don’t have a solid structure. So before you get too far, figure out what you want your work to look like. Whether it’s an essay or a full-length novel, you’ll benefit hugely from sketching out the basics before you start.
Of course, structure can take many shapes — only you can determine which one is right for your work. There are some concepts, like the inciting incident, rising action, and climax that occur in most full-length narratives, even in non-fiction! But it’s important to remember that they can be executed differently and serve different purposes.
Also keep in mind that the structure of your piece may very well change during the writing process. But it’s still important to think about it before you start, and write it down for future reference. That way, you’ll have a rough outline to fall back on if you get stuck.
2. Introduce core elements early
If you want people to read and enjoy your writing, then it’s critical to get your audience invested as soon as possible. This means letting them know what it’s all about within the “first act” (aka the first third or so) by establishing certain elements. For example, if you’re writing a short story, it should be within the first few paragraphs, since you don’t have as much space for exposition.
What are these core elements you need to introduce? For the most part, they’re probably what you’d expect:
- Main characters
- Major themes
Of all these, conflict is the element you want to prioritize most. Yes, it’s important to know where your story takes place and who it’s about, but conflict is what’s really going to engage your readers. Conflict lies at the heart of every intriguing narrative, creating tension that makes people read until the very end.
Also remember that, just like structure, there are many different kinds of conflict! So if you’ve already gotten started on your story but you’re not sure if it has conflict, don’t worry; it might just be an unconventional type. For instance, your narrative's central conflict might be one that unfolds within your narrator (character vs. self). The important thing is to ensure that, whatever this conflict is, it’s introduced early enough that readers don’t lose interest.
3. Control the pacing
Nothing ruins an otherwise great piece of writing like poor pacing. Even if you’ve got the most well-rounded characters, the most intriguing plot, and the most sizzling conflict in literary history, slow narration can still spoil your story for readers. Same goes for non-fiction and academic writing; even if something takes a long time to come to fruition in real life (like a war or a scientific discovery or a social movement), doesn’t mean you have to describe it that way.
Of course, if you want your pacing to reflect something about the story, situation, or society you’re portraying, that’s your prerogative. (Charles Dickens did this in Bleak House, using exceptionally slow pacing to satirize the snail’s pace of legal bureaucracy.) But take it from us: poor pacing isn’t going to win you any points with readers, even if you’re doing it on purpose.
Picking up the pace
As you’ve probably gathered, most pacing issues relate to a story moving too slowly. In order to combat this, you’ll need to increase the tempo. There are several ways to achieve this, but the most effective are
A) Cutting down lengthy sentences and descriptions; and
B) Increasing action and dialogue.
The former strategy works for one simple reason: it gets rid of filler and fluff. In extreme cases, you may have to cut a great deal of exposition in order to get to the beating heart of your story. And yes, this will be painful, but trust us — your readers will appreciate not having to read through 50 pages of buildup before the first inciting incident.
As for the latter, it might seem like adding more content is counterintuitive to a quicker pace. But because action and dialogue move the story forward in a concrete manner, you can always rely on them to improve slow pacing.
Slowing it down
Alternately, if your writing moves too quickly (i.e. readers can’t keep track of what’s happening because it’s such a whirlwind), you may need to slow things down. Naturally, this involves adding more description and explanation to your work, such that the pace becomes more manageable and the narrative more comprehensible.
However, keep in mind that hasty pacing is usually a symptom of sloppy writing, rather than a problem in and of itself! So if people complain that your pacing is too quick, you might want to take a closer look at your overall work instead of just addressing one element of it.
4. Show, don’t tell
Yes, it’s advice that you’ve already heard a thousand times, but it bears repeating: show, don’t tell as often as possible. For those who aren’t really sure what that means, it’s easiest for us to, well, show you. Here’s a passage from Sally Rooney’s Normal People that exemplifies this rule:
He wakes up just after eight. It’s bright outside the window and the carriage is warming up, a heavy warmth of breath and sweat. Minor train stations with unreadable names flash past… Connell rubs his left eye with his knuckles and sits up. Elaine is reading the one novel she has brought with her on the journey, a novel with a glossy cover and the words "Now a Major Motion Picture" along the top. The actress on the front has been their constant companion for weeks.
As you can see, it’s pretty hard to completely eliminate telling from your prose — in fact, the very first sentence in this passage could qualify as “telling.” But the rest is “showing,” as it paints an evocative picture of the scene: the bright, warm carriage in the train that's rushing past other stations, the girl reading the glossy novel in the opposite seat.
The author also presents details that allow the reader to draw their own conclusions, rather than outright telling them. For instance, Connell seems to think that Elaine isn’t very intelligent, based on her choice of book and how long it’s taking her to read it. However, rather than saying “Connell thought of Elaine as foolish,” Rooney implies it through description.
These are the keystones of showing rather than telling: vivid descriptions, subtle details, and implied conclusions. Then again, you don’t want to over-describe, or else the text can start to verge on purple prose. It’s all about balance — your writing should “show” enough to engage and immerse the reader, but not go on for pages in description of a single scene.
5. Write sharp dialogue
Using dialogue is another way to show rather than tell. A conversation between people can be much more revealing and intriguing than a narrator directly relaying similar information. But just as with description, dialogue loses its impact if the conversation goes on for too long. As Polonius said, brevity is the soul of wit — so for better, sharper dialogue, be concise.
Say you’re writing a story in which two characters have an argument. You want to be clear what they’re fighting about and connect it to other events/themes in your story, so you write something like this:
“I can’t believe you were late coming home again! This is so typical. Just like when you forgot to pick up the groceries last week. Sometimes I don’t think you listen to me at all. You say you care about my feelings, but you don’t.”
