From Writing Tips

Stuck Inside a Cliché


First, don’t panic. We’ve all been there. You’re writing your latest poem or story, really feeling great. This is going to be your best work ever. Then suddenly, you feel yourself sliding down some sort of funnel, down, down, into a cliche. There’s a phrase that you’ve used before sticking out like a sore thumb. There’s a situation which you’ve seen a million times before in other, better stories. There’s a character type who’s practically a walking stereotype, whether it’s the Goth loner or the dumb cheerleader. Suddenly, your special, wonderful story is trapped in the realm of cliche.

It can feel pretty desperate, and also pretty disheartening, to find your work here. It’s kind of like being stuck in the doldrums; what you wanted to be special is just a litany of weary sameness. But there ARE ways to get yourself out of that cliche, to escape back into the world of originality.

The key to escaping the cliche is to understand what cliches are and where they come from. Cliches are a kind of shorthand in conversation. When having a chat with someone, we want to meet on common ground, and we also want to convey information quickly. So we use shortcuts, established, commonly known ways of shortcutting through stories or description. We’ll see we cried buckets, or that the guy was the most boring guy on the face of the earth. We’ll say the little girl was as cute as a button or that we jumped for joy. And in casual conversation, we make ourselves understood. It saves time.

But in creative writing, it’s just lazy to use a cliche; it demonstrates a lack of imagination. It shows that we aren’t working hard to make our language beautiful, special, or memorable. We’re just leaning on the same old crutches to limp our way through an over-familiar story.

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You Just Wrote Something Terrible. Welcome to the Club.


I think the most jealously guarded secret in the world of writing may be that just everyone’s first drafts are really, really bad. Did you just write something that disappoints you, that just isn’t as good as you hoped it would be? Welcome to the club! Everyone struggles with their first drafts, and yet we all want to pretend like it was easy and effortless, as though a winged muse descended from the heavens and dropped a brilliantly packaged idea right in our laps. The more you write, though, and the more you get to know other writers, the more you realize that it just doesn’t happen that way. Not for anybody.

Even if you continue to work on writing at the college and graduate level, though, few people are going to admit this, and fewer people are going to teach you what to do about it. The only writers who succeed are the ones who are willing and able to revise their work, to commit to not letting it be done until it really is as good as it can be. Here are a few tips to get you started on the long, exciting, frustrating path of revision.

First: put it aside, and look at it with fresh eyes.

The moment you finish something, you might feel pretty great about it. It could be your best work yet. The temptation is to throw it into an email and send it off to your friends, to Teen Ink, to The New Yorker magazine, without any further thought. But you’re just too close to it right now to tell whether it’s really ready. You’re emotionally invested in it; you’ve just been fighting battles alongside with your characters. You’ve shed their tears. There’s no possible way you can be objective about the language, the plotting, the actual quality of the thing.

So put it in a drawer for a little while — or in today’s digital age, put it in a “needs revision” folder on your computer. Let it sit in there WITHOUT LOOKING AT IT for a MINIMUM of a week, but more if you can possibly stand it. Only then may you look back. You might be shocked to see how many errors in judgment, how many clichés or plot holes still remain in that first draft. And now that you can see them, you can fix them.

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You’re Writing the Same Story Over and Over. Here’s How to Stop.

For Memorial Day this year, I found myself in a small Vermont town, working on my novel. Sometime around noon I heard the fanfare of trumpets and drums beating outside my window; I stepped outside just in time to see the town’s charming little parade come by, waving banners and flags, high-stepping and proud. It’s always fun to see a parade go by, but I was also glad that I was in a small town with just one Boy Scout troop and one high school band, because after a while, parades start to get repetitive. They also look the same no matter where you are. There’s always the firetruck and the band and the camping troupe, the same people you don’t know marching by.

I know I’m not supposed to knock parades, their being patriotic and all, but on a purely aesthetic level, I think they can teach us a lot about our own bad habits in writing. Once my dad attended a very long parade. He used two rolls of film taking pictures of the event. When we got the photos back, there wasn’t a single interesting photo in the whole bunch; it was just a wall of unknown people walking past. Sometimes this is the exact effect we create in our own writing.

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That Thing is Like That Other Thing: How to Use Analogies for Better Writing

I’ve written about how absolutely crucial the skill of observation is in writers. You need to be a giant walking eyeball as Emerson said, a vacuum that absorbs the world. You’ve got to use all of your senses to notice the eccentricities, the beauty and the ugliness of the world.

