Advice for Writing Students

58251_7227I teach writing classes and one-on-one sessions, privately and through Gotham Writers’ Workshops. I’ve written before about ways I think students can get more out of their teachers. But there are other writing teachers in the world, and they have good advice for you, too. I happen to know a few of them, and I happened to ask them. So here are some of the best, most important words of wisdom they shared:

“Obviously write has much as you can, but to give yourself time and space from whatever you create. I used to use the phrase ‘let it bake.’ Write something in the morning, then go out and do something *completely different* and then look at it again the next day. You’ll see mistakes, long sentences, and find a million ways to improve it. Honestly, unless you’re in a newsroom, there is no way to unleash copy into the world the second it hits the page.

This advice can be applied to everything: edit tests,  important emails, cover letters, etc. Writing is a constant work in progress. Remember that, and all your dreams will come true.” — Pauline Millard
“Be brutally, devastatingly, awkwardly, embarrassingly, unabashedly honest. Put your blood on the page.

I can always tell when someone is holding back. And if they’re not, I usually have to read their work again to actually critique it, having been so absorbed in it the first time.” — Heather Wood Rudúlph
“I don’t buy for a *second* when high profile writers say they write for 6-8 hours a day. No human being can do *anything* for 6-8 hours a day. Look at office workers, half the time they’re doing something completely unrelated to their jobs when they’re at work. Science has even found that most people can only really concentrate for about 45 minutes to an hour, and then they need a break.

When I was strictly working from home — doing freelance and contract work — I would write for a total of *maybe* 3-4 hours and was usually done with what I needed to do by 3:30 p.m. or 4:00 p.m. And then I would exercie, run errands, etc.
So, if someone is working on a novel, maybe they can tackle a draft of a chapter in a day. Maybe they get a draft of an article done in a day, or two phone interviews. But the idea that “real” writers can slog it out for 8 hours straight is actually physically impossible. And people shouldn’t be so hard on themselves in terms of output.” — Pauline
“Don’t use ‘literally.’ Literally ever. Every time you do I think you’re Rob Lowe from Parks and Recreation and I just can’t with you.” — Heather
“Read your work out loud. Not only can it help you catch grammatical errors, but also unnatural dialogue, clunky phrasing, and even unintended meaning.
I say this as both a poet and as a teacher who needs to communicate clearly—reading out loud is one of the best things you can do for writing, even if you never plan to ‘perform’ your work!” — Britt Gambino
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5 comments

  1. Thank you. I do about all this all the time. I’ve even gotten so brutal on my own work. Most of the time, I can’t seem to get past one page sometimes.

    I do wonder: when do you say enough is enough?

    If we are honest with ourselves, 20 years down the road we could still find something we don’t like. It would be like having a published copy of your book on the night stand and still be marking things out.

    To me, sitting on a copy that’s been edited for 2 years and for the 20th time is a little excessive.

    So, when do we stop and trust our story is good enough?

    1. That can be hard when you’re starting out/writing first for yourself, and then trying to do something with your work. In other words, when you don’t have concrete deadlines that force you to just end it and put it out there already. I would suggest giving yourself deadlines … it’s not as forceful as having them enforced by others (with paychecks), but it might help.

  2. Thank you for the post. This is something that I have just started to explore now and am looking for an answer to figure out how to channel the motivation, ideas, and passion of writing that are inside and actually put them down on paper. Thanks for the advice, and I look forward to reading your posts.

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