5 Great Creative Writing Tips (Which I Never Follow)

 

by Daniella Levy

I am very much a self-taught writer. I had to be; my formal English language education more or less ended in fourth grade when I immigrated to Israel. I learned mostly from reading, writing, and getting feedback from my friends. The only writing book I read during my adolescence was Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.

In recent years, however, I decided to see what I could learn from outside resources. So I took a few online creative writing classes through FutureLearn and Coursera, and read Anne Lammott’s Bird by Bird and Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I started reading essays passed around on social media about writing, and watched TED talks about writing and creativity, etc. etc. etc.

But the truth is… more often than not, I find such things more annoying than helpful.

(The Coursera courses through Wesleyan University were a notable exception. Definitely check them out.)

Why?

Because…

There seems to be this narrative, this formula, this body of advice that most of these things follow. Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure it’s excellent advice… for most writers. But there are a few bits of advice that come up over and over that have never worked for me.

For a while, I thought, “Well, I’ve got to get my act together! Because Real Writers™ do all these things, so I must do them too to be a Real Writer™!” But when I tried to follow the advice, I found myself nothing but frustrated and hating everything I was writing.

Eventually the irony of this dawned on me. I had already written six novels, a novella, a non-fiction book, more than a hundred poems and songs, countless articles and essays, and over a dozen short stories. I maintain two blogs. And here I was, thinking that following some dude’s advice on the Internet was going to make me a Real Writer™.

Duh.

So here are the ones I stopped even trying to follow:

1) Write Every Day

First of all, by default, I can’t do this because I’m an Orthodox Jew and I don’t write on the Sabbath.

But I also don’t believe in forcing myself to write when I don’t feel like writing.

The thing is–writing is like breathing for me. I always feel like writing. It’s just not always the thing I’d ideally like to be writing. For example, I am, at this very moment, writing a blog post. Ideally, I’d like to be writing my next novel. But that’s not what’s happening now, and I refuse to force it. Some days all I write are mundane e-mails to people. Some days they’re relatively boring content articles that people pay me for. But in my book–everything counts.

Furthermore, and this is more important: sometimes my best “writing” is done far away from the keyboard. I invent plotlines while I drive to doctor’s appointments. I come up with dialogue talking to myself in the shower. I compose blog posts while washing dishes or cooking dinner. Daydreaming is a huge part of writing. And if all I’m focusing on is the output, I don’t give myself time or space to do that.

2) Don’t Wait for Inspiration

Many writers advocate setting aside a specific time every day to write and fill a certain quota in minutes or words, even if you don’t feel inspired. If you wait for inspiration, they argue, you’re going to waste a lot of time. Get the words and ideas flowing, they insist. Inspiration can come later.

Me? I don’t even know how that works.

I have tried sitting myself down and telling myself to write. Nothing happens. How can I write when I’m not inspired? Why should I write creatively if I’m not enjoying it?!

I understand if you’re writing for pay and you have to keep up a steady output to get food on your table. In that case, you have to crunch away at it just like every other job. But let’s face it, how many of us are relying on creative writing for an income? Why give this advice to writers who are doing it as a hobby? I guess it must work for many people. Well, not for me!

3) Set a Deadline

If you haven’t guessed by now, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is not my thing.

Very, very, very much not my thing.

For those who have no idea what I’m talking about: NaNoWriMo is a challenge to write 60,000 words of a novel within the month of November. Yup, that’s an average of 2,000 words per day. The idea is, as above, to just get the words flowing, no matter how terrible, and only after you’ve finished the first draft, you can go back and edit it.

Now, I’ve had periods where I was writing 1,000-2,000 words per day in a novel. (In one memorable incident, I wrote 5,000 words over the course of 24 hours!) But I’ve also had periods of days or even weeks in which I wrote not a single word.

And you know what? Those breaks were absolutely essential.

I dunno about y’all, but at least for me, some things work much better when I give them some time on the back burner. As I mentioned, my creative process includes a lot of daydreaming away from the computer. Sometimes what I’m working on needs some space to breathe and grow inside me before I write it down.

You know how sometimes the grocery store sells pears or avocados that were picked too early? The idea is that they’re easier to ship that way and last longer in storage, and they can theoretically ripen on the shelf. But when you pick them too early, they never really ripen. They just stay hard and astringent until they turn brown and mushy. Or they have a window of ripeness that lasts approximately 12.8 seconds. Even when you catch them at the right moment, they’re nowhere near as delicious as they would have been if they’d been picked in their prime.

So too with my writing. If I try to write it before it’s ready I’m going to end up hating the project and abandoning it.

4) Get It All Down Now, Edit Later

Nope.

