My Only Three Writing Tips

I’ve been writing for a long time, and so far I’ve collected exactly three concrete tips that have actually helped me out with writing. They are

  1. If you’re not having fun writing a scene, skip it. Readers probably won’t have fun reading it either.
  2. Never delete anything, just dump it in a doc and never look at it.
  3. The first draft of anything is always shit. Instead of trying to fix it, just write a note to yourself and move on.

In the following sections I’ll go into more depth for each tip, and then also talk about why there aren’t more.

Skip scenes if you’re not having fun

This is the anti-writers block tip, and probably the one tip that got me from starting novels to actually finishing them. Mostly because you get to spend more time in the having fun phase.

But also because whether you’re having fun is also a pretty good heuristic for judging whether things are worth writing about. Reasons you might not be having fun:

Whereas things feel fun to write if you have something unique to add--some dialogue, something different happens, you have a new way to tell the story.

Basically this tip encourages you to use yourself as a proxy for what your readers will feel and think. Writer's block happens for a reason, and it's not usually that 'you suck'. Readers are more perceptive and less invested in the story than you are as the writer. If you can’t get into it, likely neither will they, and it's worth listening to that.

But what if the scene ‘needs’ to happen? It might be that you can get away with omitting more than you think---readers will fill in the gap, and see the omission as a mystery instead of a hole. Despite the usually useful advice of ‘show don’t tell’, tactical uses of ‘tell’ to fill in the gaps can keep things moving.

An example from personal experience: at the end of one chapter, a character was fleeing from their pursuers, and at the start of the next they were captured.

Originally I had a fairly long (probably a thousand or two words) and spatially confusing (don’t ask) about how they got caught. But it had been tricky to write--by the time I sent it to my first readers I had already rewritten it completely at least once. When my readers gave me the feedback that it was dulling the emotional impact of the scene before, I said screw it and chopped the whole sequence off.

Instead, the next chapter starts the same way, but I added in some exposition summarizing the missing sequence. It definitely wasn’t vital to the story, and with a little more smoothing over, it’s unclear the next readers will even notice that something used to be there.

And if it turns out I actually need the scene? I can always put it back later.

The dump doc

Once upon a time I was writing a story. Then (before I finished the first draft, of course), I started to edit it. But then I was worried about whether I would like the old version better.

So naturally, I used version control. Yup, made a git repo for it.

This was probably massive overkill. But it does illustrate that I’m definitely susceptible to the fear of destructive editing and losing past versions, and willing to go to extremes to try to preserve them. But I never finished the book, and the extra overhead of having to git add, commit, push was just more friction I didn’t need.

A much better strategy for me was to just create a big empty doc, and every time I needed to edit or rewrite the scene, I would start off by copy-pasting the original into the doc. Then I could go to town without fear of losing something in case I needed it again. Sometimes these were just one-paragraph dumps. Other times they were sections nearly 10,000 words long. I also labeled the dumped sections so they were easier to find later.

The doc is 36,000 words long now. Whether or not my book is ‘done’ is a little debatable, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets longer in the future.

Also, I never needed to look at anything in there. Turns out the original scenes never really were better. But the peace of mind was worth it.

Fix it later

In coding, there’s a trap of premature optimization--trying to make code run better before you even know where and how it’s going to run at all. The same urge applies in writing--you know it’s bad, gross, messy, awkward, cliched, and you know that you can do better. Sometimes it’s worth the time to fix it, but while you’re writing the first draft, it’s hard to predict what’s actually going to make it to the second. In which case it’s almost certainly not worth the time and energy at all.

To indulge the urge to fix, I leave comments to myself, sometimes as detailed as

And sometimes as articulate as

Another pretty common one is also “you can do better”

As with the first tip, it helps keep more of the time spent writing in the actually fun and productive phase. And even though I did eventually have to go back to fix them, by then I had a much better idea of what the book was actually about. You can also use the sunk cost fallacy to your advantage here too--one gross scene might be an excuse to give up on a partially finished novel, but it’s definitely not a reason to give up on the whole thing.

In my book I actually left some pretty important things to fix later: Almost all of Sebastian’s prophecies were only partially written by the end of the first draft--even the ones that directly influenced the plot were mostly ‘it needs to be something like this’. This actually worked out really well because how Sebastian’s Auguring abilities worked were also completely different by draft 2, so not having to rework the prophecies to match was really nice. They were a pain in the butt to write, so I have no regrets about not having to do that more than once.

I think there’s compounding benefit from this tip as well. Once you abandon the possibilities of perfection, then there’s less pressure to write something ‘good’, which makes it easier to just get it out there regardless. If you can tell that something is ‘bad’, all it takes is time and effort for it to be ‘good’--it’s just nice to actually spend it on something that actually gets used later.

Bonus tip: Musical monologues

I lied! Fourth bonus tip.

The reason I didn’t include this one earlier in the outline is because a) threes are nice and b) I haven’t actually used this one yet myself. But regardless,

Musicals are actually fairly formulaic. I recommend this very entertaining video from Sideways about the Goofy Movie which talks about the structure of musicals. But the tl;dr for this blog post is, because musicals can rely on music and spectacle to convey emotions, they can rely on storytelling methods that would be boring or fall flat in other media. Specifically, monologuing.

You don’t see too many monologues in books. Rather, to describe who a character is and what they want, usually we have them interact with the world or other characters. Otherwise it would be pretty boring, or maybe even awkward. But in a musical, they can straight up just sing about it. Think Let it Go from Frozen, How Far I’ll Go from Moana. This disentangles ‘who a character is’ from ‘stuff that happens’, which might be good if you’re struggling with figuring out both at once.

But unless you’re also planning on scoring it, you probably will have to find a way to map it back into more traditional storytelling methods. Or maybe not! You do you.

There are other formulaic parts of musicals to help frame the basic must-haves of a lot of stories. Who are your villains, what do they want -- villain song like Poor Unfortunate Souls from the Little Mermaid. What is the word, its atmospheres and struggles -- opening numbers like No One Mourns The Wicked from Wicked.

This tip actually came up while I was chatting with a friend simultaneously about working out the specifics of their story while also discussing some god awful musical plots. Said friend remarked on not understanding what kind of stories would work with the kind of spectacle of a musical, only to start planning out their own story in musical form.

Why not more tips?

Probably because I don’t actually consume a lot of writing about writing, and my efforts to get involved in some sort of community are still in progress.

But I also find that many of the tips I’ve encountered are about ‘what’ to write instead of ‘how’ to write. Personally I find that usually the more difficult question. All the tips I’ve mentioned so far I stumbled across myself and have worked well for me.

If you’ve got any cool writing tips feel free to shoot me an email or a toot via the links in my ‘about’. If it’s short you can also try to shove it in the ‘I was here’ link at the bottom too, but no promises I’ll actually be able to see it until I get that set up a little better.

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