Ten Ways To (Seriously) Improve Your Writing

Author Margaret Atwood attends a reading at Ed...
Margaret Atwood: "Put your bum in the chair!" Image via Wikipedia

It’s commonly said, (among writers who do it for their living), that blood to a surgeon is like rejection to a writer — a necessary part of every day’s work.

Whether a surgeon likes blood is irrelevant. Do professional writers — and ambitious amateurs — enjoy rejection? Irrelevant.

It’s not a game for delicate souls, whether you are paid for your work or hope to, or do not.

I’ve earned my living selling my writing since my sophomore year of college; here are ten issues professionals/ambitious writers take seriously:

1) Study writing. No, you don’t have to sign up to be an English major or get an MFA or try to get into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But if you truly want to improve your work, you’ll put your bum in the chair (as Margaret Atwood told me when I asked her how to write) and put your work before the skilled, experienced eyes of a teacher. That might be a workshop, a writers’ group led by a professional, an on-line class. Great writing, like everything that’s excellent, demands discipline and some training.

2) Study with more than one teacher. Every writing teacher has his or her quirks and habits, and the worst students learn to mimic them in order to curry favor. Bad idea.

3) Know what you want to say. Simply emoting about your mean Dad or drunk Mom may feel terrific and be cathartic for you, but without adding clarity, insight and polish, it’s rarely sufficiently satisfying to your readers. What larger, ongoing, universal truth(s) do you also plan to elucidate?

4) It’s all about the reader. Not you. Not impressing your BFF or writing pals whose enthusiasm and support are lovely, but ultimately totally distracting. They are to a writer’s growth as a Mom’s cheering your soccer game are to a coach’s whistle, drills and experienced observations.

5) Who is your reader? Who do you want to read your material? Everyone. Bah! Think again. Car manuals and cellphone instructions and IKEA literature are written to appeal to “everyone.” Who’s your best reader? Do you crave the undivided attention of suburban moms? Ex-addicts? Current addicts? Fellow lovers of hummingbirds/hiking/sushi/petanque? Decide who you most want to grab by the lapels and write for them. Because not everyone is going to love your work. If they do, be very nervous. It’s not necessarily a good sign.

6) Read your work out loud. Yup. Your dog/cat/budgie won’t mind a bit.  Artists look at their paintings in a mirror to catch it from a different angle. Reading your words out loud immediately alerts you to their cadence, rhythm, alliteration. Do they sound good? Do you want to hear more?

7) Let it cool down. Baked goods removed from the oven and consumed too soon — before cooling into the finished product — shred, crumble and waste the energy you spent creating them. Good writing should wait a while before it’s consumed by anyone other than yourself. Great writing can wait even longer. Write something and put it aside for 20 minutes, two days, two months. It will always read better after distance and reflection because you’ll see its flaws and have the dispassion with which to fix them.

8) Criticism is key to success. You’ve got to put your work out there — for review, criticism, thoughtful replies. Your work must be read by serious and ambitious writers/teachers/agents/editors. Some of them will have the skill to offer helpful insights, (some of which may surprise you or make you uncomfortable), and the generosity to do so.

9) You are not your writing. Until or unless you can separate yourself from the most intimate and private thoughts you share publicly, you’re toast — because you’ll overly personalize even thoughtful-but-challenging comments on your work as an attack on you. Wrong! As one pro writer friend told me, when I had to revise 10 chapters (there are only 12!) of my new memoir: “You’re a mechanic. Fix the engine.”

10) Rejection is essential. For many reasons. It means you’re actually putting your work and ideas out into the intellectual marketplace. Picture a bustling farmers’ market. Is everyone selling the same amount as quickly? Probably not. They know, and hope for, the best — a percentage of their goods to sell. If they go home with an empty truck, score! But they are wise not to expect it because they, like many others, took the risk of working hard to grow it, truck it and put it out for sale. No farmer expects buyers to coo over the beauty of their rutabagas. They have nutured their products with much hard work — but are able to remember that they are selling a product.

I have sold two non-fiction books to two commercial publishers. (And written another four or five  full-length book proposals, circulated to many editors, that did not sell.) I’ve been through six agents, three of whom were very good, one of which — the final one — is truly excellent.

She’s very tough! We’ve even had shouting matches on the phone, as two hard-headed perfectionists hammer it out. Better to have so demanding an expert than some chatty, happy milquetoast who can’t sell my stuff.

Every day, these editors and the agents who put our work before them, are inundated with competitors. Both of my books were rejected by 25 others before they were bought. My agents kept on plugging because, as good agents do, they believed in the projects and in me.

What if  I’d just given up, in floods of weeping and teeth-gnashing despair, after the 11th or 14th — or second — rejection?

Here’s a great post on this subject. And another.

230 thoughts on “Ten Ways To (Seriously) Improve Your Writing

    1. Thank you so much for such valuable pointers on good writing. However much one is grammatically correct or has the ability to use good words, there are always pitfalls that one may get into. Thanks once more.

  1. I love to read writing help grounded in reality, instead of quick-fix or gimmick solutions. Here, I read “do the tough work and stay committed.”

    Thank you for this. It is better encouragement than any shouting soccer mom.

    Also: I love your numeral ‘8’ and I think “milquetoast” is my new favorite word.