By itself, though, sensory perception, or noticing, is not necessarily a creative process. It’s something that animals do a lot better than us, for example. If you’ve ever seen how a cat will instantly pick up on any kind of motion in a room that you’ve barely detected, you know what I’m talking about. The creative process comes from linking things with other things. Read more

How to Recognize Your Flaws and Change Your Writing Habits


I’ve written before how important it is to step out of your lifestyle habits once in a while to stay creative. I’ve found it’s tremendously important for me to change my physical location, for example. I might have all the time and freedom in the world, but if I’m sitting at my desk at home, the world of distractions opens itself to me like a beautiful, attention-hogging flower. Whenever I go to a cafe with just my notebook, even though I might not have the perfect snack or the perfect quiet or the perfect tools, I’m much better at getting work done.

But there are mental habits we fall into as well, and we similarly need to step out of them and find a different place in our minds to operate from. Have you ever found yourself writing down a word or phrase that feels familiar to you — because you’ve already used it ten times before? Have you written about someone walking with “easy grace” or “knitting their eyebrows” and you realize that the previous character in your previous story did the exact same thing? We all have these verbal tics or favorite lines, these “contemporary clichés” as one teacher of mine called them. They’re over-familiar phrases, writing that has become inert because of its lack of originality. We want to read for delight and surprise, for pleasure bursts of language, but these phrases don’t give us that. So let’s discuss how to get out of those verbal ruts.

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Without This One Crucial Skill, You’ll Never Write Well.

It’s just that important: without this ability sunk deep into your daily habits and perceptions, without this skill coming as second nature in every aspect of your life, you’ll never be a writer. You’ll never write truthfully or specifically or well. You’re dying to know what it is, aren’t you?

It’s the power of observation.

Sounds simple, right? But without this power, you’re sunk. Every writer I’ve ever known began as an observer. It starts with looking at the world around you, and simply noticing things. The way the light shines through the leaves. The taste of mashed potatoes with too much garlic. The way your mother’s eyebrows knit together when she’s worried and relax apart when she’s happy. The way that this happens and that happens. The detail, the detail, the detail, of being alive.

It sounds easy. But most people who think they are doing a pretty good job of observing are really just noticing the surface of things, the clichés. It’s not our fault; it’s a natural feature of our human brains to try to absorb as much as we can by making assumptions, and filling in data from our past experiences. So if we’ve seen a clown in the circus before, then we assume every clown looks the same. Red lips, red nose, flower in hat? That’s how they all look. The cliché is a function of our brains; it’s a kind of cognitive shorthand. But if we want our writing to feel vivid and unique, to feel fresh and new, we can’t take any shortcuts. We need to go deeper with our observations.

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How to Unzip Your Character and Walk Around in His Skin

To write the best characters in our fiction, we need to get inside those characters’ heads. We need to understand their thoughts, dreams, fears, and desires. We need to hear their voice in our minds. We need to know what drugs are in the medicine cabinet and what cereals are on the kitchen shelf. We need to know whether his socks match or the color of her underwear. But more than that, we need to unzip our characters’ skins and step inside and walk around for a while.

Such intensive knowledge of another person is difficult to acquire. It takes romantic couples a lifetime to learn about just one other person, but writers need to do it over and over again. So how do we do it, and fast? How do we unzip that skin and walk around for a while? The best way might be to do exactly that — to try on that person and send him or her out into the wild. It might involve actually becoming your character for a short while.

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I Thought My Story Was Finished. But I’d Forgotten the Most Important Step.

When I get to the end of a story, I feel flushed with triumph, proud of myself, and ready to show off the story to whomever will read it. I’ll send it off hardly before I’ve checked for spelling errors sometimes; but this is one of the biggest mistakes we can make as writers. It’s also one of the most common. When we get to the end of a story, we think that’s it — the story is done, and so are we. Unfortunately, we couldn’t be more wrong.

The truth of the matter is that unless you’re the type of writer who edits as she goes (and yes, some folks do this), then reaching the end of the story is only the beginning of the struggle. In fact, our stories must go through a narrative of their own — a narrative of revision. I think it’s still essential to print out a hard copy of the story; there’s nothing like seeing the words on the page and being able to attack them with a red pen. It gives us a better sense of what the story needs overall.

In the first pass, you might find yourself making small, incremental changes. It’s perfect, you think. I’ll just fix the spelling, change a few word choices here and there…wait a minute, didn’t he say he was in Poughkeepsie? What’s he doing in this scene?

On that first pass, you might discover some pretty surprising plot holes and large problems. As you try to fix these, it will feel a bit like digging in sand for a little while; fixing problems will only alert you to more problems. The more you fix, the more things seem to be wrong. It’s easy to get overwhelmed at this stage and wonder if you need to start over entirely. But don’t lose hope! This is normal; this is necessary. This is just what the narrative of revision is like.

