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Top Ten List of Advice for Aspiring Writers

What is the best advice for aspiring writers? Especially for those who are still mostly at the beginning of their writing journeys?

Recently I had the opportunity to meet with a young teenage writer to chat about writing, answer her questions, and offer my advice. I thoroughly enjoyed talking about writing and publication—what writer doesn’t, right?

Afterward I couldn’t help analyzing what I’d told her and wondering if I’d covered the most helpful basics. So, in light of the conversation, I thought I’d write a list of my top advice to aspiring writers. In the comments, I’d love to hear any other advice YOU would give. Or any questions you have.

Here’s my top advice to beginners (in sequential order):

1. With the first book, let your creativity have free reign.

Don’t worry about “rules” or market needs or any parameters. Let this book be for you. There’s something about that first book (or first few) that helps unleash the creative side of story-telling.

2. Finish a book.

This is absolutely essential. There’s nothing like the experience of completing a book from first page to the last to help a writer move out of the wannabe category. Set a writing schedule and goals. I recommend writing a certain amount of words per day and keeping a running log. Start with 300-500 words a day. If you write more, great. But give yourself a realistic, do-able minimum.

3. Study basic fiction-writing techniques.

After completing your first book or two, check out fiction “how-to” books from a local library. Take lots of notes. Invest in and mark up a couple fiction-writing “bibles” like James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure or Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook (see the links in my sidebar).

4. Then write a couple more books.

Strive to put what you’re learning into practice. The process of writing in and of itself is not enough to get better. It takes writing AND learning about how to develop characters, how to plot a novel, and how to write by scenes, etc. Both writing and learning must go hand in hand for a writer to see substantial growth.

5. Find a critique partner/group.

(See this post: 4 Ways to Find a Critique Partner.) Once you get the feeling that maybe, just maybe, your writing skill level may be reaching a publishable quality, then it’s time to seek out a critique partner/group. If you seek out one too soon, the feedback could end up being overwhelming and perhaps even destructive to the early creative process and fragile self-confidence of a budding writer.

6. Enter a writing contest.

Contests are a great way to begin to gauge where your skill level is at compared to other writers—especially in your genre. The judges’ feedback can also be eye-opening. But like with critique feedback, I don’t think writers should enter contests too early unless they’re prepared for critical, perhaps even harsh, feedback.

7. Begin learning all you can about the writing industry.

Follow agent and editor blogs. Find out what’s going on in the market. Learn about the types of publishing. Study guidelines. Discover what is standard and acceptable in today’s book world.

8. Start devoting more time to developing a web presence.

Notice how far down the list I put this for aspiring writers. I DO think there is a huge value in beginning a blog early in a writing career (See this post: 3 Reasons to Start Blogging Before a Book Contract). And I also think there are plenty of benefits from other social media. However, all too often I see beginning writers put the development of a web presence up too high in this list. All of the other above points should take priority.

9. Network with other writers.

Perhaps go to a writer’s conference. Join writing organizations. Develop genuine friendships. These relationships are invaluable to a writer’s career for encouragement, support, help, and promotion.

10. Most importantly, keep writing new books and always strive to learn more.

We never “make it.” We’re never finished learning and growing. We should never stop with one book while we wait to hear from agents and publishers. We need to write the next and challenge ourselves to make it better than last. Then repeat ad infinitum.

I admit. The above top ten list is my process. It’s what I did. And in the writing world, there’s no one-size fits-all journey. I spent years and years writing and learning before I reached a publishable point in my career. And yet, there’s no magic formula, no set number of years, and no required number of “practice” books before a writer is ready for publication.

However, the more we practice and study the craft of writing, the closer we’ll get to realizing the dream of publication.

Your turn! What’s your top advice to beginning writers? What do you think is most important from my top ten list?

65 comments:

  1. This is brilliant Jody. Seriously helpful stuff. Very much my own process as well. When I wrote my first two books, I'd never read a craft book before. Then I sent the first 15 pg into a professional critiquing service (secretly thinking they'd praise my writing) and reality set in. I buried myself in craft books. Seriously. Then I wrote book three. Got critique partners. Started perusing industry blogs. Went to a conference. And landed our wonderful agent.

