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The Most Important Writing Advice

Writers love to talk about writing. Writers also enjoy dispensing advice about writing to anyone who will listen or who might care. Thousands of blog posts will attest to this. (Our dear Eva recently gave us a very practical and beautiful example.) No matter how qualified we may or may not be to tell other people how to develop and excel at their craft, all writers speak with the conviction that their advice to other writers is at least very useful, if not indispensable.

I am no exception. Today I am not only going to share a few tips about writing, I am actually going to give you the most important writing advice you will ever receive. No joke.

1. Carve out a time and space in which you write.

Inspiration is useful for a writer; discipline and routine are integral. Create a place in your home where you write. Clean off a desk or a table, stock it with a dictionary, a small stack of useful books, and a small houseplant or two. Create some Pavlovian ritual to trigger the behavior of writing: light a stick of incense, brew a pot of tea, put on some classical music. Go out somewhere 2-3 times a week to write, like the library or your favorite café. Order a latte, skim the front page of the Times, then sit down and get to work.

But do get to work. When you’ve set aside time to write, you must write. Facebook can wait. The cute barista can be chatted up later. You have work to do. Write.

2. Read.

There are still wildernesses waiting to be explored, but you’ll want to check the map to have an idea of where your predecessors have already ventured. Read the classics; study the methods of the most acclaimed practitioners of your craft. Read contemporary fiction; pick up novels published this year, peer into literary magazines and see how your peers are approaching the art. Read different genres than you’re usually accustomed to: if you want to write science fiction, read literary fiction to better understand the nuts-and-bolts craftsmanship of fiction. If you wish to write literary fiction, read science fiction to learn how a story becomes a page-turner. Television and video games are the dominant story-telling media of our age; watch and play them; extract elements from today’s shows and software and cross-pollienate them with your prose to create novel and gorgeous prodigies.

But write. Read, watch, and play—but don’t stop writing.

3. Take care of yourself.

There is no such thing as mind/body duality. When you neglect your physical health, you do it to the detriment of your imaginative, problem-solving, and reasoning faculties. All are needed for writing. Exercise. Go for a run every few days. Attend yoga classes. Get a gym membership and do some cardio; go bouldering after work. Working out on a regular basis cultivates energy, focus, and motivation—all of which are necessary to write effectively.

But make sure you get off the treadmill and write. There’s nothing better for you than exercise, but it’s as time consuming as anything else. If your fitness routine becomes an ingrained habit, that is excellent—provided it does not interfere with the writing routine you are trying to maintain. Becoming a runner (a’la Mr. Murakami) will help you as a writer only if it leads you to write more instead of less.

4. Reach out to other writers.

It’s good to know people, and this is especially true for writers. Thanks to the internet, finding and reaching out to other writers (not to mention readers) is easier than ever before in human history. See if your favorite contemporary authors maintain blogs. Follow them, leave comments; start a conversation. Use the #amwriting hashtag on Twitter; direct tweets towards other people using it. Join Tumblr; follow the poets, microfiction authors, and comics writers for whom it is the blogging format of choice. Share encouragement, offer kind, constructive criticism, and make friends.

But posting on Facebook, leaving comments on blogs, and sending out #amwriting tweets are not writing. Knowing people and being known is important for a writer. Writing is more important.

5. Get out.

Break out of your routine from time to time. Do things you haven’t done before. Go places you’ve never been before. Take long walks in the woods or through the city. Chat with strangers. Attend Meetup groups. Do volunteer work. Drive or take the bus to somewhere you’ve never been before. Stir the pot. Alter your perspective. The disorientation of newness is the ingress of new ideas, and a writer must have ideas. Get out. Take a notebook with you.

But although going out and finding ideas is relatively easy, executing them is long and arduous work, and often involves remaining stationary for many long hours. Get out and let inspiration find you, but do stay in and write: a writer who has a hundred ideas but isn’t developing any of them is no better than a writer with no ideas at all.

To recap:

The most important writing advice you will ever hear is write. Just write, and keep writing. Any other advice—how to get your work out there, how to develop your particular voice, how to build relatable characters, how to balance your art with all the other constituents of your busy and complicated life—are beside the point if you’re not following the most important advice. Write.