27 Hard-Won Lessons about Writing from New York Times Bestselling Authors

Writing tips are like beer nuts.

They’re addictive.

No matter how many you have, you always want more.

But do you ever get the feeling that the writing “experts” who are dispensing the tips barely have more experience than you?

Which usually means their advice is either second-hand or second-rate.

And maybe that’s why it fails to hit the spot, and you find yourself reaching robotically for the next tip.

The thing is, sometimes you have to go back to the source to find the real stuff — wisdom borne from personal experience, not well-meaning guesswork or threadbare philosophical hand-me-downs.

So we’ve collected some truly valuable writing advice from authors whose books have achieved what few others’ have — landing on the coveted New York Times Bestseller list.

#1. There is No Muse

Nora Roberts - Writing Tips

Source: Nora Roberts’ Top 7 Tips for Writers and Authors

#2. Ignore the Rules

Lee Child - Writing Tips

Source: Lee Child and the “Long Game”: Lessons on Success From One of America’s Favorite Authors

#3. Knowledge is Poisonous

Siddhartha Mukherjee - Writing Tips

Source: Siddhartha Mukherjee: ‘A positive attitude does not cure cancer, any more than a negative one causes it’

#4. Writing Is Your Exhale

Glennon Doyle Melton - Writing Tips

Source: Goodreads: Glennon Doyle Melton Quotes

#5. No Telephones, TV or Videogames

Stephen King - Writing Tips

Source: Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writers

#6. Writing is Hard but Coal Mining is Harder

Cheryl Strayed - Writing Tips

Source: The Art of Motherfuckitude: Cheryl Strayed’s Advice to an Aspiring Writer on Faith and Humility

#7. Everything is Relevant

Anthony Doerr - Writing Tips

Source: Interview With Anthony Doerr, 2014 National Book Award Finalist, Fiction

#8. Force Yourself to Finish, Even If It’s Garbage

Jodi Picoult - Writing Tips

Source: Jodi Picoult: The million-selling novelist on carving out time for writing and the influence of Gone With the Wind

#9. Never Make Them Read a Sentence Twice

Ken Follett - Writing Tips

Source: Ken Follett: Masterclass

#10. Stop Making Improvements and Start the Next Book

Neal Stephenson - Writing Tips

Source: Neal Stephenson’s writing advice for students (and everyone else)

#11. Everyone Has to Work a Day Job First

Jim Butcher - Writing Tips

Source: Interview with Jim Butcher

#12. Write Even When Your Kids are Sick

Kristin Hannah - Writing Tips

Source: Kristin Hannah: FAQ

#13. Daydreaming Isn’t Writing

Andy Weir - Writing Tips

Source: Quora Question: Andy Weir Gives Tips for New Writers

#14. Don’t be Afraid of Radical Surgery

Jojo Moyes - Writing Tips

Source: Words of wisdom for writers from Jojo Moyes

#15. Discover Where the Lies are Buried

Michael Eric Dyson - Writing Tips

Source: Book TV: Michael Eric Dyson on Writing from In Depth

#16. Writing is Simply a Matter of Discipline

Elin Hilderbrand

Source: How the ‘queen of the beach novel’ became a best-selling author after her first 4 books flopped

#17. Rearrange Your Life

Douglas Preston - Writing Tips

Source: So you want to become a published writer?

#18. Talent Won’t Get You Published

Gillian Flynn - Writing Tips

Source: Gillian Flynn: How I Write

#19. Stop Trying to Edit Your Curiosity

Malcolm Gladwell - Writing Tips

Source: Malcolm Gladwell on writing

#20. Commit to a Goal

Liane Moriarty - Writing Tips

Source: 7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Liane Moriarty

#21. You Don’t Need a Degree in Writing

Clive Cussler - Writing Tips

Source: Clive Cussler FAQ: Frequently Asked Question and Answer

#22. Rewrite It Fifty Times If You Have to

Tana French - Writing Tips

Source: 5 Writing Tips from Tana French

#23. Being Stumped is Essential

Jonah Lehrer - Writing Tips

Source: Five Tips for Reaching Your Creative Potential

#24. Everybody Sucks at First

Patricia Cornwell - Writing Tips

Source: Writer’s Digest Interview with Patricia Cornwell

#25. Abandon Good Ideas for Better Ones

Jonathan Safran Foer - Writing Tips

Source: Feeling Stuck? Good Ideas Hide in Plain Sight, Says Novelist Jonathan Safran Foer

