I’m twenty-four years old. Despite the bright red curls, nervous smile and the smooth movement of tipping the cool pinot grigio to my lips, inside there’s a smaller version of myself running in circles around my head and screaming: ‘You’ll fall over! You’ll get out of breath trying to read! You’ll mess it all up onstage! You’re doomed!’
I look down at the awards evening programme and it still feels no less strange to see my name there and my poem title under the heading 2nd place prizewinner. They’ve mixed me up with someone else, surely. The people in the audience are probably flicking through the book now, running their eyes over my poem and wondering if the judges were drunk when they made their decision. They’ll simply smile at me politely.
‘Most first-time readers read their work too fast.’ The words are spoken quietly by my poetry lecturer and tutor, the late Nigel Jenkins, leaning over before my name is called. ‘No matter how slow you think you need to read, read slower. You can never read too slowly.’
I carried those words with me up onto the stage, not falling over despite the awkwardly high heels and dozens of faces blinking up at me. I took a deep breath.
I read slowly. I’m met with applause. I receive my award and make my way back to the table, relieved. This time, when I lift my wine, my hand is shaking.
They’ll continue to shake, many readings over yet.
But eight years later, that advice has never failed me. Despite still being naturally quite shy, the read slowly trick has transformed from being my armour to bringing me to a place where I genuinely love performing my work.
Thank you, Nigel, for being generous with your advice.
Your best pieces of writing advice
One thing I truly believe is that the best writers are generous with their advice. My best writing tutors, mentors and peers have always demonstrated that quality.
Other writers are not your competition. The writing world is tough. Rejections are commonplace and hope, sometimes, can feel out of reach. The more we can lift each other, find joy and inspiration in each other’s work and help each other out, the more we can navigate the ups and downs together without any detriment to our own unique work.
I put the question out on Twitter to create a thread where people could be inspired by the advice others had received. The response was truly encouraging, and while there were too many to list every single response in this post, here are just a few fantastic tips that are worth bearing in mind the next time you sit down to write:
- “All writing is…writing. So if you’ve got a block, but you’re still doing a diary, emails to friends, tweets, Facebook posts, even the shopping list; it’s all creative in different ways. The important thing is to keep writing. ‘Flexing the writing muscle’.” – Advice by Gillian Clarke, shared by Kathy Miles (@Kathym974)
- “You don’t have to write for anyone but yourself. If a piece never leaves the dusty old notebook you keep at the bedside or the notes section on your phone it doesn’t matter. Writing doesn’t need to be read to have value to the author.” – Gary Lulham (@Glulham)
- “Be a big fish in a small pond rather than one of hundreds of struggling writers in London.” – Advice by David Benedictus, shared by Matthew Francis (@mfrancispoet)
- “Not a piece of advice but the process of being professionally subbed. 1) You submit your best. 2) It comes back with justifiable improvements. 3) Next piece: you try to avoid the same edits. 4) Repeat. This builds the habit of ruthlessly hunting out poor writing* (*you never succeed)” – Donald H Taylor (@DonaldHTaylor)
- “Best pieces for me came from Rob Baker and were about writing with a few ideal readers in mind, and treating the process of writing over many months like training for a marathon.” – Gary Cookson (@Gary_Cookson)
- “Send out the message of our return to those who are like us. For those who cannot howl, will never find their pack. As well as never ignore a possible and answer the call to courage.” – Jessica Shelley (@jessmaeshelley)
- “That it’s a normal part of writing to have periods of time when you’re not able to write, and these can be fruitful in other creative ways, or as a time to ponder and read. That these blank periods always end; the impulse to write comes back eventually.” – Rachel Carney (@CreatedToRead)
- “That you don’t need any professional qualifications to write well. I was so tired of people who went to Oxford and people w/ BA English Lit degrees demarcate what was and wasn’t good writing in Wales based on accessibility to pathways, and conscious/unconscious bias in commissioning.” – Yasmin Begum (@punkistani93)
- “Make your practice about the process: write without worrying about the outcome. You can edit later, don’t get in your own way by thinking everything has to be perfect, worthy, literary or even half-decent.” – Gemma Paterson (@GemStGem)
There are several pieces of advice listed above that I really needed to hear from others. No, you don’t need a degree to write well. No, you aren’t wasting time by not writing 24/7. No, you don’t need anyone else to read it for your work to have value. And yes, editing matters.
For the full thread of wonderful advice, you can find it here.
Writing advice is best not kept all to yourself
Not everybody has access to Creative Writing degrees or writing groups. Not everyone has a support network cheering them on. Often, writing can feel lonely and at worse, completely isolating. It’s the advice and encouragement of others that can make the difference between seeing the end of a writing project and closing the notebook for good.
You’re human. What you create is as unique and inimitable as you are. By sharing advice that works for you, you’re not putting your own work in jeopardy–you’re helping a fellow writer out.
Think back to the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given.
Find a writer who’s fast losing hope.
Now pass it on.