Writing Tips from Author J.T. Ellison

Have you ever wanted to become an author? We’re bringing you writing advice from our very own J.T. Ellison, the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of more than 25 novels, and the EMMY® award winning co-host of the literary TV show A WORD ON WORDS. Read on for her expert tips and tricks and make sure to pick up her newest book, Her Dark Lies, on sale today!

Set Concrete Goals

It’s easy to say, “I’m going to write a book.” While that is a commendable statement that is necessary to get you started, what you need to be saying is, “I’m going to dedicate an hour a day, five days a week, for the next year, in order to complete the first draft of a book.” The more specific you are about your goal, the easier it is to achieve.

Find Your Time and Respect Your Time

This is especially true for women writers. If you want to realize your dream, you have to find your time, you have to respect your time, and you must demand that others respect your time as well. If that means you have to get up an hour earlier or work over lunch or slip away after dinner, do what you must. But it’s not enough to say “This is my time” – you need to make it clear to those around you, both in physical proximity and on your phone, since that tethers you to the outside world. Put on Do Not Disturb, put on your headphones, and make it clear you are only to be interrupted in dire circumstances. You might feel selfish to start, but you’ll get over it–and so will those fighting for your attention.

Write What Fascinates You, Not What You Know

Write what you know is the probably the most common advice given to new writers, and I must respectfully disagree. If you write what you’re passionate about, that’s the path to creative freedom. Now, if you’re a doctor who is passionate about medicine and want to write a medical thriller, by all means! But if you’re a schoolteacher who’s longed to scale a mountain, focusing on the passion instead of the experience will give your story heart and soul.

Respect Yourself and Your Work

Your work has value, and you do, as well. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, including, well, you. Constantly belittling yourself, your creativity, your storytelling, your ideas, your passions, your talent, and your ambition is a surefire way to cut off the muse at the knees. Respect comes from within, and you have to believe in yourself and your right to do this work.

Read Everything

There is a single common denominator among all writers–they are all readers. I don’t know any writers who aren’t madly in love with books. The best way for you to learn to write is to drown yourself in story. And not just the writers you already love and admire, you need to read widely. Experiencing new worlds by authors who don’t look like, sound like, or write like you will open your writing and take it to new heights.

Learn to Say No

This will be the most important trick in your arsenal. Especially when you’re starting out, it’s tempting to say yes to everything. Say yes to too much, though, and you won’t have any time to do your work. My rule of thumb–if it’s going to take longer to prepare for the event than it will to participate in the event, I generally decline. If I receive the invitation or request and am delighted and excited, I say yes. If I feel a sense of dread, or immediately start trying to figure out if I have time, what the impact will be on my work, those I generally decline. YOUR work MUST come first, no matter what. People understand how busy things are and will not hold it against you.


Writing is a sedentary profession, so daily exercise is an absolute must. Walking is wonderful for working out plot problems, yoga is good for sore, aching necks and shoulders, and a bike ride always gets the blood pumping. Movement is life, and that joie de vivre will find its way into your work.

Find Your Circle

Having a circle of writerly friends is a vital part of your day to day. You need people who you can trust implicitly, who will be your cheerleaders, shoulders to cry on, critique partners, business mavens, and sounding boards. Choose wisely. It is a strange, sad phenomenon how many friends peel away as your career takes off. Those who stick around are worth their weight in gold.

Limit Social Media

As fun as social media is, it can be a fatal distraction. Limiting your online time in general is a good practice to adopt. If you find yourself scrolling during your work hours, invest in a program like Freedom that will disconnect you during work hours. A very important tool.

Be Detail Oriented and Organized

Publishing has a lot of moving parts. After you sell that first novel, you will find yourself in a merry-go-round of drafting new material, editing current material, and promoting past material–all at the same time. Keep your files segmented, always have a multiple back ups, and use a cloud service like Dropbox that ensures you’ll never lose more than a day’s work. As far as organization, I use the Twyla Tharp box method– every project gets its own physical box into which I put draft pages, research books, notebooks, manuscripts, etc., anything and everything I physically produce. I do the same digitally–every project has its own folder, and subfolders inside. If you use a program like Scrivener, you will get auto backups of your day-to-day work, too. You’re going to generate a lot of material over the course of your career, so keeping things together and tidy will help you in the long run.

Write Alone and With Passion

Feel free to be superstitious about discussing your work in progress with people. There are no rules that say you have to discuss anything with anyone unless and until you’re ready. Stephen King says write with the door closed and edit with the door open, and that’s great advice. Obviously, you don’t want to be precious with your team, but you are not required to share with lay people. While drafting, treat yourself and your work with the utmost care. Coddle yourself, compliment your ideas, give yourself and your work the love and attention you, and it, deserves.

Edit Ruthlessly and Without Emotion

When you open that door, you need to allow in the critical voice to help you polish your work. Don’t let her take over, of course, but let her help you find the draggy scenes and illogical sequences. Things I entrust to my critical voice while editing:

  • Don’t interrupt yourself to impart information, it drags down the scene
  • Don’t introduce too many characters at once
  • The first word that comes to mind is usually the right one
  • Repetitive words must go
  • Sentences out of order in paragraphs. Every paragraph needs a beginning, a middle, and an end
  • Excise throat clearing openings and unneeded words like well, so, that, just, because, like with glee
  • Don’t be afraid to start your story in media res. It will make it dynamic and exciting
  • That line you think is glorious? Go ahead and cut it now because your editor most surely will
  • Limit adverbs in dialog tags
  • Show, don’t tell. But don’t show too much or you’ll have ten pages of exposition when three paragraphs would suffice

Finally, be kind to yourself. Creating art is complicated. Creativity is a garden: if you don’t water it enough, your creativity dies. If you overwater, your creativity dies. If it gets too little sun, gets too hot, the neighborhood cat decides to use it as a litter box…it dies. You must tend to your psyche as you would to a garden that you need to sustain you through the winter months–tenderly, gently, with discipline and love. Your garden needs consistency, and hard work. Do that, and your creativity will overflow.

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