My Four Favorite Writing Tips

imagesThis week on The Ball, we’re talking about our favorite advice from veteran writers. For the nuts and bolts of writing, see: Elmore Leonard. And then when you’ve committed those to memory, check out four of my other favorite writing tips that I refer to those times when I’m staring at a blank Word doc and that judge-y blinking cursor (read: most days). (Note: For the full original post on my favorite writing tips, go here).

Limit your social media. I got this very practical piece of advice from Catherine McKenzie, my favorite Canadian (after Ryan Gosling, obviously) and author of four books, including her latest, Hidden. When I sold my book, I wanted to know what I should be doing marketing-wise, etc. to help promote it in the year-and-half wait I had until publication. Mainly, I needed a blog, right? DOESN’T EVERY WRITER HAVE A BLOG? Her answer? No. And furthermore, she said she tries to allot just an hour a day to interact with readers on Twitter and Facebook because her main job isn’t to be The Queen of Social Media, but to write. It’s something I remind myself of daily when I begin to get lost down the rabbit hole of the Internet, and I really should be writing.

Don’t buy a big desk. My favorite book on writing is coincidentally named On Writing, by Stephen King. In it, he tells the story of how in the beginning of his career he went out and bought a massive oak slab desk and put it directly underneath a skylight in his study, because he was a Writer. Six years later, he got rid of it, bought a small, simple desk and shoved it in a corner. He’s been writing at it ever since. I like this anecdote mostly because it made me feel better about working in an armchair with my laptop propped on my knees, while watching my kids watch Sesame Street as I write. But also because I think the over-arching message is that the writing is always the most important thing, no matter how successful (or not) you are. And all you really need is a computer. Or a typewriter. Or a pencil and paper. What you don’t need is a big desk. Or a writer’s studio in a treehouse, no matter how very cool it may — OMG, I NEED IT.

Challenge yourself. My second favorite book on writing is Ann Patchett’sThis is the Story of a Happy Marriage. Because, Ann Patchett. And also because she verbalized something that I had already intuited, which made me feel smart. She says to challenge yourself with each novel. When she wrote Bel Canto, she didn’t know anything about opera. Nothing. Not a thing. Yet, she wrote Bel Canto. The first full book I wrote (also known as The Book That Will Never Be Published) required no research and was basically a thinly-veiled account of my life and thoughts and blah-blah-blah. I’m not very interesting, hence the book wasn’t very interesting, hence it did not sell. So for my next book (which is really my first book, since it will be the first book of mine to be published. Confused, yet?) I tackled something I know nothing about: cancer and dying young. I had to do a lot of research and go to very uncomfortable emotional depths. It was a challenge. But it was worth it.

Just keep writing. Even when you want to crawl into a hole and cuddle with a bottle of Jose Cuervo and a box of Kleenex. Maybe, especially when you want to crawl into a hole and cuddle with a bottle of tequila and a box of Kleenex. When The Book That Will Never Be Published was out with editors and monthswere passing with radio silence, I reached out to Allison Winn Scotch, author of The Theory of Opposites (and four other wonderful books) to talk me off the ledge. What if it never gets published? I typed to her, in between tequila shots. Her response: It’s not the end of the world. She was right. It wasn’t. She also recommended instead of waiting for the phone to ring, I get to work on something else. So I did. And then I sold it. And I drank tequila in celebration instead of misery.

There are hundreds of other wonderful pieces of advice that I’ve gotten from editors, websites, Twitter and my mom, but I’d like to end with a piece of advice Dr. Seuss: “You can get help from teachers, but you are going to have to learn a lot by yourself, sitting alone in a room.”

In other words, study writing, read your favorite authors, gather ye mentors around you, but remember, the only way to be a better writer is to write. Preferably at a cheap desk.

Author: Colleen Oakley

Colleen Oakley is the author of BEFORE I GO (Simon & Schuster/Gallery, Jan. 2015), a love story. A former editor for Marie Claire and Women's Health & Fitness, she's now an Atlanta-based freelance writer. Find out more at

6 Replies to “My Four Favorite Writing Tips”

  1. Am with you on all these — especially the treehouse and writing while the kid watches her shows. But the social media thing is HARD — especially when it’s all fresh, and shiny, and oh-so-interesting compared to that flashing cursor 😉

  2. Good tips. I like the one about the big desk. It’s always sad when I hear people say they can’t write without their… (big desk, corner table, files, notes, latte, etc.).

    And challenge yourself, too. As Robert Altman, my favorite movie director, got older, he picked his projects at least partly because he was looking for things he’d never done before. A murder mystery, a movie about a radio program, ballet, a legal thriller? Why not?

  3. I love that you can write anywhere! Me too! I think Anthony Trollope is my hero. He wrote on the train using a lapdesk he designed himself while inventing the British postal system. That’s a man who gets things done. Whew!

    1. Love that, Shelly! Have you heard about the Amtrak writer-in-residence program where writers get free Amtrak tickets and just write on the train? Of course, they’re not inventing postal systems simultaneously. I don’t think.

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