How To Write: Some Genuinely Useful Advice


Make notes

Always. Continually. Keep a notebook on your person at all times, and write down the little thoughts you have on the bus, whilst watching Netflix, after talking with your best friend: constantly record your inspiration. By writing your stuff you’ll remember – it’s funny how the brain can keep working on a thought long after we think we’ve forgotten it. Over time, your mind will start linking all of your ideas, beginnings, and reflections together, so that when you sit down to put it together it is almost fully-formed: you just have to type it.


Give yourself ten minutes or so before every writing session to vomit your brain onto the page, in whatever form suits you. Phrases, themes, references, whatever you want to approach, put it there, in incomprehensible, nervous, squiggled notes, as a reference point for when you pause. It removes the excuse of “I don’t know what to write!” Yes you do – your self-penned guide is right beside you.

Set a timer

This forces you to show up. Fully. By setting a timer you’re promising yourself you won’t get up from your chair, walk away from your computer, check email or Instagram or lean over to your deskmate for a chat: setting a timer says, “focus.” If you can’t leave your chair for 45 minutes at a time, eventually the only option becomes to write.

Alter your expectations

Hemingway said to write one must sit at the typewriter and bleed. Writing isn’t working the mines or double shifts on a building site, but it is laborious. It is frustrating and difficult, and takes time and practice to start getting right. There’s only one Zadie Smith in this world and you, friend, are not her. Prepare for tough times. Hope that it’s worth it.

Know it’s all been done before

Listen: there’s no such thing as an original idea. That is all at once hugely depressing and massively liberating. Depressing because, wait – you really want to write the book or article or blog or Tweet that the world will have to invent a whole new genre term for. But then liberating because: oh! If it’s all been done before then there’s no pressure on you to change the world. Without that pressure, perhaps you can just get on with telling your story, then. 

Begin anywhere

A tap doesn’t spurt water until the faucet is turned on, or whatever the saying is, and you don’t have a manuscript without words on a page. You do not have to write consecutively, from the first page to the last. You can write the middle first, or start at the end. You’ll probably change your mind about the structure a million times anyway, so don’t stress about the order of the words – just write them.

Show don’t tell

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass,” said Chekhov. Be creative.

Tell don’t show

But also, the road to hell is paved with adverbs, wrote Stephen King. Sometimes to drive your narrative forward you need to keep it snappy, and know that you can always add in details later, when you edit. That’s all to do with…

Permitting yourself a shitty first draft

Nobody gets in right first time. Your first draft will probably be so cringe-worthingly bad that you’ll read it between the hands over your eyes. THAT IS OKAY! In fact, it is to be expected. The point is this: rather have 50,000 mediocre words with which to play around with, than 5,000 words of perfection. You can’t edit a blank page. (Repeat that until the day you die.)

Set a target

Learn your rhythm. Aim for 1,000 words a day, or 5,000 words a week. Whatever works for you. Be accountable to yourself. Take your writing seriously. Rise to the challenge of the discipline.

Creativity is habit

You cannot wait for your genius to strike. You cannot only write when you are “in the mood.” Creativity is habit: the more you write, make things, work at your language and words and sentences and stories, the more easily it will come. The hard work will become a new normal for you. You’ll be uncomfortable until you’re not.

Everything is copy

Nora Ephron was the original Taylor Swift: your life can be your art, she basically said. Every single thing that happens to you is writeable about. Sylvia Plath wrote that you just have to “have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise.” She also said the enemy to creativity is self-doubt, so remember: your words deserve to be heard. Your story deserves to be told.

Know it’s never finished

You’ll probably never be satisfied. Every time you re-read your work, there will be changes that can be done, edits that could be made, alterations to be executed. Stop. At some point, you have to. Know when to draw the line.

Share your work

*gulp* You have to share your work, if you ever want it to be read. The feeling is akin to giving away your first child: incomprehensible. Once you’ve opened your pages to somebody else, those words don’t belong to you anymore. They are there, out in the world, and they will be interpreted in the way the world sees fit. What other people think of your work is largely none of your business. It isn’t good, or bad, because people say it is. Your work is just what it is.

Make more

And so, onwards, to make more. To keep creating, to keep telling stories, to keep on keeping on. Rinse. Repeat.