#26. Write, Even If People Think You’re Crazy

Louise Penny - Writing Tips

Source: Writing & Publishing Advice from Louise Penny

#27. Write Until the Water Runs Clear

Lin Manuel Miranda - Writing Tips

Source: ‘Hamilton’ Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda on the Key to Writing and Fulfilling Disney Dreams with ‘Moana’

Slipstream the Success of These Bestselling Writers

Not all writing advice is created equal. Nor every writer.

But the lessons from this list are based on countless hours of experience accumulated by writers who rose to the top of the pile.

Not every example will resonate with you, but you can be sure those that do are grounded in the practical realities of becoming a successful writer.

So it’s time to stop chasing new tips and start applying the battle-tested advice of the true experts.

Because the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll have a shot at joining this league of celebrated writers.

So… which lessons will inspire your future success?

About the Author: Glen Long is the managing editor of Smart Blogger. He lives in London with his wife and two young boys (one human, one canine). Catch him on Twitter?

3 Content Marketing Mysteries Solved

3 Content Marketing Mysteries Solved

OK, confession time — when I was a kid, I was a complete Nancy Drew junkie. “Sleuth” sounded like just about the best way ever to spend one’s time. (Of course, that’s before I knew what a Chief Content Officer was …)

This week, rather than figuring out Irene Adler’s cell phone password or who stole the missing emeralds, we’re working on “Why isn’t this content working? and “How can I get a whole lot better at what I do?”

On Monday, Brian gave us three rhetorical tools that can help build trust with your audience — then asks if you should consider putting all of them aside for another option. And on the podcast, I snagged the very nice Bryce Bladon from Clients from Hell to get his ideas on how to stay out of some less-than-heavenly situations.

On Tuesday, Kelly Exeter found a couple of critical elements missing from a lot of content — hooks and big ideas. Now, you and I both know that the reason we often lack a hook and a big idea is that … good hooks and ideas are really hard to come up with. Luckily, Kelly has some actual specific advice that can help.

Brian also has a nice interview on Unemployable with Emily Thompson of Indie Shopography and the Being Boss project. She shares one of those great, twisty-turny stories that show you how varied the entrepreneurial path can sometimes be.

And on Wednesday, Robert Bruce channeled the greatest consulting detective of all time to help us make the decision to move toward mastery.

That’s this week’s mysterious (or just plain useful) content … catch you next week!

— Sonia Simone
Chief Content Officer, Rainmaker Digital

Catch up on this week’s content

building trust is bigger than your tactics — it’s your entire missionHow to Build Trust and Enhance Your Influence with Content Marketing

by Brian Clark

TEXT ON IMAGETwo Vital Elements that Might Be Missing from Your Content (and Precisely Where to Add Them)

by Kelly Exeter

choose. focus. become an idiot.Sherlock Holmes and Mastery of the Craft of Writing

by Robert Bruce

6 Business Insights that Could Radically Increase Your Online Engagement in 20176 Business Insights that Could Radically Increase Your Online Engagement in 2017

by Sean Jackson and Jessica Frick

Thriving Freelancers and Clients from HellThriving Freelancers and Clients from Hell

by Sonia Simone

Succeed by Serving an Audience, with Emily ThompsonSucceed by Serving an Audience, with Emily Thompson

by Brian Clark

How Journalist and Author of ‘The Power of Meaning’ Emily Esfahani Smith Writes: Part OneHow Journalist and Author of ‘The Power of Meaning’ Emily Esfahani Smith Writes: Part One

by Kelton Reid

Podcasting: The Stand-Up Comedy of Content CreationPodcasting: The Stand-Up Comedy of Content Creation

by Jerod Morris & Jon Nastor

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Sherlock Holmes and Mastery of the Craft of Writing

"Choose. Focus. Become an idiot." – Robert Bruce

Sherlock Holmes was the greatest Consulting Detective in the world.

Though merely a fiction — written over a century ago by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — his methods of logical deduction are without equal.

