10 Writing Tips From My Junk Drawer

I’m moving soon, which means that I’ve been cleaning a lot. I just unloaded my unidirectional “junk drawer” for the first time in six years. Inside it, hidden behind headphone plugs and bike accessories and long-forgotten tubes of lip balm, I found this blog post.

Here, without ANY ado, are 10 Writing Tips From My Junk Drawer:

10. Don’t waste your time thinking about how to get published.
Kidlit Agents

This is a list of children’s literary agents that I made years ago. At the time, I thought that I was preparing responsibly for my writing career, and spent weeks researching and planning a path to publication. Who knows what or how much I could have written during that time instead? I regret wasting those weeks. (I’ve still never sent a single query letter.)

9. Edit until your fingertips bleed.
Edit Edit Edit

These are sequential versions of an article I had written for The Baseball Forecaster book a few years ago. Analytic essays like this require compressing tons of data, interpretation, and advice into as few words as possible. Just like poetry, it’s about putting the best words (and graphs!) in the best order, no matter how many drafts it takes. One of my absolute favorite things about the poetry writing process is when my original hook — the key line on which a poem was conceived and constructed — gets erased during the editing process. That’s when I know I’ve thought through an idea completely.

8. Know the rules before you break ‘em.
Know the Rules

This is a receipt from a custom t-shirt place that ignored my explicit lettering request and ironed on an ellipsis incorrectly. If you are going to breaks the rules of grammar, punctuation; or speling, do so intentionally and not out of ignorance of the rules.

7. Tell stories that allow readers to see your characters … even without pictures.
Make Characters Come Alive

This is an empty photo booklet. Sure I could put pictures of my kids or nieces/nephews in there and carry them around with me, but it’s my memories of them and how they’ve changed me and my anticipation of my next experience with them that matter more than whatever toy Olan Mills decided to dangle in front of them to coax a smile last September.

6. Capture your writing ideas in enough detail so you don’t forget what you meant later.
Keep Good Notes

SERIOUSLY, WHAT WERE THESE TICKETS FOR??? WHY DID I KEEP THEM??? WHAT IF THEY WERE IMPORTANT??? AAAAGH!!! (Don’t let this happen to your poem/plot/passage ideas.)

5. Plan your work to make writing time more productive.
Plan Your Work

I used this diagram to plan my packing needs for a trip a few years back. Sure, I could have just thrown stuff in a suitcase, and sure, “just writing” is sometimes the best plan, but often it can help to create an outline or storyboard or stick figure or SOMETHING to help you organize more complex material. Use whatever works for you.

4. Experiment with new technologies; they might be able to help vs. what you’re using now.
Experiment with New Technology

This is the manual for a crappy voice recorder that has been obsoleted by any of hundreds of apps that I can download for my smartphone. It’s possible that the tools you’re using for research or writing or publishing or marketing are no longer the best ones for you. Look around, ask around — you might find something that makes you more efficient or effective … or that you even enjoy.

3. Make sacrifices for your writing, but don’t sacrifice your health.
Don't Sacrifice Your Health

These are a dermatologist’s instructions for checking oneself for melanoma. It serves as a reminder that writing can be stressful, and stress can cause serious physical problems. Make sure you’re listening to your body. If you stay up late one night, go to bed early the next. If you eat garbage one day, eat a salad the next. If you hunch over your laptop all day one day, go for a run or do yoga the next. And don’t be stubborn — get yourself to the doctor if you notice freaky new symptoms. You can write on the way to/from the office.

2. Just because someone else tells you it’s good, that doesn’t make it so.
Only Trust Objective Advice

This is the business card of the sales guy at The Men’s Wearhouse, where I spent a lot of money one day five years ago. I went in pretty confident in what I wanted, and for the most part got some nice stuff that I still wear today, but Dwight here let me believe that a sports jacket looked good on me despite my hesitance about the way it set on my shoulders. I’ve only worn the sport jacket TWICE in five years, Dwight! Damn you for your failure to provide honest criticism! But shame on me for taking your lack of criticism as positive validation. Similarly, writers should never trust anyone but themselves and those who have no emotional/financial incentive to lie to them.

1. Study the work of others; you’ll learn something.
Study the Experts

This is the Texas Hold’em cheat sheet that I carried around with me for at least a year in the early millennium. I copied it from a book written by a poker expert named David Sklansky, from whom I learned how to play poker pretty well simply by mirroring his strategy and tactics, and then suiting them to my personal style. Could I have come to the same conclusions on my own in time? Potentially, but reading an expert got me to proficiency faster. The most common advice given by famous writers — poets in particular — is to just read the work of other great writers/poets. My junk drawer agrees.

I guess that’s it. Thanks, J.D.! See you again in 2020 …

From what inanimate objects have YOU received writing advice?

I invite your comments, jokes, and strange stories below.

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  • Debbie B. LaCroix

    Awesome post!

  • Matt Forrest

    Some great advice, Ed. #9 in particular strikes a chord with me, as many times I’ve worked on a poem with a particular ‘hook’ only to realize the poem doesn’t need it – and is better off without it. And many times, that hook has found its way into a different poem. So it’s not always the hook that’s wrong…sometimes it’s just the wrong poem!

  • Michele Norman

    Simply brilliant.

  • Mary Ann Barton

    Great, Ed! I’m writing my first book, and your stick-figure packing-list diagram in #5 is very intriguing. Hmmm…

  • julie krantz

    Love your tips, Ed–especially #10! My husband kept telling me to market, market, market my work, but I never got around to it. Just didn’t like that kind of stuff. Now I’m glad I didn’t spend tons of time on it because the market has changed so much!

  • Allan Wolf

    I note how much you can learn about me just from cataloguing the various objects that clutter my desk. A three-headed dog, a length of rope, a 25 year old can of Barbasol shaving cream. So perhaps the writing lesson, here, is to allow a character’s possessions to speak for the character and to inform your readers.

  • http://www.andreabuginsky.com/ Andrea Buginsky

    Great post!

  • April Halprin Wayland

    So well presented, as usual, Ed. And I love Alan’s reminder to reveal a character through their clutter. Now we know enough to blackmail you.

  • April Halprin Wayland

    oops…Allan. (Misspelled it.)

  • Gwynn Scheltema

    Fabulous post. Thanks. I hope you haven’t discarded everything in the drawer. There is likely more wisdom to be gleaned. :)

  • Michelle Heidenrich Barnes

    Last week I was working on #3… feeling overwhelmed and had to stay away from reading PF posts, even fabulous ones like this. Who knew a bunch of junk could lead to such insights!

  • http://www.thinkkidthink.com/ Ed DeCaria

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. Glad you enjoyed the post. It was fun to write! And yes, I’ve probably got another follow-up post in that drawer somewhere; I kept more stuff than I should have …