At this point, try to step away. Take a breather. Don’t panic. Just get a little distance on the story. Try to put it in a drawer for a day or a week or a month. Go outside and get some fresh air, for goodness’ sakes, or start an entirely new story so you can still have some joy in creation. Then, when you’re calm and ready, look back at the story needing revision. There will still be some problems, but at this stage you’ll be surprised by how much is actually good. That page doesn’t need to go after all; it’s not all bad. There’s stuff to work with here. And now it’s time to make that good stuff shine.

Work hard. Improve the language on every line. Clarify and simplify. Make the characters’ motivations clear and believable; make the stakes evident. Build us toward a climax. Avoid vague pronouncements. Show much more than you tell. Of course, visit Writerly Life’s many guides to revision. And then, read it over again. You’ll be amazed at how your story has blossomed and grown, and become the excellent piece you first hoped for when you laid that first tentative sentence down on the page. But it won’t reach that wonderful point unless you give it the time and the work it needs.

How to Win at NaNoWriMo

It’s that time of year again, writers: National Novel Writing Month has presented its challenge to us! I’ve written before about Why I Said No to NaNoWriMo. But don’t let me stop you; who has taken up the gauntlet? Who will try to write an astonishing 50,000 words in just thirty days? Can it even be done? Of course it can — if you’re smart about it. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you want to win at NaNoWriMo — and have the pride, honor, and accomplishment that comes with having written a novel.

1. Bank extra words when you can.
The daily word average you must maintain is about 1600 words in order to reach 50,000. But there’s a problem with just telling yourself, “Hey, I’ll just write 1,600 words every day!” The problem is that day when you come home from school exhausted, or when you have a night flute lesson to go to, or a party out on a weekend night. Suddenly the 1,600 word goal doubles and triples. That’s when it becomes impossible to keep up. So you’ve got to work smart by banking more than the average on the days when you’re on a roll. Write 2,000 words whenever you can, and then you’ll have a little cushion of words to fall back on.

2. Make a plan and outline, outline, outline.
When writing novels, many published writers make an outline of where the story will go. They don’t plan absolutely everything, allowing room for spontaneity and imagination, but they have a general direction in mind, a final destination that must be reached. As you’re writing, you must keep that destination in mind, and make at least a few sketched-out notes of how to get there. Figure out where the characters should be on the final day, and bear towards that like a ship in the night heading for the lighthouse.

3. Don’t edit! Go, go, go!
NaNoWriMo is not a time for editing. In fact, if you stop to take a breath and examine your work, you’ll never make it! It’s essential to push on through the doubts and the self-loathing and just get words on the page. Follow your own momentum and let the sentence flow from your fingertips. Let characters clash how they will. And whatever you do, don’t stop!

How is your NaNoWriMo project going? Tell us about it on the Teen Ink newsletter forum!

3 New Skills Writers Need to Make It

Let’s face it: the world of writing, and writing careers, have changed drastically in the past decade. The internet and social media have changed what it means to be a writer, who can call themselves writers, and how we can succeed in this difficult world. If you’re a writer, you have to be a shark, constantly moving forward with the tide of how the culture reads. Here are three skills every budding writer should work on (on top of all that writing, of course).

1. Creating an online platform and persona.
Do you know how John Green won the hearts of millions? It all started with a Youtube channel he created with his brother, talking about his thoughts, telling jokes, and crafting funny videos. From there he created a platform of fans ready to read and enjoy his books. Today, many writers are expected to have a firm online presence. That might mean posting on Twitter or Facebook, or gaining fans and followers on sites like Teen Ink. If you want your writing career to take off, start creating relationships with followers online. Tell them your thoughts and solicit theirs.

2. Networking with other writers.
Never has it been more clear that connecting with other writers is a crucial skill. It’s a myth that writers must work in isolation; while the actual work needs peace and quiet, the other part of writing has always been about community. You can go back to Hemingway in Paris and note that he spent most of his time chatting with fellow writers in cafes, sharing his talent and helping with others’ writing. Being part of that community is still important today; after all, if you spread the word about a friend’s book, he’ll spread the word about yours! Think about making friends of other writers. Start a creative writing club at your school or a workshop circle. Share each others’ words, and you’ll be glad for those friendships in the years to come.

3. Be your own editor.
In the past, famous writers could dump a patchwork, sloppily-written manuscript at the desk of their editors and expect it to be polished to perfection. Now that competition is fiercer, what you put on the editor’s desk has to be near-perfect already. Whenever you send out stories to magazines, remember to POLISH it first! Make sure you’re happy with it in every way before it flies out of your hands; editors, agents, and publishers are hardly likely to be impressed with a story you’ve dashed off without a second thought.

What skills do you think you need to become a writer? And what’s your plan for working on them?