Creating in Flow

The world of creativity—with a twist of rationality

52 Terrific Tips for Writing Better

You can pursue your passion more practically with this load of links and tools.

writing advice
I admit it: I’m sort of procrastinating. (Aren’t you?) Still, you may benefit from my desire to declutter my things-to-blog-about file. Here are a raft of links, tips, pithy inspiring quotes, and other assorted insights into the writing life. Read, bookmark, share, contribute your own in the comments.

1. NEVER TRY TO BE COOL: That’s one of 17 cool pieces of advice by writer Steven Heighton in this post. http://www.stevenheighton.com/posts.html#AFewMemosToMyself

2. SHOULD WRITERS BLOG? I blog a lot, but I’m never sure if it’s helpful (to me, in particular). One post of many on Kimberly Davis’s helpful Craft Blog tackles that not so age-old question. http://kimscraftblog.blogspot.com/search/label/blogging

3. CAN’T CREATE? THEN WORK! Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project Blogger at PsychologyToday, shared Henry Miller’s 10 Tips for Writing (from the book Henry Miller on Writing) http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-happiness-project/201202/11-brilliant-writing-commandments-henry-miller

4. WRITER’S BEST TOOL: “WHAT IF?” That’s one of the pieces of writing advice at http://vivianvandevelde.com/writingAdvice.cfm Vande Velde is a much-awarded fantasy writer of numerous books for 8-12s, 10 and ups, and 12 and ups (she’s good!).

5. TOO MANY GOALS? Explore PsyBlog, a terrific source for science-based hints about every aspect of psychology. For example, here’s “how to avoid being distracted from your goals”: http://www.spring.org.uk/2011/09/how-to-avoid-being-distracted-from-your-goals.php

6. A CHALLENGING REFRESHER: Writers like the fact that what we do is very hard. The challenge is what grows us. http://elizabethstark.com/2008/12/30/growth-mindset-and-writing-a-celebration-of-risk-and-failure/

7. SCHEDULE WHEN TO LET GO: Poet Stephen Perry’s advice: “Develop a regular writing schedule. I think this is probably the most potent tool we shy writers have of anesthetizing Fear. What we are unfamiliar with, we're often afraid of. Okay. Make it familiar. Make it as much of a part of your life as your morning coffee, your breakfast. If you do your writing regularly, you'll begin to recognize at a deep level what the reality of being a writer is like: sure, we're nervous at first but that state goes away after we're really into our work; yes, we most certainly are disappointed much of the time at what we write, but if we keep at it, we eventually get material that we like a lot, that even we can't disparage into dust; that it takes a lot of bad writing to get to good writing; that much of what we achieve is not just handed to us by the gods on a fluttering gold platter of singing doves; that we can succeed over time. And if you ever really feel like writing, don't resist. Heavens, that feeling is rare, that rush, when you're really energized, really inspired.” 

8. DON’T FEAR MARKETING: This is one fear you may not have realized you have, or perhaps you only envy such sufferers. It happens when you won’t send your work out because, deep down, you’re afraid you won’t get published, and that if you do, you’ll have to compromise your work, or that all the fun will be taken out of your creativity. One solution is to learn more about perfectionism and your inner critic.

9. 50 FAMOUS AUTHOR INTERVIEWS: The more you read interviews with published authors, the more you grasp the multitude of ways to write and to succeed. http://www.onlinecollege.org/2010/03/28/50-famous-author-interviews-that-shouldnt-be-missed/authors

10. KEEP A WORD LIST: Or you can just go to the dictionary and circle the words you like and plan to use in a book of your own someday. The words David Foster Wallace circled in his dictionary. - - Slate Magazine.

11. SERIAL NOVELISM: GOOD OR BAD? Some authors write book after book, often in a series. Here’s a link to some thoughts on Alexander McCall Smith and others with the “condition”: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/serial-novellism-no-work-of-fiction-20100409-rxdt.html

12. CREATE A SWIPE FILE:  Similar to a writer’s notebook, but more encouraging of the use of photos or other inspiration-joggers besides words, suggests Marelisa Fabrega. Stuff such a file with “quotes, stories, images, poems, video URLs, pieces of fabric, and anything else that catches your fancy. Fill the pages with random facts which may at some point prove useful.” Doesn’t have to be an actual notebook either. Use a shoebox if you like. http://writetodone.com/inspiration-on-demand-create-a-swipe-file/Marelisa Fabrega

13. TOO EDUCATED TO BE CREATIVE?  TED video about how schools can kill creativity, of interest to anyone who tries to keep their creativity alive.  http://www.green-talk.com/2008/11/20/do-our-schools-kill-creativity-enhancing-imagination-the-hope/

14. JUMPSTART YOUR CREATIVITY:  Because you never know which tip will get you going again, 10 Great Ways to Jumpstart Your Creativity offers another slant on the topic.