    1. Christy, criticism is extremely difficult for many writers. When I got my revisions (i.e. fix all this or your book won’t get published!) I freaked out a little. OK, a lot. It’s very hard to put yourself out there on the page and then remember that this has to sell (if it’s going to be published) and compete with many other terrific writers — who DID do their revisions. (Or maybe didn’t need any.) My agent on my new memoir pointed out to me, quite clearly, that a manuscript that goes directly to the printer (unlikely) is not necessarily a better one, often the opposite.

  2. Thanks for the excellent advice. Much of that I instinctively knew, but it helps to see it written. The part that confused me was when you said it’s not necessarily a good sign when everyone loves your work. Why the heck not?? 🙂

  3. girlonthecontrary

    Excellent post! Not only are these tips helpful, they are honest, and I needed to read them. Now, I’m going to take a deep breath and finally, finally, submit my work. Thank you.

  4. I can’t say that I totally agree with the first point. It seems to deny the great tradition of self-taught writers, uneducated writers, or writers of the street. Frankly, it sounds elitest. How many of our literary classics were written by people with little or no formal education?

    1. It’s not elitist, she said defensively.

      I’ll tell you why I believe it very strongly. No one is great at everything! Sorry. No one. I once worked on a novel, a medical thriller, and was part of a small workshop of fellow writers — none of them professional writers. One wrote fantastic dialogue (but couldn’t describe anything well); another did fantastic plotting but her characters were weak and dull. Everyone loved my characters — but a friend who wrote for TV pointed out that they all sounded alike. I did make a very clear statement that this does NOT have to be some fancy MFA or 4-year degree. It can be a few night classes or a workshops or something on-line.

      I think very, very, very few writers can’t benefit from fresh eyes and ears on their material. Asking your friends for their feedback is likely not going to do it, unless they are all extremely skilled writers themselves. In which case, lucky you!

  5. Thanks so much for sharing. I have a degree in Journalism and am a copywriter by trade, but I still constantly look for ways to make my free-time writing its very best. My blog has been a great practice, and someday I plan to actually sit down and write my first novel. I can’t wait till that time, and I’m glad there are posts like this out there to keep me on the right track!

  6. Inheritance Advice

    I like it. That bit on rejection – pure niceness.
    Might I be so bold however as to suggest you omited to mention a fundament of wrting, or perhaps it would be begging the question – a facility with the Engligh language. I find it elevating when I encounter well writen works, they bring to life the saying ‘brevity is the soul of wit’. Beautiful writing is balletic (or as football entusiasts might put it, it’s like watching Brazil) and graceful. It is always the right length.

  7. roundrockgarden

    These are all truly helpful points. I struggle with #9 and #10. I am working on a couple of book projects and much of the subject matter revolves around deeply personal feelings and spiritual inclinations. I grow frustrated when the words can’t adequately express what I am feeling. The words become like stone on paper, when inside, they are fluid and dynamic. I have to remember that I am not my writing. This is equally important when others read my work. I tend to have a thin-skin and need the reassurance of others, so when this not very forthcoming, I am inclined to scrap the project. I haven’t yet submitted any work for publication, but I can imagine that rejection will be something I will need to grow a thicker skin to. Thanks for the advice and tips!

    1. I hear you. Reassurance is really, really important, but not at the cost of asking for — and being able to hear — clear, honest feedback.

      On my second book (and my first book), I had five “first readers”. My second book is a memoir, so much if it is so personal I feel extremely uncomfortable, but that’s my job! It’s getting out of my comfort zone — several of those “first readers” were very blunt and suggested taking some material out because it was so personal it was actually distracting to the reader. I didn’t see that, but they did and they told me. They reassured me that the book, overall, was good — but it did need work to be(come) much better. So you need a mixture of both reassurance and tough love.

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  9. What a wonderful post! It really helps me to hear from people who went through rejection but eventually did get to the “promise land”. And can I just gasp in awe that you got writing advice from Margaret Atwood?

    Thank you for this! What a pleasure to read!

  10. Thank you for your posts. They are definitely good advice and I shall not only keep them in mind but also take some action. I’m going to have to start reading my writing outloud! Thank you 🙂

  11. Thank you. I knew there were definite differences between real writers and amateur bloggers but was unclear as to what they were. This post, and the others linked, clarify exactly what they are.

  12. I wonder at the idea of being able to separate oneself from “the most intimate and private thoughts you share publicly.” It seems so foreign but may well be true. Personally, it may be easier said than done. However, if I demand perfection, then I stop writing before I start. So, some separation from it must occur to be able to tap the first key.

    1. It may not be easy and it may not be do-able all the time, but I think it’s worth considering. The problem with a lot of “personal” writing — so much of what is on the Internet — is that it’s too personal (in my view) and overly confessional. No matter how much you want to bare your soul and talk about whatever, do your readers really care? Just because it’s deep, heavy stuff (i.e. inherently dramatic) doesn’t make it de facto compelling. It’s just….heavy and personal.

      Define “perfection.” No one can! It’s a goal that will stop anyone in their tracks. One phrase I love is “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” i.e. you can produce nothing, ever, if you insist on “perfect” when you can likely create something good once you get started. Maybe very very very good.

  13. This really help me to write something I would like to start. Thanks and I will copy into my file so i can see anytime like a book 😀 I want to be like you oneday !!

