10 Things I Wish I Knew as a Beginner Writer

Don't make the same mistakes as me.

Recently, I read an article titled “What I wish I knew at the start of my career”. It was a very informative format, so I decided to make my own list for writing.

Hope you find it useful!

10 Things I Wish I Knew As A Beginner Writer

  1. There are no rules, only suggestions.

  2. Focus on what’s happening. Everything else is filler.

  3. Story is about feelings.

  4. The reader feels what you feel, but never as strongly.

  5. … Except for boredom. If you’re bored, the reader already gave up.

  6. You will discover important things about your story as you write (even if you planned everything).

  7. When in doubt, trust the reader.

  8. Editing is how bad stories become good stories.

  9. Feedback is how you improve as a writer.

  10. Want to write like a professional? Then treat writing like a job.

#1 There are no rules, only suggestions.

My first mistake was treating writing advice as if they were rules. Following so many “rules” stifled my creativity and deadened my prose. I gained a laundry list of bad habits that took years to unlearn.

Your writing voice is unique to you. As you write, you’ll discover what makes your stories different. Learn the basics of writing, but don’t try to write like someone you’re not. It’s more important to foster the development of your voice.

Treat writing advice like shopping for clothes. Try one on. See if it fits your writing. If so, great! If not, move on to the next pair of jeans. You’re never obligated to buy anything.

“Just enjoy writing. With regard to grammar, spoken language and common sense are generally better guides for a first draft than rule books. It's more important to be understood than it is to form a grammatically perfect sentence.” Cormac McCarthy (source).

#2 Focus on what’s happening. Everything else is filler.

When asked about his artistic process, Michelangelo (supposedly) said, “It’s easy. You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.”

Now, while the great sculptor probably never said this, the essence of the quote still stands. The point of a sculpture is to show the subject. Everything else needs to be chiseled away.

Likewise, the point of a story is to show what’s happening. You, the writer, need to figure out what makes your story worth writing about. That’s your David.

As a beginner, I often took week-long detours to write chapters that were not relevant to my story. I’d spend hours describing the world or the backstory. It was mostly a waste of time.

Just like your story’s hero, you have a main goal. Don’t get distracted by the side-quests. Ignore the filler.

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#3 Story is about feelings.

My best stories all focus on a feeing. My worst stories try to be fancy with prose, setting, characters, or scope without adding emotional substance.

I’ve written stories that deal with loss, with longing, with acceptance of things outside of one’s control, with the fear of being trapped, with love, with ambition. It’s not any particular feeling. It’s the fact of a unifying emotion that makes these stories good.

Now, before I start writing a story, I try to find the emotional core. No matter what I write, my goal is to make the reader feel something deep and true.

Never be clever for the sake of being clever.” — Glenn Gould, from “So You Want to Write a Fugue”.

Remember this too: all bad writers are in love with the epic.” — Ernest Hemingway.

#4 The reader feels what you feel, but never as strongly.

If cry as you write, the reader might sniffle. If laugh as you write, the reader might smile.

Something is always lost in translation. No writer is skilled enough to transmit an entire spectrum of emotions. So don’t fret. The only thing you can do is to write as truthfully as you are able, and trust that your true felt emotions are enough to move the reader.

Find what gave you the emotion; what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling that you had.” — Ernest Hemingway.

#5 …Except for boredom. If you’re bored, the reader already gave up.

While editing my first novel, my beta-readers told me the beginning was too slow. I knew it was kind of boring, but I didn’t want to cut too much because it paid off at the end.

I still regret this decision. More than half of the readers who pick up my novel abandon it before Chapter 5. Why? Because they got bored!

A reader takes 8 hours to finish the average book. It’s a big time commitment, especially when there are smartphones and social media competing for your reader’s attention. If you bore them, they will leave.

Kill your boring darlings. Even Ernest Hemingway, at F Scott Fitzgerald’s advice, cut the first 2500 words of his novel.

#6 You will discover important things about your story as you write (even if you planned everything).

My early works suffered from rigid planning. This denied me the pleasure of discovering something new about my story. It denied the reader an authentic reading experience.

These days, I won’t know what a story is about about until I’m half-way through writing it. Yes, even when I outline the story. And I think that’s a beautiful thing.

Writing is discovery. You’re not building a house or drawing a map. You’re digging through dirt, trying to find a nugget of gold or a piece of dinosaur bone. You can plan where to dig, how far to dig, and what tools to use, but you won’t know what you’ll find until you start digging.

#7 When in doubt, trust the reader.

Readers are much smarter than us writers give them credit for.

In my early days, I had the urge to spell everything out. I explained away all the intrigue and nuance and turned my stories into lifeless lectures. It was awful.

As my writing style matured, I learned to stop explaining things. These days I just tell the story as I see it, and trust that the reader is attentive enough to figure out the meaning (or twist, or subtext).

Explaining everything is the quickest way to get someone to stop reading. Don’t rob your reader of the joy of sudden epiphany. Trust the reader.

#8 Editing is how bad stories become good stories.

Everyone’s first drafts are bad.

As a beginner writer, I was often demotivated when my first draft turned out bad. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was comparing my first drafts with other writers’ sixth, seventh, tenth drafts. Comparing your rough work with other people’s polished work is an unhealthy way to approach writing (and life).

The point of a first draft is to get a sketch of the story down on paper. From there, your real work begins. I expect to make major changes to the story with each round of editing. Most authors will go through half a dozen drafts before the story is ready for submission. I do at least 4.

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft — you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft — you fix it up.” — Anne Lamott (source).

#9 Feedback is how you improve as a writer.

We humans learn through iterative feedback cycles.

Each cycle has three stages:

  1. Try. Using what you learned, do something to the best of your ability.

  2. Evaluate. Obtain feedback, objectively evaluate your attempt.

  3. Improve. Based on the evaluation, improve your work to the point of diminishing returns.

Here’s an example for cooking:

  1. Read up on how to cook a steak; cook the steak.

  2. Feed a sample to your family. Obtain their honest opinions (e.g. Not salty enough, undercooked).

  3. Go back to the kitchen and try to make it better (e.g. Add more salt to the steak, cook it for an extra minute).

Beginner writers are often scared of feedback. I was terrified of getting bad feedback when I first started writing. So much so, I would hide my work from everyone. If you have this fear, you must purge it. You will never get better unless you evaluate your work, because without feedback, you will never know how to improve.

Get feedback. Write better.

It’s not 10,000 hours, it’s 10,000 iterations.” — Naval Ravikant (source).

#10 Want to write like a professional? Then treat writing like a job.

If you want to be a great writer, then you have to treat it like a job.

You have to study the craft. You have take feedback gracefully. You have to edit tirelessly. You have to be willing to cut up your precious story, even if doing so hurts your soul.

Most importantly: you have to write, even when you don’t feel like writing.

I didn’t make headway in my writing until I took writing seriously. It’s a job, so treat it like one.

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