With all my love for Anne Lammott, who coined the phrase “s***ty first drafts”… I don’t do those.

I know the idea is that you shouldn’t expect to love what you’re writing when you’re getting down the first draft. All first drafts are crappy, argues Anne. Just write it all out, even if you hate it, and edit it later.

I take issue with the phrase for two reasons:

Firstly: I have to love what I’m writing.

That doesn’t mean I have to think it’s perfect and ready to submit. It means that I’m having fun and enjoying what I’ve written so far. It means I think I have a good concept that I’m excited about, and that I’m capable of executing it reasonably well.

Secondly: I don’t think it’s healthy to use such a strongly negative word to describe your own work. (See: self-bullying in my post on criticism.)

I’ve never liked this “vomit words on page and clean them up later” approach. I like to reread what I’ve already written and tweak it before moving on to the next part. I like to take my time when I write and get it in reasonably good shape. Of course I edit after I finish the whole thing anyway. I spent just over 3 months writing my latest novel, and about 3 years revising it!

But maybe this is why my drafts always get longer, rather than shorter, when I revise. My tendency is to expand too little, not too much.

In one of those Coursera courses, there was a class on revising. The instructor said that your revised manuscript should always be about a third shorter than your first draft! That never happens to me.

5) If You Have an Idea, Write It Down Right Away so You Don’t Forget It

The way my brain works, if an idea is worth remembering, I won’t forget it. In fact, I will probably tell it to go away because chances are I’m busy doing something else. (I have three little kids, a’right?) But if the idea is worth pursuing, it will continue to pester me so persistently that eventually I’ll have no choice but to write it down–the dishes be damned.

I carry around a little pocket notebook, but in my entire life I’ve only written down maybe two lines of poetry in one of those. Sometimes when I think of something on the go I open an e-mail draft on my phone and tap it out on there so I can access it from my computer later. But I’ve never had a situation where I was afraid something would slip away from me if I didn’t write it down that. second.

It’s more like, I’m going to go insane if I don’t write this down right now because otherwise I won’t be able to think about anything else!

Yes, I’ve had the experience of an exact phrase coming to mind and not wanting to lose it. But more often than not, even if I do forget it, something just as good or better will come up when I get the chance to write it down.

In other words, I trust my muse to wait for me if the idea is good enough.

 

 

 

Daniella Levy is the author of Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism, and her debut novel, By Light of Hidden Candles, is forthcoming from Kasva Press. Her blog, The Rejection Survival Guide, explores the creative life and resilience in the face of rejection. She also blogs about Judaism and life in Israel at LetterstoJosep.com, and her articles, short fiction, and poetry have been published by Writer’s Digest, Kveller, Reckoning, Newfound, the Rathalla Review, the Jewish Literary Journal, Silver Birch Press, and more. Learn more about her at Daniella-Levy.com.

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61 thoughts on “5 Great Creative Writing Tips (Which I Never Follow)”

  1. Wow…glad I read this, Daniella! What you write about writing makes sense! I think the same. Being a newbie, I’m working with a story structure format to get the story elements in the right places. Thought & ideas are right there to follow writing the chapters. Interesting to know you are an Orthodox Jew. The theme of my book includes the main character’s quest (at age 9) to find out if her dead grandfather (famous musician) was Jewish. His life before immigrating to the US in 1903 was a secret. His dying words, ” No one is to research my life in Germany, that history dies with me.” I’ve researched anti-semitism in Germany1900 to get accurate info. I’m off to check out your blog for more info. 🎶 Christine

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post Daniella. You just described my current state as a writer. In particular, I have stepped away from the mind-numbing practice of second, third and fourth-guessing myself, a process often called “revising” or “rewriting or “editing.” Once I broke away from that, my next work was to write short that has been in my head for … some years. I just sat down and let the story flow onto the page and, honestly, I think it’s my best work ever. I produced just over 10,000 words in three days and it was just magical. Maybe it’s because I’m at the point where the “rules” are something I don’t have to think about as much because I’ve been practicing them for a while. But mostly I just didn’t think about any of that. Editing consisted of spell-checking and correcting a few continuity errors. And that was it. Knowing what I know now, I am fairly confident that I’ve destroyed a lot of my own good work by “fixing” it after that first “bad” draft. And although this story has had essentially no commercial success, I couldn’t imagine changing it in any way to try and make it sell better. And that’s an interesting place to be, because there is a certain sense of confidence that comes from a story that nobody’s buying but you *know* is your best work. I moved from “Why isn’t this selling?” to “Why isn’t anybody buying it – it’s great!” I think this is an important place for writers to try and get to. The Land of Self Incrimination is a place you’re allowed to leave. And I have to wonder if a writer’s best work is only possible after they do.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Absolutely. I write in my “Creative Resilience Manifesto” (rejectionsurvivalguide.wordpress.com/manifesto) that the only opinion that really matters about your writing is your own. And I believe that if you keep writing and keep believing in your work, eventually, you will find an audience who will love it too. Good luck!