  14. I saw this post when I logged into WordPress and I’m glad I did! It’s always great to be reminded of certain things about writing. Number five is one that’s been on my mind a lot lately. I just read that Stephen King book about writing and he takes it a step further, suggesting that we have one specific person in mind to write “to” (for him, it’s his wife). I don’t go quite that far, but it helps focus your writing so much when you have an ideal reader in mind.

    1. One of the most difficult things about blogging — for me, anyway – is having NO idea who’s reading my stuff. That can make you dumb it down or bland it out or try to appeal to everyone. No. I don’t want everyone! There are entire swaths of readers I just don’t want. I know who I do want, and I hope to find millions of them, but I know my voice and POV can be polarizing and unappealing to some.

      It’s counter-intuitive; why don’t you want everyone everywhere to read you? Because….we don’t get along with everyone everywhere, but the people with whom we deeply connect will (and do) become our most passionate readers, fans and advocates. There are people who adore X writer (who I hate) and I love Y. That’s the challenge. Who do you you (most) want?

    1. A dear friend, a fellow author and blogger, emailed me this advice a few months back when I faced 10 chapters’ worth of revisions and wanted to hide in a closet. Lucky for me, he wouldn’t allow it.

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  16. newauthoronamazon

    Writing is me. I’m never happier than when I am writing something. Its this intense love that I have for words and the english language. Ever since I can remember I have been reading, reading and …reading. So I suppose the next natural progression was to write and write some more…though I have, as of now, just finished my first book…MasterMind. It is my baby…my creation…and I love talking about it.

  17. First of all,
    1. Congratulations for being Freshly Pressed. So very well deserved.. ! 🙂
    2. Very inspiring and very well written for us all to reference from time to time, and thanks for that..
    3. Because you are big on criticism and questioning the writer’s intent, I would like to ask
    a. To your 6) I love reading it out to the hubby and and kids, even though they hate me for “tying them up” and reading my piece.. :)) Thank you so much for making me feel better!
    b. To your 7) I like my cookies to cool down too, but unfortunately, more than a few times I have found that the topic after my multiple revisions isn’t so much of a hot topic anymore or probably it has lost its relevance.. I am very disappointed in myself in those circumstances.
    c. To point 9) Isn’t that contradictory or are you telling us to not get emotionally wrapped up in the flow. Because without feeling the emotions inside you, how will you actually be putting out your writings, I don’t seem to understand.
    d. To point 10) I honestly haven’t had a chance to feel too much of rejection.. Because everyone who visits, are very sweet and leave me great messages, but I also want to see what works and what doesn’t.. Or do I assume that if I have 10 clicks that day, and only 2 comments, 8 other people also had read it but did not bother to leave a comment because it was not so pretty?
    4. And finally I love the Surgeon reference, whether he likes blood or not, he needs to do his job.. So, I guess, we just need to write irrespective of rejection because that is what we have chosen to do.
    Thanks much!

    1. Thanks much…6) I am very grateful to date/marry/live with men who allow me to do this. I don’t do it a lot, but it’s so helpful to hear the words. We forget that words have, and should have, a rhtymic beauty to them. We may not notice that when we are reading (consciously notice), but it resonates. 7) I assume (?) you are referring to blog posts only? Timeliness does matter for news-y topics. It helps to be able to write quickly and tightly. I wouldn’t be disappointed. Maybe try to write more tightly or think through your points so you know exactly what you want to say — and can post it more quickly? 9) Emotions are challenging. It is a thin line between confession (icky) and sharing something that really strikes a chord in your readers. If you feel something SO deeply, you can lose the big(ger) picture and, in this way, shut out your readers. It becomes too intimate, more a diary entry than writing for others. 10) This is a really interesting point you raise.

      I think the silence is telling….maybe they were bored? Indifferent? Is your voice strong? Your point of view passionate? Women, especially, are taught “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.” Not helpful! I studied interior design and when I had to show my work to the entire class for group criticism (very common in design and architecture classes)…silence! I could feel all those nice ladies not wanting to say “HUH?! I hate this!” So they said nothing.

      Rejection is a good way to determine your level of commitment. I won my National Magazine Award for a story I wrote for a Canadian women’s magazine. I had sent it to Womans’ Day, a very big US women’s magazine and the editor laughed prettily at the notion they would use it. So….go figure!

      1. Thanks for analyzing my questions for me, yes 7) is for breaking news and my opinion about them or something like that.. Maybe I will just think through quickly and just pen it down 🙂
        And 9) Oh, no, no personal confessions and other melodramatic details of my life in the blog.. 🙂 So, I think now I understand what you were talking about.
        Wow, your lessons and experiences enhance my patience level, after all I just submitted my first opinion article to a local news paper magazine and it has been rejected.. Thanks for your time Caitlin, appreciate it.

  18. Thanks for this post! You’ve reassured me that my bouts of doubtfulness about each piece I write make of me a ‘writer’. I feel that rejection in fact has grown on my skin. It’s true. A writer desiring to be serious about the craft must sign up for workshops. If she can, it would be best in any of those conducted in Manhattan. My writing was torn to pieces in those classes on fiction writing I attended at NYU and Gotham Writers. But the uniqueness of my voice and language was also unraveled. It has been thirteen years since I leaped from journalism in a country where English is spoken, written with but not ‘lived’ to daring to write and compete in North America. This realization about my bilingualism I have to grapple with as well but I haven’t given up. I’ve had a few published poems including haiku and non-fiction pieces–even two awards–but four times of what I’ve received are rejection notes. I’ve since learned not to submit blindly but take heed of the line in calls for submission to ‘read past issues here’. Still, sometimes I insist on sending a piece I so love. Thanks again for this post. Now I feel ‘legit’!

