13 ways to be a better writer

Because we writers all share the same unending, cavernous, soul-sucking struggles. And because 13 is my favorite number. (I was born on a Friday the 13th.) Here’s what some famous and insanely talented writers say about keeping your writer mojo. Yo…

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/3/3f/Ray_Bradbury_2009_cropped.jpgRay Bradbury

In his 2001 keynote address at Point Loma Nazarene University’s Writer’s Symposium By the Sea:

Get rid of friends who don’t believe in you.” 


Remember, with writing, what you’re looking for is just one person to come up and tell you, ‘I love you for what you do.’ Or, failing that, someone who says, “You’re not nuts like people say.’


Charles Bukowski

In an interview in Sunlight Here I Am: Interviews and Encounters 1963-1993, Bukowski talks about his poem, “Friendly Advice to a Lot of Young Men.”

Your poem says that one is better off living in a barrel than he is writing poetry. Would you give the same advice today?

I guess what I meant is that you are better off doing nothing than doing something badly. But the problem is that bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt. So the bad writers tend to go on and on writing crap and giving as many readings as possible to sparse audiences. These sparse audiences consist mostly of other bad writers waiting their turn to go on, to get up there and let it out in the next hour, the next week, the next month, the next sometime… When failures gather together in an attempt at self-congratulation, it only leads to a deeper and more abiding failure. The crowd is the gathering place of the weakest; true creation is a solitary act.


There’s nothing to stop a man from writing unless that man stops himself. If a man truly desires to write, then he will. Rejection and ridicule will only strengthen him. And the longer he is held back the stronger he will become, like a mass of rising water against a dam. There is no losing in writing, it will make your toes laugh as you sleep, it will make you stride like a tiger, it will fire the eye and put you face to face with death. You will die a fighter, you will be honored in hell. The luck of the word. Go with it, send it.”



Stephen King

In his wildly popular On Writing:

Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”


“You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair–the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.

and (my personal favorite)

“… if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.


James Patterson

As quoted by Mark Sullivan (a co-author) in a 2012 article from Publisher’s Weekly:

“What most people who attempt commercial fiction don’t understand is that you have to write the way people talk… You can’t make the prose rigid or dense and expect the normal, busy reader to turn the page, much less stick with you to the very end.”


http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ea/David_Foster_Wallace.jpgDavid Foster Wallace

In his 1998 essay, “The Nature of Fun”:

In the beginning, when you first start out trying to write fiction, the whole endeavor’s about fun. You don’t expect anybody else to read it. You’re writing almost wholly to get yourself off. To enable your own fantasies and deviant logics and to escape or transform parts of yourself you don’t like. And it works—and it’s terrific fun. Then, if you have good luck and people seem to like what you do, and you actually start to get paid for it, and get to see your stuff professionally typeset and bound and blurbed and reviewed and even (once) being read on the a.m. subway by a pretty girl you don’t even know it seems to make it even more fun. For a while.

Then things start to get complicated and confusing, not to mention scary. Now you feel like you’re writing for other people, or at least you hope so. You’re no longer writing just to get yourself off, which—since any kind of masturbation is lonely and hollow—is probably good. But what replaces the onanistic motive? You’ve found you very much enjoy having your writing liked by people, and you find you’re extremely keen to have people like the new stuff you’re doing. The motive of pure personal starts to get supplanted by the motive of being liked, of having pretty people you don’t know like you and admire you and think you’re a good writer. Onanism gives way to attempted seduction, as a motive.

Now, attempted seduction is hard work, and its fun is offset by a terrible fear of rejection. Whatever “ego” means, your ego has now gotten into the game. Or maybe “vanity” is a better word. Because you notice that a good deal of your writing has now become basically showing off, trying to get people to think you’re good. This is understandable. You have a great deal of yourself on the line, writing—your vanity is at stake. You discover a tricky thing about fiction writing; a certain amount of vanity is necessary to be able to do it all, but any vanity above that certain amount is lethal.”


J.K. Rowling

Be ruthless about protecting writing days, i.e., do not cave in to endless requests to have ‘essential’ and ‘long overdue’ meetings on those days. The funny thing is that, although writing has been my actual job for several years now, I still seem to have to fight for time in which to do it. Some people do not seem to grasp that I still have to sit down in peace and write the books, apparently believing that they pop up like mushrooms without my connivance. I must therefore guard the time allotted to writing as a Hungarian Horntail guards its firstborn egg.”


