Five Expert Tips For Sucking At Writing



Write in a café.

There’ll usually be someone saying something incredibly weird and/or offensive. Once you tune in, you won’t be able to concentrate anymore, but you’ll be cool with it because it’s all fodder for the novel.

So far, I’ve overheard the following conversations:

  •  A man, staring soulfully into the eyes of his companion, telling her she has a “luminous energy.” That his one regret is that he hasn’t spent enough time with her. That he wants to kiss her, then and there. That his wife probably wouldn’t approve.
  • A man discussing the remodel of his home, bemoaning the cruel fact that “toilets these days just aren’t constructed for the modern American asshole.” I’m preeeeettty certain he meant it in an anatomical rather than metaphorical sense, as he went into great detail (I will spare you).
  • A blind date during which the first question was “What kind of rifle do you own?” followed by discussion of the vast medical conspiracy behind flu shots and the following conversation:
    Him: What’s your last name?
    Her: Turner.
    Him: Are you related to Ted Turner?
    Her: …..?



Read widely and well.

This will make you a better writer. It will also make you a better procrastinator.

You will endlessly compare yourself to another writer who is not you and whom you will never be. Ignore that the writer cannot be you and you cannot be that writer because that would defy all known laws of the universe and everything would implode. Wish you were Geraldine Brooks anyway, universe implosion be damned.

Bonus: If you read a wide variety of authors, you’ll return to your writing sounding like one of those old See ‘n Say toys that comes back with a different voice each time you pull the string. Paragraph 1, you’ll sound like Donna Tartt. Paragraph 2, Donald Trump.

Showing three fingers isolated on white


Go to conferences.

You will get to spend a lot of money and sometimes it will be worth it but sometimes it will just be a chance to go out of town and drink a lot of coffee and wine instead of staying home and drinking a lot of coffee and wine.

On the plus side, the other conference attendees are likely to be cool and interesting. They’ll also appreciate the bookish-seeming shoes you’ve been dying to wear (like, I don’t know, maybe these which I bought for my birthday and that I love so much I want to marry them):




Do your research.

Before you’ve finished your first draft, go to QueryTracker. Research all of the agents who represent your work. Fall in love with one or two of them—I mean, just know in your heart of hearts that she/he is THE ONLY AGENT who could possibly really understand you and your work. Imagine the laughter and hijinks as you get together for drinks in New York to discuss the details of your publishing contract. Get so excited that you finish your half-assed manuscript and don’t really bother with editing or beta readers (because you’re certain that the #MSWL Your Dream Agent (YDA) tweeted out last week was just like what you’d written and A SIGN FROM THE UNIVERSE). When YDA rejects your query/manuscript (or worse, never gets back to you), assume that it’s not because you jumped the gun and sent out your work before it was ready but because you are the worst writer who’s ever dared put pen to paper (or, I don’t know, finger to keyboard?). Your ideas suck. Your words suck. You suck.

(The above has definitely not happened to me. More than once. Or twice.)



Keep being a horrible writer.

Because writers are doing what they’ve felt called to do. Because there’s something about writing that taps into a soul-deep core of human need for stories, for connection and meaning. Because when we don’t write the world seems a little flatter, a little grayer, a little less shimmery.

Write on, friends.

I Am Not My Writing

“Power of Words,” Antonio Litterio. Wikimedia Commons

I’m currently revising a novel in which some folks have said I do a whole lot of telling and not enough showing.

I trained as an academic, so it’s practically a given that my early fiction attempts would skew towards the didactic, the wordy, the analytic. I knew that going in.

So if that feedback is so straightforward, why am I struggling with feelings of embarrassment, even shame? (And now we enter Inception-level neuroticism, in which I’m a little embarrassed about feeling shame.)

All I really have to do is add some more dialogue, inject more ambiguity in my characters by showing actions rather than explicating motives.

But when I sit down to do so, when I open the file and look and what I’ve written, when I revisit the feedback I’ve gotten, I’m embarrassed that I didn’t see these issues before.

Why do we writers do this to ourselves?

When I teach writing, I hammer the idea that writing is a skill, a techne, that improves with practice and feedback. I also insist my students share the following assumption: a critique of someone’s writing is not a critique of that person. I can object to a vague thesis or point out a comma splice and still think the writer is good and smart and worthwhile.

By the end of the quarter, my students can recite my mantra with me: “I am not my writing.”

So why can’t I take my own lessons to heart?

I think the answer lies somewhat in the mystification of the writing process. Those who don’t write regularly see only the final product, not the messy process, and so creation seems magical.

And indeed there are some inexplicable moments in the creative process when the right word or the perfect action is gifted to the writer by something that resembles a muse. But those moments are few and far between, patches of inspiration on a path littered with absurd turns of phrase and cringe-inducing dialogue.

Good writing seems to come from some place deep inside. I can deal with that.

The corollary, however, is chilling: if we can’t produce good writing, does that mean we don’t have good insides?

Obviously that’s poppycock, and yet . . . when has the subconscious ever made sense?

So I’m left relying on a process that seems to work for me: naming the thing that shames me. It’s a technique both modern and ancient. Dredge up the fear and give it a name. Call it by that name and declare its powerlessness.

My fear: if I write something someone doesn’t like, I am a bad writer, a poseur, an object of ridicule. I am bad.

That fear is absurd: I write to tell stories, to connect. If somebody teaches me how to tell a story differently, in such a way that I can connect with other people in better and more powerful ways, they have given me a gift. I want to use that knowledge to make my writing better.

I am not my writing.

Ten Things To Do Instead of Writing

Top Ten Things To Do Instead of Writing:

1. watch old episodes of The Animaniacs

2. help daughter melt hot glue so that she can make incredibly complex jewel bauble for cosplaying obscure anime/manga character

3. research bicycle trips through Italy/Denmark/Ireland (after driving to supermarket less than a mile away)

4. unpack fall/winter clothes in triple-degree heat because magical thinking is a thing (I ❤ autumn)

5. let dog out

6. check Twitter/Facebook/Tumblr (need to build platform, right?)

7. let dog in

8. read blogs about productivity and daily schedules of famous writers

9. let dog out

10. drink wine.

(Here’s a video from The Animaniacs in case you’ve forgotten–or never knew–how brilliant that show was.)