  19. Thank you so much for this post, it helped me a lot! And funnily enough I chuckled at your comment that everyone loving your work is not necessarily a good thing,I think it’s totally true! “When you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to reconsider.”

    I’m definitely coming back to your blog!

    1. Thanks so much. I posted this material on another group site, one in which a very clear style of post consistently win favor, and much of it is not writing that will travel much further beyond the confines of that comfy community. Some people were enraged that I dared offer advice. It’s been interesting to see the reactions here…

    1. Thanks!

      For what it’s worth, I actually had writer’s block this year for the first time in my life. Ever. I could not get back to my memoir, scared of all the work I had to re-do. It helped to go away and focus on other parts of the work before I could find the confidence and distance from the material. Writers’ block is tough.

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  21. I loved this informative post! Great advice that I will certainly keep in mind. Also, loved the reference to Margaret Atwood. I was blessed to enjoy a Q&A session with her through my university’s writing program, and everything she said was scribbled down and obsessively recorded. She’s truly a phenomenal writer, such an inspiration.

    1. She’s interesting, Ms. Atwood.

      She and I attended the same Toronto high school (a few decades apart!) and, when I was the editor of our school newspaper, she became my first ever celebrity interview. I was terrified, but she was very nice. It was really funny because we were studying one of her books in my English classes and I knew we’d have it on our exam.

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  23. Great piece. Like you say, writing success starts with getting the butt in chair and producing. So many times I force myself to just start writing. I don’t always know where I’m going to end up, but often the best stuff just begins to appear like magic. No one makes it without rejection. You’ll probably get enough form letters to wallpaper your office before really hitting it. Congrats on your success.

    1. Thanks much. It is SO easy to do almost anything but produce, because….what if it’s no good? So much easier to procrastinate and fantasize about how great it will be rather than face what’s actually in front of you.

      Depending what sort of writing you do, (I write only non-fiction and journalism), I tend not to get rejection form letters as I almost only approach editors with whom I have a personal connection. The more you network with other good writers (and are, of course, an ethical and generous person!), the easier it is to get introductions to editors and agents from people who know them and trust them. There are so many writers competing for limited budgets and attention that editors and agents will always go for people who come (highly) recommended to them first.

  24. Just felt like a wish been granted for me! Wanted to improve my writing before I even think of submitting proposals to editors/publishers. Thanks a lot!!!!!!!!!

  25. Delorfinde

    Really good tips, especially for a young, aspiring writer like me. Thanks! I’m just trying for publishing for the first time, but I’m not expecting much.

  26. Hmm this definitely is helpful.. I am a writer, but don’t do the workshopping thing yet. I need to.
    Thought you might want to check out my collaborative blog – Dysfunctional Beginnings – with material about growing up, and beginnings of all kinds. Would love for you to check it out sometime, and let me know what you think. And, if you feel inspired, I’ve love for you to contribute sometime.
    You seem to lead this incredibly romantic and versatile life! Bringing romanticism to writing.
    Hope to speak with you soon!!


    And here’s a link to a piece I wrote recently, of which I am very proud. http://wp.me/p125y8-25

  27. Broadside Blog helped me broadside myself with everything I have heard at one time or another… but you did so with an ‘at ease’, manner of fact approach! Thank You!
    I feel; 1)As not alone in this, 2)A little more charged, and 3) More focused as to what NOT to be doing with my time!
    Peace, Denise

    1. Thanks! It’s very easy to feel like all the struggles are all our fault, alone, when I find talking to my colleagues shows me that’s not true at all. I have a few dear friends, all authors, I can turn to for help and feel lucky to have them in my court.

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  31. “It’s all about the reader”. Up until now, I’ve mostly been writing what pleases me, and as it so happens, a few people happen to like it too. I suppose in time I will grow out of myself, and flow more towards my readers (be they actual or mythical).

    1. This is why I don’t read many blogs. They’re too “mememememememe” with no notion that readers are very, very, very busy people. What’s the point you are trying to make? Why should they give you — or me — or anyone — their time and attention?

      This is a lesson one learns, immediately, in journalism. If someone won’t read past the first paragraph, even sentence, I’ve just wasted my skill, time and employer’s money. I think it’s a useful thing to bear in mind.

      I just finished my second non-fiction book (out April 2011) and everyone is asking, “So who’s your reader?” I have to be able to answer that question quickly and confidently.

  32. Thanks for that information. This is a piece I was asked to produce in response to ‘What makes a good writer?’ (150 words)

    Avin gud grammer, like!

    A sense of humour perhaps, and knowing if, and when this can be applied.

    Inextricably linked to any piece, can be the intended audience. The overall ‘feel’ of the magazine, journal, ‘blog’ should also be taken into consideration.

    The marriage between reader and publisher requires constant attention, for instance, is the article meant to inform, excite or cajole specific emotions into existence?

    Correct use of language, structure, pace, and tense can be essential attributes, as can a deeper understanding of the potential impact of text, and how it may influence the reader.

    Effective time management, ideas, creativity, enthusiasm and knowledge of subject area play their parts too, as can sweating it out until 3am in the morning, should this be necessary!

