The One Essential Tip You Need To Improve Your Writing

Person writing on paper with fountain pen

Photo: Conscious Design

Just write.

There. We’re done. Nothing more to see here. See you next week.

All right keep your pitchforks. That was just the introduction, and it’s not the one tip that I actually wanted to share. But it does make sense, doesn’t it? After all, it’s the one piece of advice that has ever gotten me anywhere in my writing career.

It’s almost like losing weight. Everybody knows it’s all about eating moderately and training hard, but that doesn’t stop them from seeking out the magic bullet, a pill or hack that would magically carry you through a marathon or help you drop a few pounds.

So let me preface this article by saying that you won’t find any of that here. You will, however, be treated to one useful tip that would benefit you no matter where you are in your writing journey.

But let’s build up to that. First, let’s go through the typical writing advice you’d get from Googling ‘writing tips’ and see how effective they are, then we’ll end with what I’ve promised. Deal?

All right then. Let’s begin.

Write for yourself

Now this is a pretty good tip. I like to paraphrase Steve Harvey’s saying when it comes to this topic: “First I told this joke for free. Then I told it for twenty bucks. Then a thousand. Then a million.”

In the end, your aim in writing—or as a matter of fact, anything else in life—shouldn’t be for the money or clout.

Everything I’ve ever written was done with the intention of sharing. I never wanted to make money from my posts, yet I’ve still managed to earn some pocket money from Medium.

Had I decided to write for money before I wrote years’ worth of blog posts that garnered a total of seven likes across them all, I would have quit the moment I realised that no one actually wanted to read my work.

Yet I still get writer friends telling me that they would never waste their time on blogging unless they could monetise it. Then they wonder why they can’t get any writing done outside of their day jobs.

You could write for a living and still not write for yourself. So if you find yourself already doing this, then you’re way ahead of the crowd.

Use the active voice (and other technical advice)

This one cheeses me off most of the time. Browse the internet and you’ll find no shortage of advice like ‘use less adverbs’ and ‘avoid cliches’. Some even go as far telling you never to begin a sentence with a conjunction.

But you know what? You take any of these rules and you’ll see a writer who’d made millions from breaking them, so phooey to these tips.

Also, if you read enough of Stephen King’s books, you’ll realise that he—who’d famously coined the ‘adverbs are a pathway to hell’ phrase—wasn’t impervious to using them either.

So do away with the technical advice, especially if you’re just starting out in writing. Make mistakes. Develop your own ear for it. Find your voice.

A man in a white tee pointing at the camera

In the end, you gotta write for you. Photo: Dan Burton

Outline your work

Ha. I’ve personally tried both, and I can tell you that I write better with zero outline. This tip is easily taken as binary, though it’s more of a spectrum, one that I fall on the extreme end of.

Everybody has a different way of approaching the writing process, so I always balk when someone recommends outlining—or not—as the only way to write a proper story.

There are so many other low-hanging fruit that you can work on compared to worrying about your outline—not procrastinating, for one, and also not not writing—so maybe don’t go down the plotter-pantser rabbit hole and actually focus more on just showing up to the blank page instead of procrastinating.

Show, don’t tell

I know you probably had your mind blown the first time you came across this piece of advice, but the truth of the matter is, continuing to read about it won’t make you any better.

You want to work on showing more? Then you gotta actually write some scenes and see what works, or more importantly, what doesn’t.

This is the music equivalent of practising your scales. You can watch YouTube forever and still make zero progress if you’re not going to actually pick up the instrument, which brings me to a very important point, and that’s to…

Write every day

Yep. Here we are again. The writing world is divided into two main camps. On one side, you have the ‘be a professional’ camp and on the other end, the ‘you only need to write when you’re inspired’ camp.

But that’s like an accounting student saying “I’ll only go to class when I feel like it.”

Or a budding Olympian saying “I’ll only train when I feel like it.”

Or doctor saying—you get the point.

In fact, writing’s one of the few vocations where people can actually justify their unwillingness to work.

How about this: try being a journalist. You’ll quickly discover that writer’s block doesn’t exist when your living depends on your ability to brainstorm ideas and turn them into stories within the same day.

