by Bec Hawkings
After hanging out on (and contributing to) the hilarious #BadWritingTips hashtag on Twitter, I figured it was only fair that I try to think of some good writing tips (or at least writing tips that didn’t involve jazz hands and Twilight.)
(Disclaimer: I’m a twenty-something PhD student who drinks entirely too much coffee and tends to live by the motto “Why do it today when it can be put off until tomorrow?” Writing tips are less about passing on advice, and more about reminding myself just how productive I can be if I try.)
Write Every Day
If there was only one piece of writing advice that I could give, it’s this: Write every single day. No excuses, no exceptions. It’s partly ‘practice makes perfect,’ partly habit building. Mostly, it’s doing the thing that makes you who you are. Waiting for inspiration is the coward’s way to write. You have to run head-first into writer’s block, not avoid it. Scream like Braveheart if it helps.
Talk It Out
Writing in academia is a harsh, unyielding mistress. However, the advantage is that there’s usually other people who are writing in the same field as you. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THESE PEOPLE. BLEED THEM DRY OF THEIR KNOWLEDGE. Or just form a reading group, like I did. Once a week, myself and two other PhD ladies in my field (popular culture / cultural history / political history) get together under the guise of discussing a set reading from our research area. Really, we just drink tea and moan about our work. But after every meeting, without fail, I have a new perspective on my work, or some new research to incorporate. Also, that slightly nauseous feeling you get after drinking your body weight in tea.
Find Someone Who Will Critique Your Work
For PhD students, this is usually your thesis supervisor. So make sure you have a good relationship with this person; at least, good enough to be able to send them awful first drafts of papers without too much fear or embarrassment. (The occasional “Here is my work I’M SORRY IT’S SO AWFUL PLEASE DON’T KICK ME OUT” email is ok). Whatever your situation, find someone that you can email your writing to, and know that you’ll get honest feedback. On that note –
Don’t Have An Ego When It Comes To Writing
Essentially, your work does not equal your self-worth. This isn’t something I’ve had too much of a problem with: as my nearest and dearest can attest, my ego could power the Eastern Seaboard for a decade. Getting honest feedback on your writing can be tough, but a negative review doesn’t mean that you as a person are hopeless. It just means that you as a writer have some work to do. Keep ‘person’ you and ‘writer’ you separate. (This goes for praise of your writing, too: being able to write well doesn’t make you a better or more worthwhile human being. It just makes you a human being who has a decent grasp on the English language.)
The First Draft Will Always Be Awful
No, really. It will. It might look lovely now, but give it a few months and a few rewrites and you’ll want to burn that first draft in a ceremonial bonfire. Good writing is rewriting. Confession time: editing hurts. Sometimes there’ll be a sentence or a paragraph that you’re madly in love with, but that just doesn’t work with the rest of the piece. Here’s what you do:
1. Highlight that sentence paragraph
2. Right-click, ‘Cut’
3. Have a moment of mourning
4. Open up separate document entitled ‘Awesome Work, Sadly Deleted, Gone But Not Forgotten’
5. Right-click, ‘Paste’
6. Save, revisit as necessary.
Timers And Accountability: Use Them
Like anyone with a Humanities undergrad degree, I majored in Procrastination with a minor in Nah, I Can Totally Get This Essay Written Before Class Tomorrow. “This isn’t an assignment you can get done the night before” was a challenge, not a warning. Procrastibaking, procrastireading, procrastilaundry, procrasticleaning; I did it all. Sadly, this kind of attitude doesn’t really work for anyone wanting to write more than a Pass level essay. The best way to get past the procrastination reflex is reverse psychology. You know how teachers give a maximum word limit for papers? That’s reverse psychology – instead of making sure you don’t go over 2,000 words, a word limit actually ensures that you write 2,000 words. Reverse psychology for writing is easy: instead of word limits, give yourself time limits. I use a combination of a Pomodoro timer and the Task Timer app on Google Chrome. The Pomodoro timer is set at twenty-five minutes; this is one bloc of writing. I write furiously for twenty-five minutes, then I get a break. (Breaks are essential; they actually increase productivity.) Repeat. The Task Timer app is set for a week of work, making sure I get in a certain number of hours writing per week. By setting a timer, it feels like I only have twenty-five minutes to write, instead of having to write for twenty-five minutes.
Planning, Planning, and More Planning
This one is fairly simple. If you’re writing an essay, plan out your major arguments and sort them into paragraphs. If you’re writing a piece of fiction, plan out your story arcs, characters, and major plot points. To use a horribly clunky cliché: writing without a plan is like baking without a recipe. It’ll end up being a total mess, and something that you could only really consume after a few hours at the pub.
Change of Scenery
My favourite place to work is in my local café. A little table, a power point for my laptop, soy lattés on tap, and most importantly: no distractions (specifically of the Internet variety). Writer’s block is a bitch; one of the best cures (other than aforementioned Braveheart impersonation) is to change your environment. Even just moving from the desk to the dining room table, or from your office to the library, or from home to the café, changes the way your brain works. There’s been a study recently that suggests cafés are the best places to write (summary here: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/06/study-of-the-day-why-crowded-coffee-shops-fire-up-your-creativity/258742/). Café or no, our brains respond to changes in our environment. If you’ve been sitting at your desk for hours and hours, struggling with writer’s block, try moving to somewhere that hasn’t been the setting for that angst and frustration. And support your local coffee shop.
Phone, Wallet, Keys, Notebook, Pen
Never leave home without something to write with and something to write on. Most mobile phones have some sort of note-taking app: USE IT. I promise you, the best flashes of inspiration and writing clarity you’ll ever get will be when you’re not even thinking about your work. I’ve scribbled notes to myself on grocery receipts, on the back of my hand, and even on a bar napkin. I’ve also woken up (on more than one occasion) to find I’ve left myself notes on my mobile in the middle of the night. Have a note-taking app, or a notepad and pen, or even a stack of Post-It notes and a crayon. Anything. Don’t be caught short.
For Fuck’s Sake, Read.
Everything. Read from your field (if you’re an academic), read in your genre (if you’re a fiction writer), and read things that have absolutely no relevance to anything you’re writing. The more you read, the better your writing will be. Read great writers, and figure out what makes them great. Read bad writers, and make sure you don’t repeat their mistakes. Read, read, read, read, read.