Thursday, January 26, 2023

Six Bits of Writing Advice from James W. Ziskin

This week’s topic asks us to offer writing tips for absolute beginners.


1. Take your writing seriously

Treat it as if it’s a job. Be professional. That means sitting down and writing. You can’t say you’re an NBA player if you don’t play in the NBA. By the same token, you can’t say you’re a writer if you don’t write. I’m not talking about finding a  publisher for your work. And I’m not saying you have to be a good writer or that you have to write every day. But you have to write.

2. Keep track of your production

I’ve written in this space many times before how I maintain a spreadsheet to track my daily word count. I use the data—averages and totals—for inspiration. On days when I’m tired and not in the mood to work, the spreadsheet might show me that I have a good string of consecutive writing days going. Well I certainly don’t want to break the momentum, so I force myself to write something. At least 300 words, even if it’s at the end of the day. The streak continues and I feel better about my writing. Plus the book progresses. It’s a marathon, so you have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. (That’s a metaphor for the writing process.) ;-)

3. Revise relentlessly

If you don’t revise, you probably won’t be a good writer. It’s an essential part of writing. As important as the first draft. Revision isn’t something you can leave to someone else to do. “Oh, that’s for the editor to worry about.” No. You won’t even have an editor if you don’t polish your work. If you’re not committed to revising your work, you’re ignoring half the writing process. Think of golf. What if you only like to hit the ball as far as you can? Nothing is sweeter than swinging from the heels and watching that little ball rocket off into the distance. Yes, the drive is important in golf, but what about putting? You hate putting. No patience for it. Couldn’t care less about it. If that’s true, you’ll be a rotten golfer. You’ll reach the green in regulation then three-put, four-put, or worse. Double and triple bogeys will make it hard to break a hundred. That’s not good golf, just as rough, sloppy, flabby manuscripts are not good writing. But they could be with lots of revision.

4. Read voraciously

Let’s be honest. If you don’t read, this isn’t the calling for you. How many chefs don’t enjoy food? How many winemakers don’t drink wine? Read. Then read some more. It will broaden your horizons and you’ll learn. You’ll gain insights into the creative process and writing techniques. You can’t help but absorb those.

5. Know what you don’t know

Easier said than done, but essential nevertheless. This falls under revision and research. Your words and facts need to be correct. And the best way to accomplish that is to doubt yourself at every turn. Every word. Check your work. Make sure what you believe is correct actually is. There are few things more dangerous than thinking you’re right when you’re not. Just ask the bomb defuser—now a smudge on the pavement— who was certain—100% certain—it was the blue wire, not the red one, that needed to be cut.

6. Don’t give up

Have you ever lost anything? Of course you have. Your keys, your phone, your glasses. And have you ever found that lost item? Congratulations! And where was it? In the very last place you looked. If you’d given up your search before looking in that last place, you never would have found it, And that’s how it works with a writing career. You can only succeed for the first time after your very last failure. Don’t give up.

Feel free to add your tips in the comments.


Dietrich Kalteis said...

Great advice, Jim. I love that line, "You can only succeed for the first time after your very last failure."

Terry said...

Take yourself seriously. Best advice!

Susan C Shea said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Susan C Shea said...

Well said. There are still days when I need to hear "Take yourself seriously." Make the writing time a high priority, not what you'll do if you can squeeze in the time.

Jeffrey Siger said...

I agree 100%, Jim. I'd love to write more, but my spreadsheet calls me. :)

Lyn G. Brakeman said...

Remember to breathe!

Kim Hays said...

Excellent advice, Jim. You are so right. Today I'm revising and thinking about #5 on your list. Am I really sure about all the information I have my characters so casually provide, all the background I drop into the story? Nerve-racking questions! Oh yes, and I have another small piece of advice, although maybe I'm the only one who needs it. When you finish writing at the end of the day, copy whatever you've done--always, without fail--onto a USB flash drive.