As a general rule, I don’t write writing advice lists, and I dislike posts with “writing tips.” The problem is that young writers and Authors study those lists instead of the fundamentals. If you want to actually write and publish a book, there’s no substitute for executing the simple fundamentals of good writing.
But—that being said—there’s always a place for learning new tips and tricks that you can add on top of the fundamentals and help you become a better writer.
I’ve collected the best 33 writing tips I use. Some of these are things I came up with in my career writing 4 New York Times bestsellers (that sold over 4 million copies). Most of the lessons didn’t originate with me. They’re quotes and learnings I got from other great writers and Authors—some famous, some not—that have helped me in my career.
I’m passing these to you in hope they help you as much as they helped me.
Writing Tip #1: Clarity is the mark of genius.
“Creativity that blurs clarity is pretentious. Creativity that sharpens clarity is genius.”
—Roy H. Williams
I put this first because it’s the most important tip you can take from this list. If you do nothing more than write clearly, you’re going to be in the top 10% of all writers.
Don’t try to sound impressive, just try to be clear.
Don’t obsess over your writing style, just try to be clear.
Don’t try to be anything other than clear, and you’ll be good.
The downside to this tip is that if you don’t have anything to say, then being clear will make that obvious.
“An intellectual is a man who says a simple thing in a complex way. A genius is a man who says a complex thing in a simple way.”
Writing Tip #2: End each day mid-sentence.
This is a simple tip, and I can’t remember where I learned it, but it has worked for many, many writers: stop each day in the middle of a sentence.
This is for people who have trouble picking back up each day. If you stop in the middle of a sentence, then you have a clear place to start and an easy way to create momentum.
Writing Tip #3: Give yourself permission to write a mediocre first draft.
Write a bad first draft as fast as you can.
At Scribe, we call this part of the writing process a “vomit draft.” The point is to not edit or even read anything that you are writing as you do your first draft. Of course you will go back to it later and edit, but not on the first pass. The ONLY goal of the first pass is to get it done.
This is because one of the biggest obstacles between the desire to write and an actual finished piece is overcoming your own self-doubt. Doing a mediocre first draft is a great way to get momentum and start moving.
“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.”
Writing Tip #4: Write what’s obvious to you but invisible to others.
“If something is easy for you, but hard for other people—that’s your book topic.”
I know I quoted myself. It’s terrible, but I couldn’t find anyone else who said it better.
When something is obvious to you, but is hard for other people, that is a great place to explore and write. This is because you’ve figured out how to do this in a way that others have not—and that is the exact knowledge that others want and need.
We all have knowledge and perspectives that others do not, and that is precisely what writing is for—sharing that knowledge and wisdom.
“The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think.”
Writing Tip #5: Make 250 words your daily word count minimum.
“Little strokes fell great oaks.”
Why 250 words? It’s approximately the number of words per page in a printed book. So if you’re writing about 250 words a day, that’s about a page a day.
Yes, this is a very low goal. But a low goal is good. A low goal is not intimidating, so it will help you get started. It will also make you feel good when you surpass it, and entice you to keep writing.
This is a classic sales technique—lowering the quota to inspire action—that works wonderfully with writing.
The best part is that it adds up quickly: By writing just 250 words a day, you can get a 120-page (30,000-word) first draft done in about four months.
That is fast, and you’ll do it with what feels like very little effort and not a lot of time. As you can see, it’s all about consistency.
Writing Tip #6: Expect writing to be hard.
I wish I had a fun quote here about this, but writing is hard work. If it were easy, everyone would be good at it.
The key here is to go in knowing this. Expect it to be hard, tiring, confusing, overwhelming, and painful. I know this sounds obvious, but most people have a fantasy in their heads about writing that misses the crappy parts.
Embrace the crappy parts. That’s the only way to actually get it done.
Writing Tip #7: Habit is the foundation of writing.
“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.”
This follows from the “writing is hard” tip. The ONLY way to make it easier is to build a writing habit.
There are great methods to use to make it a habit (this post describes one way that I know for a fact works). If you’re serious about writing, then it has to become a habit in your life. Something you do just about every day (at least when you are working on a project or book).
If you treat writing like a special thing that happens only when you are inspired, then it won’t happen. If you treat writing like a job or skill that you must focus on and schedule, then it will. So start writing.
“First we make our habits, then our habits make us.”
—John C. Noble
Writing Tip #8: Doesn’t matter that it’s been said; say it again.
“There’s always room for high-quality thoughts/opinions. Venn diagram of people with knowledge and those who can communicate is tiny.”
