If you feel that your story or essay—particularly, but not exclusively, one that isn’t chronological—has more time references than it needs, that’s probably just about the right number. Remember, you have it all straight in your head, but you’re the only one who does.
One of the most important parts of sustaining a life as a writer—whether making a living at it, writing and publishing occasionally, or just being a person who writes—is having a community of other writers.
By that I mean at least one other writer. Someone, or ones, with whom you can talk about writing or not writing, story ideas, insecurities, ambitions, books, snacks, prompts, day jobs, the distractions and irritations of social media, the inspirations and opportunities of social media, the story you’re working on right now and the one you just can’t find your way into.
Fellow writers who are on your side. A person or group you can share work with, meet for coffee, or exchange spontaneous texts with. A community of one or more who get what you’re up to and won’t judge when your victories are small or be jealous when they’re big (or feel big to you even if they look small to the rest of the world).
Any way you can get this in your life, get it.*
*If you don’t have it, taking a class or workshop is the best way I know to find it. I say this not primarily as a writing teacher but as someone who found this as a student myself long ago.
Always give your work a title. Even if you think it sucks. Even if it’s essentially a place holder for a better one. Even if you’re just turning in a first draft to a workshop. Even if—as will almost certainly be the case should the piece be accepted by a commercial magazine, a newspaper, or a website with SEO (search engine optimization) concerns—your editor gives it an entirely different headline to suit the publication’s specific, and legitimate, needs.
The right title signals to the reader that you know what this story is about. In fact, pausing during the writing process to contemplate a title can be a good way to find that out for yourself (not to mention simply a nice break from the writing process).
Readers see the title, then read the story, and then—almost always, I believe, whether they’re consciously aware of it or not—go back to the start and revisit the title, at which point it acquires deeper resonance thanks to the story. As does the story, thanks to the title.
Read your work aloud. Don’t send it out without taking this step.
This is how to hear the unintended repetition and awkward phrasing that will clang in readers’ ears—because they’ll clang in yours as well. The places where you stumble will likely be spots that will trip up readers, too.
Print the story rather than reading it from a screen (though that’s better than nothing). Have a pen or pencil in your hand and mark it as you go.
You’ll hear the mistakes that spell check won’t find, that your eyes alone can’t see. It’s the time for your ears to do their part.
A good question to ask when someone you trust offers feedback on your story, article, or essay that you find yourself resisting, whether because it entails cutting a turn of phrase you love, adding an explanation you think ought to be obvious, restructuring that goes far beyond simple cutting and pasting, or any number of other changes that make your head ache or your heart break:
Am I writing this for myself or for the person reading it?
That’s not as snarky as it may look on the page. Think of it instead as a useful reminder that you’re in service to the story—and the story is in service to the reader.
Writing about dreams is tricky.
If you’re a reader who in real life likes hearing about friends’ nighttime rambles or of parsing your own, then they’ll work for you as a storytelling device—at least you’ll be open to them. If, however, your eyelids descend at the mention of dreams or you find the recaps near impossible to follow, the same thing can happen when encountering them on the page.
In both nonfiction and fiction, they tend to come off either as conveniences—tidy maps between points A and B (or G or V)—or as a deliberately indirect means of adding psychological complexity to a story or character. I can think of few tropes that are more a matter of personal taste (on the part of readers). Waking life is plenty interesting on its own, so just be sure the dream is worth it.
*I posted this, then had second thoughts and deleted it, and now am posting it again. The last thing I want to do is stifle creativity—just offering a perspective to think about.
It’s hard to write about the power of paragraphs without sounding like the narrator of a wildlife documentary for sixth-graders. (“Our industrious friend the paragraph!”) But here goes.
A paragraph break is among the most underrated writing tools. It not only helps organize your thoughts and serves practical purposes such as separating speakers in dialogue (always separate speakers in dialogue!); it can also lend emphasis, visually air out a dense story, or give readers a nanosecond to absorb a thought before moving on.
Nothing but long paragraphs can make your writing a chore to read, no matter how beautiful the words. Too many short ones and it’s choppy. By the same token, a deliberately crafted one-sentence—or one-word—paragraph can stop a reader cold (in a good way).
Paragraph mindfully. It’s part of the writing—and, even more important, editing—process.
One morning a while back, I tweeted: “Don’t write like everyone else.”
A coworker replied: “But how can you always tell? I sometimes can’t.”
I said: “Let me get back to you. Eating breakfast and reading the paper. Where everyone writes like everyone else.”
The next day, I messaged her: “I wish I'd thought of a nifty, concise answer before tweeting that! Part of what inspired it was the echo chamber I see in writing, especially online—the same rhythms, the same catchphrases, in many cases the same ‘insights.’ Best I can say is when something sounds familiar to you as the writer, that’s a signal to do it differently. Not just clichés but anything—the tics that everyone out there is using.”
They say—and I believe—that one of the best ways to write better is to read a lot. But sometimes, counterintuitively, maybe you need to read a little less to drown out the echo chamber and let your own voice take shape, in silence.
Sometimes it’s enough just to put sentences together. Not write a story. Not complete a draft or bang out 1,000 words for the day or come up with a new idea. Just tell yourself, “I’m going to put some sentences together.” That alone has value and beauty and sinew. That alone is honest work.
Anytime you write “there is,” ask yourself whether you can think of a more active formulation of the same statement. (In that sentence, I actually started typing "...ask yourself whether there’s a more active formulation…”)
“There is/are” isn’t necessarily to be avoided at all costs, but more often than not it gets in the way of your subject. This isn’t just my personal preference. Whole articles have been written on the topic. Such a phrase is known grammatically as an expletive, defined as “a word or other grammatical element that has no meaning but is needed to fill a syntactic position, such as the words ‘it’ and ‘there’ in the sentences ‘It’s raining’ and ‘There are many books on the table.’ ”
Compare “There are two people who have changed my life” with “Two people have changed my life”: The first one hesitates; it backs into the room. The second makes you sit up and listen.