“Well, maybe I don’t listen because you’re always yelling at me. No matter what I do, it always seems to be the wrong thing. I had a very important meeting tonight, for the record. You know I’m trying to get that promotion at work. I’m really trying to make you happy, you just can’t seem to see that.”
But this exchange is full of unnecessary details. After all, the reader should already be familiar with your characters, their relationship, and past events of the story — you don’t have to spoon-feed them the meaning of the conversation. So keep your dialogue short and pithy, moving back and forth like a tennis match:
“Nice of you to show up. What were you doing, if not getting groceries?”
“Thanks for the warm reception. I had a meeting. Kind of an important one.”
See the difference? Of course, writing good dialogue is easier said than done (no pun intended). And of course, if you’re writing non-fiction, you can’t exactly control dialogue that’s exchanged IRL. You can, however, edit and paraphrase what people say in order to keep it succinct without compromising the facts. (All reporters and biographers do this — if they left every quote fully intact, their work would be all dialogue!) In any case, when in doubt, you can always check with your sources to ensure you’re representing them in good faith.
6. Kill your darlings
Now we’re getting into the more process-based tips for writing. Sometimes you’ll pen a passage that’s so beautiful, so nuanced, so masterfully constructed that you want to frame it… but it doesn’t really contribute anything to the larger composition. It’s a tangential distraction, and you know in your heart that your work would be better off without it.
What to do now? You probably know the answer, even if you don’t want to admit it: you have to kill your darlings. This most often refers to an irrelevant or otherwise distracting passage, but it may also be your title, an element of your narration, or even an entire character.
In any case, if it doesn’t add to the narrative, seriously consider dropping it. This is an especially pertinent tip for writers of short stories and flash fiction, since you really don’t have any room to waste!
If you ARE writing flash fiction, check out these 25 amazing flash fiction stories to inspire you.
7. Eliminate distractions
All writing gets done more efficiently and at a higher quality when you’re completely focused. Yes, this one’s another hard truth — especially for those of us who enjoy working from noisy coffee shops and taking frequent Netflix breaks. But the more you eliminate distractions, the better a writer you’ll become.
Here are some ideas on how to enter deep focus mode:
- Write in a journal, or on a computer with no WiFi
- Set your phone to airplane mode or put it in a different room
- Work in a quiet space, ideally one to which you have free and frequent access, like your local library
- Avoid working alongside friends — unless they really do increase your accountability (but be honest with yourself about this!)
- Use the Pomodoro technique, which Jane Harkness explains in this article
8. Work through crises of confidence
In every writer’s life, there comes a point where they second-guess their entire endeavor, and it will no doubt happen to you too. Maybe you’ve got a major plot hole you only just noticed, a theme you have no idea how to incorporate, or you’ve simply hit a creative wall.
Fear not: every writer who’s ever completed a story has gotten through this. And if they did, so can you.
Return to your early notes
Remember what we said about recording your structure for later, when you get stuck? Now’s the time to revisit it. Look back through your initial notes and outlines to see if there’s anything there that can help you — you may have forgotten about some critical component, or it may help you see things in a new light. This trip down memory lane may also help you recall the passion and confidence you had at the start of your project, giving you the creative boost you need to power through.
If your early notes don’t help and you’ve spent days agonizing over your project, then it might be time to take a break — just don’t give up. Our previous tip notwithstanding, sometimes you need to spend some time purposefully distracting yourself from your writing. But after you’ve spent a week or so away, get back to it! In all likelihood, your head will have cleared, and you’ll have fresh eyes to solve the problem in front of you.
9. Listen to feedback, but trust your gut
During the process of writing, and definitely after you’re finished, you should share your work with other people: your friends, family, writers’ groups, and your editor if you have one.
Accepting and actioning critical feedback is, of course, one of the most difficult parts of being a writer. Yet it’s also one of the most important skills to have. After all, the feedback you receive from beta readers is the only window you have into other people’s views — until you publish and the reviews start flooding in, but by then it’s too late to change anything. So try not to view criticism as harsh, but as helpful. It might just save you from literary infamy later!
This doesn’t mean you have to make every suggested change to your work. If you feel very strongly about including a particular element that someone else doesn’t like, feel free to go with your gut and ignore them. Still, a good rule of thumb is that if more than one person gives you the exact same critique (e.g. “I didn’t like X about Y character,” “I didn’t think this part was realistic,” etc.), you should at least consider altering it.
10. Just keep writing
How do prolific, successful authors manage to turn out so many books? Basically, by keeping calm and carrying on.
Stephen King writes 2,000 words every single day, even on holidays. Jane Austen wrote each day just after breakfast without fail. Kafka wrote in the wee hours of the morning, barely sleeping as a result.
Now, you don’t have to write every day, or with the same vigor. After all, Jane Austen never had a smartphone distracting her, so that was kind of an unfair advantage.
But you do need to keep writing with relative consistency and focus. This is the best piece of advice we can give any writer, fiction or non-fiction, short-form or long. And to (hopefully) make it stick in your mind, we’ll conclude with this amusing yet apt anecdote from award-winning author Helen Simpson:
The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying "Faire et se taire" from Flaubert. Which I translate for myself as "Shut up and get on with it."
So go ahead, get on with it already. Happy writing! ✍ (And if you're really not ready for writing yet, try reading — these 15 best books on writing.)
What are your best writing tips? Tell us in the comments below.