How to write when you don't know how to write

How to write when you don't know how to write

When people ask me about my profession I receive varying remarks. But one of the most common ones is "Oh that's cool, I've always wanted to write but I don't know how."

I think people have this misconception that writers have known their shit from day one. For me, it certainly hasn't been perfect. I've liked writing since I was a kid but I've practiced for several gruelling hours at a time. There have been times of struggle in which I've doubted that I'm really a writer at all.

The thing about writing is that it doesn't require a great writing mind, but more so, a person who is RESOURCEFUL. By that I mean that you have to religiously go out of your way to find the right answer, and there are a number of different ways to do that. 

I'm not going to lineup a series of points as to mistakes that people make because I've already written a post on that. Instead, I'll create a practical guide of tricks I've used to become a better writer. The best part? They're relatively easy as long as you're willing to try. 

Remember that your first draft sucks 

One of my favourite quotes from Ernest Hemingway is "The first draft of everything is shit." Some people, especially people who aren't used to writing, tell themselves that the first draft of their writing is the finished version. However, sometimes a great piece of writing took 10 edits or even more. This is the attitude that you should have for yourself, too. Writing is a fine-tuned art and even the most talented writers out there don't get it the first time. Take time to edit your work. When you've worked hard then you can really feel proud of yourself. 

Write in your own journal

Go to Staples or Indigo or WHEREVER and find yourself a notebook or journal that you really like. Consider it your ongoing passion project. Set a goal for your journal. My journal goal is to write freely, not focusing on structure or anything like that. It's more of a place where I challenge myself creatively. This is a great tool to use because it makes you more comfortable taking risks. A lot of what you do in writing requires you to write about whatever comes to mind, and you'll feel better about doing this when you've practiced on your own terms. 

Bring your journal with you 

Your journal is on lockdown if you only want yourself to see it, but you can also use it to get pointers from other people, even if they're just your own friends. I normally carry a notebook around with me and I write notes about things I'd like to write about or ideas that I'd like to incorporate into my writing. Now that I think of it, my iPhone is also a place where I store a lot of my thoughts - namely in the Notes app. It might sound dumb but some of my best writing is found there. This is namely because some of my most creative moments hit me while I'm doing random tasks like waiting for an appointment or walking downtown. 

Find your writing space 

This is totally underrated. I know people who can't stand to write at home and then I know people who can't write if they're not home. Some people insist on writing in coffee shops whereas other people just can't focus when they're surrounded by people. I personally prefer to write at home. I'll make sure it's tidy so it doesn't look cluttered. I'll light a couple of candles. I usually have a small snack in front of me and a cup of tea. I place my phone far away from myself. My moods vary - sometimes I like listening to music (generally 90s!) but sometimes I just need complete silence. There are lots of sounds on the street because I live in a busy area but I find that when I'm really into my work I don't notice any of that stuff. Take time to find out what works for you. I promise that it will make a huge difference. 

Join writing groups 

I've done this a couple of times before and I really enjoyed it because I found a lot of inspiration from the energy of other writers. When you meet with these people it's all about creating. And what's also cool is that the skill levels really vary. Most of these events are designed for all skill levels so you don't have to feel intimidated or as though your writing isn't good enough. It might seem a little cliche but I'd recommend They offer every sort of writing group you could imagine so you'll never feel limited. If you're nervous then don't worry - everyone is pretty accepting. 


Read books instead of listening to audio books. It's important that you read different genres of writing and the best way to do that is by soaking up the written words right in front of you. Your brain absorbs writing a lot easier that way. When you read books you'll find that you pick up on words you didn't know before, and you might realize that you've been making spelling errors at which point you'll be able to rectify them. You can also read books on electronic devices but I prefer reading actual ones so I can fold over pages that I really like and make notes if needed. 

Use online resources

Some online resources totally suck so it's important you find something that works for you. Some people find that it helps to run their writing through Grammarly, but manually making those changes in Word will probably help you learn from your mistakes much better. Grammar Girl is convenient for grammatical errors and the good old can answer your questions rather quickly. 

Take a class

Different people learn using different methods. I've certainly taken great writing courses but I found most of my writing development happened on my own time. If you're one of those people who finds it easier to wade through material with the help of someone else, a class could definitely help you out. Please don't fool yourself into thinking you need to get an English degree! There are online and in-person classes that will show you the fundamentals and point you in the right direction. The best part is that some of these classes only take a few weeks, so they won't take a huge chunk out of your regular schedule. 

Learn how to take criticism

If you're newly writing then you'll feel a bit vulnerable and you may get defensive when someone reads your writing. Instead of getting upset, see criticism as a holy gift - a privilege. Receiving criticism is essential for succeeding and it's just part of the gig. Look at it as your biggest ROI. 

Write as yourself 

We all admire different authors but trying to write in their voices is one of the worst things we can do. There is only one person who wrote like Hemingway - himself. There is no doubt that we all try to replicate other writers' work but that causes us more bad than good. We need to depend on the organic process that comes from patience and taking time. Yes, your work, in your own words. That is the best work that you will ever do. 

Start small

I really have to admire the people who set straight out to write an ebook with little practice but I'd also have to say that I generally don't want to read that ebook and most people don't want to, either. That probably sounds super snobby but I mean it very authentically in saying that the biggest favour you can do yourself is by starting small - with blog articles even. You'll be wasting less time and resources, plus your writing will just be of better quality. People don't want to wade through writing that's packed full of grammatical, spelling, and thematic errors. Another way to look at this is with that whole "quality over quantity" saying. It makes sense. 

Stop using big words

A lot of people think "Hey, I'm writing, therefore I should be using really fancy words," but usually their work reads as clunky. You also get the general feeling that they were trying too hard and that this actually isn't written in their voice. It's ok if you throw in a big word here and there but unless if you're writing a complex university thesis, stay away from this in general. If you really want people to read your writing then you should write for what you deem to be the general public. You should feel that if someone was reading your article in a newspaper on the SkyTrain that they would actually be able to keep up, and they wouldn't throw it back onto the floor. 

Find creative inspiration

I have a few places that I go to for creative inspiration, and they especially help me when I have writer's block. This sounds too predictable but TED Talks online really help me out. Another secret that I have is listening to spoken word. Spotify isn't the best for it but it does have some and you can also find great spoken word playlists. I have days when I'm SO frustrated that I'll run a bath and listen to some spoken word with a glass of red wine. It might sound stupid to you but for me, it works miracles. Now you just have to decide what works for you. 

Subscribe to a magazine

I'd recommend the New Yorker, straight up. I don't have a subscription for it right now because I'm riding out my Atlantic subscription. I might get myself a New Yorker subscription for my birthday. 

Thanks a ton for reading my list of secret writing tricks. A lot of writers have a lot of dignity and don't necessarily want to distribute information about their learning process. I don't really understand that because I think it's important to help others learn from your mistakes - I wish I'd had that in my moments of frustration. 

Thanks guys! 

Cool sweaters to buy so you don't die from hypothermia

Cool sweaters to buy so you don't die from hypothermia

I am still here

I am still here