List compiled for a class – most of this is advice I don’t follow, but I found the process of putting thoughts down immensely helpful in getting me back on track to writing more (and perhaps better). I encourage you to make a list like this one.
Thoughts assembled out of some personal experience, advice from people I trust, hearsay, and good books I’ve read.
1. Read a lot – People have been writing for a long time, and chances are that you aren’t the first person to think about what you want to write about. Reading other authors sharpens your perspective on subjects you want to write about, but also keeps your writing fresh – hopefully by reading others, you keep tabs on overused clichés and overlaps in content or form.
2. Know your favorite authors and why they’re your favorite authors – I suspect that if you write, you’ve taken inspiration from some source that inspired you to write. Go back to those writers and think about what spurred on your passion. Keep track of why you like them – not just as stylistic source material, but to understand what makes readers want to keep reading.
3. Take notes – both on the books you see and the people you see. Memory is in short supply, and the act of writing something down allows you to build on a passing thought by putting a bead on it and giving it extended thought. This provides fodder for content and constructive reflection on ideas that strike you but may need substance to become viable foundations for larger pieces.
4. Outline obsessively – There should be no rush to finish off an article, and I think the final drafting stage should be the shortest step of what you do. Much of the final product should come cut and pasted from outlines and documents where the bulk of your thinking occurred.
5. Think about media – this means understanding the audience’s experience of reading in the format you select to write in. Reading on the printed page directs thought in different ways than reading on the internet; your work should embody conventions that best suit the medium you – and the reader – have selected.
6. Don’t be afraid to change tack mid-work – your original inspiration isn’t a sacred calling that you must follow to the ends of thought. If an opportunity presents itself to write a compelling piece on a subject you never intended to, it may be because your first idea wasn’t the real story, and you should shift gears.
7. Don’t look for bad guys and good guys – simple narratives are boring and clichéd caricature turns readers off. In my experience, unambiguous good and evil almost never exists, and hammering human existence into simple narratives means your story will probably fail, in a myriad of ways.
8. Write every day, or as often as possible – keep the wheels greased linguistically. You have to practice constructing ideas to find your best work and best ideas. Treat daily writing as a process of sifting out the good ideas from the bad, and a sandbox for new techniques. These shouldn’t be published necessarily, but having folks read daily writing might be helpful.
9. Don’t just be a writer – have a passion that allows you to put fervor and purpose in your writing. I try to take the “80% of life is showing up” maxim to heart, in the sense that you only get an ear in on 20% of the interesting bits of life by spending all your time thinking about/through writing. I’m an activist, and connections generated through my activist work has generated a huge number of valuable leads, numbers, and story lines that can distinguish a good article from a great one.
10. Take note of the environments where you work best, and create those environments – this is a point about work environments. Think about pieces you were happiest with, and then think through the environments that let you produce your best work. Seek out environments like those to write in the future. I personally know I work best in semi-public, quiet spaces like libraries or study rooms, with people around but research resources at hand.
11. Never hold your best stuff. (Stolen from Clay Felker) If you have a scoop, a story, or a good idea, run with it. Holding off working on or publishing a good story helps no one, least of all yourself.
12. Treat writing as something more (and less) than a calling. Understand and feed your passion, but know there is a utilitarian angle to what you’re doing. Your passion and inspiration only take you so far – you must take into account the needs of your readers, and the needs of an industry that surrounds writing and publishing. Understand the ends-means function of writing from the get go, and you’ll be more successful from the outset and get over the feeling of soul-burnout in the long run.