    The art of being a good writer is to capture the science of writing and create something memorable.

    That’s one hundred and fifty words exactly!

    I would love some feedback on my writing:


    Love, peace and jam sandwiches x

  33. Robert Moscaliuc

    I’m really happy I found this post. I’ve been trying to write something for a while now and have fought with the thought of giving up because I’ve worked for a magazine during my college years and read a lot of books, and the only thing that struck me was the fact that some writers simply did not take into consideration their readership and consequently failed to impress me. There is this general opinion that the ‘art of fiction’ cannot be studied and learned and that the art of writing is just an intelligent mode of concealing things from the eye of the reader. The more ambiguous you are, the greater your artistry. Yes, literature is that, but also everything else.
    ‘Let it cool down’ is an excellent piece of advice, the temporal distance between the moment of writing and that of reading is essential, it helps you objectify your piece.
    Thanks again.

    1. It is so crucial to get some distance – temporal and emotional (often the same) — from our writing. It’s so easy to get so attached to a phrase or an idea or a paragraph or a chapter. I started to write my new memoir simply too soon after living it, i.e. mere weeks after quitting the retail job which is the book’s focus. I had way too many feelings to sort through and think through and craft. Not simply record, but WRITE. Big difference.

      Glad you found this helpful!

  34. One of the most important pieces of advice is missing (even if, to a part, over-lapping with 1. and 2.):


    Read what others have written—and read actively: Try to find out why a particular sentence (word, chapter, book, plotline, character, …) springs out as unusually good or poor, consider why the author made this-or-that choice, ask what you would have done differently and what you could learn from the comparison, etc.

    The same principle of studying the works of others, obviously, is not limited to writing, but applies to any field that it is not trivial in character.

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  36. wellcraftedtoo

    Like your comments re rejection, and the central role it plays in writing. Hard to get used to, but absolutely necessary. In 09, I ran into a nasty spate of rejections–or what felt then to be ‘nasty’ (now I know better!). Here’s some of my takes on rejection, submissions, and the writing process:



    Thanks for your other suggestions for improving writing.

    Might I add ‘taking one’s time, and developing the patience to finely craft this art form’? The more mature a writer I become the more I respect the amount of sheer learning that goes into creating effective manuscripts!

    1. Thanks for your comment….I agree entirely that it takes time to actually develop some skill. Thank heaven you get that; these days people think writing is dead easy and often show very little respect for anyone who thinks otherwise.

  37. Your #5 hit home with me! I write for a living – non fictional travel literature – and always have a certain idea who I’m writing for. However, my so called ‘personal project’ has suffered for a while, because it lacks direction. And by reading your #5 I realized it’s because I haven’t sat down to suss out who my target audience is. So thanks a million for this and all the other pieces of sound advice. Oh, and best of luck with your future publications! ALL of them!

    1. Thanks so much!

      I think the Internet has made this much more difficult because we have no idea who’s out there.

      I have spent my career, until 2009 when I began blogging, writing only for newspapers and magazines — and every single one has a very distinct audience. I write for The New York Times and Wall Street Journal and USA Today. They are all big national dailies…but if you read them (carefully) they are clearly aimed at very different audiences. That was always extremely helpful as I can see their different readers in my head.

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  39. Excellent tips! When I first started writing (I’m a historian), my boss told me that I should walk away from my writing a bit and return to it later (#7). Since then, this has been an essential part of my writing whenever I realize that words and sentences aren’t coming out as they should.

    Thanks for your post!

  40. I need to keep reminding myself that intial failure is going to be more likely than intial success. Now I’m going to read that out loud as #6 suggests. Alright, sentence sounds good, but the content is brutal and depressing. Twenty-five rejections?! Congrats on grinding away at it and getting published (and being Pressed). It’s inspirational to the rest of us.


    Chase McFadden

    “Some Species Eat Their Young”

  41. I enjoyed your post immensely. I started blogging a while back as a way to self-publish my thoughts and observations and witticisms; I have received so much support and encouragement that I am hoping to someday soon garner the courage to submit my words elsewhere. Thanks, especially, for the “rejection is essential” tip; I know rejection will be inevitable, but I’m hoping I will have the same determination to keep trying.

    1. Thanks! Rejection is miserable but useful — it has taught me, for example, that my “voice” is simply unsuited to some audiences (i.e. most women’s magazines.) I could spend a lot of energy being sad or annoyed — or say “Know what? It’s just not me!” and move on (as I did) to markets that do want my voice and ideas, often on business and newspapers.

      I think the key, once you do start submitting work for publication, is to not take anything personally!!! It’s all a business and every consumer magazine (for example) is focused on a set of demographics that appeal nicely to advertisers. Often, you are rejected because you don’t “get” the magazine (if that’s your goal) and haven’t zeroed in on their tone, voice and style.

  42. I have that last piece of advice, reading voraciously and analyzing, down to a science. As an aspiring author it helps to just basically see written down ‘put your big girl panties on and deal with it’. Thank you.

  43. Katie, I think (just my opinion) that if you try to please everyone you will end up pleasing no one — i.e. it often creates a bland, generic institutional voice, not the quirky, strong narrator you’re eager to follow. Pick up a few business books (some are amazing but many are not) and you’ll see this right away, that sort of hearty boosterish tone that appeals to….? I think one of the most crucial elements of much great writing is voice. Whose voice are we listening to? Think about it — does everyone listen to us with equally rapt attention in real life? Not likely. As writers, I think we have to decide who we really want as readers — and go get ’em!

