Best Writing Advice We've Ever Gotten

Last week, we posted the worst. Now here's some of the best! - Anne and Ellen

Ellen Potter

1. Some of the best writing advice I’ve heard came from a friend of mine who is a New York City Police Officer. Although he’s seen plenty of crazy situations, and has stared down the wrong end of a gun more than once, when people ask him what it’s like to be a cop, he usually shrugs and says, “Eh. It’s just a job.”

 I like that. I think that’s a healthy way to look at being a writer too. It’s easy to make a fetish out of writing (i.e., “I can only write after I light 12 patchouli-scented candles and have a chiropractic adjustment.” Or, more commonly, “I can only write when I feel inspired.”). Writing is just a job. A challenging, glorious, gut-wrenching job, but a job nonetheless. You don’t need to be a Sensitive Genius in order to be a writer. In fact, it’s probably better if you aren’t. You just need to be insanely persistent. You need to show up for work every day, even if you sometimes feel like you are staring down the wrong end of a gun.

2. Another great piece of writing advice came from Oscar. Oscar is a horse. I was taking riding lessons when I met Oscar. I am a fairly crummy rider. Oscar loved to take advantage of crummy riders. He knew he had a sucker on his back the moment I climbed on. He bolted then stopped short. I stayed on, but barely. That was just the beginning. He had all sorts of tricks designed to unnerve me. After five minutes of this, I told my instructor that I wanted to get off. Oscar had won, fair and square. But my instructor said, “If you get off now, you’ll always be intimidated by horses like Oscar. Imagine you have Velcro on your butt. Just stay put. ” After assuring me that Oscar was not going to kill me, I agreed to try again.  I imagined the Velcro. I stayed put. And after a while Oscar grew bored of his own shenanigans and began to play nice.

 Okay, the writing connection is this: When you feel completely stuck in your writing, when every cell in your body is telling you to give up, stay put. Don’t let it intimidate you. If you shy away this time, and tell yourself that you just don’t have the skills, talent, brains, or whatever, you are setting yourself up to admit defeat every time you hit a rough patch. Imagine that Velcro on your butt. And your butt on the seat. And Oscar . . . I mean your writing . . . will eventually settle down and begin to play nice.

Anne Mazer

 I wish I could say that my best writing advice came from a beloved teacher or mentor or friend. But oddly enough, it came from people with whom, to put it politely, I had very, very complicated relationships. Maybe their words sank in because I was always arguing with them in my head. Or maybe I disagreed with them so frequently, that the good advice really stood out. Who knows? Frankly, I have to grit my teeth to acknowledge that these people gave me good advice. No, not just good advice, it was great advice. Maybe even the best advice I ever got. Grrrrr….. 

1. “You never know what you can do. Don’t give up.” Never mind that the person who gave me this advice was always telling me what I couldn’t do. They were right on the mark with this little gem. It whistled into my ears, oozed into my bloodstream, and started circulating wildly in my brain. Every time I’ve ever gotten discouraged (which is a lot), I’ve thought of it. It gives me hope. And it’s true: no one, not even you, can predict what you might do next. You may have just written the worst chapter in the history of literature, but tomorrow, you could surprise everyone, including yourself, by writing something pretty darn decent. You’ll never know if you storm away from your story in a snit. There are surprises around every corner. Would you really want to miss out on one by quitting too soon?

2. "You’re a misfit in an office.”  When Person B delivered these words, I knew the game was up. For five years, I’d been working to perfect the role of secretary/administrative assistant. I had the suit, the make-up, the heels, and the hair. (Hard to believe for anyone who knows me now.) Not only that, but I had somehow learned to type, could scrawl a bit of shorthand, and was almost competent at taking phone messages. I was faking a lot of my job, and getting away with it, too. People were paying me a generous salary, and I hadn’t been fired yet. But Person B saw right through me; he knew I didn’t belong there. I could have gotten mad at his words, and maybe I did, a little. But then I surprised myself. (See Advice #1, above.)  The next words out of my mouth were: “I’ve always wanted to be a writer.”                  

And then I became one.  

I learned something invaluable that day. It’s okay to be yourself. In fact, it’s essential to be yourself. Don’t try to fake it, like I did, and turn yourself into someone who you aren’t. That’s a waste of your life. (Of course, we all have to do things we don’t like from time to time, but that’s different than trying to force yourself into a role that doesn’t suit you.)  Although I had limped along as a secretary for years (I have only pity for the people I worked for), when I became a writer, new and unexpected strengths appeared. Suddenly I was organized, committed and determined. I discovered that I could work hard and love it, that I could persist through failure, and that I could find my voice.

