This is no. 111 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
I have loved talking about writing for almost as long as I have loved to write. Way back in high school, a friend and I founded a creative writing club in which we discussed the ABDCE story structure and eagerly scribbled responses to writing prompts. Since it was also the golden age of the blog, I created a site called Creative Writing Corner. I shared a post nearly every day for ten years with my hopeful, nervous thoughts on how to make stories better.
In the course of a writing life, you pick up various tips and secret hacks. Aside from the big, intangible lessons about character, story, and beautiful language, you learn subtle techniques: how to get in and out of a flashback, when to cut adverbs, and what clichés to avoid (never start a story with the character waking up).
But talking about writing can veer into the nebulous and gauzy; I’ve attended plenty of workshops and lectures with writers I admire, only to leave with vague and puzzling advice about listening to your story’s truth or pulling inspiration out of your heart. I treasured, instead, the writers who admitted that their writing was not always inspired and that their drafts were not always successful on the first try. They talked about simple ways to make a piece of writing better: Complicate a scene by including three people instead of two, describe a room only as a character interacts with it, or put two words together (that haven’t been put together before) to revitalize the story’s language. These writers spoke as practically as woodworkers or glassblowers who must learn the practical needs of their medium and why the wood or glass behaves the way it does. I was drawn to writers who treated their sentences like pieces of wood and were unprecious in talking about it that way. Sometimes, when writing seemed impossible and my ideas ran dry, these little tips and tricks could save me. They made me feel that I was doing at least one small thing that day to make my writing better.
After I had a baby in the middle of a pandemic, this need grew sharper. With new burdens and responsibilities, new worries and long blurry nights, the prospect of writing into a blank document conjured terror. I did not know how I could find my way back to the old me, the me who was always mulling story ideas and could get them down easily. Then I remembered how good it felt when I tried doing those little things—writing just one paragraph of a new story, adding a new character who wants something from the other, setting a timer and writing for five-minute sprints, or cutting the weakest sentence from each paragraph of a draft. This too is writing. This is victory in baby steps. By accumulation, one word becomes an army; a novel is won in a war of attrition.
I wanted to return to my old habit of sharing the craft tools I discovered as soon as I picked them up, so in 2020 I started the podcast I’d been meaning to launch for years: I called it Writerly Bites because I reveal the bite-sized pieces of advice or inspirational suggestions that have helped keep me going. In one episode I talk about how an instructor recommended I study the transitions between scenes in my favorite short stories and try to model my transitions after them. In another I share how I have learned to organize my stories and drafts: I keep one master document where all changes are made and a “graveyard” document where fragments go to die (but might be resurrected). My hope is that these little techniques may help other writers feel less lost. There are a hell of a lot of little things you can do, as it turns out, that can add up to something big.
On the podcast I also regularly interview authors I admire and ask them for their favorite writing tips. Writers have talked about using the cadences of music to improve their sentences in revision and dressing up in clothes their characters would wear to get to know them better. They’ve been honest about the daily slog and the need to hold themselves accountable with strict word count requirements before they can quit. Too often we pocket these little things like secrets. But writers don’t have to keep their secrets. Literature and the literary community are strengthened when we share our best moves—offer up existing tools to help others realize their original ideas. We should be eager to hear tips and eager to share our own.
Every writer I talk to has a favorite tip, the thing they do when they have little time and less energy, the thing that makes their story grow on a difficult day. I love discovering others’ tips and adding them to my own library. The library of tiny doable things helps me remember that the work can be done; there is a way to feel through the dark to the finished story at the end, the person you were before life changed. The relationship between you and the page is still there, waiting, listening for your small, clear voice.
Blair Hurley is the author of The Devoted (Norton, 2018), which was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. Her writing can also be found in Electric Literature, the Georgia Review, Guernica, Ninth Letter, the Paris Review Daily, and West Branch, among other publications. The recipient of a 2018 Pushcart Prize, she received her BA from Princeton University and her MFA from New York University.Thumbnail: Dominik Scythe