This Is The Writing Advice That Changed My Life -- And The Way That I Write -- Forever

Whenever people ask for advice before writing something for xoJane, here is what I tell them.

Apr 3, 2013 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

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Here I am discussing writing advice with one of my favorite new XO contributors, Nia Renee Hill.

After having the same conversation with several different writers -- including the beautiful and talented Nia Renee Hill (pictured) for her most recent pieces, I decided to write this up. At the very end is the writing advice that helped me understand why I used to have so much trouble overthinking and trying to fit everything into one piece -- and that provided a solution that helped me improve my writing dramatically.

As I've written about before, doing morning pages has helped improve my writing (and my life) by leaps and bounds.

The advice below is specifically for the more personal memoir style writing we do at xoJane, but it might hit home for others who do various styles.

I hope you share your own writing inspiration in the comments! I know I have learned so much from the wisdom of Elizabeth Gilbert's "thoughts on writing," Stephen King's "On Writing," Ann Lamott's "Bird By Bird," Jeffrey Schechter's "My Story Can Beat Up Your Story," James Frey's "How to Write a Damn Good Novel," Natalie Goldberg's "Writing Down the Bones," and so many others.

Here's mine.

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1. Ask yourself: Why do I really want to write this, and what do I really want to say?

If you are someone who puts a lot of pressure on yourself as many writers are, you are often working at a disadvantage to yourself with all that stultifying self-criticism, censorship and self-editing. For the first draft, don't do that to yourself. That's why there are second drafts -- where you can go in as a butcher. You'll be surprised at how much gold there is in the original first draft if you don't kill it before it even has a chance to be born by overanalyzing it through the lens of your hypercritical ego.

I find that my writing is a lot better when I'm actually having fun, and I'm really enjoying the process. Sometimes it helps to know: The world will not end if I do not write this. So ask yourself (since you are doing this for fun -- hell, just tell yourself that even if it is your bread and butter): Why do I even want to write this in the first place?

Remember: You are God here. Anything goes. You can write whatever you want. It doesn't matter. You could write "slkdjflsdkjfsldfjsdf" a million times. There is no pressure. You are in charge. What do you want to truly say?

What is the real point?

Here's a great improv exercise that helps me a lot in writing. Sometimes in a scene, improvisers will go to the point of view where they ask a lot of questions. Question after question after question, rather than declarative knowledge. "I don't know why all the island inhabitants have disappeared, do you think they've left us?" The best UCB teacher I ever had would always stop any "not knowing" scene and say, "Do the scene again, but this time: Know."

The scene would resume and it would be a million times better. If we protested he would say, "I don't care. You have a gun to your head. Know."

We would then come up with a reason. So ask yourself, whatever metaphor works, say you're on your deathbed, it's your last few seconds of life, someone is asking you: What is the point of the story you want to write about?

Say, the story you're writing is about life growing up as a depressed kid in a very cheery family. What do you really want to say?

The answer might surprise you. Like: "I actually don't have to subscribe to everyone else's idea of how You're Supposed to Live Life. Maybe I enjoy looking on the dreary side of life because it's more realistic and uses more critical thinking, and maybe my life is way better because of it."

If you don't ask yourself what is the point early on, you may end up writing 5,000 words that are all over the place because you are dancing around what you really want to say. The truth of the matter is we don't always know how we feel about things. Sometimes we can work to realizations in the process of writing, and this can definitely work wonderfully -- but doing a bit of self-examination beforehand can lead to a much more powerful piece, I find.

Because in the case I just mentioned, the reality might be that you feel bad that you actually want to defend your position in defense of your depression -- because everyone seems to want to "fix you." And because you are still coming to terms with it, your writing will reflect it. Your writing will also dance around that fact. If you are having trouble coming to terms with this reality, then simply acknowledge that internal discomfort in the piece -- but figure out the heart of what you want to say first, even if underneath the main theme of it, there many shades of gray.

2. Think of a headline or a title beforehand, even if you want to change it dramatically or completely later on.

The writing we do at xoJane is all about the personal and raw and authentic and specific.

One of our most popular pieces from Emily I always point to? "I Screamed at My Therapist for Telling Me My Skirt Was Too Short But Then I Got Sexually Harassed a Million Times So Maybe He Was Right." Not general. Not trying to cover the entire expanse of feminism. Specific and personal is our mantra.

3. You're reading this because you have something you want to write, so communicate it and illustrate your story with personal experience so we feel your vulnerability and "trust" you as a reader.

