I kicked off the new year by driving home to Virginia from Miami and spending all of 24 hours in my apartment before cramming myself into my Corolla again. My holiday revelry had ended. Half a day later, I was in Knoxville, Tennessee for the first time in my life. But I wasn’t there to sightsee. I spent the next week at Sundress Academy for the Arts at Firefly Farms, a 45-acre Appalachian retreat about 30 minutes from downtown. There, I read, dreamt, and wrote.
Over the course of seven days, I plowed through a few old drafts, fiddled with a new poem a day, and jotted down ideas for future stories. I also fed a flock of personable animals every morning and even woke up to two newborn lambs one day. While the forenoon clucking, quacking, braying, and bleating of hungry creatures reminded me that I was not completely alone, I appreciated the solitude the writing residency granted me. Peace and quiet are true luxuries for a city girl. As a professional writer, scheduling interviews and answering to editors add to the stress of staring at a blank Word document. That’s what made the writing residency such a gift: all that mattered were the stories. No politics, no deadlines, no invoices. Only stories.
Of course, that’s not usually how it goes. That’s what makes writing residencies so special: they are a storyteller’s Narnia. Outside of Narnia, writers have to earn a living like everyone else. Sometimes we take assignments we don’t want to take in order to feed ourselves. That may mean putting off more creative or ambitious stories. We also have families, chores, taxes. But writers must write, regardless of what other obligations are shouting at us or tugging our sleeves.
Every writer has a method or routine, whether they’re poets, screenwriters, or travel writers like members of The Pin the Pin Map family. While I’m often asked to share my writing advice, none of my recommendations are new. My list is just my personal mix of tips I’ve heard, read, and taken to heart over the years. Nonetheless, you may be curious to know. See if my favorite 10 tips for becoming a better writer resonate with you:
1. Read widely
Surprise yourself with new authors, genres, and publications. If you cling too hard to your favorites, you will limit yourself to different voices and ideas. You also might trick yourself into thinking there’s only one “good” or “right” kind of writing. Read across eras, genders, races, ethnicities, geographies, and media. Make use of your library card and swap books with friends. Check out obscure literary magazines and ‘zines. Support independent authors and buy their books (including e-books.) Bookmark new blogs and websites or follow them on Facebook to get their latest articles in your newsfeed.
2. Read slowly
We live in a busy time when many people are in the habit of skimming everything they read. While it makes sense to skim when you’re trying to meet a deadline for work or school, you miss a lot when you rush. When you’re reading for fun and personal development, relish the language and put yourself in the story. There’s no real benefit to hurrying.
3. Read carefully
Think critically as a means for developing your own voice as a wrier. Ask yourself what about the piece works and doesn’t work. What scenes advance the story? What scenes bog it down? How does the story progress? What’s its arc? Do the tone and word choice make sense? How would you approach a similar topic in your own writing? What would you do differently?
4. Go out into the world
Reading is important, but so is real life. Put down your book every once in a while and glean new experiences. Whether you’re at home or traveling, try to do new things and meet new people. If you’re naturally shy or risk-adverse, test yourself (within reason.) More often than not, you’ll be glad you did.
5. Observe the world
Just as you should think critically about what you’re reading, think critically about the world around you. Notice details. Make comparisons between people, places, animals, events, and whatever other category of the universe you can imagine—and know that it’s possible to draw comparisons while reserving judgment. With new observations should come new questions and new research ideas. Watch your reading list grow in the process.
6. Journal often
As you observe or shortly thereafter, give yourself time to reflect and jot down what you’re seeing, thinking, and feeling. Getting into the habit of writing regularly can be intimidating, but keeping a journal can help you think of most of what you write as informal practice. Not everything you write has to become a finished product. It’s the same way visual artists keep sketchbooks; not every sketch ends up becoming a painting or sculpture. But it’s helpful to keep track of your ideas and try out new stories or turns of phrase somewhere.
7. Write with intention
Take some of your favorite ideas from your journal and plot them out as articles, essays, stories, or poems. After you’ve decided on a direction, go and write. Remember that your first draft rarely is your final draft. When writing your first draft, the most important thing is to get out your ideas.
This is your chance to rework your piece and polish it. Read your piece over a few times and even aloud. Evaluate what works and what doesn’t work, the same way you do anything else you read. Tinker until you find yourself at a good stopping point.
9. Share with friends and mentors
You might not be able to share every piece you write with people you trust, but, when it’s possible, do it. Constructive feedback can be invaluable. Avoid sharing pieces with people you suspect will only tell you what you want to hear. Instead, try sharing pieces with friends and mentors you think will be honest (but kind.) This may include fellow writers, but avid readers who aren’t writers may suit just as well
10. And re-write
It may take several drafts for you to get a piece to where you feel confident it needs to be. If you’re working with an editor, it can take even more drafts because of the negotiation that takes place. If you’re writing without an editor, give yourself a break at some point. Your piece may be at publishable quality already, or it may be time to try a new piece and revisit this one later.
In short, keep on reading, writing, and indulging in your wanderlust! Share your best writing tips in the comments section below!
Meet the Author
Christine Stoddard is a writer for The Pin the Map Project with featured work in Cosmopolitan, The New York Transit Museum, Bustle, The Feminist Wire, The Huffington Post, The Brooklyn Quarterly, Thought Catalog and more. Check out Christine’s website, WordsmithChristine.com, or get in touch with Christine at: Christine@thepinthemapproject.com.