But this isn’t the essential tip you came here for though. The one main advice you should heed when writing is, drumroll please…

A drummer with sunglasses playing

A photo of a drummer to hide the upcoming headline for just a little while longer. Photo: Andy Lee

Stop listening to everybody else

Yes. That includes advice you read in Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing, or even Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat. Heck, don’t even take any advice from this article, even though you’ve just spent a few minutes of your life reading this.

In the end, your writing is unique to you, and the only way to discover your craft is by practising it often enough to learn where you can improve.

Being able to spot the difference between your work and the greats won’t come overnight. Yes, you’ll know that something’s off, but you won’t know exactly what. I promise you though, that it’ll come with time.

I myself didn’t know I had problems with description until I started writing my second novel. And that realisation hit me only through constant practice. The best way I could put it is like learning how to ride a bike. I didn’t know how to do it, until I did.

Similarly, you’ll need to write enough to be able to spot the problems in your writing—and this is a very personal process, because what’s a problem for you might not seem that way to others. And thus the reason why you should stop listening to others and forge your own path.

Does that mean you shouldn’t take any advice at all?

Well, not really. Like Bruce Lee said, and I paraphrase once more: “Take that helps you and discard the rest.”

In the end though, your growth doesn’t lie in other people’s advice. It lies in your own actions.

46 thoughts on “The One Essential Tip You Need To Improve Your Writing

  1. Hey Stuart. Your math is a bit off…that’s more than one tip! or do I only have to choose one? Hmmm…You know outlining is an interesting thing. I don’t do it either but may try it on my next project. I’m thinking it may make my work less chaotic after the first draft….lol…I tell myself that now…omg…yeah right! Great post as always.

    • Lol, I am mathematically challenged, yes, but I’d say the most important piece of advice is to not listen to anyone else.

      Good luck with outlining! I’ve never had much luck with it. Maybe I’ll give it another try in the future though.

      • Yeah, listening to others can get you into trouble for sure. Ugh…idk….something inside me is fighting the whole outlining thing. I must go to the corner and have a chat with myself. Have a great week Stuart.

  2. I wrote “Vigilance” and “Bon Voyage” without an outline, but “Vigilance Part 2” does have an outline, however, with what I have written so far the outline is more like suggestions than an actual outline.
    I also write everyday with just a few paragraphs of random stuff when I get off work and I leave the hard writing on my days off. This method seems to be working good so far for me.

    • Ooo. I like that method of reserving the heavy duty writing for your days off, yet still maintaining your writing muscles by practising on low-stake items. And who knows, maybe those ‘random pieces’ can actually turn into mainstay stories. Thanks so much for sharing!

  3. Needed this one Stuart. Thank you.
    Cannot hear it enough… “Stop listening to everybody else” (And no, the irony is not lost on me)

    Who do I need to stop listening to?
    Any person who insists that I am wasting my time if I’m not getting paid, along with the inspiration suckers that condemn my voice.

    Perhaps another benefit of daily writing is simply developing thick skin? Nothing helps get me past a harsh critic more than putting more work out there. But some days, it’s just so hard…

    • Oh yeah. Getting paid is such a terrible yardstick for writing, because I know many friends who get paid to write, but are not writing the thing that made them want to be writers in the first place.

      I don’t think facing critics gets any easier. And it’s the work that bolsters any hate I get, because at least I’ll know that I’m trying.

      Thanks so much for your well thought-out comment. It’s such a wonderful welcome :)

  4. Great post!! Agree infinitely, just start writing!! I know so many writers who are scared to rather that first step. They just want to plan and plan and plan until its perfect but then all of a sudden 5 years go by! :)

  5. I think that not caring what people think is the foremost one. Once that’s achieved, everything else falls into place. In fact I think it even ranks above the common advice to just write, because fear of other people’s opinions can strangle one’s motivation to even try.

    • Oh yeah. I like to convince myself that I don’t care what other people think, but sadly, I still have pretty thin skin. Maybe time will help with that. Thanks for always stopping by, Hetty!

  6. Hey, Stuart! The post was amazing. I can relate, since the writing advice on my blog hasn’t yet extended further than “writing tips”. I especially found the “write every day” point helpful, because I tend to preach this constantly, and it’s reassuring to find out it’s “qualified”. (What’s up with me and quotations today?) Thank you so much for sharing!