General waxing on a topic often reads as avoidance. You might not come off as a well-adjusted angel in what you write (people may even hate you or be angry at you for it), but if you are real, it will come through, and people will want to read more from you as a result of it. Distance from the heart of something reads like an advertorial or self-deception. Don't try to sell people on something. Just be real, the way you would with a close friend who reads through your bullshit.

Use anecdotes. Dialogue. Stories. Rather than an academic treatise or culling from pop culture.

4. Don't overthink as you are writing but try to get into the state of flow. Yes, what you are writing might suck, but what does it matter? It's writing. Not surgery on a dying patient. If you stress yourself out to the point where the writing reads as a stressful overthought clusterfuck, it might be time to scrap it and start again, this time, just saying: "I don't give a fuck." You'll be surprised at what may come out, and how riveting it is to read.

The same way that when you are being filmed or giving a speech, you are advised to speak as if you are addressing just one person, I often use the technique of pretending that I'm writing an email to a good friend -- but one who I haven’t spoken to in a long time so needs all the context (but with not too many distracting tangents) to get at the heart of the story.

5. Personal memoir is different than other kinds of writing.

Some people say, “But I can’t encapsulate everything about this situation. It’s too much.”

It's OK. You don’t need to. You can describe the feeling or the mood or the behavior of a lifetime of living with someone with a phrase or an anecdote or a quote that communicates a tremendous amount of information. For a story about an absent boyfriend who finally got the boot, you could write: “He usually arrived home at 3 a.m., eager to tell me about what supermodel he had just ran into, but then saying, ‘Can it wait?’ when I began to talk about my day.” You did not have to tell the entire history of everything this guy did to illustrate the problems. Just paint a picture with a few choice powerful descriptions.

As I said above, the first question I always ask myself is: “What am I trying to say about this story or topic overall? What is my main point or thesis?” Let your answer to that question inform your entire piece and be the thread and the direction that holds it together.

Also, in coming up with material, always look at what is the most obvious thing to you about your life or the story you are writing -- but might accidentally skip over because to you it’s just so obvious. One of the most shared pieces I’ve written for xoJane was on being a 6'2" woman. To me it is the most boring topic of conversation (being tall) because I’ve had the same conversation a million times. But honestly, examining and owning and writing and calling out the obvious can be the most fascinating writing of all.

For that crappy boyfriend story example I mentioned, in figuring out the point or theme of the piece, maybe the larger point you want to convey is not even about that doomed relationship. It might be about not heeding warning signs. That might be the ultimate point -- the answer to "why am I writing this?"

By deciding that this is “the point” of what you want to say, it may lead you to start with, “I knew I was just lying to myself, but there’s something so comforting in lies.” Versus: “My ex-boyfriend was very passionate -- about supermodels, his work, pretty much everything but me.”

I know it's hard to do, but please don't forget to make the writing process fun. Don’t stress and agonize and overthink as you are writing. The same way you would tell your best friend (getting to the juiciest or most riveting part first), tell the story as it happened. Be brutally honest with yourself. Often the best-written things are when you are actually enjoying yourself and even having fun (or being moved to tears or laughter when you are feeling those things) when you are writing. Did it make you laugh? Then you nailed it. Cry? Nailed it again.

Don't underestimate your audience by then changing it from the start or watering it down because you don't trust yourself. It's the reason I love Stephen Colbert. He never underestimates his audience. The writing on his show is specific and funny and smart and doesn't overexplain. He knows that because he and his writers got it, he can run with that joke.

If you add in a bunch of extras or "step on the punch" (or punchline) as they say in comedy, that's when you add in a lot of additional crap you don't need because you aren't confident enough to stand by your initial bit of gold. If you love what you wrote and are excited about it -- and maybe even a little thrilled and nervous about it, don't try to make it "safer" by diluting it with a million qualifiers, explanations, apologies and unnecessary words.

Be bold.

Think of my argument for "not overthinking" like this. If you were trying to impress someone in a bar, telling a story or situation, you wouldn’t outline it, overanalyze it and spend two weeks before you approached someone at a party to relay the story of what happened to you. The best stuff would come to the top of your mind in your conversational telling. This can often be found in great writing.

Ask yourself how you would naturally tell it. Be honest with what is actually interesting, rather than (as one of the best editors I had at The Washington Post told me) trying to "make C+ material into an A- story." Not everything is interesting. It's okay. Maybe write about how dreadfully boring something is, if you absolutely have to write about that subject. Your readers will know if you are being honest, or if you are trying to sell them a bill of goods.

6. An effective writer empathizes with her readers and recognizes that the reader knows nothing about the details of the situation. An effective writer is competing with the extremely attention-challenged world by essentially seducing her readers into caring or becoming invested in the story by providing great material -- rather than not trusting the main, best material and boring to tears with over-telling every detail.

