June 1, 2011

How to write well

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 8:00 am by Susan

This month I contributed a short article to one of the Arvon Writing Guides. Here, ahead of publication, are my top tips for writing. They are compiled from years of trial and error.

I’d love to hear yours…. Do leave a comment in the box below.

Never wait for inspiration.

This may come – but it will have more chance of doing so if you are already among words.

Work out when, where and how you do your best work.

The venue might be a library, a café, on a train, in bed. You might work best first thing in the morning while your mind is still wide open, or last thing at night once the day’s other tasks are done. Some writers like silence, others can only function against background noise. Experiment to see if deadlines are productive spurs or thought-crippling terrors. Do not rule out the possibility that each stage of writing (research, planning, drafting, editing) might require a different context.

Do your groundwork.

Even though you will not use all your research, the fact that you know the full picture and can select the most pertinent aspects will make your piece stronger.

Be clear about your brief.

The kind of writing you do for a scholarly journal destined for experts will be different to a piece intended for general readers. Make sure you know whom you are writing to. Give thought to their needs.

The value of planning.

A plan can be a time-saver and give your piece a more coherent structure, but bear in mind that writing is itself a way of thinking. If drafting generates important insights, don’t be afraid to modify or discard your plan. A post-plan can be useful for checking that all the necessary elements are in place and everything coheres.

Murder your internal censor.

This is crucial. Give yourself permission to experiment, explore, write rubbish. It might lead to something fresh and unexpected. You can always edit later.

Keep the writing muscle in shape.

Other artists (musicians, dancers) practice regularly. Even on days when there is no time for concentrated work, keep an actual or virtual notebook to hand.


Think about how you can best communicate with your reader. Does the piece require you to lay out all the information in the clearest manner possible, or would it be more effective if you provided an individual case study? Does the reader need facts and figures, or a scenario that will bring the situation to life? Should you list bullet points? Or tell a story?

Don’t be easily satisfied.

Good writing rarely comes ready-formed. Expect to go through many drafts.

Use your senses.

We are sensate as well as intellectual and emotional beings. Don’t just tell the reader – where appropriate, help them see, feel, hear, smell, taste.

Take regular breaks.

Words and ideas take time to ferment and mature. Leaving a piece alone for an hour or a day is part of the process. If you are writing to a deadline, factor this in to your schedule.

Do something else.

Sometimes the best angle/example/phrase surfaces when we least expect it. Harness the Eureka moment by stopping work and doing something different.

Remain open.

When your writing is as finished as you can make it, give it to readers you respect and trust. Have the courage to hear what they say: the good as well as the bad.

Feed your muse.

The more you read, the better you will write.