Welcome to the wonderful world of writing!
However young or old you are, writing can be so rewarding. For some writers, it’s a fun hobby and a creative outlet; for others, it’s a dream career. When you’re just getting started, you might feel excited but also a little daunted – where should you begin? What do you need to know and learn?
The great thing about writing is that whatever stage you’re at, you can keep growing your skills and honing your craft. This applies whether you’re a total beginner or a best-selling author: there’s always something new to learn or try.
In your early months (or even years) as a writer, these eight tips should help you on your way
Tip #1: Try Lots of Different Types of Writing
When you’re just starting out, you might not know what you want to write – you just want to write! Or, you might have a firm idea of the type of writing you’d like to do (maybe you want to be a novelist or a poet, for instance).
As a beginner, you’re in a great position to try out lots of different types of writing, without needing to commit to one in particular: no-one’s (yet!) demanding your next book. So have a go at a wide range of genres and styles – you might surprise yourself with what you enjoy. I never set out to be a freelancer (my writing dreams were all about being a novelist) … but ten years into freelancing, I still love it, and I’ve written and published three novels too.
Tip #2: Read Some Good Writing Blogs or Books … But Not Too Many
There are some brilliant books and blogs out there that’ll teach you the basics of writing (and much more): Daily Writing Tips is a great place to begin, of course! For fiction-writers, I always recommend K.M. Weiland’s blog Helping Writers Become Authors, and Nigel Watts’ book Get Started in … Writing a Novel; for non-fiction writers, the Copyblogger blog is a great read, as is Joanna Penn’s book How to Write Non-Fiction.
One trap that beginner writers sometimes fall into, though, is that they read and read, trying to learn everything there is to know about writing – but they don’t actually write! So don’t get too caught up in reading: make sure you’re also setting aside time to try out writing exercises, or to develop your own ideas.
Tip #3: Start With Small Projects, Not Book-Length Works
If you’ve never written much before, launching straight into a novel probably won’t work: either you’ll run out of steam within a few chapters, or you’ll keep writing but you’ll end up with a story that needs an awful lot of work to make it publishable.
It’s better to hone your skills on smaller projects first: think short stories if you’re a fiction-writer, or short articles or blog posts if you’re a non-fiction writer. These can be a great way to explore potential ideas and topics without committing to a book-length work straight away.
Tip #4: Write Regularly So You Don’t Lose Momentum
Some writers think you should write every day: personally, I don’t think that’s very good advice. Maybe your weekdays are very busy, because you work long hours, but your weekends are clear. Or perhaps it’s the other way round: you have some time during the week while your kids are at school, but your weekends are packed with activities.
It’s fine to set a writing schedule that suits you and your life … but do make sure you’re allowing yourself time to write on a regular basis. If weeks go by without you writing anything, you’ll inevitably lose momentum. Writing at least once a week works for most people. For those who need extra help fighting procrastination, this post has many tips to beat writer’s block.
Tip #5: Use Clear, Straightforward Words
While I’m a huge fan of words, and love the sound of some more unusual ones (eclectic is one of my favourites!) … I think that as a writer, it’s normally best to keep things simple. Even if, in school, you got extra marks for showing off your impressive vocabulary, readers frankly don’t care!
You should, of course, use the word that best fits what you mean: sometimes a precise, technical word is the best choice, even if it isn’t the simplest. But in general, keep George Orwell’s advice in mind: “Never use a long word where a short one will do,” and “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”
Needless to say that you should use clear, correct English as well. Using a spellchecker is not enough. Proofreading and editing is essential to produce quality prose.
Tip #6: (Fiction Writers) Don’t Mix Past and Present Tense
This can sometimes be tricky to get to grips with when you’re new to writing: but if you’re writing piece of fiction, you need to choose between past and present tense.
You can tell the story as though it’s already happened:
John hurried down the street. Sue ran after him, furious. “John!” she shouted. “Come back here!”
Alternatively, you can tell the story as if it’s currently happening:
John hurries down the street. Sue runs after him, furious. “John!” she shouts. “Come back here!”
What you can’t do is mix past and present:
John hurried down the street. Sue runs after him, furious…
Sometimes, there’s a place for switching from past to present tense or vice versa – but be careful that you don’t switch accidentally.
Tip #7: (Fiction Writers) Don’t Use the Same Word Too Often
If you use the same word repeatedly within a short space of time, it can start to stand out for the reader and become a distraction from your writing. This is particularly true of unusual words (I read a novel recently by an author with a particular liking for the word “stolid”).
Here’s an example:
John locked the door before opening the letter. He could hear Sue moving around in the kitchen, just outside the door. As he drew the letter from the envelope, there was a knock on the door. “John? What are you doing in there? Open the door!”
The word “door” appears four times in that paragraph, and there’s a danger of it having a slightly comic effect.
Some words are fine to repeat as often as you like, however: little ones like “a”, “the”, “and”, “he”, “she and so on. With character names, too, it’s best to just pick something to call them and stick with it. So don’t try to remove all repeated words – but do keep an eye out for words or phrases that you tend to over-use.
Tip #8: (Fiction Writers) Stick to One Character’s Perspective at a Time
Even if you’re writing in the third-person rather than the first-person, it’s a good idea to stick to just one character’s perspective in any given scene or passage – this is called “third-person limited” or sometimes “deep POV” and contrasts with the “third-person omniscient” viewpoint that’s typical of classic 19th century literature.
Readers expect this close third-person perspective, and it allows you to give the thoughts and viewpoint of one character at a time – helping the reader to identify with that person and to really understand them.
Beyond all these tips, though, there’s one thing I want to leave you with: the fact that no-one is born able to write. You may not yet have the skills you want as a writer … but you can develop those skills.
A year or so ago, my five-year-old daughter could only write a few words (and often got her letters backwards); now, it’s fascinating to watch her fledgling attempts at writing stories, messages, and even puzzles. Just like her, you could look back a year from now and be surprised at how far you’ve come.
Wherever you are right now with your writing, keep on working at it, keep enjoying it, and keep finding new things to learn as you go along. Good luck!