My Top Ten Writing Tips

by | Jul 4, 2018 | The Writer's Life, On writing | 16 comments

by Robin Burcell

Anyone who’s been writing for a while can tell you that there’s no one thing that will get you published or make you an instant bestseller. But there are a lot of things that will help you along, and these are my favorite tips. Maybe you’ll find one that works for you. 
Tip #1:
Never waste anything, and always keep your book organized. I always make a folder for the book in progress, and in that folder I create another folder labeled “OLD.” Anything that I cut or make significant changes to goes into the OLD folder. And I mean every little scrap. This means I can easily change it back, days, even weeks later, if needed. Most of what I put there gathers cyber dust. But I once cut a whole chapter containing a shootout that just wasn’t working in the book. Weeks later, my editor said she wanted a novella to come out prior to THE KILL ORDER, so I turned that deleted chapter into THE LAST SECOND.
Tip #2:
Writers Block is only a thing when you make it a thing. If you don’t park yourself in front of the computer or a notepad with pen in hand, you’ll never write anything. So even if there are no ideas, write. Start a letter to your character about your ideas. Have your character write a letter to you. Whatever it takes. See what happens. Just write. 
Tip #3: 
Carve out your time from everywhere and anywhere. The number one excuse I’ve heard from friends and acquaintances who tell me they’ve always wanted to write a book is that they don’t have time to start, because they work 40 hours a week, or have three kids, or (fill in the blank). It really depends on how badly you want this dream. Most fulltime writers I know started their career while working fulltime jobs. I sat in front of the computer every night after working all day as a cop. Sometimes I got a paragraph done, sometimes a page. I got a little more done on my days off. I also kept a notepad in the car and wrote Sunday mornings in the parking lot of church, while my three kids were in Sunday school, or in the waiting room of the pediatrician’s office. I’ve written on nearly every vacation. I’ve even written in my hospital bed, once the drugs wore off after my lung collapsed and they had to put a tube in (hello, ROMANOV RANSOM deadline). 
Tip #4:
When you’re stuck, do something brainless. It could be anything as simple (and wonderful) as a nap, or something as mundane as cleaning a cupboard or going for a long drive. My husband always knows when I’m trying to work out a plot line, because he’ll find me organizing a closet or the pantry or a junk drawer. I don’t know what it is about shoving the book to the back of my mind while (seemingly) concentrating on something boring. The pieces usually fall into place. 
Tip #5:
Take a break from the internet. I use FREEDOM, an app that allows me to block out chunks of time and specific internet addresses (FACEBOOK and TWITTER for me) for however long I want. I do an hour at a time, minimum, but should probably up that to two hours. The app isn’t cheap. I think I paid about $129 for a lifetime purchase after using the trial. (There is an inexpensive monthly version and a moderate monthly price, but permanent seemed to be the best value.) Our addiction to social media has literally rewired our brains to think and concentrate in smaller batches. We need to train it back, especially if we’re holding down a fulltime job or raising kids and trying to write, therefore $129 was a cheap price, considering I’ve used it for the last 4 books. Time is precious. Don’t let it slip away.
Scrivener Project Target

Tip #6:

Set goals. I write my novels in Scrivener, which has a daily word count and target date set into the program. It helps keep me honest. I can see at a glance what my projected target date is and how close I am to that day’s word count and to the project’s word count. I divide my project in thirds. You can see I’m a bit behind the targeted goal. No more binging Handmaid’s Tale for me.
Tip #7:
And speaking of Scrivener, find a good writing program that works for you. I used to write in Word, but my manuscripts often hit different time zones, different countries. I found Scrivener was useful for helping to organize all of this. It allows me to see the entire project, each chapter or scene, the total project word count, my due date, all on the same page.
Tip #8:
Keep track of your versions. Have you ever opened up a chapter, started working on it, only to discover it was not the latest version of your work? (If not, you’re lucky.) To prevent this, I number each book, chapter and scene like software. The bonus of this numbering system is that it gave me a new fearlessness to taking a chance with vast changes. (Kill your darlings, right? If it doesn’t work, I can always go back to the earlier version. Usually I find that I like the changes better.) 
I also use this technique for numbering scenes/chapters. For instance, 1.26 is the 26thversion of chapter one. (The first few chapters and the ending of the book usually end high.) The old versions get stuck into the “OLD” folder mentioned above so that just in case, I can quickly find it and know at a glance which version I’m looking at. I also give a word title to each scene to go with that software numbering so I know what is in there. For instance: “2.3 Sam and Remi San Fran” immediately tells me Scene 2, version 3, of when Sam and Remi arrive in San Francisco. 
Tip #9
Make use of a good placeholder. There is no rule that says you have to write in order, or name a character right away, or do research at that very moment. Just be sure to mark it. I use “XXX” for a placeholder, whether it’s for a character name, research needed, or something that needs to be fixed later. Let’s say a scene takes place in the rainforests of Brazil. I need a description of it, but don’t want to stop. I’ll type “XXX rainforest” and I can see at a glance where I need to go back and clean up. I don’t waste time going down the rabbit hole of the internet searching rainforests, waste a half hour when I get distracted by headlines, Facebook, etc., then go back to the manuscript, see I still need a description of the rainforests, and head back down that rabbit hole. 
Tip #10. Memorize tip #9 about placeholders. Don’t worry if the scene, chapter or entire story sucks. Or if you have big plot holes. Or you’re missing transitions. Or anything else. I have learned to end my scenes/chapters with: “XXX Need snappier ending” or “XXX Sam rescues woman from cliff” or “XXX exciting shootout” or whatever else I think it might need. This gives me permission to move on. And moving on is the first step to finishing the book. 
Using a placeholder allows you to step away from those pesky details, working your way to the end. This way, when you go back, see those XXXs, you’ll have fresh ideas to fill in those blanks, or tweak that plot, or find that perfect character name.  
So, Rogue readers (and Writers), any tips to add?
Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. Ramona

