20 Writing Tips to Improve Your Craft
“The pen is mightier than the sword.” Writer Edgar Bulwer-Lytton made this keen observation nearly 200 years ago, but it remains just as true today. Writing is one of the most powerful mediums in existence, and a seemingly simple story can change countless lives — which is why so many of us choose to be writers in the first place.
But sometimes it can be difficult to find the right words, to tell the story the way you want, or to start writing in the first place. That’s why we’ve compiled these 20 essential writing tips for writers like you: artists who want to hone their craft to perfection, so they can tell their stories as effectively as possible.
Some of these tips are directly narrative-related, while others are more about the mentality and setting you need to cultivate in order to write. 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. We’ll start with the story tips, then move into more technique-related advice to help you on your writing journey.
If you prefer your tips in watchable form, check out this video on great writing tips that no one else will tell you.
1. Even pantsers need to plan
Let’s begin with an age-old question: are you a plotter or a pantser?
If you’ve never heard these terms before, allow us to explain. Pantsers are writers who “fly by the seat of their pants,” i.e. start writing without preparing too much and simply trust that everything will work out. At the other end of the spectrum are plotters, who plan and outline their story extensively before they begin to write.
Which is the better way forward? Well, it’s different for everyone — what works for you may not necessarily work for another writer you know.
That said, experience has taught us that a little bit of planning goes a long way. That’s why we always advise some form of preparation, even if it’s just a few nuggets of your plot, before you dive into writing. Pantsers, we know it’ll be hard, but you can do it!
2. Keep your outline in mind
Once you’ve prepared an outline, it’s important to actually use it. This may seem obvious, but it's seemingly one of the hardest-to-remember writing tips out there — which is why we've put it so high on our list!
Many writers find themselves led astray by subplots and secondary characters, wandering into lengthy supplementary chapters that don’t really go anywhere. Then when they try to get back to the main plot, they find they’re already too far gone.
Keeping your outline in mind at all times will help you avoid these disastrous detours. Even if you stray a little, you should be able to look at your outline and articulate exactly how you’ll get back to what you planned. This is especially crucial late in the writing process, when it can be hard to remember your original vision — so if you have doubts about your ability to remember your outline, definitely write it down.
3. Introduce conflict early
Of all the core elements in your story, conflict is perhaps the most important to emphasize. Conflict lies at the heart of every good narrative, creating tension that prompts people to read until the very end. So make sure readers know what your conflict is within the first few chapters!
The best way to do this is through an early inciting incident, wherein the main character has a revelation and/or becomes involved in something big. For example, in The Hunger Games, the inciting incident is Katniss volunteering for the Games. Though our heroine has always held anti-Capitol views, this incident forces her to take direct action against them, launching the conflict (Katniss vs. Capitol) that will drive the next three books.
Finally, remember that there are many different types of conflict. So if you have no idea what your conflict is, don’t worry; it’s probably just unconventional. For instance, your main conflict might be one that unfolds within your narrator (character vs. self), or against some large, nebulous force (like character vs. technology). But whatever it is, try to be conscious of when you introduce it and how.
4. Control the pacing
Nothing ruins a good story like poor pacing. Even if you’ve got the most well-rounded characters, interesting plot, and sizzling conflict in literary history, sluggish pacing can still make all of it moot. So make sure you control the pacing in your story, lest readers lose interest and put down your book in frustration!
In order to combat slow pacing, you’ll need to increase the tempo by:
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. This may be painful, but trust us — your readers will appreciate not having to trudge through 50 pages of buildup before your 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.
5. Fine-tune your dialogue
Speaking of dialogue, it's pretty critical to most stories, especially in terms of drawing in readers. Indeed, a conversation between characters is usually much more intriguing and impactful than a narrator relaying similar information.
But dialogue loses its impact if the conversation goes on for too long — 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 and 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 my hardest here.”
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:
“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.”
For more dialogue-specific writing tips, check out this post.
6. Show, don’t tell
In a similar vein, while you may have already heard this advice, 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.
Basically, you want to use sensory, detailed descriptions as much as possible in your prose. If you can use all five senses to convey the scene, all the better. Tell us not just what the central character sees, but also what they hear, smell, taste, and feel in order to truly immerse the reader in the scene.
7. But don’t reveal TOO much
While you want your scene-by-scene descriptions to be as “showy” as possible, you don’t want to reveal everything to readers. This is the idea behind Ernest Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory,” which posits that you should only provide readers with “the tip of the iceberg” — i.e. the most essential part of the story. (Shoutout to Hemingway for always having great writing tips.)