Being totally original in writing is not only (virtually) impossible, it’s also not a great strategy. To be totally original you have to be so far away from the mainstream as to be irrelevant.
To add value to the world through writing, you are far better off sharing what you know in a way that people get. Great example:
There are millions of weight loss books. Everyone wants to lose weight.
What’s the disconnect?
It’s not information. It’s the way the information is being presented.
Every field has a contradiction like that. Find it and solve it.
Writing Tip #9: Most “writing” is actually editing.
“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.”
This is obvious to experienced writers, but for some reason, newer writers find this shocking. If you do your first draft properly, it will come out fast and be bad writing. Then you start editing, and that’s when the serious writing starts.
Writing Tip #10: Say the thing you are afraid to say.
“Whether or not you write well, write bravely.”
This is one that every writer struggles with, and I can tell you from experience, your writing will be successful in direct proportion to how well you do this.
The more you say the thing you are afraid to say, the better your writing will be.
The more you run from it, the worse it will be.
This is because, at our core, we are all searching for truth in a world that does not speak much of it. If you get up and speak just a little truth, people will love you for saying and doing the thing they wanted to say and do, but did not.
“Making a judgment, taking a stand and then acting against an injustice or acting to support excellence is the stuff of the everyman hero. If you are an aspiring artist and you wish to avoid ‘judgments,’ you’ll find that you have nothing to say.”
Writing Tip #11: Read your writing out loud.
This is not the only way to edit, but it’s the best.
When I was writing my first #1 bestseller, I had teams of proofreaders working through the book.
First I proofread it, then I had the help of editor friends, and finally the publishing company had their people do their copyedits. I did not think that a single mistake would sneak by, and happily locked in the manuscript.
A few months later I recorded my audiobook, and as I read through the manuscript out loud, I was horrified.
There were 100 tiny little word choice mistakes and changes I only heard once I said them out loud.
It drove me nuts.
Don’t make the mistake I made. Read your manuscript out loud, hear the mistakes, and change as you go.
If the words roll off your tongue, they’ll also flow smoothly in readers’ heads. Learn from my mistake—read your manuscript out loud and make your changes before you start the publishing process.
If it’s something you would say out loud, then it reads clearly on the page. If it’s something you would never say to another person, it won’t read as clearly.
Writing Tip #12: Avoid the “Mom edit.”
Be very careful with asking friends and family to give you feedback. I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts ruined by friends and family trying to be nice.
The “mom edit” is almost always the worst. Here’s a piece of advice—don’t do it.
What happens is they feel like they are supposed to give feedback, so they just mention things that occur to them. While they are well-intentioned, most of their advice is not only wrong, but it’s also counterproductive and toxic—a dynamic that can send authors into spirals.
The bottom line? Unless your friends and family are writers, or are in the audience of your book, or you are okay with ignoring them, don’t let them give you feedback.
Writing Tip #13: Beat writer’s block by asking what you’re afraid of.
Staring at a blank page? I have a simple trick I use to beat writer’s block. When I am stuck, I ask myself the question:
What am I afraid of?
Hint: it’s pretty much always some fear you don’t want to face (this is a list of common author fears).
Here’s the thing though—this won’t work if you aren’t honest with yourself. And of course, you have to be self-aware enough to know when you’re not being honest.
This works for me (most of the time), because I’ve spent many years in different forms of therapy, and I have gotten pretty decent at seeing my own bullshit (again, most of the time, not always).
If you’re not like that—and most people are not—this strategy won’t work. You’ll just spin up elaborate rationalizations to convince yourself that there is a REAL reason and it’s not some fear you aren’t facing.
But if you do this, if you can actually understand the fear that is driving your block, then you can solve it. I walk you through exactly how to beat your book writing fears in this piece.
Writing Tip #14: Spend time on your book title.
Your book title is the most important marketing decision you’ll make. Period.
Just like companies that spend millions on naming new products, and media companies that spend time testing different titles for posts, you should spend substantial time and energy finding the right book title.
This is a very important decision, and one you need to think about and get right to ensure your book has the best possible chance of success.
The title is the first thing the reader sees or hears about your book—even before the cover in most cases—and getting it right is the single most important book marketing decision you’ll make (even though most people don’t think about it as marketing). The title forms the basis of the reader’s judgment about your book.
Let’s be clear: A good title won’t make your book do well. But a bad title will almost certainly prevent it from doing well.
Writing Tip #15: No one cares about your book, they only care what your book gets them.
“This is the value for me of writing books that children read. Children aren’t interested in your appalling self-consciousness. They want to know what happens next. They force you to tell a story.”