15. YOU’D NEVER KNOW: Writers are always asked the same questions, so someone got the bright idea to invite some to ask themselves questions journalists never ask. Pages of clever insights via Questions that authors are never asked | Books | The Guardian.

16. CREATING OUT OF NOTHING: Novelist Andre Aciman talks about his creative process, saying he still prefers a kind of literary ambling, rather than a straight beeline toward his target. “The last thing I want to do is to write about real things,” he said. “I am not interested in reality and in real human beings and their real day-to-day problems—I just want to say to them, hold still, and I’m just going to unpack, see what’s inside.” http://wesleyanargus.com/2009/03/27/novelist-and-visiting-prof-andre-aciman-shares-his-creative-process/

17. BE HERE NOW: Write mindfully, suggest Anne Ihnen and Carolyn Flynn: “With mindful writing, you train yourself to sit and be with the page, even when you don’t like what you’re filling up the page with. . . . You spill your thoughts on the page as they come in. . . . we may notice as we are writing that we resist recording certain feelings. But because we are mindful as we write, noting body sensations and breath as well as the thoughts that spill forth, we notice the resistance. We notice what we struggle with, what we don’t want to commit to the page, or what we’d like to cross out from the page. We notice when our minds unleash a torrent of distractions—sending us wild, creative thoughts that have to do with anything and everything but the present moment(or the present moment of the moment we’re writing about).” From The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Mindfulness.

18. CONVERSATIONS ABOUT CREATIVITY: Who doesn’t like to hear how others do it? http://cecilvortex.com/swath/conversations_about_creativity/

19. DON’T EAT CHOCOLATE AND DESPAIR: If you give up after any rejection, you won’t make it as a writer. So says this wryly on-target blog post: http://www.shewrites.com/profiles/blogs/how-not-to-be-a-writer

20. NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN? The first nonfiction book of writing advice still has something to teach (though its author’s own first novel didn’t do well and he stopped trying): http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2010/11/how_to_write_like_a_victorian.html

21. 78 MORE INTERVIEWS: Each writer talks just enough to give you a taste of their creative process, who they are, and whether you’ll want to read their work. http://www.shewrites.com/profile/FiveQuestions

22. DON’T WRITE A MARY SUE: See this piece of writing advice from someone who reads a lot, and don’t miss her previous writing advice (linked within this post): A reader's advice to writers: Beware of Mary Sue - Laura Miller - Salon.com.

23. NOTHING OLD UNDER THE SUN: This is a great post , a compilation of advice major authors would write to their younger selves. #1: Could anyone else have written this thing?  If Yes, start again. http://arts.nationalpost.com/2010/05/16/steven-heighton-ten-year-memoranda/

24. YOUR RIGHT TO A WRITING RITE: A beginning-to-write ritual is one of the most common ways to start the process of entering a flow state. You needn’t bring a 300-calorie bagel or fatty bag of chips to the desk, nor a brain-spinning third cup of coffee. A stick of gum can do as well, or a tiny mint. Anything to signify crossing over from ordinary reality to the world of the story being concocted. As the scent of fresh donuts releases saliva in the mouth, the repetition of a writing ritual releases the brain chemistry of flow. And whether the change is psychological or electrochemical is beside the point. It certainly seems to have to do with neurons and how efficiently and wide-rangingly they connect and fire. 

25. MORE TIPS THAN YOU COULD EVER USE: Lifehack.org collected a huge (163 items) list of techniques for being more creative plus a long list of related books. Good luck! http://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifehack/essential-resources-for-creativity-163-techniques-30-tips-books.html

26. ON NOT “DOING BLOCKS”: Booker Prize-winning novelist Anne Enright’s fine essay: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/jan/03/fiction

27. BIGGEST CREATIVITY CRUSHER: Don’t stop to revise during your initial draft. At least per Peg Brantley, suspense novelist: http://suspensenovelist.blogspot.com/2009/01/1-creativity-crusher.html (But not every technique is perfect for everyone; remember that.)