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  3. “The instructor said that your revised manuscript should always be about a third shorter than your first draft! That never happens to me.”
    I’m working on editing my second novel right now, and I actually had to add about 20,000 words to my draft just to make it remotely publishable. I ALWAYS THOUGHT I WAS THE ONLY ONE WHO DID THAT. THANK YOU!!!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Other than writing down things that come to mind, you speak for me. But then, you’re probably not as old as I am (72). Particularly in the middle of the night, I need to write them down. I’ve lost too many thoughts and turns of phrase when I don’t. Also the bit about ripening fruit – pears seem to be a particular problem for me. Glad to know the reason.

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  5. Wow, I enjoyed reading your post, it gives me a lot of motivation , it’s not even a month since I started blogging. I have always wanted to write, but English language not being my main language, I had an inhibitions. Which would always stop me from doing something like writing which I wanted to do from a very long time. I want to eventually write my own memoir, which I want to leave for my family. I hope I will be able to accomplish that.

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    1. I hear you, it’s tough to put yourself out there in a language other than your native tongue. Good for you for doing it anyway, it takes a lot of courage! Good luck with the memoir!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. A lot of truisms in this post for me! I could add a few more unwise tips, such as the ways writers are told NOT to write–acceptable techniques that have fallen out of favor, according to certain gurus. That kind of stuff can mess with a writer’s psyche and totally change an author’s style. My advice? Never stop learning about your craft and improving your writing, but don’t follow blindly or believe everything you read.

    Thanks for the sensible post,Daniella. Pinned & shared.

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  7. I agreed with a lot of this. I firmly believe it’s important to live life in order to have experiences that will bring inspiration and sometimes life is just too busy to write everyday. I think the key is finding out what works for you as an individual and I know it’s rare that I can get 2000 words down in a day because writing isn’t the only thing in my life. It’s good that other people write about what they do though as I find my methods often change depending on what I’m working on. Sometimes I can write everyday if the project is more fun like fantasy erotica. When I’m writing heavier things though, I run into more challenging problems and need time to figure out what my characters need to do to get out of hot water.

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    1. Exactly! What will we have to write about if we don’t live our lives?! Yes, I think the key is knowing yourself and what you need as a writer. Some things need more processing time.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Thoroughly enjoyed your somewhat unconventional advice. There are far too many arguments both for and against the conventions you so convincingly argue against. As I tend to write in the way you advocate, I shall feel rather more comfortable and hopeful in continuing to do so. Hope you don’t mind if I reblog.

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  9. Well now I feel better. I too have to edit as I go. Of course, I do more editing after the story is finished but I can’t go on to the next chapter without cleaning up what I’ve written so far. It makes me a slower writer but it is the only way I can do it. I agree with the other points as well.

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  10. I’ve learned I need to edit as I go, but my problem is I often forget ideas or wording, so I need to keep something with me to write it down! Even when the idea seems really good to me, it might slip past me. Ugh.

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    1. I do have a particularly good memory, so that might be what makes the don’t-write-it-down thing work for me…

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  11. This is so me. Great article. NaNoWriMo never works for me because Nov is my busiest month (a lot of birthday parties in the family). Forcing myself stresses me out. When I have a story idea, it bugs me until I write it. I do schedule blog writing time but it’s a different process I use to write articles.

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  12. I agree with most of these too. The one exception is NaNoWriMo – I would never have finished anything without it as I’m a serial procrastinator. The target and deadline helps me to focus, but I can see it isn’t for everyone.
    I also add words when I edit – I think some people naturally write concisely and others are wordy and nees to trim!
    Thanks for this, it was interesting

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    1. I know a few people who found NaNoWriMo helpful; I’m glad it works for you! I agree with you about natural conciseness vs. wordiness. I was always told my descriptions are too sparse and I’ve had to work a lot on creating a more vivid picture with my words. (“But it looks very vivid in my head!”)

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  13. I do a lot of the same things you do. I will spends weeks and weeks without writing anything (mostly because I am busy with my real job, but sometimes I’m just not in the mood to write and find it to be a chore). And then BAM! I pound 6000 words in one go while I am in the mood and the words just spill into the keyboard.

    I don’t write everyday because I also have the tendency to daydream plot points. I don’t forget the important stuff and think daydreaming connecting scenes is important to reduce the risk of plot holes. If you just spew words without any real thought, you waste a lot of time fixing plot errors, changing the eye color of characters and other trivial things.

