20 Tips for Writers

by Sheila Bender

1. Writers write. Sit down with pen or pencil or at the keyboard and put words on the page. You can read them later.

2. Look for words and phrases that reoccur in your writing. Write about their strong meaning to you. You will find your work deepens.

3. Invent first, shape second, edit last: if you don’t allow yourself to be a mad scientist on the page there will be nothing to shape or edit later.

4. During your invention stage allow, allow, allow–although you have a topic and a plan, see what happens when you remain open to the images and characters that unexpectedly materialize. Even when you are shaping your invention, make room for surprises.

5. With main characters, figure out what they want and then create obstacles to the fulfillment of their desires; know what happens inside as well as outside the characters as they deal with the obstacles.

6. Go easy on adjectives–describe your subjects with nouns and metaphor.

7. Open a scene with something that draws the reader immediately into the situation–for instance, a conversation (even one line), a disturbance (silverware falling to the floor), or an entrance (a dog walks in the door).

8. Sensory details and proper nouns are important, even if you think others have similar experiences to yours–they want to live them again through your senses, just as if they are there.

9. Learn to love the revision process–90 percent of writing is revising. No one writes a masterpiece on the first draft.

10. To create psychological time in your writing, interrupt conversation and action to focus on the response the character or speaker is having to his or her environment in that moment. Describe objects and textures in the environment that catch the speaker or character’s eye; these include people, things, noises, smells, tastes and inner thoughts. Then return to the action.

11. Use a good dictionary to search out the history of a word that surprises you in your writing; there is often an important reason the word has entered your consciousness.

12. To turn a freewrite or journal entry into a poem, try putting the prose into couplets (the two lines do not have to rhyme). Next, make stanzas of about 4-6 couplets. Next, prune words that are now unnecessary.

13. Need a short story idea? Think of a place you have love. Think of the oddest or worst thing that ever happened to you. Make it happen to a character who is visiting the place you love.

14. Need to make a character interesting? Give that character a quirky obsession–i.e. with knowing what an ex-lover is doing, with kinds of cat litter, with unpasteurized cheese, for instance.

15. Writers cannibalize their own work. If you have written a poem about something it doesn’t meant you can’t also write a story about that same thing and an essay.

16. Check your intangibles–if you are using summarizing words often, you are hiding opportunities from yourself. Don’t say beautiful or amazing or dull–show what is beautiful, amazing or dull–give the details and the reader will experience the feeling rather than the being told what to feel.

17. Check exposition in poems and prose. What lines are merely filling the reader in with information that the writer wants them to have? Weave the necessary information in subtly through images, dialog and character reactions.

18. Put metaphors in the mouths of characters; they create tone, evoke experience and economically convey information. For instance, if a boy describes his desk as a rocket ship we immediately know he is young and imaginative and action-oriented.

19. Look through old letters, journals and clippings. Whatever raises questions for you is a good topic for writing (and researching for more of a story).

20. Claim teachers–reflect on writers who influenced you through their writing, lives and teaching. List what you have learned from each. Take note of how you use what you’ve learned.

Sheila Bender is the author of eight books on writing and publisher of WritingItReal.com, an online magazine for those who write from personal experience. She is the content partner for LifeJournal for Writers.