This advice also applies to writing itself. Don’t try to make yourself into Neil Gaiman, or Suzanne Collins, or Tamora Pierce, for example. They are wonderful writers and will inspire you. Read them, learn from them, but then find out who you are, as a person and a writer. It will take a lifetime, but I promise you won’t regret it. 


The Worst Writing Advice We've Ever Gotten

Ever gotten bad writing advice? We have. Honestly, we've had way more GOOD advice than bad, but we thought it would be fun - and enlightening - to look back at the clunkers. Here is the worst advice we've ever gotten. We were lucky enough not to take it. Read it and shudder! - Anne and Ellen


Ellen Potter

 1. Really, this one isn’t bad writing advice; it’s just plain bad advice, period. One of my college creative writing teachers advised us to walk in dangerous neighborhoods at night. She said that, “One can only feel genuine emotions when one is out of one’s comfort zone.”

That may be true, but I would also argue that being robbed and beaten to a pulp may interfere with one’s writing schedule.

Okay, okay. I’ll admit she does have a point about comfort zones. When you’re in them, your senses don’t have to operate on high alert. When you’re out of them, you tend to notice more, hear more, feel more, which can help you to produce good writing.

Personally, though, I’d rather get out of my comfort zone by pony trekking on the Yorkshire moors than getting mugged in a 7-Eleven parking lot.

2. And then there was this little gem, from that same professor: “If you can manage it, have a lousy childhood.”

 Apparently, feuding parents, severe corporal punishment, and frequent public humiliation are a surefire recipe for literary greatness. Actually, I understand her point. Early trauma can certainly help you understand peoples’ complicated, and often ugly, emotional and psychological  layers; but if a writer is perceptive and sensitive, I believe they can achieve the same results, and still have a Thanksgiving dinner that doesn’t end with a food fight and triple restraining orders.

 3. A while back, the rule of thumb for picture book writers was, “No one wants to read books with talking animals anymore.”

 Olivia the (talking) pig, Mo Willems’ (talking) elephant and (talking) pigeon, and Martha (the talking dog) have two words for that little piece of advice: “Um, Really?”



Although I’ve received a lot of great writing advice over the years, here’s some really bad advice that I’m glad I didn’t listen to. It’s always good for a writer to have a streak of stubborn rebelliousness.

 1. “You can’t write that.”  I was shocked when a well-respected professional told me not to write a story I was committed to. I don’t remember her reasons, except that she disliked my idea, but I wrote the story anyway and published it. 

Conclusion: Even the best of writers can steer you wrong sometimes. Evaluate the advice you receive and make sure it serves you well.

2. “It’s been done before.” I made the mistake of telling my idea to someone who didn’t know much about writing or creativity. After he dismissed my idea, I went ahead and wrote my book, which was eventually published.

 Conclusion: Be careful whom you share your ideas with. Some people don’t understand the writing process. That doesn’t make them bad people; it means you shouldn’t confide your ideas in them.

3.  “It’s just a dream.” A well-intentioned friend, on hearing that I planned to become a writer, tried to talk me out of it. He thought that I lived in my head and didn’t have a good grip on reality. Fifty books later, I now have a (slightly) better grip on reality, and all that living in my head proved to be good for something, after all. 

Conclusion: Only you get to decide whether to pursue a dream or not. No one can predict what you can or can’t do. You have to find out for yourself.

 Okay, we've told you our writing horror stories. What about yours?  


Got Books?

Lately, lots of kids have asked us for book recommendations. So here it is. Ellen and I read mostly for our own enjoyment, so this isn’t any kind of official, comprehensive list. It’s whatever caught our eye and interest. There are a lot of other great books out there that we have yet to read. If you know of any that we missed, write them down in the comments!  Happy reading! – Anne and Ellen




Ellen’s Mostly Middle Grade List


Enola Holmes mysteries by Nancy Springer

 Girl Power in Victorian England! Sherlock Holmes' kid sister solves mysteries that baffle her brother. These books are fantastic! Get a bunch of them and tell everyone you have the flu and have to stay in bed for a week.


Gilda Joyce, Psychic Detective series by Jennifer Allison

Word of warning about these books: be ready to stay up all night to read them. Seriously, they are un-put-down-able. These books are the whole package: great storytelling, quirky characters, and a genuine, hard-to-solve mystery. And of course there are the ghosts. Sort of.




The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by MaryRose Wood

Oh yeah, this woman can write! Clever and atmospheric, although it may be a book adults would enjoy more than kids.



 Secret Letters from Zero to Ten

A sweet young romance set in France . . . what could be bad?







 The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

A gorgeous puzzler of a book. Crazy characters, bruised shins, and an airtight mystery.










Amazing Grace by Megan Shull

A great romantic YA set in Alaska, featuring an unforgettable teen tennis sensation.