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  2. I love that you are so available and sincere Jody. Your geniune love for writers is evident.

    I'm in the write more books stage now, and I love the possibilities. A chance to dig deeper.

    Up next... A writer's conference would be nice:)

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  3. My process has been very much like yours. And I'd add in to be reading for fun and the novel you want to write. I had fun with first few novels but didn't seriously query any of them. I just knew they weren't ready. Great post.

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  4. Looks like you've covered everything here! Great advice and inspiration.

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  5. You've described my writing journey so far. I Wish I would've had this list in the beginning, but of course, I didn't know I needed it. There are a few steps I skipped over though. Thanks for helping me to focus. Great post.

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  6. Great list! I would also caution new writers that it's a hard journey but they should try to avoid bitterness or an us-against-them mentality.
    How fun that you were able to meet with that writer!

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  7. You are spot on! Such great advice and it looks like I am doing it right. ;) I'm in the write more books stage, and getting critiqued stage. (I just joined the ACFW critique pool.) So I am making progress, little by little. Thanks for the great post.

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  8. These are all so perfect. When I was reading your post I was doing a checklist in my mind. I think I got everything but entering a contest.
    My favourite one was about perseverance though. When I was a beginning writer I foolishly believed I would be able to sell my first book right off the bat, and only worry about writing more later. It was only after a string of rejections that I realized that maybe I should go back and try again. Now I've got six novel-length stories under my belt, and while I'm not published yet, I've learned more than I ever would have thought possible in the process, and I believe I'm a better writer for it.
    Thanks so much for your words of advice and encouragement. I hope starting writers will find this blog and put its lessons to good use.

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  9. Great advice, Jody! I've been reading Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain, and I love his advice to write with feelings first, then learn the rules. Self-taught writers can have an advantage to fiction writing because they tend to put more feelings into their writing before learning technique and rules. In other words, they find their voice and the conflict that produces good fiction before studying the craft. Writers should never be afraid to embrace the discovery of deep, intense feelings they can put into their writing. I like how you suggest with #1 to just write and allow creativity to have free reign AND with #2 to finish the book. Then start learning how to shape and improve.

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  10. I just finished writing the draft for my fifth book. What I've realized is I needed all the previous four to get to this one and still this one might only be practice for the sixth as I study craft books and learn through process. Your advice is sound and accurate:)

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  11. #2 Finish the book. It's one thing to write half a book, but to take it all the way to the end and learn the art of editing--then you are well on your way.

    Great stuff. Still waiting for your book on the craft!
    ~ Wendy

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  12. Jody, this is helpful even to those who aren't exactly starting out. Great job! Thank you so much!

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  13. Fantastico! See? your coffee is already working today with this great blog post. I typically would add only one more thing - that is a "magic time wand". Sorry , I couldn't resist ;)

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  14. The only reason I would move starting a website higher than #8 is for mechanical reasons. The longer a website is in place, with substantive posts, the higher the page rank and the better it registers with Google. That makes it easier to find. Also, if you don't want to have a website early on, at least pay the few dollars every year to lock up your domain name. You don't want to get a huge bestseller and then have to pay some cybersquatter a couple grand to buy your name as a web address. You MUST own your online identity early in this new world.

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  15. Thanks for this. It really puts things into persepective for me.

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  16. Great list. I couldn't agree more with #1. I always say that the best writing I ever did was when I wrote solely for me, without a thought for audience.

    Other advice: trends are temporary, what's hot today, probably won't be hot when your book is ready to query.

    S

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  17. Excellent list, Jody. I'm mentoring my real-life sister who's just finished writing her first romance. I'm sharing this post with her--and recommending your blog as one of those to add to her Must Reads list.

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  18. This is a golden list!! I'm happy that I could relate to so many of the points in terms of my own writing journey!! Thanks Jody!!

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  19. Everything is covered. I agree with you that writing alone isn't going to make you better. We have to study craft books and analyze our writing to make it better. Writing isn't enough!

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  20. These are excellent tips! For all writers, really.

