Plain and Simple Writing Tips

by Becky Alexander

Image: Salvatore Vuono /

  1. Write every day, even if that just means revamping old work, organizing files, or sifting through notes and old journals for inspiration. Daily writing will become natural, and the rest of life will flow around your writing time.
  2. Read. Reading keeps the mind sharp, as it is an ‘active’ process, as opposed to a passive one. The more one reads, the more the words flow in.
  3. Rely on a few good writer friends to critique your work. The smaller the group, the more you will be able to help each other. With the email access that we have today, this process is apt and effective.
  4. We’ve all read that it is a good idea to let a piece ‘cool’ before presenting it for a critique. Sometimes this is a good idea. Sometimes it is not. If you suddenly have something spill out onto a page as perfect as you can imagine it to be, there may be no need for a ‘cooling off’ period. I send such pieces out to my critiquing circle in short order, so no spontaneity is lost. When I have some doubts about parts in a piece, that is the one I set aside, let cool, and possibly rework before presenting for critique. The point is that you can tinker a piece to death, and it could end up being less than it was at the first draft.
  5. Look for inspiration everywhere you go: keep the blinds open, literally and figuratively. Sit at the back of church, funerals, literary readings, etc. so there is a full and open view of the ‘field’ Keep pens and paper in every room. Some day (when I remember!) I plan to buy a small recorder to keep in the car. Ideas come when least expected, and a writer needs every chance to catch those ideas before they fade away. As Dickinson so aptly put it: true poems flee.
  6. When I have a good idea, I stick with it.
  7. I write poems out the minute they ‘hit’. With stories, I like to carry them around in my head for a few days or weeks, thinking of various options, characters, problems, resolutions. I usually don’t start to write a story until it is blocked out in my head. (A creative writing teacher taught me this years ago. It took me further years to actually be able to do it.)
  8. When the story is ready in my head, I write it out to the end. If I’m not sure about some of the middle parts, I scratch down a few idea lines (e.g. the main characters have a fight; about what? Figure it out later.) Once I have the beginning, and the ending, I go back and flesh it all out. Some writers need to write out a story plan. This has never worked for me. Each scribe must find the best way.
  9. Attend writing retreats, and not just with the same group, same place, every year. Some of the best retreats I attended were with one or another of my Kentucky writing groups, each held in a different location. And once a year, if possible, go somewhere completely alone, and do nothing but eat, sleep, read, walk and focus on writing. This is how books can be born.
  10. Get your work ‘out there’. If nothing else, this is how we know that we’re writers. There are hundreds of good markets and contests for people who are neither virgins nor masters of the art. As serious writers, it is our job to seek these out. When something gets rejected, send it right back out elsewhere. Never let a rude or nasty rejection letter stop you in your tracks. As another old wise teaching instructor once taught me: one of your shots will hit them! And as far as rejection goes, remember the ‘Rule Of Twelve: some other wise old writer once scientifically determined that on average, a submitted piece gets rejected 12 times before being published. I aim to wait for that twelfth rejection before revamping a piece.

Becky Alexander is a Cambridge writer. Her work has been published in five countries, and has won hundreds of awards. She runs Craigleigh Press with her husband Dave Allen.

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