writing

Beginners: A “Writing Strategy” Isn’t What You Think It Is

I like to keep track of which questions I get asked about writing and how often. Sometimes I’m surprised by the results. For instance:

One of the most common questions I’m asked by aspiring and beginning writers is “What’s your writing strategy” or “What should my writing strategy be?”

If you’re asking established writers this question, a “writing strategy” is not what you think it is. Yes, you need to understand writing strategies – but no, I don’t have just one, and neither should you.

Image: Blog post title image with name of this post and URL, on top of an image of parchment and pen.

What a Writing Strategy Isn’t

When beginners ask “what’s your writing strategy?” or “what should my writing strategy be?”, they typically mean “How do you get your writing done?” or “How can I get my writing done?”

Since a “strategy” is by definition a means to achieve a goal, it makes sense that some people would express a question about how to do the writing in terms of a “writing strategy.” If the goal is to have written, what are the means by which writers achieve that?

There’s just one problem:

The goal of writing is never “to have written.”

It’s really not. And I say this as someone who will fill entire notebook pages just because it feels good to make the pretty letters with my nice pen with the good ink. Even then, the goal is not “to have written”; the goal is the sweet, sweet dopamine rush I get from putting the letters on the page.

All writing has a purpose beyond having been written. Most writing has several purposes. When I write a novel, for instance, one of my purposes is to entertain my audience. Another is to tell a coherent story, with a coherent message (though what that message is will depend in part on the reader’s interpretation). Yet another is to add to the depth and complexity of the universe I’m creating through the novel series.

Likewise, when I write marketing materials for clients in exchange for pay, I’m pursuing a set of goals set by me and by the client. I’m seeking to persuade or inform a particular audience on a particular topic. Because so much of my paid work focuses on thought leadership, I’m often trying to build my client’s ethos with a professional audience – usually their professional peers, or other businesses that might seek out my client’s expertise. I’m trying to write something an editor will accept without too much reworking. I’m trying to write something I haven’t written a million times before already, because I, personally, loathe boredom.

“How do you get from having an idea to having written it down in A Form” is the writing process. “How do you make that writing fulfill its intended purpose” is the writing strategy.

What a Writing Strategy Is

The reason I wince at the question “What is your writing strategy?” is that I don’t have just one writing strategy. No good writer has only one writing strategy. Rather, we cultivate a collection of strategies, which we deploy in various ways in order to meet certain goals.

One of the oldest writing strategies in fiction, for example, is “Show, don’t tell.” But it’s not the ideal strategy for every fiction situation. Plenty of things in fiction can be told rather than shown. Need to inform the reader about some background detail or explain quickly how these six people got in the same room at 10 am on a Sunday? You can tell that stuff. It’s fine.

Another fiction writing strategy is to reveal details about characters through dialogue, rather than by exposition or other means. Again, this is not ideal in every situation. Deciding when to use dialogue and when to use other ways to build your characters is part of the art of writing fiction.

The question is: What are you trying to do in any given situation? When you’re sitting at your desk, writing this scene in this story, what does the scene need to do? Does it need to set up the stakes of the story? Does it need to plant seeds of doubt in the reader’s mind that maybe Sneaky McCruelVillain isn’t as trustworthy as they claim to be? Does it need to demonstrate that the character really has learned their lesson and can now defeat the bad guy (who or whatever the “bad guy” is)?

The choice of things like showing versus telling, dialogue versus exposition, and so on will depend on the goal to be achieved by that particular line or scene in the piece. No writer has one singular “writing strategy” for fiction because no one “writing strategy” can do everything a particular scene might need to do.

There are probably hundreds of different strategies that can be used for writing fiction. I’ve probably used most or all of them at some point in my career, and I’ll probably use most or all of them again before I die.