Holmes’s mastery of his craft brought him to the fog-cloaked London doorsteps of the most powerful people of his time.

Correction: he was so good, those clients came to him.

They ran, desperate, to his Baker Street rooms, begging for his help, willing to pay any amount of money for his services.

What can Sherlock Holmes teach us about the craft of writing?


I’ll let you find the wealth of anecdote, advice, and adventure in Conan Doyle’s stories for yourself, but here’s a short list on Holmesian mastery to get you started …

Make a decision

When you watch or listen to an interview with a brilliant and successful writer, something happens deep down in your gut.

Some part of you thinks something like, “Ah yes, listen to her. Her fate was sealed from birth. Some are chosen to create brilliant work, and the rest of us are screwed.”

What you conveniently dismiss from such interviews — if they’re included at all — are the stories of the hours, days, weeks, months, and years of silent practice that the writer has put in.

Somewhere, back there, a decision was made.

On a particular day, at a particular hour, that writer had said, “This is the thing I will dedicate my working life to.”

Sometimes — as in Holmes’s case — there are obvious hints regarding what that “thing” is. Most times, there are none.

The first step on the road to mastery is making a conscious decision about what you will decide to master.

Do not wait for it. Decide.

Focus, focus, focus

Our society tells us from youth that we should become “well-rounded” individuals.

If you want to master your craft, ignore that advice.

Sherlock Holmes focused intensely on a narrow set of criminological skills and subjects that ultimately made him an incomparable detective.

He studied specific disciplines within botany and chemistry — only to the point that they served his needs as a detective.

He learned the science of cryptography in order to swiftly crack the codes of master criminal communication.

He became competent enough in human anatomy to forge the early stages of what would become actual forensic analysis in murder investigations.

He would lie down napping, smoking, and thinking for hours about one minute aspect of a case, not moving until an idea — and sometimes a complete solution — came to him.

Think deeply about the core demands of your craft.

What is needed to advance in mastery of it?

What can be ignored as mere distraction?

Practice brutal focus.

Our fictional detective’s methods are studied even now by very real, working detectives everywhere, because he had the discipline to stay within the arena of his expertise.

Note: For those familiar with Holmes’s methods … No, I am not advocating the use of morphine and/or cocaine.

Become an idiot

Idiocy is the other side of the coin of mastery.

In order to focus your working life on mastering your craft, you’ve got to rule out a lot of the trivia that takes up most people’s time.

Sherlock Holmes could determine what part of the city you’d been recently walking through, from a quick glance at the type of mud on your boot.

He was a strikingly horrible violin player.

Within moments of meeting, he could tell you where you were born, what you’d eaten for lunch, if your brother was an alcoholic, and if you’d served in the war (and where).

He knew nothing about current events or the politics of his day.

He could seemingly predict the future, arriving at correct conclusions that left witnesses believing he was an other-worldly being.

He was utterly oblivious to the basic astronomical patterns of the stars and planets.

Holmes accomplished his amazing ability to see the obvious by … becoming an idiot.

Holmes’s greatness — and ours — is largely defined by what we do not know.

He had one driving professional goal — to engage and best the greatest (and lowest) criminals in the world. He shut out the rest, and he did not care if anyone regarded him as less than “well-rounded.”

All of his considerable mental power was directed at the “elementary” practice of deduction and the few peripheral disciplines that supported it.

Distraction pulls us in all directions

The boredom of repetition drives us to other interests. The pressures of culture make us worry we are missing out on something “important” if we dedicate ourselves to our pursuit of mastery.


If you want to master writing, you are giving up running the 800 meters in the Olympic Games.

If you want to master the cello, you are giving up the ability to talk about what’s good on television these days.

If you want to master anything, you must become an idiot about nearly everything else.

Oddly, you must become an idiot in order to become a genius.

Continue to obsess

This path of mastery is not for everyone, but I believe it is one of the great callings and joys this life has to offer.

You’ll never get all the way there … nobody does.

There is only so much time in one day, only so many days in one life.

As our immortal Victorian detective (and the extraordinary man who wrote him into existence) has shown, mastery is one way to truly change the world.

Choose. Focus. Become an idiot.

Image source: Blake Richard Verdoorn via Unsplash.

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