The logic here is that many writers create elaborate histories for their characters and/or have plans for them that stretch far beyond the story they’re currently writing. But readers only need to know the “here and now,” so to speak. Giving them too much information will overwhelm them, and very likely cause them to put your book down in favor of something simpler.
So while you might include a bit of backstory or foreshadowing every so often, it’s best to keep most of this info to yourself. This also works on another level, in that you can reveal tantalizing drips of information as the story progresses, which will pique readers’ interest rather than lose it.
8. Consider your themes
On a related note, the underwater part of the “Hemingway iceberg” not only consists of character backstories, but also important themes. This is another aspect to think about both before and during the writing process: what are you trying to say about society and/or the human condition? Moreover, how can you convey those themes in a subtle yet effective way?
Common literary themes include love, loss, and the importance of doing the right thing. Your themes will depend somewhat on your genre and subject material, but you may also find that it relates closely to your personal beliefs and experiences. Try to embrace this, as writing what you know is a great way to infuse your story with genuine emotion.
As with conflict, if you’re not sure exactly what your themes are, don’t worry about it too much. Having a theme or two in mind from the beginning can help guide your writing — but sometimes, you can’t be sure of your themes until you’ve written a good portion of your draft. Both paths are perfectly valid as a writer; follow whichever works for you.
9. Be careful with narration
Your narrator is your reader’s gateway into the story, so be careful with narration. Don’t make your narrator’s voice too specific, even if they’re from a particular background or experience. They need to speak in an accessible and relatable way for readers — and a non-stereotypical way if they happen to speak in a certain dialect. (For help with this, you might consider getting a sensitivity reader.)
On the other hand, while using an omniscient narrator is the most flexible way to tell your story, it also requires the most discipline as an author. An omniscient narrator can easily get lost in tangents or move too rapidly among storylines, causing mental whiplash for readers. To avoid this, remember our previous tip about having your outline in mind at all times. That way, even if you are using an omniscient narrator, they shouldn’t get too far off track.
10. Write as often as you can
Now we’re getting into the more process-based writing tips. Write as much as possible is one of those tips you’re surely tired of hearing, but the reason it’s so common is because it works! No matter how much time you spend outlining and strategizing, the only way you’re ever going to finish writing a book is by sitting down and writing it.
That’s why it’s good to try and write whenever and wherever you can. Attempt to work in different places, especially where you have a bit of downtime — on the bus, in a long line at the grocery store, waiting for your laundry, etc. It might feel unnatural at first to write on your phone rather than on a laptop at your desk, but you’ll get accustomed if you do it often enough.
Of course, it’s also important that you don’t get burned out and lose passion for the story you’re telling. So when we say “write whenever and wherever you can,” we don’t mean every spare moment; that would be exhausting. However, if you can get into a habit of writing pretty frequently, and in slightly unusual settings, you’ll be a lot closer to making your WIP a reality.
11. Ask yourself questions
One way to ensure you’re doing your best, most creative work is to question yourself constantly. It’s easy to get complacent with your writing, even if you’re technically meeting your word count goals — and we won’t deny that writing is hard enough without questioning if it could be better! But if you’re always challenging yourself, you’ll see every bit of potential in your story and, hopefully, fulfill it as you progress.
A few good questions to ask yourself might be:
- Have I given my characters realistic motivations that manifest throughout the story?
- How does each scene contribute to either character development or plot?
- Is there a big reveal, and if so, am I building toward it sufficiently?
- Does the POV/narration style feel true to the story I’m telling?
12. Write now, edit later
That said, don’t challenge yourself so much you become too paralyzed to write. When in doubt — i.e. when you’ve puzzled over a particular aspect of your story for ages and still don’t have the answer — just skip over it, or write a crappy version of it for now. Write now, edit later is the approach of many a professional author, and if it works for them, it can work for you too!
We won’t really touch on editing here, since this is a list of writing tips, not editing tips. But if you’re interested in the “later” part, you can check out this guide on how to edit a book. And remember: you don't have to go it alone — the Internet is chock full of writing groups willing to give you constructive criticism, not to mention great editing tools to get the job done.