    I am sort of different that I neither obsessively nick and tweak a billion times a chapter until I continue to the next nor do I usually write an entire draft in one go. A Calamity is probably the only novel where I almost did the entire draft at an alarming speed without any revisions and finished the draqft in only 1 month.

    What I usually do is that I get inspiration for specific scenes of the story where I want the plot to go and exclusively write those scenes and separate them to know where there are story gaps. I then will wait and wait and wait until I get that needed muse to tell me what the connecting scenes must be like, I daydream them and finally write them. Can minor plot errors happens if I do this? Yes, it has happened, but they are easier to manage, at least it’s what works for me.

    I have approximately 70% of my 7th novel written as a draft and it has been incomplete since last November (mostly because of lack of time to write). I know a lot of what I want to happen in the missing 30% and already wrote the ending, but I haven’t fully organized everything yet. It will come… someday.

    Meanwhile, the oddball in me has been writing random scenes of a possible 8th novel that I may or may not publish and two short stories in the plot universe.

    People think I’m sort of looney and I wrote my 6 novels in a weird disheveled order in just 2 years. The second book is the one I finished last.

    I guess it works for me, but I doubt most writers would like to do things my own organized in a disorganized sort of way.

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  14. Absolutely agree with your thoughts! And it’s really great to find someone else that doesn’t follow the do’s a don’t’s of writing. I write what I want, when I want, when I feel like it. I hate being pressured by deadlines, or hemmed in by rules. Great post!

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  15. thank you so much for this article! Honestly, I feel the same way you do about a lot of these things, and it was pretty comforting to know that i’m still a ‘real writer ™’

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  16. I agree with most of this. I’ve also noticed the plethora of rigid “rules” out there that I just can’t buy in to. Like some of the other commenters, though, some things on your list don’t work so well for me as they seem to for you. Maybe it’s age, but if I get precisely the turn of phrase that I want, I need to write it down now. An hour from now I’ll remember the gist of it but not the precise wording, and it will aggravate me that I don’t like my lame substitute phrasing when I had ‘perfection’.

    And sometimes not writing isn’t because I don’t like the story but because I don’t have ideas for certain parts of the story that I’m finding satisfying. In those cases, lest real life drag me away from it altogether, I sometimes try to just write something in hopes of giving the thought process a nudge. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but it can be a useful tool, even if what I write at those times never ends up in the story.

    In general, though, very good post. I’m glad to see others recognizing that writing isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ thing. Writers shouldn’t assume they’re doing things wrong just because others do it differently, even when the others are brilliant writers.

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  17. I agree with much of what you’ve written here. I think the key is that while it might be useful to read “The Rules of Being a Writer”, in the end, they’re just what worked for that particular writer. Every writer has to figure out what works for him/her. Not writing every day doesn’t mean you’re not thinking about what you’re writing everyday, and those thoughts that come unbidden while doing something else are often the most fruitful.

    I’ve done NaNoWriMo and thought it useful (although I wish it took place in a less busy month), but I’ve broken almost all the rules about not doing research and not revising.

    My edits tend to shorten my writing (“tightening it up”, but conversely, I also usually end up adding at least one complete chapter to fill out something that had been rattling around in my brain but never made it out onto the page.

    Lots of food for thought in this blog post. I enjoyed it.

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  18. I can totally understand how you feel.
    Deadlines aren’t my thing either. It’s so hard to write the same number of words everyday, especially when you write longhand. Deadlines also pressurize us, so I feel like we should keep small simple goals.

    When I started my first draft it was super slow. Like I spent 5 years writing like a quarter of my draft. This year, I decided to limit myself. So I wrote everyday, as soon as I woke up for as long as I wanted. I didn’t have a specific word count. I just needed to write something. Anything. Just write. (Though there were some days when I didn’t follow this) I finished the rest of my draft in a month! I was shocked but happy.

    When it comes to writing everyday, I have the same problem. Editing my book should be my writing, but its just hard. Posting on my blog is also writing and so is commenting on posts like this one. Even though I don’t edit, I try to write a short story everyday. It’s the most common advice. Writing short stories allows us to practice and improve our writing.

    As for editing, it’s just a habit for me to cut out something while I’m writing. I can’t help it. It’s just in me. But I think it’s important to remember:”To each, his own” over here.

    I can’t forget a story idea either! It’ll keep nagging at my brain till, I do something and if I forget it, I’ll think for a while and remember it again. I like typing stories into my notes on my phone.

    Thank you for the interesting read! I’m so happy that I’m not the only one who struggles!

    Like

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