The Beastly Arms by Patrick Jennings

This one is weird and wonderful with unforgettable characters.





Any Which Wall by Laurel Snyder

This is the sort of book you want to read in bed on a rainy day (don’t forget the milk and Pepperidge Farm Mint Milanos)! It’s a lovely throw-back to those great children’s classics where magic is always lurking next door.


The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I resisted this series for a long time because it was so popular (I’m almost always disappointed by the best-sellers). But like the Harry Potter series, The Hunger Games lives up to the hype and then some. It will haunt you for months after you finish.



Holes by Louis Sachar

One of the most perfect reads, in my opinion.  The kids in this book are digging and the readers are traveling down, down, down through the book’s layers. I have read this countless times just to figure out how Sachar manages this (I still haven’t quite figured it out).






Anne’s Mostly Fantasy YA List


Carpe Diem by Autumn Cornwall

Most of the books on this list are fantasy, but here’s one for the realists out there.  It’s been a while since I’ve read this, but I loved it! As I remember it was funny and touching.



Anna of Byzantium by Tracy Barrett

I hate when authors plunk a modern character down in a historical setting. But Tracy Barrett is brilliant at capturing a character who truly seems of her time. I’m planning on reading all her other books as soon as I can.



Zahrah the Windseeker  Nnedi Okorafor

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor creates worlds that you can almost touch, and that you’d love to enter, if they weren’t so convincingly scary. Imaginative and compelling storytelling.



Cecilia and Sorcery, Or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot  by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevemer 

The two authors wrote this book for fun, not realizing they’d end up with a published work. The book practically fizzes with humor. A funny, romantic romp in a magical world.



A Fistful of Sky by Nina Kiriki Hoffman Loved this book. Lyrical, magical, wonderful writing.





The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

Brilliant and disturbing.





Shipbreaker Paolo Bacigalupi 

A dystopian fantasy. How many times can I use the word brilliant in this post? 


Here are a few more books. Read them! You won’t be disappointed.

Quest for a Maid Frances Hendry


Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin


 Wise Child by Monica Furlong 


Do you have a favorite book or books? Let us know in the comments. - Anne and Ellen


Ooooo.... Spooky Story-Starters

Are you ready for more Spilling Ink Story Starters? We dare you to conjure up stories from these spooky pictures. Have fun and remember to keep the lights on at night! -- Anne and Ellen


wizard/Anne MazerIs he a good witch or a bad witch? Has he just cast a spell, or is he only thinking about it? You tell us. - Ellen


scarecrow/Anne Mazer

Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble . . . is this a secret coven of pastel-loving scarecrows? And what the heck was that thing in center of the circle before they turned it into a tricycle? Or perhaps you have your own take on this weirdness. - Ellen


Doll in Wedding Dress/Anne Mazer

 Was this poor bride cursed on her wedding day by her jealous sister and turned into a creepy one-armed doll? Or was it something even more sinister . . .  -Ellen


The Best of Ask Us Anything


Over the last year, we've answered hundreds of writing questions on our Ask Us Anything feature. Because it's no fun to scroll back over dozens of pages in search for answers to questions you might have, we decided to repost some of the highlights here. Enjoy! And... keep those questions coming! - Anne and Ellen


 I am 10, and I keep a writing notebook. The problem is, I don't know what to write about!!!!!! i don't have a spilling ink book, (yet!) so I have no idea. HELP!

  Well, for starters, you could write about not knowing what to write about.... Or you could write down your dreams, a conversation with your best friend, a fight you had with your sibling, something you've always felt strongly about, an strange thing you saw on the way to school, the best/worst joke you've ever heard, or a story based on your favorite book character. Take a look at some of the I Dare You's on this site for more ideas (under Teacher's Kit), or enter our contest. The possibilities are endless. Don't worry; just start writing. You'll be surprised. Happy writing. –Anne

My English teacher gave my class an assignment to write a personal narrative but nothing exciting ever happens to me, I'm stuck.

  You don't have to have earth-shattering drama for your life to be interesting. Sometimes, the most interesting thing about someone's life is the way they think about everyday events. Anne told me about this cool exercise where you re-examine what has happened to you over the last 24 hours. Give it a try. Remember what you thought about different events--people you met, conversations you had or heard, the bus ride to school. Take your time and really delve in.
 Or you could write a narrative on a very emotional time for you. It might be something as simple as a friend moving away or how you felt on the first day of school. Your life is much more interesting than you suspect!



 When you write do you wait till you get an idea or do you sit down and force yourself to work?