Sometimes when I write, in order to keep in a state of flow, I find that it helps me to relate whole paragraphs of tangential stories that come up for me, but then later -- on second draft when I edit -- I will “kill my darlings” because I know that by cutting and pasting my extraneous paragraphs into perhaps a separate story (or something to work on later) my final piece will be stronger, tighter, crisper, clearer.

Readers do not know anything about you or your life. Just relating that you had this one boyfriend and then this other boyfriend and then this thing happened once reads as noise to someone who does not know you. Work for it. Read your piece as if you had no time to read it and didn't know you. Would you still want to read it?

You need to provide color and details so people feel as if they know the people you are writing about -- again even if it’s only with a line or a character description or two. (“My first love religiously put Rogaine on his head every night, and it was an unspoken agreement I was not to acknowledge it was happening” tells me a lot about someone versus "He was a prima donna.")

Rather than just saying vagaries like, “I lost touch with my family,” be specific and let the reader feel what you feel. “I tried reaching out to my family daily, then weekly and then yearly, until I realized I was only making a fool of myself. Now, I send a card, once every Christmas.”

I’m a big fan of strong endings, or “kickers.” One of my favorite pieces I did this with for xoJane was a story I wrote about getting sober. I started it by talking from the point of view of how I used to feel -- about how I always felt sorry for people who were alcoholics. My last line, which traced the journey of my own personal development in the piece, was: “My name is Mandy, and I’m an alcoholic.”

Speaking of which -- know when to get out. Good writing is like a party appearance: You arrive a little late and you leave a little early to engage people’s imaginations.

For a structure I like to think of it as: (1) Taking the reader immediately into the world of what the piece is about, (2) telling the story you need to tell, and (3) then leaving readers feeling enriched from having invested the time in reading the piece.

That enrichment could be simply feeling less alone, entertained, humored, touched or transported to another world, or, as happens in my favorite stories, there is some truth about humanity that has a little bit of light shed upon it.

7. And here is one last bit of writing advice I like to share with people because it’s one of my favorite pieces of wisdom -- it changed how I wrote forever.

I had an editor once who was a brilliant, brilliant editor. He looked at a piece I had written about this girl who was the No. 1-rated user on a Web site for hipster punk rock nerdy indie dating -- but upon further examination and interviewing, it turned out she was herself actually a very non-indie cheerleader sorority-type mainstream girl.

The editor read what I had written, which had a lot of different themes and ideas and tangents (maybe this was what was interesting about the story? or maybe, maybe, what about this?) and he said: "This right here is the point of the story. This is what you're trying to say. And then you lose it over here, and then you lose it over there. Give me more of what you were starting to say: the irony of who this Web site's most popular user is. Carry through with it. See it through to its conclusion. You don't need the other stuff. You can lose it. The whole piece will be stronger because of it."

That advice kind of changed my life. Figure out the overall theme and stick to that in what you’re writing. Stop sabotaging what you're cooking by throwing every ingredient in the recipe. The theme doesn’t even need to be obvious or overt but if you have a general thesis or point, it will inform you as you write. (That’s why rants can be so great. One topic. One overall point. )

Ask yourself: What am I trying to say here? By having that idea in mind -- even if you find it as you write -- it will make the piece as a whole a much richer piece.

It's like the "one game" theory of comedy that UCB teaches. What’s the game of that wonderful old Phil Hartman sketch “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer”? He’s an unfrozen caveman who is now a sleazy lawyer, so all the jokes come through that one lens, and it holds it all together.

Deduce, in your gut, what you are really trying to say, and stick to that -- having the courage to commit to that grander theme and/or point will often elicit bigger riches than you ever dreamed of. (Sure, there are riches in sub-themes and peripherals and tangents, but it takes a lot of courage to commit to a point and that's where the gold lies.)

So for that story I mentioned about hipster dating with the very mainstream sorority girl as the No. 1 most popular user -- when I figured that this clash of social strata context was THE ONE IDEA and the whole point of the story (rather than all the other many things I could have said about the Web site), I went back and re-wrote the piece with that thematic focus. How ironic: All these indie hipsters were in love with the popular girl from high school.

So I re-interviewed the woman who was the No. 1 user on the site. I asked her: "So people on this Web site are more into say, zombies and anime. And you're really more into..." And she completed the sentence: "Shopping?" And 'Friends' reruns?"

Hilarious.

I had struck gold because I really got at it. I got at the nitty gritty truth of what was interesting about this story, and I committed to the theme of the piece.

Don't be afraid to get at it.

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