So many people want to write because they, unconsciously, see it as a way to express emotions or do therapy that they otherwise don’t or won’t do.
If you are writing for that reason, that’s cool—but understand that book is called a diary. You don’t need to publish that.
If you are writing something you want to publish, then you are writing for the reader. Even if the book is about you.
I am the perfect example—I wrote 3 #1 New York Times bestselling books about my life…and every single one is focused on entertaining the reader, not me. I know, it sounds very counterintuitive, but it’s the truth:
No one cares about your book—they only care what your book gets them.
Writing Tip #16: Cut everything unnecessary.
“Never use a long word where a short one will do.”
The question, “What can I cut?” is the most important one to ask in writing.
The more you cut without losing meaning, the better.
A short good argument will always beat a longer good argument. Always.
There is NEVER a reason to write a single word more than necessary.
Note: Do not mistake clarity with brevity. Both are important, but they are different, and that’s why they are different tips.
“The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”
Writing Tip #17: Grammar rules are made-up bullshit.
“Remember, Grammar Nazis: It’s YOU’RE going to die alone.”
This is one of those facts that most writers never stop to think about. There is no such thing as a hard and fast grammar “rule.” There are multiple different books that claim to be the one truth, but none of them are.
You can do anything you want—as long as it works for the reader.
Writing Tip #18: When necessary, learn the proper rules.
I know I said that all grammar rules are bullshit. They are. But the fact is, there are times and places that breaking the rules will make you look bad in a way that doesn’t help you.
Make sure you know all the big rules so that you can know when it makes sense to break them or to abide by them. Know all of these things (or just reference the links when you need them):
What are the parts of a book?
What are the rules for a book proposal?
How do you write the Foreword?
How do you write an Acknowledgments?
What is positioning and why does it matter?
How to write your Author Bio
How to write a book description that sells
How long should your book be?
How to do a great book cover
What are all the different types of editing?
There are endless other rules. You don’t need to know this upfront, just know that there are rules, and you can break them, you just need to know them ahead of time to know which ones to break and when.
Writing Tip #19: Good editing hurts your ego.
“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”
This is the most painful truth of writing: good editing crushes your ego. You will fall in love with something that doesn’t work, and the only solution is to cut it. What you do then determines the quality of your writing.
Until you have cut something that you loved but no one else does, you are not writing.
“In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.”
—Antoine de Saint Exupery
Writing Tip #20: Great writing is great storytelling.
“If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.”
—W. Somerset Maugham
This is a very important tip that so many writers fail to understand—no one cares about your fancy words or perfect sentences. That’s like a chef who is obsessed with spices but doesn’t spend time on the main dish.
Your reader cares about the story.
That doesn’t mean your writing can be bad. But writing is just a vehicle to tell a story, not an end in itself.
Don’t be the writer who forgets the point: teach your reader something valuable through story.
“The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller.”
Writing Tip #21: If you get stuck, describe to a friend and record yourself.
If you are stuck writing, then talk out loud to a friend. Tell them exactly what it is you want to say, and all of the sudden it will flow seamlessly out of your mouth.
This is so dead simple, and I’ve been doing this for more than a decade to get past almost any writing obstacle I have encountered.
Note: I use Rev or Temi. They are both apps on my phone, and work great.
Writing Tip #22: Writing cannot be taught; only learned.
“Writing cannot be taught, though it can be learned.”
Take all the writing courses you can, and read all the articles you want. They are great and a part of learning to write.
But the point of this tip is that you’ll never be taught to write. It won’t come from the outside. It is inherently a creative activity, and thus you must actually write and learn yourself how to do it.
Getting guidance is great. But you must still learn it yourself.
Writing Tip #23: Nothing happens until you publish.
“Every accomplishment begins with the decision to try.”
Another thing that is obvious to professional writers but seems to escape amateurs. Until you publish your writing, nothing happens. It’s just a diary.
And by publish, I mean put it anywhere on the internet or out to the world. Not just a book. Sharing is the most important step of writing.
Writing Tip #24: Write what you are trying to figure out.
“If you’re saying it, it’s about you.”
—The Last Psychiatrist
I do like the “write what you know” cliche, but I don’t think it’s entirely accurate all the time. It’s also very valid to write what you are trying to figure out.
Because it will not only help you figure it out, but it also will help others who are behind you on the path.
The reality is that there is no finish line, so you might as well write and publish now. You can always do more later.
Writing Tip #25: Keep selling your reader after they’ve bought the book.
Just because the reader bought your book, your job is not over. You have to keep them engaged.
This is why most book introductions are so awful. Authors think the purpose of the introduction is to explain everything they will talk about in the book.