    Wonderful advice, Robin! I am going to share.

  2. Gayle Lynds

    What excellent tips and advice, Robin! One thing I do that I started on my first novel when I realized I was getting lost in the vastness of the story and plot was to create a file I call chaptering. It begins with 00 (Front Matter) then moves on to 01 (Chapter One) to wherever the books ends (such as 72). In it I put the number of pages, the day, the time, the location(s), the viewpoint character, and a one-sentence description. That way I can keep track of everything I need, and at the end I use colored marking pens, one for each main character, to highlight each chapter — that gives me a visual sense of the book. And truly, it's fun, particularly because I've just typed "The End."

  3. Lisa Black

    Yes to everything! I agree completely. Except I don't keep old versions–I write in Word, have the whole book as one file, and just hit 'save' when I'm done writing for the day. With this last book I sometimes had to save as new files, because one of my computers tends to freak out and decide on its own recognizance that something is a read-only file and I can't save changes under the same file name. I also wrote half of this last book on an iPad, so between uploading to DropBox so I could download on a difference device, I sometimes wound up with different versions. Putting the date in the file name is a big help.
    And isn't 'Search and Replace' the best thing EVER?

  4. Robin Burcell

    Gayle, you are writing the way Scrivener is designed! You really need to try to the free trial, and take the tutorial walkthrough. I think you'll find that Scrivener has it everything you like and more. Those colors are built into the program. I use a different color for each point of view character. I can see the colors and chapter #s/names in the binder to the left. In the middle is the manuscript. A notecard on the top right can also be color-coded and contain your notes, locations, etc. I promise you, once you start writing in Scrivener and make use of the tools, you'll wonder what took you so long!

  5. Robin Burcell

    Lisa, if you're an IOS/Apple user, you should look into Scrivener. You can automatically sync to Dropbox when you close out for the night without ever leaving the program. It's built into Scrivener. (And you don't have to keep old versions, but I can't seem to let them go. I suppose that makes me a writing hoarder!)

  6. S. Lee Manning

    Great suggestions. Some of them I already do. I keep old versions, and rename them working, edit one, edit 2, and I have a file for everything I cut out. I am also a writing hoarder – I keep old versions – of everything. Never know when something will come in handy.

  7. Robin Burcell

    Exactly! It's interesting to see the similarities in what we all do, but the different names or titles we give each step!

  8. Katie

    As a reader, I want to suggest PLEASE address all the "hanging" plot points, and get rid of superfluous characters. Do not waste a reader's time by leaving them. I hate "unresolved" plot trails that meander off to nothingness and people who wander in and out without a further mention. Get rid of them to keep the focus on the main characters and main plot. If there are too many random people and side plots, I may not finish the book at all or remember what it was about even if I do.

  9. Karna Bodman

    Robin — This was a terrific list – it is so great to learn from such a successful author! Before starting a new thriller, I find myself gathering all sorts of research, newspaper articles, internet summaries, notes of conversations with experts — all in a big file…since I've known in advance the type of story I need to create. Then come the character descriptions (not just physical, but the old "GMC" – goal, motivation, conflict) — then I do a chapter outline and attach the research points to each chapter page. Now it's time to put myself in the chair and really get to work! Thanks so much for giving me even more great points — thanks for a great post!

  10. Robin Burcell

    We certainly try to! But it's always good to be reminded.

  11. Robin Burcell

    You might really like Scrivener, Karna. There's a place built in for all that research, character descriptions, etc. You should take a look at it and see!

  12. Chris Goff

    You've convinced me to try Scrivener, Robin. Just the fact it will keep track of time zones and locations of characters is a huge plus. I'll let you know how it goes.

  13. Jamie Freveletti

    Nice advice Robin! Sounds like a lot of people love Scrivener. I haven't tried it yet, but want to soon. (And I too, wrote on vacations. Friend still comment that they used to see me up in the morning tapping away before the sun rose too high).

  14. Robin Burcell

    Can't wait to hear how you like it! Definitely a learning curve, but with each successive book, I love it even more. Or rather, I love the features it has, which makes novel writing so much easier.

  15. Robin Burcell

    Jamie, I just know you'd love it if you gave it a try. The features are amazing, especially for writing complex stories such as those you write.