10 Tips for Writing (Both About Yourself and in General)

If you want to take advice from a guy who moved from New York to be a writer

One of my favorite (and simultaneously most hated) qualities of children is their tendency to be unintentionally blunt.

Over the past year, my daughter, son and their little parliament of friends have called me out on hiding my baldness with a Yankees cap, wearing the same clothes every day and “having claws” (read: grossly unclipped toenails). I don’t even want to tell you the comments I hear at the pool. Suffice to say I need to cut back on the midnight Nutella spoons.

Earlier this week, the apples of my eye point-blankedly asked me why I didn’t have a job. I told them that wasn’t true, that I was a writer, to which they both responded: “no, a real job.” So I printed a copy of my curriculum vitae. I still don’t think they were impressed — even after they checked my references.

But it made me think. And I mean put down the Nutella and really think. Were they on to something? After all, they were right about the toenails.

Do I have a job? Can you call it a job if you do it while wearing your pajamas (and, every once in a while, less than your pajamas)? Does it count if you spend a fair amount of your workday staring out the window trying to construct just the right joke about bear claw salad tongs?

Here’s the answer I came up with: who cares? The IRS considers what I do a job, and that’s all that really matters. Plus, I’ve been doing it for almost 20 years, now; at the expense of every other job I’ve started and subsequently quit to get back to writing (or, from my children’s point of view, unemployment).

Like it or lump it, I don’t have professional-level skills at anything else. But I do know a thing or two about stringing words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into pages that elicit a reader’s response and, most months, pay the mortgage.

Pertinent to all of this, I thought I’d share a few pro-tips I offered on writing about yourself and in general. You know, if you want to take advice from a guy who moved from New York to be a writer:

1. Everyone has a story to tell; it’s just a matter of figuring out how to tell it. This might not be through writing at all. Sometimes, the best way is with music, or painting or molecular gastronomy. However, since I know nothing about molecular gastronomy …

2. When you’re writing, keep writing and don’t stop writing, ever. I’m not saying wear a diaper, but you know, if you’ve got an hour to write, spend that whole hour adding words to the page. Editing comes later, and that’s a whole other batch of tips.

3. Don’t drink and write. In fact, be careful of anything you make part of your writing process. It took me 10 years to quit smoking cigarettes and on a heavy writing day, I still drink a good 300 ounces of coffee. Seriously, half my daily calorie intake comes through half n’ half. The other half is antacid tablets.

4. If you can’t beat it, work around it. There’s always a work-around — creative problem solving goes a long way toward establishing “voice.”

5. The world has plenty of writers already, but it only has one “you.” Your experiences, your perceptions of the life you lead and the world you live in — that’s the rest of what goes into “voice.” Also a trademark punctuation mark— mine’s the “dash”; I also like semi-colons.

6. Allow yourself the luxury of a crappy first draft. No one will ever see it but you (except maybe your significant other, but honestly, it’s nothing they haven’t seen before — and, they’ve probably seen a lot worse).

7. Don’t set out to make your living as a writer. I learned that the hard way (and I’m actually still kind of learning it). Write because you love it, not because you’re trying to feed your family with it. In order to get good enough to actually earn money, you need to try and fail and try and fail, and that’s frustrating enough from a creative standpoint, let alone if you’re trying to bring home the bacon or, for vegetarians, the Fakin’ Bacon.

8. Show, don’t tell. Except graphic sex scenes. Those are next to impossible to write well, and believe me, I’ve tried. Oh, how I’ve tried …

9. Appeal to as many of the five senses as possible. More than any other artistic discipline writing stands uniquely suited to conjure sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. I once wrote a short story in which a jilted wife takes revenge on her ex-husband by stuffing sushi in all the curtain rods of the house, thus leaving him to search in vain for the source of the worsening stench. Anyway, I’ll never forget what my MFA thesis advisor said: “Geoff, your writing stinks.” To this day, that’s nicest compliment anyone’s paid me.

10. It’s a lot easier to make people laugh than to make them cry. The trick is doing both. When and if you master it, please teach me.


• Geoff Kirsch is an award-winning Juneau-based writer and humorist. “Slack Tide” appears every other Sunday in Neighbors. Geoff will also be teaching an advanced creative writing workshop at UAS this spring, English 461: Everything You Can Learn About Comedy Writing in 48 Course Hours (Minus Bathroom Breaks).


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