10 writing tips from my podcast chats with pro writers
Want to be a better writer?
If so, you'll want to tune into Coffee, Tea or Something Stronger? my new podcast launching 19 March.
In each episode, I talk to a professional writer about their writing and their writing life. I also hit them up for tips on how to write anything from a poem to a proposal, a blog to a bestseller.
I’ve already got several interviews in the bag – and they’re packed with fantastic advice.
Here’s a flavour of just some of the pro tips you’ll discover on Coffee, Tea or Something Stronger? - subscribe to our newsletter to get a reminder on launch day.
1. Read, read and read again
Dr Karen Ottewell, who teaches writing at the University of Cambridge, pointed out in her interview that writing is a skill we can learn by imitation.
Like Karen, I’m the possessor of a PhD and it’s true - no one formally taught me how to write a thesis. Writing academically was something I picked up almost by osmosis from reading other scholarly articles and books.
Karen, however, recommends a more proactive approach – by taking notice of what good writing looks like. Here’s what she said:
“Read as widely as possible – not just within your field or cognate disciplines, but across the fields as well - so you become aware of what good writing is like. And not always just reading for content, but reading to understand how it’s written.”
Shannon Denny, copywriter and journalist, in her interview for the show, echoed Karen’s view, saying:
“Read all the time – and don’t feel guilty about it. The more you understand about how language is put together, the more you can do a good job putting it together.”
What works for academic and commercial writing works for creative writing, too. When asked how someone can learn to be a poet, Katy Evans-Bush, herself a published poet, said:
“The number one thing is: read poetry. Read poetry by living poets, not just the stuff that you’ve always loved.”
2. Be smart about "the rules”
The extent to which you should observe “the rules” of writing has come up in several of the interviews. Poet and publisher Martin Bewick, for example, gave this piece of advice for wannabe writers:
“Learn the rules. Know the rules. But break the rules as well … I think you've got to know them to know what breaking them is about. Otherwise, it can get messy.”
Professor Mike McCarthy, a leading authority on how English is used, also talked about “the rules”, although he prefers to see them more as a set of conventions stemming from common usage. For example – grammar snobs look away now – Mike has no problem with people using the word “literally” in its non-literal sense.
Citing “I’ve got literally millions of cousins” as an example, Mike said:
“When people say ‘literally’, you can be pretty sure that what is going to follow is anything but literal. It’s going to be an exaggeration … Literally is one of those examples of how we engage those people we’re talking with – our listeners, our interlocutors – and how we make what we are saying more interesting, more engaging for the listener. It’s what we call audience design.”
For more on rules you can safely ignore, see The rules you follow that make smart people think less of you.
3. Gain confidence with a strong start
Editor Jeanne McCarten had a great tip for getting over writer’s block: start in the middle if you have to. Here’s her advice:
“If you have different sections that you know you’re going to have to do, start on the section that you know you’re going to be able to write something in – and do it to gain confidence. Don’t feel you have to write chronologically. Just write the bit that appeals to you most at that time and that you feel you’re going to be best equipped to do at that time – and then go in and fill in the other bits."
4. Gain even more confidence by finishing what you start
Where Jeanne saw a strong start as the key to gaining confidence, novelist Rosie Fiore said pushing through to the end was equally confidence boosting. Rosie, the author of nine finished novels written around the demands of day jobs and childcare, gave listeners this advice:
“Finish things. Both because you’ll learn from them and also because that’s what gives you confidence.”
5. Maintain momentum in the middle by writing with purpose
For Katy Evans-Bush, having a purpose is what keeps you going when you’re writing – and it keeps the writing fresh, too. Katy sees the purpose of writing as thinking through a problem. She told me:
“You are writing to answer a question. And as long as the question is burning within you, the writing will feel driven.”
For ideas of some questions to ask before you start a piece of business writing, check out Five essential questions to ask before you even start writing.
6. Be deadline driven
Rosie Fiore is another purpose-driven writer. And for her, there’s nothing like a deadline to fill you with purpose. Here’s how she puts it:
“I don’t think that anyone is particularly served by staring out of the window endlessly hoping for the bird of inspiration to flutter onto their shoulders. Maybe they are, but it doesn’t work for me.”
7. Be authentic
Artist and publisher Ella Johnston talked about the importance of authenticity when writing creatively:
“I believe that even if you're making something up, you should tell the truth. There's a truth in experience and in connection. So even if you're making a scenario up, you should tell the truth.”
Katy Evans-Bush also hinted at the importance of authenticity - in forms of writing as different as poetry and corporate communication. For her, it comes down to word choice:
“There’s a huge difference between sentences that are full of long, Latinate words that people use when they’re trying to sound knowledgeable or impressive, and short, simple, everyday language. And in a poem, that can make or break the poem. And in an annual review, it makes or breaks whether people are going to actually read what you’ve accomplished last year or whether they’re just going to look at the pictures and flip it aside.”
8. Write like – and for – real-life human beings
For Shannon Denny, authentic writing comes from listening to your fellow human beings. She told me:
“The way that people talk is exactly the way that you want to write. So have your ears open. Surround yourselves with articulate people and try and learn from not only what they're saying, but how they're saying it.”
Copywriter Tom Albrighton said a great way to keep things real and conversational is to picture a real human being when you sit down to write. He said:
“Try writing for someone who you actually know. So rather than just writing in the abstract, into the ether or writing for a persona, actually write it to your best friend … you’ll get straight to the point, you won’t mess about, you won’t use any fancy language they don’t understand, you won’t waste time trying to impress them … You just need to get your message across in a way that will actually interest them and respect them and hold their attention – and that’s what copywriting’s all about.”
For more on the copywriter as listener, see What is a copywriter?
To develop a more conversational style, see: Seven ways to connect with your readers by writing like you speak.
And for tips on how to get people to talk to you check out How to interview someone to guarantee great copy.
9. Don’t bury your message
In his interview, Mike McCarthy emphasised the importance of keeping things simple and bringing out your key message. He said:
“Never try to say too much. Your reader will take away perhaps a maximum of three key points. So whether it is a 2,000-word essay or 10,000-word report or case study, make sure that you have two or three – maybe a maximum of four, certainly no more – key points that you want your reader or listener to remember.”
Want to know a powerful technique for identifying your three key points? Check out Easily structure your writing with this 5-minute technique.
10. Get it in print by pitching like a pro
In her interview, Shannon Denny had loads of advice for anyone who wants to see their words in print. Here’s what she said about approaching magazine editors:
“Read your target publication cover to cover 12 issues minimum and look at the style they use and look at what they're writing about and understand where there's holes in their content that you could fill.”
When it comes to attracting buyers for your novel, Rosie Fiore’s view is shaped by having sold the rights to The After Wife, her latest novel, which is about AI.
“If what you’re wanting to do is get a quick-win publishing deal, if there is a big news story or a big Zeitgeist move and you’re in there and you can offer a book, you are in with a win.”
Coffee, Tea or Something Stronger?, a podcast for writers of all kinds launches on 19 March.
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