13. Read your work out loud
Many of the best writers' and editors' writing tips include reading aloud what you write in order to check it for inconsistencies and awkward phrasing. This tactic particularly helps weed out long, unwieldy sentences and fake-sounding dialogue. After all, you can always tell bad TV writing from the awkward dialogue! Use this same instinct to eradicate it in your own work.
For bonus points, you might even stage a reading with a group of friends (or fellow writers) wherein each person reads the dialogue of a different character. This will give your writing more “distance” than if you just read it aloud yourself, and help you see its flaws more easily. If you do stage a reading, remember to take notes, so you can remember what to fix afterwards!
14. Make it short and sweet
A surprising number of writers seem to believe that long, complex, and difficult-to-decipher sentences constitute better writing than short sentences and fairly basic diction.
But this could not be further from the truth! As Polonius said, brevity is the soul of wit, so keep your writing as short and sweet as you can. This will both naturally entice readers and help you avoid purple prose, which tends to be a dealbreaker for readers and agents alike.
Of course, if you’re writing literary fiction, you do want your writing to sound intelligent. How can you do this without going on for paragraphs at a time? The answer is by making strong word choices, especially when it comes to verbs. Don’t dilute your story with long, adverb-y sentences — get right down to business and tell us what the characters are doing. (This should also help improve the pace of your story, as discussed.)
15. Get rid of distractions
All writing gets done more efficiently and at a higher quality when you’re completely focused. Yes, this is probably one of the hardest writing tips to follow — 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 quick ideas on how to enter deep focus mode:
- Write on a computer with no WiFi
- Set your phone to airplane mode or put it in a different room
- Work in a quiet space, 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
16. Work through crises of confidence
In every writer’s life (and indeed with just about every project), there comes a point where they second-guess their entire endeavor. This will no doubt happen to you, too — maybe you’ll notice a major plot hole halfway through, a theme you have no idea how to incorporate, or you'll simply hit a creative wall.
Fear not: every writer who’s ever completed a book has gotten through this. But how can you work through such writerly crises without bashing your head against the wall?
If you ask us, the best solution is to return to your early notes and original outline. Look back 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 can also help you recall the enthusiasm and clear vision you had at the start of your project, giving you the creative boost you need to power through.
And if that doesn’t work, you might just need some time away from this particular project; take a break for a day or two, then come back to it with fresh eyes. But whatever you do, don’t give up! Remember, every writer’s been through this same thing. Think of it as your initiation, and refuse to let it break you.
17. Listen to feedback
Now for another one of those writing tips that we all have trouble with. Throughout the process of writing, and definitely after you’re finished, you should share your work with other people: your friends, family, writers’ groups (both in person and on the Internet), and your editor(s).
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. Because the feedback you receive from friends and 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!
On that note…
18. Kill your darlings
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 removing 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, consider dropping it. Of all our writing tips, this one is perhaps the most important for writers of short stories and flash fiction, since you really don’t have any room to waste! Painful as it might be, remember you can always save your “darling” to rework for another project… just not this one.
19. 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, as we’ve established, you don’t have to write every day, or with the same vigor as these authors. Jane Austen never had a smartphone distracting her, so that was kind of an unfair advantage. But you do need to keep writing with as much consistency and focus as possible!
This is the best piece of advice we can give any writer, fiction or non-fiction, short-form or long. Remember that it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and keep your head down until you hit that final blessed page.
20. Keep publishing in mind
Last but certainly not least on this list of writing tips, we’ll cover the potential of publishing your book once it’s finally finished. Many writers and writing websites advise not to think about publishing while writing, to simply write what you know/love/would want to read yourself, and worry about publishing later.
But thinking about it as you write can really help move the process along! For one thing, if you go the traditional publishing route, you should consider how you might pitch your book to agents. What makes your story unique, and why would they want to represent it? If you start writing with the aim to publish, you can consciously highlight these distinctive elements in the story itself.
On the other hand, if you’re thinking about self-publishing, the adventure truly does begin once you’ve finished the manuscript! After a round or two of editing, and possibly investing in a book cover, you should be set to put your book up on Amazon and start raking in readers.
There are pros and cons to both these sides. Luckily, if you’ve gotten to this point, the hard part is over; you’ve managed to write the book of your dreams, and now what you do with it is up to you!
And if you haven't quite gotten there yet, know that it's never too late. Writing is a lifelong struggle, but it's also one of the most rewarding things you can pursue. So go forth and tell the story you've always wanted to tell — we believe in you. ✍
Did we miss anything? Tell us your best writing tips in the comments below!