 Great question. The answer is yes and yes. Sorry if that's confusing, but really I do a bit of both. Sometimes I wait (a little) for an idea. But if no ideas are stepping up and waving at me, I force myself to sit down and work. Often, just the act of putting words--any words at all--down on paper will get my motor running and the ideas will appear.

Do you ever do "warm-up" writing exercises before you begin writing on your story? Does it help you "get into" the writing? I often want to write but can't seem to make my hand pick up the pen and start. Do you have any advice to help me with this?

 A warm up is a great idea. Use any of the "I Dare You's" or Story Starters on this website, for instance. Or put a bunch of words in a bowl, pick one out, and write a paragraph about/with it. I used to write poetry before starting work on my novels. Sometimes I write down dreams, or write a letter to get my brain going. Another thing that works for me is to read over what I wrote the day before. Then I start re-writing, and before I know it, I’m deep into my story. Hope one of these suggestions works for you! –Anne



 I have written the first paragraph to what seems like an incredible story. I can't seem to get any further. How do I pick up where i left off?

 Ideas always seem great in your head, but it's just plain hard to write. The only way to get past that first paragraph is to make up your mind to keep writing. Don't worry if it doesn't seem to measure up to your visions; just keep going. Having a real, but not so incredible story on paper is WAY better than having an incredible one in your head. How else will you get stronger as a writer? This is everyone's #1 problem; you're not alone! -- Anne

 Have you ever gotten stuck right at the beginning of a story? Like you just don't know HOW to start it? I just don't know where to start! Help?


 Yes, that JUST happened to me with my latest book. You can try to change the narration (from first person to third or omniscient) or try a different setting. Sometimes I just step back and give myself time to rethink things. I try to get a very strong mental image of my setting and that often helps me to anchor the story's beginning.
I hope that helps!

I have a bad habit of getting really excited about an idea, writing a few pages with everything going great...but I lose interest and I just can't keep writing it as soon as I get a new idea. Any ideas to help with this? Thanks!

 A lot of people have this same problem! My advice is to commit to one idea at a time. You have to LOVE it. If you get enticing new ideas along the way, simply write them down in notebook for later use. Then finish your story. It might be hard, but I think you'll feel really good when you're done. Anne



I'm in the middle of writing 4 books- 3 by myself and 1 with my friend. Do you think that's too many? Whenever I get ideas for one book I write in that book, and I feel like I balance the books pretty well... but do you think 4 books are too many?

  Wow, I'm in awe of writers who can handle several books at once. I think that's great. Each writer works differently, and some are better multi-taskers than others (I am NOT one of those types of writers). You'll know if 4 books are too many if you see that none of them are getting finished. 
Happy book juggling!

 My mind has, somehow, been churning out ideas at a record pace--for me, anyway. I'm juggling writing two different stories and have a third idea--a thing I'm usually short on--that I could pen several chapters on at any time. What should I do?

 First, if your mind is churning out ideas, be sure to write them down, because sometimes those fertile periods end - and sometimes you can't remember your ideas a week or two later! (I can't at least.) Write down ALL your ideas, in rough form. Don't worry about polishing them or making them into anything "good." Just be sure to get them all down. Then choose the idea you're most excited about to work on. If you get more ideas while you're working on your story or book, keep writing them down in a separate notebook or journal or file. Then go back to your story... Good luck! Enjoy the ideas! –Anne



 Ellen & Anne, Whenever I write a poem, story, draw, ect, my friend just makes fun of me, and just comments on how "bad" it is and how it could be WAY better if she did it. What should I do? I'm really nervous to stand up to her, because then she gets all

 Personally, I only show my works-in-progress to a few select friends. You don't need to show your work to everyone, especially if you know someone is not going to be kind and supportive of you. If you want to share your work with people, choose those people carefully. Writing takes a lot of guts, and you don't want a few unkind words to discourage you.



 I have tons of writing notebooks for different stories, different ideas, etc. How do you recommend I organize these writing notebooks? Or do you just keep one big notebook?

  I'm smiling because I have the same problem. If you saw my office, there's a mess of notebooks on the top shelf. What I do is try to copy everything into computer files. That kind of keeps me organized. If you keep files on a computer, be sure to back them up. Or, keep them all in one place, so you can easily find them. You can file them by date or by category of idea. –Anne



 I love to write and I do every day. However, I never finish a story I have started. Do you have any advice or tips for me?

  Starting a story is always so much easier than plowing through the middle of a story. I find that keeping my interest in the story is key to finishing it. When I start to lose interest in what I am writing, I'll try to write a scene that is really juicy; one that reconnects me to the sense of excitement I had when I first started the story. Or sometimes I spend some time thinking about my characters and if I am forcing them to do things they wouldn't really do, just to keep the storyline going. Let your characters do things that surprise you, and it's impossible to get bored with them.


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