28. TONS ‘O’ TIPS: Writer Jim Van Pelt listed all his blog’s writing posts in one place, divided by topic (several for “new writers”) http://jimvanpelt.livejournal.com/87625.html

29. GETTING BACK INTO FLOW:  Novelist David Gerrold was one of my favorite interviews for Writing in Flow. Here’s how he described getting back into the work after a break: “After I get the kid [all grown up now] off to school, I sit down. It's very rarely that I sit down enthusiastic and ready to go, unless there's a phrase that has occurred to me or a line of dialogue, a piece of business. My trick is to never stop at a stopping point. You get to the end of the chapter, and I always do the first couple of paragraphs of the next chapter, even if they're dreadful. What happens is I get into the work again by fixing something, and actually get into the work in depth by going through and re-reading parts of it, getting back into the mood. Because, based on my own experience, you need to recapture the enthusiasm. And where any book or story starts is with enthusiasm for a feeling, what it'll be like when it's done. You have this vision in your head of a place you want to visit and you start writing about it. And of course, in the act of the writing, what you write is nothing like what you originally thought you were going to do. In the act of writing, it changes. It's Heisenberg all over again. But you get back to that original emotion and experience of excitement by rereading."

30. WRITE SCIENCE FICTION? Then you’ll enjoy reading Ann Wilkes’ dozens of interviews with SF and Fantasy authors. The archive is on the right side of her blog’s home page. http://sciencefictionmusings.blogspot.com/

31. FICTION BEATS ESSAYS: According to Cynthia Ozick: "If you're going to write an essay, let's say about Henry James, you at least have a subject in hand, and you know something. If you're going to write fiction, you have nothing. You begin in chaos. You may have a smell, a scene, a word, an idea, an emotion. It seems to me that ideas and emotions are inseparable. Emotions may not always be ideas, but ideas are always emotions. In fiction you can come up with something that you never knew you knew. I think essays are, in this respect, inferior as a form to fiction, and that fiction itself is inferior to poetry." (from "An Interview with Cynthia Ozick” in The Writer's Chronicle by Dana Gioia)

32. DOWN WITH CLICHÉS: Authors have ways to ensure their novels aren’t flooded with tired phrasing. For instance, brilliant novelist Ian McEwan has three friends who read his stuff and sniff out clichés for him. More: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/feb/17/ian-mcewan-novelists-avoiding-cliches 

33. REWORK EVERY SENTENCE? According to novelist Chang-rae Lee, "The way I write is, it’s methodical to the point of pathology. I work through every sentence over and over again -- 10 times, 20 times. I can’t seem to move on until I get each sentence the way I want to leave it, until I get it -- I don’t know if right is the right word -- but I really work in those units. I like to put a lot of pressure and attention on every sentence. . . . [My method] "is not a great way to write long novels – it’s kind of torture. I don’t recommend it to my students." More: http://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S27/20/28K97/index.xml?section=featured

34. WRITE AWAY YOUR FEARS: Highly successful author Jodi Picoult has said she writes to protect herself from her fears. Her novels usually have mothers facing terrible things happening to their kids. “I write about all the horrible things that can happen to kids as a way of keeping those things from happening to mine,” Picoult is quoted as saying. “Write the books, spit three times over your shoulder and you’re safe.” (Though I’m not a huge fan of Picoult’s writing style, that mother-fear thing is exactly why I wrote Kylie’s Heel, so if you like Picoult’s subjects, check it out.) A Novelist-Mother Writes to Calm Her Fears - Motherlode Blog - NYTimes.com.

35. DISCONNECT, ONLY DISCONNECT: Jonathan Franzen has permanently disabled the internet capabilities of his ancient laptop, he said in an interview, and one of his cardinal rules of fiction writing is as follows: "It's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction."  http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/jonathan-franzen-greatness-one-sentence-at-a-time-2064056.html

36. SO MANY WRITING BLOGS: This collection of writing blogs was updated a couple of years ago, though I haven’t checked them all. I’ll leave that fun job for you. http://www.bestcollegesonline.com/blog/2012/07/02/the-top-100-creative-writing-blogs-updated/

37. A TALISMAN FOR ME, A TALISMAN FOR YOU: Melissa Donovan suggests creating a talisman for your writing. Might work: http://www.writingforward.com/creative-writing/creative-writing-talisman-2

38. ABANDON YOUR NOVEL? Novelists don’t publish—or even finish—everything they start. Read an essay about the many reasons writers who are well known for their published work quit working on a novel in the past. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/06/books/review/Kois-t.html

39. AIM FOR GREATNESS? When The New Yorker named 20 best writers under 40 back in 2010, they wrote this about how they chose: “What was notable in all the writing, above and beyond a mastery of language and of storytelling, was a palpable sense of ambition. These writers are not all iconoclasts; some are purposefully working within existing traditions. But they are all aiming for greatness: fighting to get our attention, and to hold it, in a culture that is flooded with words, sounds, and pictures; fighting to surprise, to entertain, to teach, and to move not only us but generations of readers to come.” (from http://www.newyorker.com/talk/comment/2010/06/14/100614taco_talk_editors)

