6 Pieces of Advice From Successful Writers

Death to clichés. Less is more. Writing is painful—here, the greats tell us how to do it better.

I’ve been reading some advice from successful writers lately and exploring what their routines are like to see what I can learn.

Here are six of the most common pieces of advice I came across that have helped me a lot improving my writing.

It also features actionable tips for you on how to implement them in your own writing.

1. The best ways to get over the “blank page hurdle”

I write because it comes out—and then to get paid for it afterwards? I told somebody, at some time, that writing is like going to bed with a beautiful woman and afterwards she gets up, goes to her purse and gives me a handful of money. I’ll take it. —Charles Bukowski

Unlike Charles Bukowski, writing well doesn’t come so easily for a lot of us (including me). It takes a lot of mental energy, strains your working memory and often makes you feel vulnerable if you try to be open and honest in your work.

The pure effort of writing is hard enough, but coupled with the pain of putting your work out into the world and letting others judge it, this can be enough to stop you from getting started at all.

The trick to overcoming this isn’t easy, but it’s surprisingly effective: give yourself permission to write badly, and just start.

Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird wrote an excellent essay on why writers must start with horrible drafts:

I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much.

Anne’s essay makes me feel much better about the hard work of writing great content, as she makes it clear that all great writers struggle with their first drafts:

We all often feel like we are pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid.

So to get over the biggest hurdle—the blank page—just get writing. Don’t be afraid that your draft might be bad (it probably will be, but that’s okay.)

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper.

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2. Discard clichés: How to stop writing like “you’re meant to write”

Down with the cliché! If only it were that easy. Clichés surround us, and it’s surprisingly hard to avoid using them.

Put simply, in writing, clichés are bland and overused phrases that fail to excite, motivate, and impress your readers or prospective buyers.

Clichés dominate our language both in speaking and writing. This is because we hear them all the time, so they become the first phrases that come to mind when we want to express ourselves. Which is exactly why they’re a problem:

Given that clichés are the phrases that have struck our eardrums uncountable times, we either don’t associate them with particular ideas and products, or we associate many products and ideas with a particular cliché.

The fact that clichés are so generic you can attach them to any idea makes them ineffective.

This actually has a lot to do with how we take in words and phrases when we read. The more familiar a term or phrase becomes, the more often we start skipping over it as we read, rendering it ineffective.

The best way to avoid this problem is to use different language to explain familiar concepts. It’s a careful balancing act between being so different that your readers are turned off by the effort of understanding your content and being so familiar that your work becomes trite.

In other words, your audience has to feel your content is new, but also credible.

3. Don’t make it sound like writing, instead “Write like you speak”

It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style. —P.D. James

Novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard knew how important the reader was. More important than his English Composition teachers, that’s for sure. He never let “proper” writing get in the way of telling a great story and making it engaging for the reader.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.—Elmore Leonard

Writing like you speak is harder than it might sound. For some reason, it’s easy to “put on” a tone when you start writing, without even realising it. This is something I’m still working on, and it takes a lot of practice.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s list of rules for writing with style, he explains how much better his writing is when it sounds the way he talks:

I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am.

One thing that’s really helped me to improve in this area is a trick that Leo taught me: imagine someone sitting in front of you as you type, and write as if you’re talking to them.

4. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.

When I write like I talk, I tend to write long sentences. I can write a sentence that fills an entire paragraph sometimes. Although this might be how the words flow out of my mouth, one of the benefits of writing is that you have a chance to edit your work before the reader gets hold of it.

Advertising legend David Ogilvy was a fan of getting to the point without wasting words:

Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.

Never write more than two pages on any subject.

This tip is less about editing (which we’ll get to next) and more about keeping things simple. As much as you can, get to your point quickly and use the most simple language you can.

As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. ‘To be or not to be?’ asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. —Kurt Vonnegut

5. Over time, try to write less, not more

And now we come to editing. Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned about writing, ever, is how core editing is to the process of great writing.

The bottom line is this: Write less, not more. —Jeff Goins

Once you get more comfortable with just getting started and writing a rubbish first draft, you will find that at least as much of the writing process is in the editing, if not more:

It actually takes more work to write a short post. You may find you spend twice as much time editing as you do writing.

Having someone else to look over your work can help immensely in this stage, as can reading your work aloud and letting it sit in-between edits.

Most importantly, you’ll need to learn to step back from the process of writing and put on your editor’s hat. View your draft as objectively as you can, while asking whether it makes a clear point and whether you’ve used the shortest, most simple words and sentences you can.

Kurt Vonnegut has an excellent rule we can all use when editing:

Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.

6. Keep writing, even when it already hurts

Lastly, the most important tip there is. I know Leo would agree with me here that the more we’ve both written, the more we’ve improved. We’ve also come to understand more about the process of writing and sharing content over time.

When we recently launched Buffer for Business, I remember discussing how the launch post might look like. And at moments like this, even when you’re almost out of ideas, to simply keep writing and see what comes is often one of the best ways to come up with a great story, at least, that’s how it turned out here.

As Jeff Goins says, the secret to prolific writing is practice:

Don’t write a lot. Just write often.

If you want to get better at anything, you have to practice. You have to be disciplined enough to show up when you don’t want to, and to keep at it when you’ve had enough.

I think this image says it all:

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What other tips do you have for bloggers, copywriters and content marketers? What have you learned from your own writing experience? Let us know in the comments.

Belle Beth Cooper is a content crafter at Buffer and cofounder of Hello Code. Follow her on Twitter at @BelleBethCooper.

This post originally appeared on Buffer, and is reprinted with permission.

[Image: Flickr user Laura Taylor]

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7 Comments

  • Matthew Romer

    Whenever I get stuck and have no idea what to write, I just ask some friends if they want to play a game ( a writing game). All you have to do is have one person pick a random subject (such as nuclear war, spy family, etc.), another person pick a noun, and another picks a adjective. The object of the game is to see who comes up with the better story that makes the most sense within 10 to 15 minutes. It sounds childish, but it does help jog some ideas when you can't think of anything to write about.

  • Schedule time for writing. Tell yourself that you're going to sit and write, good or bad, for a set time period. Also, I think it's important to reward yourself. When I wrote my book, I gave myself small gifts for each 10,000 words. Sounds ridiculous but it worked.

  • Jan Eriksson

    Thank you for your article.

    I especially liked this point: "3. Don’t make it sound like writing, instead “Write like you speak”

    I've been wondering why I never sound like the "great" ones when I'm writing myself.

    Then one day I tried letting loose. I decided that my goal was not to write perfectly.

    My new goal was to want to read the post myself, not care so much about what others think. Sounds simple, but that changed everything for me.

    The text became much more like I would speak myself.

    So again, thank you.

  • Paula Unger

    This is great advice. One of the things that make it great is that it applies just as much to non-fiction writing.

  • Kathy Rowe

    Nice article, and I certainly agree with #3. I love letting my characters tell the story through their dialog, makes it a lot easier for me!