    Michael, of course. These are but 10 ideas — and there are many more. It is essential to read widely and well. Not only do you learn a great deal, but I think, oddly enough, it can strengthen your own voice as you discover you are just like X or maybe 20% less than Y…or maybe you don’t sound like anyone else and that’s OK. I was reading several memoirs as I wrote mine to examine a number of issues, from chapter length to tone.

  44. Ishana

    I agree with michaeleriksson and disagree with point 4. If you just sit and focus on what other people will like or won’t like, you’ll end up with writer’s block. Write for yourself, first, then go back and open it up to appeal to a wider audience.

    Everything else is spot-on, in my opinion. I’m also a fiction writer, not non-fiction like yourself, so my opinions may very well differ.

    One thing I always tell other aspiring writers (like myself) is to never give up. Thing don’t go well? Try again. Still no good? Try again, maybe try something new. Just like you said, what if you give up on something that could be really great? Don’t give up — keep at it!

    Thanks for the post!

    1. I think never giving up….on being a writer…is good. But there are pieces of writing that may need to be ditched.

      I like your idea of trying something new…my first book was journalistic (i.e. interviews with others) and my second is a memoir. Shriek! It was very challenging indeed to try a new genre and write more personally. But I think it taught me a lot.

  45. I really, really like how every single one of these (I think?) can be applied to both fiction and non-fiction writing. Whether it is a science-fiction novella or web content at semi-pro rates, excellent material here.

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  47. What a wonderful list and something that should be passed around. Point 8 should jump off the page, it seems so many writers I know are unwilling to hear it.

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  50. Colin L Beadon

    Write it. leave it a week or more. Re-read it, aloud, and hear if it flows, re-write the parts that don’t make sense or flow. Leave it a week or more. Don’t think about it but start writing something else. Don’t talk about what you write, or show it to anybody. Re-read it again, aloud e.t.c Now this is for short stories. It is just once in a blue moon a story will write itself perfectly the first time.
    You just have to have enough guts to stay the course. Me ? it took me seven years to first get printed.

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  52. Apes T. Sistem

    I think it’s one of the most useful posts I’ve read on the net.

    It may result a bit weird but the point I’ve liked the most is the one about waiting some time before reading your work again. Now I figure out why I find quite childish the things I wrote some years ago (and sadly I’ll probably think the same about my future blog some years from now on… ^^).

    Talking about it, maybe most of the people might find this just interesting, but I think every blogger should read your post (or similars, let’s give a chance to others) before starting to write their owns.

    P.D: Another post I’ve found really interesting is the nº5 (“Who’s your reader”?). As a student of Advertising and Public Realations, I normaly call it “Target audience”, and it’s essential to define it before doing anything.

    P.D.2: Sorry if my English is not too clear, consecuences of the Ed. System on Spain… (sigh*)

  53. Reuben

    When I pick up the pen to write, I almost always experience some sort of transformation within myself. It is a sort of scraping out of what is crying to be given light, but never would, or not in a useful way if I did not put it on paper. Even if it is my own blood, which it often is, it is a move toward a saner me.

  54. I absolutely loved your blog post! I’m just a teenager, and I’ve constantly got my journal or laptop with me, so I can write wherever I am. I use writing as a way for me to express myself, but I think it’d be an interesting career to look into as I get older. Your advice was much needed. Thanks! And congrats on being such a successful author.

  55. hoff

    Very insightful. I appreciate that you include criticism is key to success. I think we tend to look at criticism as a negative instead of the potential growth that can learn from it.

    1. Criticism can sting and it can be offered in a mean spirit, or by people who really don’t have your best interests at heart. But if you are careful and lucky and diligent enough to find some good editors, you can, and will, learn a lot. My second book is a lot stronger than the first because of all the revisions I had to make.

  56. oh man, if I had a box of bic pens for everytime an editor told me NO. I’d be able to write for 100 years, in ink.

    Amen sister. These are great tips to post on the wall and read them often. Thank you

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      1. by all means feel free to critize my writing as you read and drop me a comment or email i have taking some technical writing courses at the post secondary level but am always looking for ways to improve this craft! 🙂

  58. These are really great advices!!
    I’m struggling writing/refining essays in English (which is not my mother tongue), and what you’ve mentioned just happened exactly on myself: personalize others’ critics as attack on myself; can’t have a fresh eye to identify gaps until days later……
    This article illuminate & re-energize me a lot!! Sincere thanks~

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  60. Elaine

    Wow! I just ran across your post while researching blogs and blog hosts as I plan to begin a blog of my own. Your insights have given me a lot to think about as I begin this new endeavor. Thank you so much for your post!

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  62. I would add an 11th item which is to develop your creative thinking. This can be done in many ways and to keep things fresh you should aim for variety but word games should be an essential part of this mix (especially for a writer). Check out my website (click my name) for a few examples.

    1. I agree. In another reply in this thread, I highly recommend The Creative Habit by choreographer Twyla Tharp. It changed my thinking.

      What other methods do you use?

      I take “hooky days” — and leave the bloody computer far behind. I go to a museum or read or go to my drawing class.

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  64. Excellent advice. I like the reading out loud suggestion–it is amazing how I can identify mistakes and parts that need to be improved simply by hearing the draft being read.

