advice for writers

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There are millions of tips out there for being a better writer, but James Altucher’s list is one of my favorites. In fact, James Altucher is one of my all-time favorite bloggers. You could do worse than to follow him in your reader.

James Altucher’s 33 Unusual Tips for Being a Better Writer

Back in college, Sanket and I would hang out in bars and try to talk to women but I was horrible at it. Nobody would talk to me for more than thirty seconds and every woman would laugh at all his jokes for what seemed like hours. Even decades later I think they are still laughing at his jokes. One time he turned to me, “the girls are getting bored when you talk. Your stories go on too long. From now on, you need to leave out every other sentence when you tell a story.”  We were both undergrads in Computer Science. I haven’t seen him since but that’s the most important writing (and communicating) advice I ever got.

33 other tips to be a better writer.

-          Write whatever you want. Then take out the first paragraph and last paragraph. Here’s the funny thing about this rule. It’s sort of like knowing the future. You still can’t change it. In other words, even if you know this rule and write the article, the article will still be better if you take out the first paragraph and the last paragraph.

-          Take a huge bowel movement every day. And you won’t see that on any other list on how to be a better writer. If your body doesn’t flow then your brain won’t flow. Eat more fruit if you have to.

-          Bleed in the first line. We’re all human. A computer can win Jeopardy but still not write a novel. You want people to relate to you, then you have to be human. Penelope Trunk started a post a few weeks ago: “I smashed a lamp over my head. There was blood everywhere. And glass. And I took a picture.” That’s real bleeding. My wife recently put up a post where the first line was so painful she had to take it down. Too many people were crying.

-          Don’t ask for permission. In other words, never say “in my opinion” (or worse “IMHO”). We know it’s your opinion. You’re writing it.

-          Write a lot. I spent the entire 90s writing bad fiction. 5 bad novels. Dozens of bad stories. But I learned to handle massive rejection. And how to put two words together. In my head, I won the Pulitzer prize. But in my hand, over 100 rejection letters.

-          Read a lot. You can’t write without first reading. A lot. When I was writing five bad novels in a row I would read all day long whenever I wasn’t writing (I had a job as a programmer, which I would do for about five minutes a day because my programs all worked and I just had to “maintain” them). I read everything I could get my hands on.

-          Read before you write. Before I write every day I spend 30-60 minutes reading high quality short stories poetry, or essays.  Books by Denis Johnson, Miranda July, David Foster Wallace, Ariel Leve, William Vollmann, Raymond Carver, etc. All of the writers are in the top 1/1000 of 1% of writers. It has to be at that level or else it won’t lift up your writing at all.

-          Coffee. I go through three cups at least before I even begin to write. No coffee, no creativity.

-          Break the laws of physics. There’s no time in text. Nothing has to go in order. Don’t make it nonsense. But don’t be beholden to the laws of physics. Advice I Want to Tell My Daughters is an example.

-          Be Honest. Tell people the stuff they all think but nobody ever says. Some people will be angry you let out the secret. But most people will be grateful. Else you aren’t delivering value. Be the little boy in the “Emperor’s New Clothes.” If you can’t do this, don’t write.

-          Don’t Hurt Anyone. This goes against the above rule. But I never like to hurt people. And I don’t respect people who get pageviews by breaking this rule. Don’t be a bad guy.  Was Buddha a Bad Father? addresses this.

-          Don’t be afraid of what people think. For each single person you worry about, deduct 1% in quality from your writing. Everyone has deductions. I have to deduct about 10% right off the top. Maybe there’s 10 people I’m worried about. Some of them are evil people. Some of them are people I just don’t want to offend. So my writing is only about 90% of what it could be. But I think most people write at about 20% of what it could be. Believe it or not, clients, customers, friends, family, will love you more if you are honest with them.  So we all have our boundaries. But try this: for the next ten things you write, tell people something that nobody knows about you.

Read the rest of the list…

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Even if you’re never read an Elmore Leonard novel, chances are good you’ve heard of his work. His detective novels star colorful, salty characters who engage in mayhem and highjinx, and many have been made into movies like Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, 3:10 to Yuma, and about a hundred more (give or take). His advice to writers contradicts some of the things I teach in my class, but they’re absolutely true, anyway.

 

P.S. Happy New Year!

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