Level One Writing Tips
I'm excited you're here and a little relieved too. There's a lot of terrible advice for writers out there, and it's easy to fall prey to ALL CAPS exclamations that writing is as simple as sitting down at your desk and creating—in one infallible draft—the next bestseller. Don't let boastful word counts and book factory blogs drown you in Nike-style "Just Do It" mantras. Writing, like all skills, takes practice.
But that's the good news! Practice makes perfect, right? Stay with me here: when we talk about the painter, the musician, the actor, or the singer, we never suppose the virtuosos of these crafts simply woke up one day as masters of their craft.
It’s normal to begin at level one.
Below are five tips I gave a friend of mine the other night at 2 am (it’s always 2 am) after he'd hit a creative wall and considered giving up "this writing thing." After typing out my response and sending an overly long reply he definitely didn’t ask for, I realized this is exactly the advice I wish someone had given me years ago when I was a level one writer.
And, truthfully, it's advice I still need reminding of.
PRACTICE WRITING PROMPTS
When I view writing as a muscle instead of a talent, I feel better. You can build a muscle, right? I start by finding a journal prompt like, “Describe your first crush?” or, “What’s your earliest holiday memory?”
Do these sound like journal prompts better found in fourteen-year-old's diary? Yes, but personal prompts are often easier than open-ended fiction ones because you already know the answer. Once you feel inspired or you’ve answered enough to publish your own autobiography, move on to fiction prompts. Remember, every time you write, you're building your writing muscle.
Remember, every time you write, you're building your writing muscle.
Bonus tip: Before I start, I set a stopwatch for five minutes. Why five? Because five minutes is accessible even with a busy schedule. For 300 seconds, I force myself to word vomit. No editing. No stopping. I’ve literally written crap, crap, crap—has it been five minutes? I scrap a lot of these mini-sprints, but sometimes they ignite inspiration. Either way, I'm working that writing muscle.
DESIGN ACHIEVABLE DEADLINES
Deadlines have a special way of sparking creative fire, but they must be accessible.
Try: I will finish this page by noon.
Not: I will write a novel about Tolkien's Elven culture by next Wednesday.
When you reach your goal, reward yourself. If you can get someone else to hold you accountable by loudly eating chocolate ice cream in the next room and not letting you have any until you finish that chapter, even better.
LEARN THE ART OF OUTLINING
Some people are pantsers: they write masterpieces by shitting ideas on paper. I’m not a panster. I’m a constipated writer who needs fiber, encouragement, and a great outline.
Begin with brainstorming or a one-page plot outline. The dreaded Writer’s Block has a much harder time crushing dreams when you have a map of your idea from beginning to end. Story Planner has a library of free outlines for almost every creative genre. You don't have to follow your outline perfectly; details, characters, and even plot will probably change during your first draft. An outline is a living document, not a contract.
An outline is a living document, not a contract.
Bonus Tip: Pick up a copy of Plot Versus Character by Jeff Gerke. Gerke lets you know if you’re a character-first writer, a plot-first writer, or a little of both. Then, he’ll help you outline your story so you can stay focused on the actual hard part: writing it down.
BAN THE BACKSPACE
Do. Not. Edit. As. You. Write.
Stop it. Stop it right now! Editing as you write is a waste of time. Try this instead: change your font to white. Ha! You can’t see it now! What did you just write? Who knows? Keep going. Write a page like that. Then two. Then ten. You can edit tomorrow, but don’t edit as you write!
Feel like tempting the literary gods today? Check out Write or Die. I’m offering zero context for this app so you go in blind just like I did. But it will keep you writing.
DON’T JUDGE YOUR FIRST DRAFT
First drafts are closed-door drafts. Show no one—not even your cat—your first draft. A lot of writers go through multiple (3! 4! 7!) drafts before they query their manuscript. Take the pressure off your first draft.
In fact, think about your first draft as you telling yourself the story. A story isn’t a story until it’s told, right? So tell it. Tell it in all its sloppy run-ons, broken plots, and Deus Ex Machinas. You can fix those later. Plus, your story will probably (definitely) change from your outline. Hell, you might decide halfway through your first draft that your protagonist’s quirky pirate-talking best friend deserves her own adventure series and rewrite the whole damn thing!
That’s okay. You can fill in all the plot holes, carve into the flat edges of your characters, and find a cool name for your villain instead of just calling him “Jim Badguy” later. But Jim Badguy is okay for your first draft. Jim Badguy gets the job done. Jim Badguy keeps your fingers typing instead of stopping your inspiration for three hours while you look up popular gangster baby names from the 1950s. All that story maintenance stuff is for your second draft.
Remember, your first draft is like a baby: helpless, messy, and prone to spontaneous mood swings and vomiting.
Writing isn't just a talent. It's a lifelong discipleship mastered by flexing those creative muscles every day.
So, next time you’re staring at a blank screen, close your eyes and write about your day. Begin with waking up. What did you see? Follow your thoughts and describe the lamp in the room, the tree outside your window, your left shoelace, your ex-best friend from 9th grade who totally wore the same dress as you to Homecoming even though you told her you were wearing it first, or the last movie you watched. It may not be what you meant to write, but that’s okay. You're practicing and building that writing muscle so you can level up.