40. GIVE YOUR CHARACTERS WHAT THEY DESERVE: According to Maeve Binchy, “I discovered when I started to write that I was much more of a moralist than I had believed myself to be. In my stories I always seemed to manage it that the good are rewarded and the bad are punished. I didn’t know that was the way I felt about things, and I wasn’t altogether pleased. It sounded a bit like a pantomime in which people cheer the hero and boo the villain. But then I decided that since this was obviously the way I felt I should examine it carefully and see if there was any merit in it. Eventually, I worked out that my characters should find their own salvation, that if people in my books created their own happiness then they deserved to be rewarded, and if they messed about and dithered then they deserved to fail.” (From The Maeve Binchy Writers’ Club, which features advice and info about getting published, with the contributions of ten writers, editors, and publishers, as well as short stores and journalism by Binchy.)

41. WORDS TO LIVE BY: A lot of pithy quotes and advice from a lot of sci-fi writers.: http://io9.com/5579212/words-to-live-by-advice-from-34-science-fictionfantasy-authors

42. MORE FUN STUFF ABOUT ARTISTS’ RITUALS: How we prepare to create can also keep us from ever actually starting. http://www.gwarlingo.com/2013/daily-rituals-how-artists-create-and-avoid-creating-their-art/  (Explore the site for additional posts about creativity.)

43. HOW TRUE: Said novelist A. S. Byatt. "'It's a terrible poison, writing. You just get to the point of your novel where you see the metaphor unfolding and you see the next three pages right in front of you, and the phone rings from school. And that completely interrupts your rhythm. ... I think there are a lot more important things than art in the world.' She paused, and smiled before adding, 'But not to me.'" (from "A Novelist Whose Fiction Comes From Real Lives" in the NY Times, by Charles McGrath)

44. WRITING WHEN OLD: Diana Athill was quoted as saying this at age 95: "Success in old age, when things have stopped really mattering, has a frivolous sort of charm unlike anything one experiences in middle age. It feels like a deliciously surprising treat."

45. A WRITER’S SOLACE: Novelist Howard Jacobson was quoted as saying this: "We seek solace in books, in solitary and sometimes fantastical thinking, in doing with words what boys who please their fathers do with balls. We look down on what our fellows like, and make a point of liking what our fellows don't. We become special by virtue of not being special enough. I doubt many writers were made any other way.”

46. YOU SUCK...AND YOU’RE AWESOME: Enjoy these 7 pieces of advice for would-be writers. So amusing, so true. http://thefastertimes.com/nonsensenews/2010/04/12/how-to-be-a-writer-although-you-probably-shouldnt-be-one/

47. NINE OUT OF 10 ISN’T BAD: Only tip #9 made me widen my eyes in horror. The rest are excellent. Agree? Disagree? How to Write a Great Novel: The Ten Best Fiction Writing Tips in Print.

48. PRAISE MEANS NOTHING: Will Self, novelist, claimed this in an interview: "The criticism, no matter how virulent, has long since ceased to bother me, but the price of this is that the praise is equally meaningless. The positive and the negative are not so much self-cancelling as drowned out by that carping, hectoring internal voice that goads me on and slaps me down all day every day."

49. ART + SCIENCE = COOL IDEAS: A wonderful essay by the ever cool and brilliant and funny and wise Tim Minchin. Science inspires, so don't let your art rule your head.

50. LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION. Not only location, but what you do once you’re located. Be more productive these five ways. http://www.positivityblog.com/index.php/2008/09/19/5-great-ways-to-create-a-more-productive-workspace/

51. TRAVEL TO WRITE...OR NOT? Lynne Sharon Schwartz, author of fiction, nonfiction, and essays, ponders the meaning of travel for a writer, in her book Not Now, Voyager (a Memoir). It's common to say that travel is totally positive, but Schwartz delves deeper: "While I was writing, I lost all taste for adventure—for venturing out into the world, that is. I had this task to do, and whatever was not that task was time stolen from it. When you are engaged on this journey, real travel is an interruption. You have to cut short your fantasy trip to pack real clothing in real suitcases and set off for someplace unrelated to your primary journey. The same paradox again: the writer has to go out into the world to know it, but the going out interrupts the crucial trip inwards, the making sense and shape of what you already know. This requires staying home and being quiet."

52. SO YOU WANNA BE A NOVELIST? Some good tips here. I wouldn’t try to act on them all at once. http://fairfieldwriter.wordpress.com/2014/04/24/is-that-all-there-is-the-aspiring-novelists-to-do-list-2/

Copyright (c) 2014 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel

Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and author. Her current focus is on the creative aspects of rationality and atheism.

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