  65. This is some really great advice! For me, the first point is the one that makes the most impact – get your butt in the chair and write! Don’t wait around for divine inspiration…to watch one TV program…read one more page of a novel…proscrastinate because you’re (ahem!) scared of looking at that empty page. (That was really hard to admit!)

    1. The blank page has been scaring the hell out of writers for millennia — maybe a blank papyrus scared some poor ancient Egyptian!

      My absolutely favorite book is “The Creative Habit” by choreographer Twyla Tharp. No, it’s not technically about writing and in that lies its value to anyone who’s creative. It’s a truly smart, TOUGH, inspiring book — she has no fantasy that inspiration “strikes”. You get up every single day and WORK at your art/craft.

      One of her many ideas is to have a box, a physical space, in which you toss everything associated with a specific project: paintings, photos, clips, books, anything. Then it’s all in one place; so many great ideas are inter-related and feed off one another. I think it’s almost impossible to have a useful thought in isolation….

  66. Thank you for this article. I love to write and I’ve sent many query letters only to get rejected. I’ve been so afraid of putting myself back out there, that I stopped sending them for a while. This gives me hope.

  67. I suppose I shouldn’t wear my heart on my sleeve. Rejection hurts! Ouch! But then again, a pat on the back unfounded doesn’t help the writer in me grow.

    Thanks for the tips. 🙂

    1. Tuck your heart in your pocket if you really want to improve. Readers don’t want your heart, but your mind’s thoughtful and polished rendition of your heart’s contents….if that makes sense. Hope this all is useful. Rejection is nasty, I agree. I don’t enjoy it BUT…..no one is rejecting you.

      Your words are not you. Choose some other words and when they love it….you’ll see that difference.

    1. Great advice. There is much writing that we cling to…and should toss. My new book had a totally different beginning and I really liked it. My editor did not. The new beginning is much, much better…

  68. cantueso

    It’s seriously funny:

    but her hair is seriously great.
    your stylist takes you seriously
    I seriously consider stopping
    seriously gray hair in the middle of black hair
    ten ways to seriously improve your writing

  69. cantueso

    but her hair is seriously great.
    your stylist takes you seriously
    I seriously consider stopping
    seriously gray hair in the middle of black hair
    ten ways to seriously improve your writing

    11th and most important: stop imitating each other’s lingo

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  71. neftwink


    That’s a solid hit to my ego, which has been constantly tripping me, and I kept rolling into the wall – the kitchen wall – it’s linoleum and cold, not carpeted like the rest of the house. No wonder I want to set things on fire, starting with my work. Why didn’t I find your post earlier? Why didn’t I stay on the kitchen floor the first time I rolled into the wall? When will I learn to rise above my ego and tell the story and not take the damn thing personally.

    It’s time for some popcorn!

  72. annksincox

    My first mentor told me to grow a skin 6″ deep if I was going to be a writer and she was right! She had an impressive way of handing me back copy and saying matter-of-factly “this is crap, go do it again” without being offensive. I’ve been (thankfully) an employed writer now for almost 25 years and I owe a lot of that to her.

    That being said, I’m speaking to clones of my younger self in a few weeks (starry eyed, no concept of deadlines in a corporate setting, going to take over the world) and am looking for blogs and resources to share with them. I love this blog post and it’s definitely made it to the top of my pile of notes. Any other thoughts out there?

    1. Not sure who else is talking about this. My first editor, at a major women’s magazine, was so rough I once got off the phone in floods of tears. She took one manuscript (back in the days of paper copy) and circled one word (the verb “is”) in red every time she saw it. Not fun but I learned a lot from her as well.

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  74. Great to see that I can now show my students that it’s not just me who advises on these things (not all of them of course)…but now problem is convincing them that I didn’t pinch the ideas from you could be a bigger challange 🙂 Good work and looking forward to reading more of your work.

    Feel free to visit and critique me, I feel I’m constantly in need of ‘a teacher’.


  75. Great. Very useful. I use it as ‘fuel’ for my writing habit. Must burn up some more energy to produce qualified writing. Yes, I just have to put my bum in the chair (and start writing, surely) 😉 Thanks for being an inspiration.

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  77. ceritanyatya

    Great post! thanks! very inspired me not to stop writing 🙂 Do you mind if i translate your post n write it in my blog…so my blog’s reader in Indonesia can read your great post. tx ^_^ (ps. sorry for my bad English :))

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  81. Okay, so I’m a bit behind, but wanted to add an Eat, Pray, Love comment. It’s important for women — and men — to garner wisdom and “find” themselves…but I felt this particular venture was too selfish. I’m one of those folks who believes that the rewards of travel and discovery are often best if they come from being other-directed. An earlier book, which I like better than Eat, Pray, Love, is Rita Goldman Gelman’s Tales of a Female Nomad. She, too, is a divorced woman traveling the world to have new experiences, gain wisdom, whatever. But her approach is much more an immersion into other cultures by helping others and forming relationships that are more equal (i.e. giving back as much as you get and/or giving FIRST) and finding enormous rewards by doing so. Much more admirable, in my opinion, than the sort of hand-wringing, me me me attitude shown in Eat, Pray, Love. During the last century there has been an incredible number of books written by women solo travelers — Mary Morris, Sarah Hobson, Christina Dodwell, Emily Carr, Leila Philip, Willa Cather, Frances Mayes…the list goes on and on and on and spans the world. Some women have made great sacrifices and/or endured hardship on the road to tell their story. They’re worth reading.