    • Lol exactly. I too agreed on your write every day point in your latest post. It’s not just a way of keeping your writing muscles oiled, but it also tells your subconscious who you think you are. And once you convince your subconscious, I find that it’ll do some pretty great things for you. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Thanks Stuart!
    “If you ever take an advice from someone, ask yourself if you want to be like this person”
    Don’t know where I heard this or who said that
    These advices you write about are the best because they value learning from experience more than following “experts” advices.

    • I myself have heard this advice from Wes Watson, but I’m sure that plenty of people before him have also used it to the same degree. And yes, personal application is a much better gauge than blindly following ‘expert advice’. Thanks so much for dropping your comment. I appreciate it!

  8. Ya know, when I read your post here…at the end, I felt like sharing a bit of a story, because to me, things like ‘Practice Makes Perfect’ is not really a thing anymore because…

    1. I started back when I was about 14 years old in school…even though it was just those Quatrains and Sonnets, and a bit of rhyming. After that, it became like an interest and a hobby…wanting to really explore other types of POETRY available.

    2. Then, I stopped for a few years after questioning the purpose of writing poems out of ‘expression’ which didn’t seem to actually benefit anyone.

    3. My Methods Changed after going deep into some ‘healing stuff’, which I no longer a part of…but little things which are ‘generally acceptable’ like prayers, blessings, and devotions I still practice…but different than what I was doing…to make sure that I no longer do the practices of that…’path/stuff’.

    4. So, whatever poems that I made these days are either through a ‘trigger’ or some kind of inspiration. Also, recently, a different idea came to me…which is to just ‘do a prayer before attempting it’, and then just ‘Go With The Flow’.
    So then, things like ‘structures’, ‘outlines’, ‘practice’, or even ‘formats’…just don’t apply to me anymore.

    5. It does sorta feel like ‘thinking is hard and it takes time and I might not know if it will be correct’.
    So, I just either Go With The Flow, Inspiration, or…Prayer.

    Anyway,
    Have A Nice Evening, Stuart!

    • Going with the flow is a great one, because I’ve always believed that we’re like radio receivers, and that our creativity is spurred by the signals we’re somehow receiving from the universe.

      Thanks so much for stopping by as usual and sharing your stories. I appreciate it!

  9. Stuart,
    See? After you read everything you can get your hands on, it comes down to one thing. This is the thing about blogging and writing — You have to find out what works for YOU.
    It’s nice that others try to help, creating mantras and rules. But in the end each person has to decide how to proceed.
    It’s kinda funny — We even need you to tell us we don’t have to listen to everyone!
    What is it with us writer-people?
    Thanks for reminding us we are grownups who can decide for ourselves.
    That’s freeing.

    • Lol. To be frank, I’ll still end up reading books on the craft and watching YouTube vids on how to plot better. I think we’re just hardwired to ‘hoard’ information. Plus, taking action actually involves getting over friction and inertia, and that’s something I’ve been meaning to work on. Thanks for stopping by, by the way! Always great to have you here.

  10. “You’ll quickly discover that writer’s block doesn’t exist when your living depends on your ability to brainstorm ideas and turn them into stories within the same day.”
    Haha wow, I never thought about it this way before!
    Very thought-provoking and motivational, I love this!

    • Lol yeah. It’s something you learn in retrospect too, because only after I had quit that job did I realise that I was practically ‘blocked’ every time I had a tight deadline. So I’m super thankful for that experience. Thanks so much for commenting around here. I really appreciate you stopping by!

  11. Stuart…
    Hi! I am Elvira, nice to meet you.
    Let me tell you, it is my first time on your blog and i just can´t stop readding your writting, so interesting, inteligent, amazing, educative, helpfull and more.
    Thank you so much for share.
    Have a beautiful week.
    Take care.
    Elvira

    • Hello Elvira! Thank YOU for this amazing comment. I’m flattered that you enjoyed the content here. I have nothing much else to say other than thank you for making my day :)

      • Hello Stuart! Thank´s so much for your kindness and comment. I am happy if you feel happy, it was a pleassure to read your blog.
        You have a new follower.
        Have an excellent week!
        Smile and take care.
        Elvira

  12. I outline so I have something to not follow 😂 similar to how I ask for rules so I know which ones to break 😂

    Great article! Helpful for beginners like moi. 🙏

    • Lol, that’s a new one, outlining to have something not to follow. You know what? I will probably steal that technique and see how it works for me! Anyway, thanks so much for stopping by!

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