“You have to resign yourself to the fact that you waste a lot of trees before you write anything you really like, and that’s just the way it is. It’s like learning an instrument, you’ve got to be prepared for hitting wrong notes occasionally, or quite a lot, cause I wrote an awful lot before I wrote anything I was really happy with.”


File:George Orwell press photo.jpgGeorge Orwell

In his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language”:

Don’t be a pretentious arse. Foreign words or expressions are used to give an air of cultural elegance, even though they sometimes have a certain je ne sais quoi. Words like categorical, virtual, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, phenomena, only embellish and give an air of untrue scientific impartiality. Adjectives like epoch-making, epic, historic, triumphant, age-old, inexorable or words like realm, throne, chariot often dignify war and politics.

Bad writers will also employ terms with Latin origin instead of Saxon because of their “grandeur.” They end up with unnecessary words like ameliorate, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous.



File:Cheryl strayed 2012.jpg

Cheryl Strayed

No list of expert writing advice would be complete without her wisdom. After all, it was her frank advice column on TheRumpus.net that set me down the author path:

Write like a motherfucker.”



Subscribe in the upper right hand corner and grab my free book A Writer’s Voice, designed to help you write like YOU. So you can say what you want to say, how you want to say it – and stop worrying about what everyone else thinks. (And quit writing like a pretentious asshat). It matters.

6 replies
  1. Sophie Ouellet
    Sophie Ouellet says:

    Wow! Very inspiring,.. I recognize some of the ideas of your book…
    George Orwell was obviously not bilingual! (My first language is French!). I just subscribed to “The Rumpus”

    However, I think the best quote are from Charles Bukowski… I love the spirit!!!

    I also like Stephen King’s last quote. Actually, I have started noticing a shift. Especially today when I shot a video blog post. I reached a point where I told myself, “Since I don’t feel much of a success, might as well express what I really feel and see what happens…

  2. Anthony
    Anthony says:

    Some great advice here, Becky. Thank you, as always, for your inspiration.

    Just one point, however. I find a problem in friends and family who believe in me unquestioningly. They love what I do because they love me. They think it is wonderful that I am able to write my own work and get it published.

    The problem lies in the word “unquestioningly”. They will support me almost regardless of what I write, and almost regardless of its literary quality, or lack of it.

    As most anyone can see, there is potential for disaster here. If you don’t believe me, just think for a second about the talentless artists who appear on TV talent shows such as Idol, X Factor and Your Country’s Got Talent (titles are adapted for a worldwide readership). You know who I mean, the tone deaf “singers” who croak or shriek their way through a deeply embarrassing audition which is then broadcast for viewers to deride. You can bet your bottom dollar/euro/pound sterling that their families told them they were brilliant.

    More than anything else, I fear making a complete and utter fool of myself by publishing a novel that earns its reputation because of how bad it is. In my chosen genre, I have read many novels and short stories that should probably not have seen the light of day. No doubt these were published with strong encouragement from friends and family.

    An author doesn’t need to be told that he/she is a good writer solely because the person making that statement loves him or her and wants to provide encouragement. What every author needs is a few constructively critical eyes, beta readers who will read a manuscript before it is published and give a true and honest opinion. Normally, one would need to find these people outside one’s family and circle of close friends.

    Personally, I adopted the approach of using several beta readers in the early stages to help me iron out mistakes. Finally, I decided to use a professional editor to apply a final polish. Yes, she cost me a lot of money, but I want my first novel to make an impact as I have a second almost completed and have started a third in what could be a series of five novels. If I don’t hit the ground running with my first novel, I might as well not bother publishing the rest of the series. Relying on friends and family members would have been just too risky.

    But that’s just my $0.02 and I would welcome alternative views.

  3. EHO
    EHO says:

    I’m with Stephen King on the thesaurus. The very name of the resource seen in another iteration: The Saurus should warn one that it is old, likely ponderous and obscure.

    Ok – that’s harsh – but if it keeps you from defaulting to its use rather than listening carefully as you go through your daily life to how different kinds of people actually speak – today – in many differing and original ways – you are losing the idioms of Today. Our readers live today. I want to know how they sound, what’s important to them and I want to learn funky things I’d never otherwise hear.

    So, yes, I own a thesaurus and am addicted to dictionaries – as a lifelong word lover I have old ones and new ones. But I use them to enjoy words or help me get into a particular mood, not to look up dialogue or description.

  4. David
    David says:

    Very inspirational, thank you. As an author of nothing and a writer of very little I believe your words and insights have been the best “boot to the ass” I have encountered. It must be that golden lasso.


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