No doubt, you’ve heard some pretty bad writing advice, dear writer. Some of the things you heard were well-meaning, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was just, plain wrong and weird. Side note: When I was a new writer, someone I admired told me to invest in a thesaurus–and then proceeded to tell me to use as many five-sylable words as I could!! I mean, really?? Don’t do that, dear writer. Anyway, today I’ll share essential writing advice with you.
I had a teacher in high school who would give “helpful” writing advice as she returned assignments to us. One day, she returned an assignment she informed us that we, as a class, failed. Then she asked us if we knew that “Langston Hughes was a published poet when he was nineteen-years-old.” It was probably the least helpful writing advice ever.
For a long time after I had that teacher, I remember feeling panicked about writing. I had this crippling, downward-spiral thought that usually began like: Oh, my god. I’m fifteen-sixteen-seventeen-eighteen-years-old and oh-my-god NOTHING HAS HAPPENED IN MY LIFE THAT I CAN WRITE ABOUT. Then I was older than Langston Hughes when he published “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and my thoughts took another turn: Well, I guess I missed that milestone and I’m not cut out for writing. I should move on to something else.
Then one day I woke up and I felt good about writing. And myself. That’s not completely true. It took about a year of reading encouraging things to feel good about my progress as a writer. To save you the time it takes to obsessively read motivational books, I’ve compiled a list of writing advice that helps me when I feel discouraged.
*This post contains affiliate links. Find out more about that here. The skinny: I earn a small commission if you decide to buy something through the link. If you make a purchase, there’s no extra cost to you. As always, know that if I share a writing app or product with you, it’s because I use it, love it, and think it could benefit you on your writing journey. Thanks, buddy!
You are never too old to start writing
Sometimes, it seems like the only writing advice I hear is about applies to authors who are young and published and successful. The truth is, we only hear about young success stories because we perceive them to be out of the ordinary. Most regular humans can’t tell you when their favorite authors were first published because age does not matter. Age. Does. Not. Matter. No one cares if your in your 30s or you chose to focus on family or if your retired.
We only really notice the extremes in life. The next Charles Dickens could be a five-year-old writing prodigy. The problem with noticing extremes is that we only see the end result. We don’t see that five-year-old-next-Charles-Dickens probably wrote 7,000 words a day since birth.
When someone says, “I’m too old to start writing,” what they’re really doing is letting the fear of what other people might think discourage them. As humans, we have an annoying tendency to measure ourselves up against the accomplishments of others without taking in everything that lead up to their success.
Instead of giving into fear or jealousy, we should celebrate the fact that we discovered someone who is good at what we want to do. They are the people you can learn from. Harold Ramis advised amateurs to “find the most talented person in the room, and if it’s not you, go stand next to him.” So go, learn and be helpful.
Don’t measure your success to the success of others
“I am not them, and they are not me,” is writing advice that everyone should repeat whenever they feel lost about their writing skills.
Whenever you feel like you’re stuck in your writing, take a step back and try to change how you’re looking at it. Instead of focusing on how you measure up to someone else, focus on what you have accomplished. Part of what makes each person’s writing unique is the personal experiences and ideas they bring to it. You have a brain filled with ideas and memories that make you unique.
Shonda Rhimes puts it well in her book, Year of Yes:
“Don’t apologize. Don’t explain. Don’t ever feel less than. When you feel the need to apologize or explain who you are, it means the voice in your head is telling you the wrong story. Wipe the slate clean. And rewrite it.”
Writers are best equipped to do this. It’s part of the job to look at something in a new way and to invent stories. It’s never too late and you’re never too old to start writing and changing the narrative in your head. Take a step back if you’re feeling down and start over.
You learn the bulk of your writing from other writers
You don’t need to enroll in a creative writing MFA program to learn about writing. I mean, go ahead if that’s your thing and you can afford it. If not, you already have the tools to start an independent study. Access to a library or internet is all you need to improve your writing.
Artist and author, Austin Kleon, makes an interesting case for independent study by building your own family tree out of creative people you admire and learned from. He says that, “seeing yourself as part of a creative lineage will help you feel less alone as you start making your own stuff.” It’s not a requirement to get an advanced degree in writing. You can find everyone that’s worth learning from in the library or on Twitter.
So, go find your mentors in the world and start building your family tree. Read and study everything they create. Follow them on social media and listen to what they say. Try to understand their techniques as you experiment with your own.
Feedback can get you over the fear of failure
Practice, practice, practice. Write a little every day, and then share it with someone.
It’s easy to think that writing is a skill that happens in isolated settings. But that’s not true. It’s important to find a trusted friend to share your writing with. Getting a second opinion does loads to boost your self-esteem and get over the anxiety of failure. It helps you pinpoint the areas in your writing that need fixing up. More importantly, it’s your way of knowing the things you rock at. Everyone needs to know that they are good at something. Psychological studies of cognitive theory show that feedback is critical to motivation and improving skills.
Feedback is also an important part of the writing process. It’s one of the final stages of writing before you release it into the world. Amy Poehler says, “It’s easier to be brave when you’re not alone.” This applies to life and getting feedback from a friend or peer. Putting your writing on display is hard at first, but having someone standing behind you and supporting you is the most valuable thing you can have as a writer.
What’s the best writing advice that raises you up?