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  83. KathleenDonohoe

    Thanks so much for this post. queried 60 agents before one called and said, “I love your novel.” Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to sell it. Literary fiction had it tough even before the recession… But I’m not mourning, I’m writing a new novel. I love the comparison between writers and surgeons. I’d never heard it before. I am definitely going to keep it, and the rest of your advice, in mind when I’m discouraged.

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  85. Wow! Thanks for publishing the tips. You know when I think of writing, it’s always in the heat of the moment. You’ve given pause for thought. I like the idea of leaving the writing to cool and mature, a little like a Christmas cake, that gets better when tended before being presented, finely iced on Christmas Day. Again, thank you.

    1. Thanks!

      As a fan of Christmas cake, I think the best writing is rarely as spontaneous as people think it should be (?). Blogging makes writing far too easy! The technology is so seductive that I think many of us toss stuff off and hit publish and then think….oh. Hm….

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  87. Telling it like it is …

    Almost like medicine. The taste is often horrible but the benefits make it worthwhile.

    Thanks for sharing and congrats on being Freshly Pressed!


    1. Ann, time to re-frame…If you (anyone) want to REALLY improve, it’s unlikely to happen spontaneously in isolation. No one is that good. Writers can’t possibly predict what their readers will see, feel or react to — but when you give it to them and allow room for honest feedback — you’ll learn a lot. It isn’t “horrible” IF your goal is to publish commercially or widen your audience. It’s horrible if (one of my points) you cannot separate your work from your own self-esteem.

      I’ve competed in a number of sports and only improved tremendously with coaching. If we’re not willing to listen to advice from others (with high standards), how can we ever learn? A wise coach, teacher or editor is not out to humiliate but to help. It can sting, for sure. But truth is truth?

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  89. Stephanie Keyes

    Thanks for such great advice. It’s a reminder that no one improves in a vacuum. I think I’ll have to print out the “Get your but in a chair” quote and hang it over my writing space. 🙂

  90. Thank you for the insightful, encouraging post. My mantra is, “Always write, and never give up.” One day I’m hoping that my hard work pays off with my novels getting published and more screenplays getting optioned and appearing on the big screen.

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  93. I’ve read your amazing Ten Ways To (Seriously) Improve Your Writing article few days ago, and I’ve managed to comment it. And its now the time comes. Well, I think I should tell you than I’m a young amateur Indonesian writer, and I don’t think my English is good enough, so please don’t laugh if you find some stupid mistake here—but if you want to smile, that’s fair, hehehe. I hope you can get what I mean.

    What means so much for me are the sixth and the last point. I’m surprised that I never do that sixth way. And yes, when I try to read some of my writings out loud, some sound quirk—especially in dialog. Hahahaha, you gave a great lesson. Thank you. And the tenth, its an amazing motivation. So far, I’ve been ten times sending my short story to news papers or magazines, and join so many competition, and yes, I always find none of my writings appear in the news papers or magz. And never won any writing competition—but once, in 2008 as the ninth winner of ten winners. Hahaha, after reading your tenth way, I know I should laugh happily. They’re telling me that I still need to learn and try and try.

    Well, I have several questions to you, I hope you don’t mind to answer them. The first, when you send writings, do you send it to many publishers at once? Or to only one publisher, and you don’t send (propose) it to other until you know they reject you? I’ve once asked to one of my blogger friend, he said, I should send the proposal to only one publisher, not to many at once. The second, I’ve been thinking of to send my writings to publisher, but, I DON’T KNOW HOW (). When people talking about making proposals, sending ‘em to the publishers, it makes me so confuse, I mean, what kind of proposal? How to make it? What does it consist of? So, please, please, I beg you my Queen Of Writing (hahahaha, sorry, I’m imagining it’s a cartoon world), please teach me what proposal it is, give the sample, show me how, and then I’ll send to all publishers all my novels—as long as I have money to pay Mr. Postman.

    That’s all what I need to write to you, and I know all people in the world—who have access to internet—have the same possibilities to read this comment, then I allow you all to help me (I’m sending SOS to the universe!). to tell me what should I’m gonna do. I’ll be very happy to receive your answer madam. And so thankful. And please send the answer here readnow87@gmail.com (ups, I almost forget, please write me as easy as possible. I’m afraid I don’t understand you if you write me like writing to an English native, so complex and so intelligent. Thanks)

    Thank you.

    Arul Chandrana

    1. Arul,

      I suggest you find and take some writing classes that that will also teach you how to market your work more effectively. I don’t work in fiction and you seem to be writing fiction (?).

      If you are discussing news or journalism, it works differently, at least in North America; I pitch my ideas and then work on them only after an editor gives me a paid assignment. A pitch is an email sent to a newspaper or magazine editor that briefly and succinctly tells them what you want to write about, why now and why you’re the best writer to do so; a query may go to a literary agent and a book proposal is sent to an agent AFTER they have read an initial query describing your book project.

      There are several very good books on this subject. For articles, “Query Letters That Sell” and for books, “Think Like Your Editor” and both of these are available on amazon.com

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  96. I just like the helpful info you supply on your articles. I will bookmark your weblog and test again here frequently. I’m fairly sure I’ll be told a lot of new stuff proper right here! Best of luck for the next!

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