Non-fiction, too, has a vast range of strategies. Most readers are aware that these strategies often differ from strategies for writing fiction, even if they don’t realize they know. For instance, finding dialogue in the middle of a peer-reviewed research article on RNA transcription would baffle most readers. No matter how effective dialogue is as a strategy for developing a story in fiction, it is not an effective strategy for explaining the methods used to draw certain conclusions about RNA transcription in a laboratory setting. And neither the fiction story nor the lab report use the same strategies that a marketing writer would use to get someone to buy a product.

So What Should Beginners Do?

First, embrace the difference between a writing process and writing strategies. You need both. You’ll spend your entire writing career learning more about both and refining both. (Trust me; I’ve been at this for almost 40 years.)

Some basic tips for your writing process:

  • The most effective process will always be the one that works for you when you’re trying to use it. If anything stops working, try something else.
  • Many people find they get more writing done if they have a daily writing routine. The bare-bones version is “pick a time and place, and be there every day, doing writing.”
  • Don’t let perfection stop you. If you don’t have a really good first sentence, skip the first sentence or skip the first paragraph/scene entirely. Just start writing some part you really like. You can always come back later and fix the beginning.
  • If it helps, password protect your document or hide your notebook so no one will ever see your draft. You decide when people see the finished work.

Some basic tips for your writing strategies:

  • Whenever you start writing a story, scene, essay, or anything else, ask yourself, “What does this story/scene/essay need to do?” (Hint: Teachers usually give you this answer on the assignment sheet. For writing your own stories and so on, you’ll need to decide what the writing needs to do.)
  • Once you’ve decided what the thing needs to do, ask “What would be a good way to make that happen?”
  • Try things that sound weird, just to see what happens. If you hate cheesy villain speeches in which the villain reveals their entire plan just before the hero escapes, write one anyway. You might still think it’s a terrible strategy for understanding the villain’s plan, but you might learn something about your villain you didn’t know before. At the very least, you’ll be able to say, “I hate the cheesy villain speech strategy because I’ve tried it and it is not effective.”
  • For highly-structured writing like legal motions and lab reports, ask “What does this document need to do, and how does the structure help it do that?”

One of the most baffling things for new writers encountering the concept of the writing strategy is that there are very rarely hard and fast rules. Strategies are chosen based on what the written piece needs to do, whether that’s entertain, inform, persuade, or something else.

A lot of new writers are used to having other people set the parameters for a piece of writing, which makes choosing strategies easier. When it’s just you and the page, there are fewer rules. Suddenly, you’re not just in charge of making the words go on the paper. Now you’re also in charge of why that matters. What do the words need to do? Who do they need to do it for (or to)? What result should come from someone reading what you write? Does that result change if the reader changes?

It’s fine to change your mind about the answers to these questions mid-draft. The whole point of a draft is to put something down, so you can work with it in editing. If you decide halfway through the villain is really the hero or that in fact you hate Local College U and never want to attend, roll with it! Just fix it before you let someone else read it.


One of my favorite writing goals is to get paid for it. You can help: Buy me a coffee or share this post on social media.

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satire, fiction and humor, writing

How to Be an Aspiring Writer

There are I-don’t-know-how-many books, blogs and other resources for people who want to know how to become a writer. This blog even has a post or two on the subject.

What’s sorely missing, however, are any guides on how to become an aspiring writer.

Works on writing are for people who are already aspiring to become writers. They’re not much use for those who are aspiring to aspire to become writers. One has to walk before they can run, of course.

The demand for guides on “how to become an aspiring writer” is surprisingly high. I see two or three versions of that question cross my Quora feed in an average week. Yet these valiant souls, who aspire one day to aspire to write, get completely overlooked by an industry that’s, apparently, only interested in reaching those who have already begun the aspiration process.

So: If you’re dreaming of someday being the kind of person who dreams about writing a novel, a screenplay, a memoir or a collection of poems, here’s the guide for you.

Acquire the Necessary Aesthetic

Most of the energy cost of being an aspiring writer is spent on maintaining a “writer aesthetic.” This makes sense; after all, the most important part of being an aspiring writer is to look like one.