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  21. Fantastic list, Jody. That teen probably has no idea how fortunate she was to meet with you! I'm sure she's inspired to pieces. :)

    I think the most important thing on your list is #7. Too many times wanna-be writers approach me with pie-in-the-sky dreams and absolutely no clue what it takes to be a published writer. We need to do our homework, know what's expected of us and know how to get there.

    The only thing I would add is: PRAY. God has opened doors for me that no one else could. When we trust Him and do our best to use the gifts He's given us for His glory, amazing things happen.

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  22. These are excellent! I feel especially strong about #7. If I would have started attending workshops and writers retreats at the beginning of my writing life I think my path would have been very different, in a good way. Great advice!

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  23. Fantastic Post! Thank you.

    As an aspiring writer myself I guess the biggest lesson I have learned and what I think can help other aspiring writers, is not to rush things.

    I was hasty to start querying my first novel and after a few helpful rejection letters, I could make the much needed changes to my novel. I haven't really queried the novel again, because I want to make sure I get it right this time.

    And like you mentioned, if you are not ready for those rejection letters, they can give your confidence a very big blow.

    Thanks again for the wonderful post.

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  24. Hey everyone! Glad the list is helpful! I appreciate you all chiming in with your advice too. And don't forget, if you have any questions, feel free to ask away! :-) (Or you can email me privately with your questions too.)

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  25. Great advice Jodie. I would add one thing and that is to stretch yourself every now and then with something fresh and different. For example I am participating in MoP at www.monthofpoetry.wordpress.com and learning styles of poetry I never knew existed. It is so much fun and you get to learn valuable skills. I have vowed this year to read more too and enjoy the craft. Who cares when its time to get published, enjoy the journey.

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  26. This is a great list Jody. I'd just add, "don't quit your day job" or for a young person, have a plan to support yourself during the LONG wait. I think a lot of the frustration with publishing comes from unrealistic expectations about the financial rewards and timing involved. If you're prepared to wait, it's not so frustrating.

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  27. This is such a great list. I wish I'd had it when I started out, but like another reader wrote, back then I didn't know I need it.
    I think I may have jumped the gun with some of the steps but hindsight is 20/20. We can always take a step back and improve ourselves and our craft.
    Thank you.

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  28. Jody,
    Thanks so much for your blogs. I look forward to reading them.

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  29. The perfect list.

    I read a quote from Liz Curtis Higgs recently that said timing is everything, so if you don't get published right away, don't get discouraged. I'd add that one. Keep at it; don't give up.

    And develop thick skin. This is not a career for wimps.

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  30. awesome post -and thank you!

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  31. This is an excellent list. I think the most important and beneficial to me has been my critique group.

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  32. Thank you for this. I get bogged down sometimes - working full time and having three children of my own under ten. Trying to get that book finished - Thanks for the refresher!

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  33. Great list, Jody!! I think it's wonderful that you're willing to take time to meet with aspiring authors and point them in the right direction! You definitely got me thinking about my target audience and how my writing fills a specific need. Thank you for the fantastic advice!

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  34. Great list! Made me sad though... I had all kinds of marks and notes in my copy of 'Breakout Novel' and I left it behind when visiting my mom in the hospital! It didn't turn up in lost and found.

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  35. What a great practical list for new writers. Thanks for sharing it.

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  36. Great post! I'm offering a contest for critiques if anyone is interested: www.writinginwonderland.blogspot.com/

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  37. Sound advice! The only thing I'd add is to read everything you can get your hands on. Voracious reading really improves one's writing I believe.

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  38. Jody,
    I loved landing on your blog today. This topic has been on my heart and mind, and in fact, was MY last post!

    The big blog question..
    Should I? Shouldn't I? If so, say what??

    Your readers comments helped me very much.

    Rachelle is my agent as well so we have lots in common--

    other than getting reader comments that is!
    Happy New Year!
    Pat

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  39. Excellent post! I agree with all of this!

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  40. My list is waaaaay different from yours, but I wouldn't exactly recommend it to anyone. :)

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  41. Jody - I'm curious about your experience with entering contests. I know from reading your blog that finaling in the Genesis contest was integral to your manuscript being rescued from the slush pile. I'm more interested in the value you received from the contest itself. Did the judges' critiques factor heavily into changes you made?

