1. Write What You Know
We all have a unique lens through which we view the world. We see things differently than anyone else; not better, not worse, just subjectively different. Some would argue that the ultimate aim of writing is to communicate this unique viewpoint in a way such that a reader can experience a suspension of disbelief, that curious thing that great writing does where we understand, if only for a fleeting moment, what it feels like to be somebody other than ourselves. This sense of walking in someone else’s shoes is conveyed through narrative voice. Finding your voice is a process of elimination as much as discovery. So, look for what doesn’t suit you, cut it out of your writing, and repeat this process until you have your own refined, authentic voice.
2. If You’re Forcing It, Do Something Else
When you hit a creative wall, put your manuscript in a drawer. Save your draft and walk away. Don’t come back until you’ve done something other than read, write, or ruminate on your thoughts. Don’t force the pieces together. That’s being the writerly equivalent of that little playground shithead that jams a puzzle piece where it doesn’t belong and claims to have finished the puzzle. Don’t be a playground shithead. Instead, walk away so that you can view your work with fresh eyes and discover what is giving you trouble.
3. Read Your Writing Like a Reader Would
Going off my last point, when you come back to your writing, read it from the perspective of your audience. After every sentence, ask yourself: “if I didn’t know what I was trying to say there, would I be able to figure it out just by reading it?” This requires a blindness, a distance from yourself and your thoughts. You could even call it intentional ignorance. W.B. Yeats often talked about donning a “mask” so that he could read his works as a critic, not a poet. Strive for clarity. So, when rereading, ask yourself, “is it clear to the reader what I am attempting to communicate?” and then, “could it be clearer?”
4. Read Others’ Writing Like a Writer
I’m sure you’ve come across a sentence or paragraph that forces you to pause and stare at the page. For me, this always happens when I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Towards the beginning, the narrator writes that “in the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.” Until I explicated that line, I couldn’t understand where that sentence rived its narrative thrust from. Once I picked it apart, I realized that the internal theme of light (“sunset,” “illuminated,” “aura”) causes the words to glow, only to be cutoff at the end by an unexpected intrusion, an unwelcome reversal. Pick apart any and all writing. Good writing provides you with a how-to manual, bad writing provides you with a trouble-shooting guide. Both are equally helpful.
5. Understatement Is A Powerful Tool
An implication, when used correctly, is far more powerful than a direct statement. Take for example Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” We know what they’re talking about (in this case, an abortion), yet their reluctance to outright state it builds suspense and makes us curious. Be subtle. Be slow to reveal. Don’t be melodramatic. This is why Mad Men is critically acclaimed and soap operas need their own Emmy ceremony.
6. Take The Time To Research Your Subject
Get curious about what you’re writing about, even if it is about yourself. Research adds depth and understanding that often counteracts and contradicts our preexisting notions. So don’t write based off assumptions. That’s presumptuous, and presumption in writing is achingly painful and boring to read at best. Whether it’s a memoir or a biography, researching your subject can only supplement the finished product.
7. Substance > Style
Having pleasant prose that ebbs and flows is wonderful, but, as the expression goes, you can’t polish a turd. If a story lacks plot or an argument lacks structure, it cannot be remedied by tacking on even the most euphonic diction. “Halcyon diarrhea” rolls off the tongue, but I struggle to find a context in which loose stool can be joyful or pastoral. In my article, I tried to patch up a navel-gazing argument with purple prose. However, putting makeup on a mannequin isn’t pretty, it’s still hollow and lifeless.
8. Rejection Doesn’t Hurt Unless You Let It
I’ve been called some nasty things by people that don’t like my work. But rather than take those to heart as insults, I instead viewed even the more derogatory comments as suggestions disguised as put-downs. They had a reason to call me out. My writing was weak and my argument suffered because of it. However, I was able to glean from the detractors a couple gems of constructive advice. (10 to be exact.)
9. Revision Is Key
It’s exciting to finish a first draft. It’s less-than-exciting to go back through, word by word, and second-guess yourself. It’s even less fun to third-, fourth-, and fifth-guess yourself, but it is necessary. Cut large, sweeping swaths through your writing before you fix the little things. Consider rearranging, restructuring, and rebuilding your work to get the maximum effect. Perhaps add in a detail or two. This process can be tedious and even induce insanity in rare cases, but the final product will thank you
10. Reflect and Try Again
We encounter a new set of challenges every time we sit down to write. We stare at a blank page and try to turn ideas into words that can be turned back into ideas. It is amazing that this process works at all. When it doesn’t work, when there is a disparity between the author’s intent and the reader’s interpretation, it is up to you the author to try to determine how this miscommunication occurred. Once you have an idea of where you went astray, it is on you to try to fix it. Maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t. If not, the cycle repeats itself until you and your readers reach a consensus.