Writing Tips! (I don't have any writing tips)

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Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture
Writing Tips! (I don't have any writing tips)

There has been a surplus of information these days about writing: writing tips, how-tos, don't, programs, everything!

Ann Friedman gave her great list of tips for writing, book riot is constantly quoting famous authors' beliefs on writing, #writingtips is blowing up.

One of Friedman's tips was 'when you read a good article, consider why you think it is good. The best excercise in journalism school was picking apart articles.' I enjoy this practice, and it is also helpful for some of those poorly written articles too. I cringe, mostly because I used to write like that (probably still do according to most!) and a piece of me dies everytime I recognize the trait inside myself.

I too, used to half read textbooks and then write convoluted essays on theory -- thesauraus by my side. When I did a lot of music writing, you better believe I loved the adjective 'majestic' and used (again) concoluted sentence structure, and just at points boldface lied about points. 

But, thankfully, I don't music write anymore, and have had a great influx of help from writers and editors willing to give me some 'realtalk' about writing. I've slowly learned to shake my complacency and ego, and write more coherently.

What techniques do you use for improving writing? Changing styles? Challenging yourself? 

note: #badwritingtips is hilarious.


Timebandit Timebandit's picture

When I'm writing narration, I try to avoid "FUPs" (frequently used phrases, but can also apply to individual words) or cliches.  Never use "very" or "really" if you can avoid it.  "...like no other" is a good example of a narration FUP.  Or, most egregiously, "but the worst was yet to come" just before commercial break.  Keep it simple, make it direct, not winding or passive.  Think about who's talking - every narrator should be a character in some sense - and phrase accordingly.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Nice piece, Kaitlin. I expected this to be a writing-clearly list of tips, but I see it's a career how-to instead. While most of that subject makes me itch all over, I loved the last tip, which I always try to practice and see far too little of:

Practice horizontal loyalty. Prioritize your relationships with people who are at a similar stage in their career. Yeah, it’s helpful to befriend accomplished older journalists, but it’s really the relationships with people on your level that will sustain you. Include all types of media people in your network, not just writers. Send your ideas and drafts to these people. Retweet each other. Connect each other. Collaborate on a short-lived but hilarious Tumblr, or apply for a reporting grant together, or put together a panel. Make awesome stuff now. Don’t wait your turn.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

Yes, Ann Friedman is great, I really 'look up' to her. I appreciate that she recognizes collaboration as a key asset to learning and success, and that her 'writing tips' where just tips on being awesome that can really be extended to most professions.

It's kind of a good to critical thinking (don't tell Texas).

@Timebandit, writing narration is SO diffilcult! A teacher told me to read Steve Martin fiction, particularly 'Shop Girl' because the way he write narration and conversation is so revealing. He never explicitly states what the characters what or do, but uses their weird neuroses and habits to explain his characters motives. Also his dialogue is never 'saying' and is never boring.

I think it was Stephen King who also said to never use synonyms for said because it sounds awful and forced (she bellowed). While I think writing tips from authors are interesting, most of them contradict each other, and then themselves!

@Catchfire, I also like how she states to write something everyday, just to write, just to get it out. It hits my Joan Didion-living heart part, as Didion used to sleep with her manuscript and typerwriter in the room because she thought when you are writing you should never part from your words.


Does anyone switch between genres and find they change their techniques? I find, no matter what I am doing, I write notes/ideas over and over again in lists, and then I take the lists and organize them into areas that I want to explore, and then take the most prominent areas and make a very detailed outline. But, if I'm just 'creative writing' I do everything freestyle and stream of conscious. Influence from reading too much Beat poems and JD Salinger as a teen?

Boom Boom Boom Boom's picture

I used to try to write poetry and stuff like Allen Ginsburg's "Howl" and I think some of it was pretty good - but that's 40 years ago now.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

share it!

Boom Boom Boom Boom's picture

I would if I can find it. I'll have to go through a lot of old stuff.

Timebandit Timebandit's picture

I write factual television and also work on fictional drama.  Obviously, both are different animals,, but I use some of the same techniques.  One of those is an outline.  I know that some writers work without them, but I'm lazy - I hate doing anything more times than I have to. 

One of the things that is really important to me is structure.  I work that out in outline form first, get the shape of the story and the arc laid out.  For a documentary (and yes, you DO write a documentary!!!), there may be chunks of interview or sequences that are more complete than others, but it's easy to modify and find the trouble spots in the narrative and fix them at this stage than it is with a completed draft.  Easier on the picture editor, too, because they can often start organizing their stuff earlier and shorten the length of time it takes to pull it together.  It's tricky because it has to be structured around commercial breaks and work narratively, but also be true.  I think making things up is a little easier.

I actually find the narration easier to write than the stage above.  By the time I get to narration, I already know what the story is, what needs to be said and what voice I'm using to say it. 

With fiction, the outline serves a similar purpose but has more stages.  I go from treatment to outline to step-treatment (laying out the scenes, some very sketchy, others nearly complete), then take a hard look at my structure and do some of the fixes there before moving to the first draft. 

I haven't written prose in a while.  I used outlines with that, too.  I like to be able to lay it out on the dining room table and see the shape of the piece regardless the genre or purpose of the writing.  It's a surprisingly spatial thing for me.

I've only ever been inclined to use stream of consciousness in my writing with poetry (except early on, and with not great results).


I started off my carrer in Student Services by spending 4 years in a university writing centre, spending time helping, students, staff and faculty with their writing. Writing by and large at the university is of the persuasive variety. It also includes an act of imagination. The writer has to imagine her audience when writing her piece. What information does the writer need to provide the reader in order to persuade her. I find the act of imagination one of the harder aspects of writing. The major form of writing I see these days are resumes and cover letters in which students tend to forget the purpose of their writing and imagine their audience.

Imagining my audience was the hardest part of my developing as a  student writer. Once I was able to do so, I believe my writing improved tremendously. 

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

@timebandit agreed. Outlining is so important, no matter the genre. I would be interested in hearing more about how you got into your line of work because film/tv writing/editing is an area that has always interested me, but it seems a daunting area to wade into. Perhaps that is a more personal message kind of conversation though.


I like the idea of visual representation too -- I think that is why I obsessively make outlines and lists in pen and paper. I used to use post-its and create bigger visual representations. I think my mind works in pictures and sequences (great for puzzles). Also, for me when recurring points or subjects appear, I can start to categorize them based on importance. It really helped me get through school, except you know in high-school (one shot, 2 am, paper done).

@Caissa I recently took a writing course in Business Communication (because I had to) and it turned out to be the most useful writing course I have ever taken. In short, it helped me let go of my ego and need to 'prove myself' and write for the audience and the point. I feel I have improved a lot in my ability to communicate messages (babble excluded; typing still needs improvement) by simply thinking over and over again 'why does the audience want to read this? what are they getting out of it?' and also just getting the words back and then editing. Much easier to edit a piece when there are words on the page.