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  42. This is such a great list! I'm a new follower and a new writer. I've had a few articles published and want to write some books. I have so many ideas and--like you said--need to complete some of them!! Thanks for the advice. :)

    ~Carla

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  43. Definitely good advice Jody! The only thing I would have added is "have fun". After all, there's no gun to our heads. We are doing this for the love of it, because nothing else is promised.

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  44. Just stumbled upon this and I have to say, this is brilliant! Thank you so much. I spend a lot of time on the internet "reasearching" how to develop better writing habits and this is the VERY FIRST post I have ready that touched a chord. Thank you once again. Wonderful post and I am now devouring the rest of your blog.

    Did I already say thank you?

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  45. Whitney Bailey asked: "I'm more interested in the value you received from the contest itself. Did the judges' critiques factor heavily into changes you made?"

    My answer: Whitney, that's a great question. I think it depends on the contest and judges. If the contest judges are agents, published authors, and editors, then I would most definitely take the feed back with more seriousness. But as with any feedback, I think we need to be open to the criticim, be willing to change, but also cling to what's most important to us.

    Okay, with that said, I looked for patterns in what my judges said. When I found similarities in the feedback, I took it to heart. I made those changes the priority.

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  46. Thanks to everyone else for your comments. And to Dan Leone and Carla, thanks for stopping by! :-) So glad you've found my posts to be helpful!

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  47. This is a wonderful summary, Jody...and yes, I recognize your particular journey in this list.:-) Thanks for summing it up in such a helpful way.

    ~ Betsy

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  48. This is a such a well thought out list, Jody! From my experience the only thing I would emphasize, besides voracious reading that someone else has mentioned, is to remember not to abandon each point as you move ahead to the next. There's a need to return periodically to the joy of uninhibited creativity, to studying and learning, interacting with critique partners and other writers, no matter how many books you've written. It's a continuous cycle, even after you're published, with times when some aspects are more important than others.

    With your permission I'd like to share this post with my writing group so will drop you an e-mail.

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  49. Well, I just started my first novel. I am at the beginning of it. The list does seem to be long. Maybe, I have looked at it way too soon. But now, I don't care to learn all the rules. And who says their rules are superior to others. I am like a painter who does not know if accomplished art will bring bread some day. I am glad that I don't care.

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  50. Great advice, and so helpful for newbies! Praise God so many have found your blog!

    Love your FB posts, too, especially about cooking children:)

    Blessings,
    Patti

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  51. What an awesome list! My favorites are numbers 1 and 2. If we don't write freely and finish, we can't move forward. Each of your steps is so important to our writing journey.

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  52. Good to see you suggest a target count of as low as 300-500 words per day. Setting too-high targets -- and repeatedly failing to meet them -- has been a source of much disappointment and discouragement in this aspiring writer's life! Better to set realistic goals and experience a sense of achievement instead of failure every day!

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  53. Great post Jody. I'm sharing it with my readers now. Thanks for the advice.


    http://PenPointEditorial.com

    PenPoint Editorial Services

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  54. I might suggest that for a new writer. Finishing a book might be a bit ambitious at first. Why not start with a few essays, then work up to short stories, then let things get longer and more complicated as skill increases.

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  55. Great suggestions, Peter. Sometimes it is easier to start with shorter length writing projects. But I have to say, for anyone aspiring to be a novelist, nothing beats actually finishing that first book. :-)

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  56. Good advice! Makes me feel a bit better to know I've done most (though not all) of your points! :)

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  57. Interesting. I assume, when you say "write a book," you don't mean "write a book that winds up published?"

    First-time reader, by the way, and NaNoWriMo winner this past November.

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  58. Hi Joe,
    Congrats on your NaNoWrMo.That's a huge accomplishment! You hit #2 on my list "Finish a Book." And no, I don't think that every book is going to be publishable, especially the first couple. That's not to say a writer can't revise those books and get them up to par, but sometimes those first books are for practice. Only each writer can decide that for themselves!

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  59. Thank you Madam. Your post is helpful to my career. With love from India. -Madhu

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