Five Writing Tips for Newbies

I have to admit, I feel unqualified to be giving writing tips. I’m struggling to think of some (and this seemed like such a good idea two weeks ago…) and feeling called out by each of them XD. But these are the tips that have, I think, helped me the most so far. I hope they’re helpful to you too!

Photo by Amelia Bartlett on Unsplash

1. Set deadlines

Even if writing is something you do as a hobby, it can help to have a deadline for a story or novel.

Growing up, I didn’t get paid an allowance, and I was too young to get a job, so I didn’t have much pocket money. When Christmas came around, I had to think of things I could get my family that would be cheap and yet still nice. 

I was also starting to try writing books, or, as I called them, stories. So I thought, instead of buying a book for my sister for Christmas, maybe I could write her one instead. 

For the next few years, I gave her my own novels for Christmas and her birthday. While I didn’t realise this at the time, having that deadline: 

  • Forced me to pick an idea and stick with it
  • Forced me to work on it and not give up, even when I got stuck 
  • Forced me to get over my perfectionism and give her things that sometimes still needed tweaking
  • Forced me to stay up late to finish it in time (just this year, I was at a camp on her birthday, and I stayed up working until 1am to finish the book before she got up!) which made it feel like an achievement to get it finished! 
  • Freed me up to start on a new project after the deadline. 

I didn’t realise until I stopped forcing deadlines on myself that they were helping me so much. Now I can buy her a nice plotted, edited, covered and bound book from the local bookstore, so I don’t need to be constantly writing to get books done by Christmas. Now that I don’t have deadlines on my writing, I’ve been: 

  • Constantly changing projects and rarely getting past the first few chapters on any of them
  • Giving up when I get stuck on a plot-hole or outlining problem, or when someone expresses doubts that my idea will work
  • Constantly tweaking minor issues and never calling anything “finished” 
  • Procrastinating writing it and pushing it into the “I’ll do it later” pile, since it’s no longer urgent
  • Never finishing anything, and never truly moving on! 

(Do you see now why I feel unqualified writing this?? *cries*) 

Luckily for me, the solution is in the heading of this tip ;). Remember to make your deadline something that is achievable for you, no matter what other writers seem to be able to achieve. Depending on your own circumstances, availability, commitment and energy, I’d encourage you to pick a goal that fits in the sweet spot between easy and unachievable.

2. Read!

In a recent guest post on a friend’s blog, I talked about how exhausted I felt at the end of last semester. I learnt, the hard way, that to put out creativity, you have to put in creativity. 

I was speaking about creating music in that post, but the same goes for writing. 

If you want to write, you’ll need to read. Not only will it give you ideas (creative input), it will teach you how to do things. 

My English teachers in high school used to tell me all the time that they can tell which students like reading, because they write good essays. Before you get upset about who is an exception to this rule: think about how helpful this is to us writers. Reading is something we can easily measure, control and improve. After all, it’s easier to read more than to “show, don’t tell” more. And just reading will improve our writing, simply through osmosis. 

More than that, it will teach you what tropes you like and what you don’t like. Ask anyone who loves books: “What’s a bookish pet peeve?” and they’ll give you a list of answers, guaranteed. These are tropes and characters they would never use in their own books. (And please, fill the comments with them; they’re my favourite thing to read! XD)

As you read, you’ll be inadvertently researching what your target audience is looking for, what style of writing suits your genre, which authors write well, and which don’t. 

You don’t have to take notes, but if that helps, I won’t stop you.

I read every morning, as soon as I wake up. That makes it sound like it’s super important to me, but really that’s just a time I found works well: my bed is warm, books are on-hand, and it’s an excuse to stay in bed for an extra half-hour! I also read just before I go to sleep, if I’m not too tired, because it helps my brain turn off for the night. 

Find a time and place that works for you. Find a genre you love, an author who makes you excited to read again. Maybe reading on the train works for you, or listening to audio books, or reading a couple of paragraphs while you eat lunch. 

Even a paragraph a day will benefit you, because every little bit will help! 

3. Use procrastination to your advantage 

This one is courtesy of Jerry Jenkins, author of the Left Behind series (which I… um…  haven’t read :P). Honestly, this tip scares me to this day. But hear me (him) out. 

Instead of sitting at your computer, trying to solve a plot-hole or think up a character, step aside and let your subconscious figure things out for you. 

For Jenkins, this means that he doesn’t mind procrastination. He trusts his mind to come up with answers in time for him to use them before his deadline, and actually schedules days to procrastinate so that he won’t run overtime. 

The idea of doing nothing while waiting for my brain to get its act together is scary, but I also see the merit in it. Jenkins knows that he’ll get the novel finished on time, even if it means he’ll have to stay up late for a couple of nights to do it. And he knows that his subconscious will come up with something faster and easier than his frustrated conscious mind. 

So when you’re stuck, and have writers’ block, try stepping away from the project a bit. Take the dog for a walk, peel potatoes or vacuum the floor, and don’t think about your writing. Let your mind rest and come back to it. You’ll find it easier to come up with ideas then! 

(It helps me to state in words specifically what I’m stuck on. I’ll say it to myself, then I’ll walk away from the computer and bake some cookies.)

I was stuck on the resolution of my novel, An Experiment in Time and Memory, for two weeks before it suddenly hit me–a simple, elegant solution that brought back elements from earlier on in the novel. It was perfect. While edits of the novel have changed the context, I still use that plot twist in the current draft.

