Regardless of your job, writing is an important communication skill that when fostered, improves over time. If you want to become a writer or improve your craft, I would highly recommend studying the techniques of a few of the American masters. While these men mostly wrote fictional books, they were strongly based on real events. Hemingway was also a correspondent over the years for many newspapers and magazines; his coverage of current events is worth a study as well. Below are some of the useful tips I took from a few of my favorite authors, and one editor who knew them all.

Write About What You Know

Let’s start with Ernest Hemingway. His constant mantra is to write about something you have experienced. Hemingway like Louis L’Amour had a very interesting life and could certainly draw off the events that shaped him – from an ambulance driver injured in war to fishing the Gulf of Mexico, to African safaris, and combat journalism. To truly know your material, you have to truly live life. But that isn’t always an option, especially for young aspiring writers. 

Borrow as Needed, Respectfully

Enter F. Scott Fitzgerald. He was the perpetual, “almost got to do something interesting” writer. He struggled through his career to write, where Hemingway just seemed to let it flow from him. So, Fitzgerald learned to collect other people’s stories. He took notes of all the exotic and mundane things he saw other people do or say and spun them into stories. There is a greater risk in this method, as you can run dry of other people’s adventures. You may also anger some people who see their life in your works and disapprove of the content.

Write Until Someone Says Stop…

Whether you have lived a full life or been a keen observer, at some point you have to get it down on paper. Let’s look at Thomas Wolfe for a moment, as he had an interesting technique.  Wolfe had no shortage of words when he started to write. His problem was he couldn’t stop writing. He would bring boxes of manuscripts to his poor editor to help him sort through. In today’s era, he probably wrote enough for four books when he was trying to write one. It is a technique to just write it all down and get a good editor. However, I doubt you will find an editor today patient enough to help you with this style of writing. Let it all out, but also practice self-editing and trimming. Set yourself a word count for every piece.

Find a Great Team

As for finding good editors, that is an adventure every writer has to work out for themselves. You will like some, and you will dislike others. Work with editing teams that motivate you to write, not to stop writing. Max Perkins is still my gold-standard for editors. He worked with all three of the authors above and went way beyond the role of editor to help them become great writers. He liked to let his authors express their voice and tell their story in their style and time. I’ve done a lot of editing with authors around the globe. While it is hard to let people write about something you disagree with or say it in a way that you would not, that is the job of an editor. Again, find an editor that helps you and does not discourage you. You will know if they care.

Don’t Write on a Schedule

Getting inspired to write can be the hardest part. I do not wake up daily only to stand at my desk and write from 9-5 with coffee breaks and lunch. You don’t need to approach your pad of paper or laptop unless you have something to say. Standing/sitting needlessly staring at a blank page is not the best motivational tool. I would go back to Hemingway for my favored technique—do anything else but write if you want to write. I go for a walk, work in the yard, go shopping, read a book, play guitar, or share a beverage with my friends; and part way through every activity, my brain turns on and goes back to something I have been trying to write. Sometimes, I get a fresh new idea while trying to find my bacon. So, do anything but write and then when the spirit grabs you, jot down some notes, and make your way to your writing device.

Knowing When to Pause

When should you stop writing for the day? Again, Hemingway offered me the best technique. Write when you are “feeling it,” stop while you still are. I like to write when my brain is overflowing with ideas and just get the data onto paper or my word processor quickly. I don’t worry about perfection upfront. I just get it out. Then I stop when I have been at it for a while. Don’t try to write for 12 hours a day, unless you have a deadline. Your best work will come in a few hours of the day. When you stop writing while you are on a roll, your brain will keep working until you start writing again. You will unconsciously edit and perfect your draft while you sleep or eat, and then when you see your words again, you will quickly edit them. If you use this technique, you can avoid exhaustion and sub-par writing. Plus, your editing process goes faster.

Recommended Reading For Writers

I hope these ideas help out a bit, they have helped me (I think). If you want to read a few books to better your writing skills I suggest these five:

  1. Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, by Berg.
  2. Ernest Hemingway on Writing, by Phillips.
  3. That Summer in Paris, by Callaghan.
  4. A Moveable Feast, by Hemingway.
  5. Papa Hemingway, by Hotchner. 

Good luck with your writing and know that I am part of the Military Writers Guild and am happy to help out others who want to stretch their writing muscles.  So, write often, learn to take criticism (it gets easier over time), keep improving, don’t take it personal, and have fun.

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Jason spent 23 years in USG service conducting defense, diplomacy, intelligence, and education missions globally. Now he teaches, writes, podcasts, and speaks publicly about Islam, foreign affairs, and national security. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild and aids with conflict resolution in Afghanistan.