One’s aesthetic is about more than looks. It’s an entire lifestyle approach that communicates to the world, “I have Lofty Thoughts, which I might someday Write Down in the form of a Book.”

As a newcomer to the adventure of writer aspirations, do spend most of your time cultivating your personal aesthetic to live like you imagine a writer having deep thoughts about nature and the human condition would live.

Here are a few places to start:

  • Clothing. Dress the way you imagine a writer dressing when that writer is the kind of writer you want to be. If nothing comes to mind, opt for dark/muted colors, turtlenecks, and berets. Avoid jeans unless you have no choice or you’re going for a “working stiff by day, poetic genius by night” vibe.
  • Diet. To be an aspiring writer, it is of course absolutely essential to consume only the food, drink and substances that the writer in your imagination would consume. Be realistic: You can’t actually live on coffee, cigarettes and hard liquor, but you can certainly incorporate them into your public consumption and/or find convincing alternatives. Attention to consumables is essential to properly fuel the aspiring writer within.
  • Haunts. I’m going to guess that the writer in your imagination doesn’t do anything so mundane as work in an office or pick up the dry cleaning. You may still need to make money and buy groceries while you aspire to write your bestseller, but that doesn’t mean you need to be seen in those places any longer than necessary. Work on spending your free time in places you imagine writers would frequent, like coffee shops. Just remember that these places need to be public. After all, the point of being an aspiring writer is to be seen aspiring.
  • Interests. As an aspiring writer, your primary interest should be, of course, writing. But every writer needs something to write about. Cultivate an appropriately aspirational hobby, like collecting Victorian hair jewelry. If you’re short on funds, “observing the human condition” is a classic aspiring-writer hobby that costs nothing.

Need a shortcut to a full-on writer aesthetic? Look up “dark academia” on Pinterest. What you’ll see is pretty much just my life, but better, for the kids have made it an Aesthetic.

Read Book(s) on Writing

As the huge selection of books, blogs and articles on How to Write makes clear, there’s a huge market for writing advice. Who consumes this advice? Aspiring writers, of course!

To make the transition to a full-fledged aspiring writer, then, you’ll need to read at least one book on writing. It’s best to make this book a fairly recent classic that other people have actually heard of, and that has no unseemly words or phrases in its title, no matter how good the content it. (Sorry, Chuck Wendig.)

When in doubt, reach for a book like Stephen King’s On Writing or Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Neither book will help you be a better writer unless you actually write, but that’s not your goal. Your goal is to be able to quote the book you choose as if it is the Scripture of your new religion: the Church of Aspiring to Write.

(You will meet members of rival churches. Be patient with them. Their benighted ignorance is not their fault. Lead by example, so that others may aspire to write as fervently as you do.)

Start a Piece (But Don’t Actually Work On It)

Finally, aspiring writers always have a piece in the works – but they don’t actually work on it. Or if they do, the work consists of anything except actually putting words on paper/screen.

Here’s the great secret of writing: Everything ever written got that way by someone putting down words, one after the other, until the piece was finished (or abandoned). But you don’t want to be a writer; you want to be an aspiring writer. And aspiring writers don’t write; they dream of having written.

To convince skeptical audiences, however, you’ll need to at least start a piece. Decide what you’re going to write, then create a title page. You don’t have to love the title. You don’t even have to have a title; you can call it “My Novel” or “My Screenplay.”

Write this down on a piece of paper, then put that piece of paper away somewhere and forget about it. Like a law degree, it’s only there so that you can inject it into conversations in order to score points: “I’m writing a screenplay.

You should, of course, strenuously avoid actually writing the screenplay. Go read another book on writing, or refresh Twitter, or Observe the Human Condition. Really, anything except putting words down on paper/screen.

Because if you start putting down words, you might become an actual writer – and nothing ruins a career as an aspiring writer faster than becoming a real one.


What’s your advice for becoming an aspiring writer? Leave a comment, share this post, or buy me a coffee.

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