That is boring and wrong.
The purpose of a good introduction is to engage the reader and get them to read the book. Just because someone is reading an introduction does not mean they are going to finish the book. The thing that scares people off of books is not the price—it’s the commitment of time.
People don’t care about $10. They care about spending their time on something that is interesting and engaging to them.
That is the job of the introduction: prove to the reader this book is worth reading. A well done introduction grabs the reader and compels them to keep reading. It pulls them through and makes them excited to start the content, because the introduction has answered the most important question the reader has:
“Why should I read this book?”
Writing Tip #26: Never focus on tools; only on story.
Don’t spend one iota of time obsessing over your writing tools. That is all bullshit, a distraction to get yourself away from the hard job of writing.
Pick any software you like that is easy, and then go forward.
Writing Tip #27: Don’t try to be a “writer.” Just write.
For this lesson, I like to use a metaphor about restaurants:
Yes, the best restaurants in the world do have the experience and the atmosphere down. That stuff matters.
But more important than any of that—they do the fundamentals perfectly. They get simple, fresh ingredients and prepare them well. That’s it. If you do only that, you’ll provide massive value to a ton of people.
But the wannabe fancy chefs don’t do that. They look at the best restaurants and only see the accouterment. They copy the atmosphere, the experience, and focus on all the pretentious bullshit.
Then they fuck up the salad and overcook the steak.
Most writers are overcooking the steak because they are so concerned with identifying as an amazing writer that they overlook the fundamentals. Instead, they try to be clever. They are focusing on the words and forgetting about the story.
The sooner you go of the idea that you’re a “writer,” the faster you can perfect the fundamentals of writing, and then write things that people want to read.
Writing Tip #28: Hand write copies of your favorite writing to improve your writing.
This is a trick I learned from the best copywriters in the world:
Take some pages from the best writing of any writer you want to sound like. Copy that out, by hand. Literally copy it, word for word, in long hand.
I’ve done this with long-form prose writers, and it works wonders.
This gives you an entirely different way to get into the head of a writer you respect and want to emulate. You learn the feel of the words and how they think.
Then you can turn that into your own style.
Writing Tip #29: Write for the reader who won’t read as carefully as you write.
Remember, your reader is distracted and selfish. They are not going to read with the care you put into writing. Don’t fret about that, just account for it and write so that they can’t misunderstand or get lost.
This is the same reason that pop songs are designed to sound good on ear buds. Buy designing for the hardest environment, you ensure your writing works in all environments. And it usually makes it better.
Writing Tip #30: Great stories create emotion and meaning.
“Experiencing stories that tell the tale of protagonists for whom we can empathize gives us the courage to examine our own lives and change them. So if your story doesn’t change your lead character irrevocably from beginning to end, no one will really care about it. It may entertain them, but it will have little effect on them. It will be forgotten. We want characters in stories that take on the myriad challenges of changing their lives and somehow make it through, with invaluable experience. Stories give us the courage to act when we face confusing circumstances that require decisiveness.”
When you read that, do you think Shawn is talking about fiction?
He’s not. He’s talking about all writing.
Fiction or non-fiction, you are still telling a story and for that story to work, it has to hit the emotional core of people. Help them find meaning, purpose, truth, or whatever it is they are searching for.
This applies to something as simple as an instruction manual.
All writing is about emotion and meaning.
“Life is chaotic and meaningless, and you have to find your meaning. You must find the answer, you can’t just live. That’s the point of story: helping you find your meaning in life.”
Writing Tip #31: Expect 50% of your ideas to occur after you start.
This is annoyingly true. No matter how much you outline or think or plan, writing itself will generate more ideas.
For example, I outlined this piece to have 15 writing tips…31 later, I am two more from being done.
Writing Tip #32: Use a parking lot to capture ideas.
When I write, I end up accumulating notes for lots of other topics I want to write about later. Instead of those spinning in my head and distracting me, I have a note called a “Parking Lot,” and I put all my ideas for future pieces there.
It both ensures that I don’t lose them and gets them out of my head so I can focus on the piece I am working on.
Writing Tip #33: The only absolute rule in writing is “do what works.”
“You must understand that there is more than one path to the top of the mountain.”
All of these tips have worked for me (and for the thousands of writers my company has coached), but it doesn’t mean that they’ll work for you. Some will, some will not.
Here’s the point: the only absolute rule is that there are no rules, and all you have to do is do what works.
If it works, it’s right.
If it doesn’t, it’s not.
This is because writing isn’t about the words and sentences. It’s not even about the story.
Writing is about the impact the writing has.
What works is what matters, that’s it.