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What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

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Here at the Australian Writers' Centre, we’re in the privileged position to chat regularly with successful authors, talented freelancers, world-class presenters and our amazing students. And although everyone approaches writing differently, it’s clear that there are common truths that can be helpful for all. Most importantly, if you want to be a writer, you need to write!

We recently reached out to our fabulous So you want to be a writer podcast community on Facebook (it’s free to join!) and asked them to share some of their favourite writing tips. Here’s a collection of their words of wisdom to help inspire your creative projects…

Get the first draft done
Overwhelmingly, our community says to focus on just getting down the words. Write and write until you get to the end, even if it’s horrible. There’s a lot of mention of vomit. Once you have your draft, then you can start to shape it into your perfect story.

“You can’t edit a blank page,” says Fadzi. “Finish the book.”

Kim agrees. “Don’t get it right. Just get it written.” 

Karen and Valerie like the advice of Terry Pratchett. “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” 

That means leaving your editor at the door when you sit down to write. “Don’t edit, just write,” Dayan and Tracey say. Nadine likes the way Stephen King put it: “Write your first draft with the door closed.”

Everyone agrees that the job of the first draft is simply to exist. It can be messy and it can be word vomit, as long as it’s done. “Zero drafts are a thing,” Caileen says. And Natalie adds, “Done is better than perfect.”

The final bit of advice on getting it done comes from Eric: “If you have a few unfinished novels then they are all mysteries.”

Show up regularly
The next most popular tip is to show up regularly. Going for the occasional run will not make you a fitness guru. Similarly, you need to make time for your writing. As Abby and Phillip both put it, “Writers write 🙂.”

Kelli has a regular writing routine that she finds useful. “Half an hour per day. Once I start I often write for longer but if I’m not in the mood, I can finish in a half hour even if not much has been produced. More often than not I write for longer than a half hour.”

Showing up regularly gives you the momentum to stay on track. “Keep writing forward otherwise you’ll get stuck,” says Joanne. “I tend to procrastinate-edit so this is one I’m trying to adhere to.”

Axel likes the pressure of deadlines. “Set yourself real deadlines so you are motivated to meet them.”

What’s important is that you don’t set traps for yourself by ‘waiting for inspiration’. “To be a good writer, you need to write,” Nat says. Niamh agrees. “Silence your inner critic and just sit down and write.” Or as Shakti puts it poetically: “Keep your hand moving.”

According to bestselling author Bryce Courtenay, there is actually one secret ingredient to writing, which Barry and Fiona both love: “Use bum glue!”

Or take the advice of Australian author Jodi Gibson: “If you want to write, you need to make writing a priority. Schedule it as you would any other appointment and make it non-negotiable.”

Find your own way
Now, with all these tips floating around, you might start to think that there’s only one way to write. And while showing up regularly and getting to the end of your first draft are essential if you want to be published one day, there’s no set way to do either.

“Don’t compare yourself to others,” Matt says. “Find a routine that works for you.”

Nathan agrees. “'Understand where tips come from before you accept them as gospel,” he says. “Tips like ‘write every day' are less about prescriptive scheduling and more about optimising momentum and rhythm.”

And of course, don’t be afraid to try something radically different. “I just heard that when Joan Didion was not happy with a piece of writing, she put it in the freezer,” Christine says. “I am yet to try this.”

Be patient and kind to yourself
While finding your way, don’t forget that writing is a process. Nobody writes a perfect first draft, so don’t set yourself unrealistic expectations.

“A piece of advice that has stuck with me is to not compare my early draft to a published book—particularly one I admire,” Nikki says. “That book has probably been through multiple revisions, beta readings, and editing (developmental, copy and proofing – sometimes multiple rounds of each!). Of course, my unpolished draft won't be to the same standard.”

And don’t neglect your physical health, either. Suzy likes Margaret Atwood’s advice: “Look after your posture.”

Learn your craft
Okay, so you’re writing regularly and you’re committed to writing all the way to the end of your first draft. But do you actually know what you’re doing?

The best way to learn your craft – according to just about every writer in the world – is to read a lot. “Read, read, read,” says Kylie. Debra takes it one further and says, “Read 100 books in your chosen genre.” And don’t be afraid to branch out as well. “Read a variety of authors' work,” says Christine.

Then there are the skills that will make your writing the best it can be. 

“Make sure to really really really truly understand what it is to ‘show and NOT tell’!” says Anna.

“Watch for sneaky shifts in point of view,” says Justine. “That was advice from Pamela Freeman, who then went on to explain exactly what she meant until I finally got it!”

Meanwhile, Kathy heard this advice from a fiction publisher in a workshop: “See yourself as a storyteller and an entertainer, not a writer. Serve the story. Entertain the reader.”

Read out loud
When it does come time to edit your work, most writers agree that you should read it out loud.

“Discover those tongue-tying nasties before you read in public,” says Mazzy, who also recommends using technology. “For editing, let text-to-voice software read it to you because even a monotoned bot reads what is on the page, not what you meant to write/think you wrote.”

Anni uses her phone to help pick up parts of the story that need work. “I read scenes or chapters out loud and record them on my phone, then listen to them later to catch parts that could work better. You really get the sense of rhythm down, especially when writing poems.”

Tell your own unique story
While it can be tempting to look out for trends or try to guess what will be popular, ultimately you have to write the story that is burning inside you.

“Write the work only you can write,” Bridie says. 

Finding your point of difference is crucial, Richard thinks. “Your task is always to be more open, more emotional in your detail, more difficult, less obedient to the facts. To be weirder and stranger. There are a lot of fluent white people out there! What’s going to make you different?”

To find your own voice, Peggy recommends listening. “Don't make it up. Be still. Listen. And write it down.”

Chelsey prefers the advice of Elizabeth Gilbert to explore new paths: “Don't write what you love; write what you are curious about. Always follow your curiosity.” Bette agrees. “Write about what you do not know as well as what you do.”

And bestselling children’s author Oliver Phommavanh reminds us that there’s no such thing as an original idea. “Take a borrowed one and write it your way,” he says. “That's where the originality will come from.”

Find your tribe
Writing can seem like a solitary endeavour, but it doesn’t have to be. In your darkest moments, you will think that you are completely alone and this whole pursuit is futile. You are in good company!

“Even well-known authors were once unknown, and like us, they experienced doubt/fear, blank page, procrastination, etc and so on,” says Leesa.

That’s why connecting with at least one other writer is so important.

“Write in a community, never in isolation,” Cate says. “Be in a community of writers. Support each other, read each other’s work.”

Are you ready to find your tribe? Our Writing Workout is designed specifically to help you with each of the tips our community shared. You will connect with other writers, develop a regular writing habit, have accountability, and hone your craft. Happy writing!

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