This tip didn’t quite make the top five, but was close. So I’ll call it 5a: Be a Verbal Pack Rat.
A writer needs to be a pack rat.
A pack rat when it comes to words anyway. (Feel free to throw away most of those old newspapers and magazines). We need collections of certain words: names, (I, personally, have an awful time naming characters, so started a file filled with interesting names for later reference); description of people, places, and things; catchy turns of phrase; possible titles. You get the idea. The object is to have a notebook or database of ideas you can reference when needed.
In the same vein, a writer should never throw away any of his or her work, no matter how bad you or anyone else thinks it is, whether it’s finished, or not. Create a file on your computer and store them there, or dedicate a slot in your filing cabinet to abandoned and unfinished work.
Why, you ask? That essay was horrible; that poem didn’t come close to working; the story fell flat. Why should you save them?
There are two reasons.
First: because you never know. Just because a short story you wrote when you were twenty-one didn’t work, doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good idea. It might just mean that, at twenty-one, you didn’t yet have the writing skills to render the story properly. If you revisit the same story twenty years later, you might just have those skills.
If you no longer have the story, you’ll never know. Saving those unsuccessful works, might just save the gem you can use years later.
The second reason to save unsuccessful work is strictly as a morale boost. Face it, writing is a very tough avocation that can take years and years of practice before we can consistently produce quality work. It’s easy and common to become discouraged. Who wouldn’t after collecting dozens of rejection letters?
One of the easiest methods to combat that discouragement is to pull out a story, poem, or essay you’ve written several years ago. Read it with your modern, more mature eye. Odds are, the first impression you’ll receive is “man, I am so much better than this now!” Yes, your skills have improved over the years, your technique is more sophisticated. In short, realize that you are better than you used to be. You might not be as good as you want to be (who of us is?), but you are making progress. Use these old and unsuccessful works to remind yourself of that.
After all, isn’t that all we can really expect as writers and artists, or even as people? That, over time and with experience, we do get better at what we’re doing?