Top Tips for Writing Fiction
Fiction is any prose writing that is ‘made up’, that is, invented or untrue. It is therefore a form of creative writing. Fiction is generally about invented characters, places, events and situations, although it can be rooted in historical or contemporary fact. The majority of fiction is published as novels, although the genre also includes short stories and novellas.
By definition, the genre is broad, with a huge number of sub-categories—and every novel is different. Even fan-fiction can take on its own life. It follows, therefore, that nobody can tell you exactly how to write a novel. However, if you look at tips from published authors, there are several common themes.
This page summarises top tips for writing fiction from well-known authors.
1. Read a LOT of books—but be selective about them
Most authors agree that aspiring writers need to read, and read a lot. However, they also agree that bad writing is contagious.
This tip, therefore, can be summed up as read good books, but avoid bad ones.
How do you define a ‘bad’ book? We could say that it’s one that you don’t want to read, where you don’t care about the characters or setting. We could also say that it’s one where the writing is laboured: you want to know what happens, but you don’t want to actually read the book, so you just skip to the last page.
It probably doesn’t help to read books where you are constantly stopping to critique the text. If the writing is distracting you from the story, that’s not a good book.
2. Write. Just write.
Pretty much all published authors agree that there is no substitute for simply writing.
After all, you cannot publish something that has not been written. Just get words down on paper (or computer) and start to fill up your pages. Once you have written something, you can critique or amend it.
It’s OK to cheat a bit
Many published authors say that it’s OK to cheat a bit, by increasing your font size, or double-spacing your text, so that it looks like you have written more.
Michael Morpurgo, however, says that he writes in very small handwriting, so he doesn’t have to start a new blank page so often.
Do whatever you need to do to keep yourself motivated.
It’s also worth saying at this point that it’s a good idea to avoid distractions. Turn off the internet, put your phone away, and set aside your time just for writing. Indeed, when The Guardian newspaper asked Philip Pullman for his top tips and rules for writing, he replied that his main rule was to say no to requests like that, because they distracted him from his ‘proper work’.
Having said that, if you are really struggling, then deliberately go and do something else for a while: a walk, or some gardening or housework.
We might sum this one up as ‘treat writing as the job that it is’. Just get on and do it, even if it’s not a good day.
3. Keep your text simple
At school, we are taught that we need to make our writing ‘interesting’ by using lots of adverbs and adjectives, and describing the setting.
Established writers say precisely the opposite. The lesson from them is to keep it simple.
Cut the words to the bare minimum, so that your reader knows that every word matters. If you doubt the wisdom of this advice, read anything by Hemingway.
It is also worth keeping the words themselves simple.
Your readers do not want to have to consult a dictionary every five minutes. Author Roddy Doyle also suggests that you might want to keep a thesaurus somewhere inaccessible, like a shed, so that you aren’t tempted to consult it very often.
4. Write what you want to read
It is very hard to know what other people will want to read—so it’s nearly impossible to write fiction for your audience.
However, if you don’t care about your characters and story, you can guarantee that nobody else will either.
Write about people and situations who are interesting to you, and whose story you want to know—and to tell. That way, it is possible that other people may also want to know.
On a similar note, and linked to the previous suggestion, write about your characters, not what is around them. You should only use descriptions if they are crucial to the story. Your readers want to know what happens to the characters. They are not interested in sweeping descriptions of hills, cities, or sunsets. They have seen those for themselves.
If you would be tempted to skip a bit as a reader—then skip it as a writer too.
5. If you get lost, retrace your steps
There is no shame in losing your way when writing. However, just as if you were lost in the great outdoors, you can’t just keep going and hope you eventually get somewhere familiar.
Instead, retrace your steps until you get to a point that you recognise—that is, where you can do something else with your characters, or your setting, or simply your language.
You need to disentangle yourself from the mess you have made, and the best way is to go back to a point before you made it.
6. You can’t plan everything
One idea that emerges very clearly from tips from established writers is that they often do not know how their books will end.
This is not always true: J. K. Rowling is alleged to have written the last chapter of the last Harry Potter book before writing anything else. However, she almost certainly did not know quite how Harry would get to that point.
You need to let your characters develop. And sometimes—in fact, often—they will do this in their own way. It is worth letting them do this, because it shows that your own thinking is developing. Our page on creative writing explains that stories need a narrative arc, and the characters have to develop. This is an important part of that process.
It follows that as your characters change and develop, you may find that a planned ending no longer fits your characters. Indeed, J. K. Rowling herself has said that she felt that some of the relationships in the Harry Potter books did not work well, but she’d written herself into a corner with that final chapter.
7. Be your own most valuable critic and editor
Spend time rereading and rewriting what you have written. Nobody gets it right the first time.
Once you have written something, you then need to edit and revise it. If you don’t feel that need, you are probably not being critical enough. Ask a friend too, as they may be more critical.
Especially when you are relatively new to writing, it is worth waiting until you have completed a whole draft before you start editing. If you try to edit as you go, you may never finish your draft. It is also helpful to leave time between writing and editing, as you then come to your text fresh.
It is worth being particularly critical about phrases and paragraphs that you were especially pleased about writing. They may just be a bit too much.
This is linked to the idea of keeping it simple. Esther Freud says that when you have cut everything that can be cut, the text that is left “often springs into life”.
8. Read it out loud
Our page on proofreading and editing suggests that reading out loud is a good way to spot errors in your text.
However, published authors suggest that it is also a good way to see if the rhythm of the text is right, and to identify bits that are not quite complete yet.
In particular, if dialogue sounds wrong, or stilted, then rewrite it. You may need to come back to it when you know your characters a bit better, and you have found their voices more confidently.
9. Be prepared to bin it
This is important enough to be a separate point.
When you are being your own harshest critic, be truly honest about whether something is any good. If not, it will not improve for being left for a while.
If something isn’t good, even when you have tried rewriting it, bin it. Even youth is no excuse for poor quality.
10. If you’re really good, you can break any rules you like
Understanding the rules of writing is crucial. However, so is knowing when to break them.
The message coming clearly from published writers is: if you’re really good, you can do what you like. Interestingly, however, none of them seemed to feel that this rule applied to them, only other writers.
Perhaps the take-home here is that really good writers are humble about their ability.