Try it! Have faith in yourself to finish it on time. Instead of stressing yourself out, go and do something completely different. Let your subconscious do some heavy lifting, and then let me know what happens! 

4. Get connected to other writers

This will look different for you depending on where you are, what you have access to, and what you’re planning to do with your writing. For example, writers who plan to earn money from their writing, will be more willing to invest money in it. 

So, let’s start with the free stuff! Lucky for us today, the internet is full of amazing and free resources! I asked some of my writer friends for ones they use: 

Check out their blogs, sign up to their email lists, read their novels and download all their free stuff! Check your own writing for things they flag as common mistakes and good techniques. Not only do these blogs teach you, they’ll also encourage you. I’m sure you’ve picked up a lot of good writing techniques simply through reading!

(Before you become overwhelmed by all those blogs (and there are many more out there!), take a deep breath, glance through some that take your fancy, and frequent the ones you find helpful. Some will be targeted at more advanced writers, and some may have a writing style you don’t like–that’s okay! Most writers I know frequent the ones they find most useful, and not all of them!)

You can also join writers forums, some for free. I’m part of Writers’ Victoria, and though I’m not a paid member, I get their newsletters and can sign up to any workshops that take my fancy. 

Go to writers’ festivals, and meet with any writers you can. Email authors you like, and tell them how much you love their book, how angry you are that they killed your favourite character, and then say, oh by the way, I’m a new writer and was wondering if I could ask you a couple of questions? I’ve emailed a few authors like this (yes, including the how-could-you-kill-him part 😬). One got back to me with very helpful answers, and I didn’t lose anything to the other authors except a few minutes writing the emails!

You’ll learn more than simply writing from them–hopefully you’ll also learn themes, character development, outlining, editing, marketing, publishing, and you’ll gain connections and mentors. 

In this industry, it can feel like it’s just you in your novel, but there are people around you who want to help you, mentor you, sell, buy and read your books! And they’re not in competition with you. Which brings me to my next point… 

5. Resist the deadly urge to compare yourself 

Every year, as soon as I gave my sister her Christmas-novel, a stopwatch would start in my head. 

How long would it take her to finish it? 

She’s a fast reader, and she’d start almost as soon as the book was handed over. 

The first year–a couple of hours, tops. 

The second year–maybe a tiny bit longer. 

It grew longer and longer until finally, she couldn’t read it in one sitting. 

I felt like I’d finally done it–a real novel! I.e., one that is long enough that it can’t be read in one go!

So… those first few books weren’t real books? 

As you join forums and meet other writers, you’ll be tempted to compare yourself to them. There will always be those who have written more, written better, published quicker, published more, sold more, gotten more awards… If you compare yourselves to them, saying yours isn’t a real novel or a real career because it’s not like theirs, you won’t be giving your work the value it deserves. 

It gets worse–if you compare yourself to those writers, you also won’t see those around you who have written less, written worse, published slower, published less, sold fewer, gotten less (or no) awards… and you won’t value their work either. 

Unlike the author who connects with other writers, this unhealthy comparison will isolate you from receiving and giving help. It will tell you that you or they deserve what they got because you or they are better than those around you. 

I know I should stop referencing composers when talking about writers, but… I have one more 😛

When I started my bachelor of composition, it felt like all of us new students were scrambling to be the best musicians in the college. For the first few days, everyone was trying to establish their musical knowledge and ability, lest someone think they didn’t deserve to study music in higher education. 

Cue spontaneous instrument-playing, random music-theory/engraving-facts-spouting and the notorious ‘I have perfect pitch’ when no. One. Asked.

But in the midst of all that competition, no one looked down on the students who were struggling. No one scoffed at questions, or refused to help those who fell behind. The opposite, in fact.

There’d be a student who was showing off how well they can use notation software, who then turned to the student on the computer next to him and showed him how to put notes in. Or a student who sings fabulously would team up with a student who isn’t confident, and created a fun song with her. 

Writers are the same. We show off our best writing, but we need to look around and help those around us. That’s why we go to writers festivals, write blogs, and answer writing questions strangers email us–we’re all reading the blogs and asking questions too! 😉

We’re not competitors, we’re colleagues. People may read my books, but yours are next on their to-be-read list. Or they might prefer your books’ genre to mine. I’m not going to change my genre for them–I’d be neglecting those who like my genre. 

Don’t compare yourself or your books by the writing style, or the characters, or how long it takes your sister to read. Enjoy the process, and be proud of every word you write! Someday, someone will love it, regardless of everyone else’s work. 

Even if you’re a newbie, even if you’re not feeling confident in your book, you still have a story to tell that is unique to you. No matter how you feel about your writing, keep being inspired, being excited, and, most of all, keep writing! 

I know I said I’d have five, but I want to leave one more with you… I can’t remember anymore who said this to me, but it’s beautiful. Keep writing, because somewhere out there is your number one fan, even if they don’t know that yet. Keep writing for them! 

We all can’t wait to see what you publish! 🙂 

To my fabulous writers… what’s your current writing project? Which tip will you implement in the future? 

Published by Debbie Coll

I'm a storyteller, songwriter and author who loves God, fairy tales and music. I write about tales, creative tips and process on my blog,

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