WRITING TIPS

Tips on writing, revision, craft, and the writing life from Cleaver’s editors, workshop and masterclass teachers, literary contributors, and readers. Subscribe to our free newsletter to receive fresh tips in your mailbox each week. Want to find support and community for your writing? Check out our workshops, masterclasses, and one-on-one coaching. Got a writing tip to share? Contact Writing Tips and Newsletter editor Layla Murphy.

Revising, Writing Tips /

Beat the Clock

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

During my years as a working writer I’ve had opportunities to participate in public readings and open mic nights, including a “slam” in which I placed second while a student at the MFA Program at Queens University at Charlotte. With such events, a common element is the time limit. Often I’ve had only two or three minutes to make an impression, which has led me to a game I call Beat The Clock, a revision strategy that helps ... Read more

Revising, Thwack, Writing Tips /

When Willpower Isn’t Enough

Recently, I set aside a story I’d been working on for over a year. I did so reluctantly after revising the opening section to build to certain plot points I selected from earlier drafts. The more I revised, the more dissatisfied I became. It was like watching dominoes lined up between two walls topple over one by one. Despite knowing that something prevented the story moving forward in an interesting way, I continued to revise. I have ... Read more

Craft Chats, Interviews, Writing Tips /

Andrea Caswell
A CRAFT CHAT WITH HANNAH SMART

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Andrea: “The Detriment of Doubt” (Issue 44) is such a clever and creative piece. How did the idea for a 911-type call that’s not exactly a 911 call originate? 

Hannah: I developed the concept for this story first. I knew I wanted to write a piece that questioned the nature of truth, and I knew that in order to do that, I’d need a scenario with lots of built-in assumptions about truthfulness. My fiancé and I were ... Read more

Poetry Tips, Writing Tips /

Three weeks of wrangling words into position—and still when you cap your pen or click Save, there’s a crumpled shirt tag chafing at your neck. Something isn’t right. Why does your poem feel unfinished no matter how many times you smooth things into place?

You read it out loud. The language has a stilted quality. Or the images don’t segue seamlessly from one to the next. Like pulling on a sweater when there’s a thread or two coming loose, and the sleeve catches halfway up your ... Read more

Recently I wrote about The Most Dangerous Writing App, an efficient but hair-raising way to generate fresh ideas for your writing. If you haven't tried it, give it a spin. You might catch something you can use; at very least you'll get a three-cups-of-coffee adrenaline spurt.

Yesterday, a student of mine told me she has a friend who drafts all his writing in The Most Dangerous app. Imagine that! For most of us, however, such a heart-pounding practice isn't sustainable for more than ... Read more

Andrea Caswell
A Craft Chat With Monique D. Clark

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Andrea: Congratulations on “The Love,” (Issue 44) which feels like a perfect short story. It’s got it all: deep love, disenchantment, humor, food, family secrets, and a profound moment of truth, encapsulated within 1500 words. What’s your “recipe” for creating a powerful short story?

Monique: Thank you so much! It was an honor to have “The Love” published in Cleaver Magazine. This is a great question, and in theory feels like an easy one to answer. However, it truly ... Read more

Fiction Tips, Writing Tips /

A Writing Tip by Karen Rile
FIRST TO THIRD

Here's the truth: Your first instinct is your best. Write the draft the way it comes to you.

Maybe your story comes out naturally in first person. And you nail it, fluently: the voice, the character, the plot. Brava!

Here's the rub: You show your draft to trusted readers and—what the heck?—they don't get it. This narrator is too unlikeable to care about, they complain. They confuse the narrator's motivations with the story's intent. They miss your carefully laid irony.

... Read more
Fiction Prompts, Writing Tips /

A Writing Tip by Karen Rile
SOLVING FOR X

Where did this prompt come from? I've used it in my Penn classes for more than twenty years. I've personalized and fancied it, but I don't think the original idea was mine. This week I paged through my personal library of books on writing and teaching and scoured the internet, but I cannot find the author. If you recognize it, drop me a line!

Solving for X creates a detailed and seemingly capricious to-do list that, like all great prompts, frees you from the ... Read more

Andrea Caswell
A CRAFT CHAT WITH SUE MELL

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

In her flash CNF piece Transported (Issue 44), Sue Mell takes readers on a joy ride through a coming-of-age friendship. Mell shares insights about writing the story with senior fiction editor Andrea Caswell.

Andrea: In “Transported,” you’ve packed just about all we need to know into three short paragraphs. It feels like magic! Did this piece begin as something longer, or did you plan to write with great compression from the outset?

Sue: What a great compliment—thanks so much! I’d ... Read more

Writing Tips /

A Writing Prompt by Layla Murphy
Hate Christmas, You're Allowed

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes

Bah humbug—this again! Christmas is right around the corner, and whether you celebrate it or not, you've surely got some holiday sensory-overload by now. I thought we should turn things topsy-turvy by taking a page from David Byrne’s Christmas playlist, which showcases such hits as “Christmas Will Break Your Heart” by LCD Soundsystem and “Another Lonely Christmas” by Prince. So, put down that eggnog and join us in some healthy holiday crankiness as we channel our humbug into our writing… ... Read more

Writing Tips /

A Writing Tip by Jen Mathy
Booster Clubs Don’t Just Sit in The Stands

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

A successful writer today has a whole new set of responsibilities. Yes, your primary role is that of artist and writer. First, create. Then, with the understanding that agents seldom find new clients in their slush piles and that publishers primarily support A-list authors and authors who receive large advances, it’s important for an emerging writer to take on the role of marketer as well. 

There are many elements and ways to promote yourself ... Read more

A Writing Tip by Karen Rile
WRITE DANGEROUSLY

The best way to improve your writing is to cultivate a consistent practice. There are many ways to approach your practice, and you might change up your techniques frequently in order to keep your work feeling fresh and interesting. The most important mindset is to be both kind and firm with yourself. 

This week, your job is to do The Most Dangerous Writing App every day for at least 5 minutes. Feel free to edit the timer to a longer session, up to 60 minutes (if you dare!) ... Read more

Thwack, Writing Tips /

A Writing Tip by Layla Murphy
WRITE LIKE YOU'RE DYING

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

I never knew what a death doula was until I listened to an episode of NPR’s Life Kit the other day focused on relationship repair. It seemed odd at first that a podcast episode on relationship repair—presumably with other, living, people—would include a segment on death. But the relationship to be repaired by these end-of-life caregivers is our relationship with death itself.

Death is scary. It’s taboo. It’s uncomfortable, and it’s painful. And, I think engaging meaningfully with ... Read more

Poetry Tips, Writing Tips /

A Writing Tip by Michelle Bitting
FINDING GOLD IN LOST TREASURE

“There is something to be said for a boundary, there is something to be said for unbinding.” ~ Diane Seuss 

I remind myself and my students to write with abandon, to let language, image, and thought run wild and amok across the page. Forget about lineation, breaks, logic, punctuation, precision, or even “truth” (small ’t’) really, when launching into a new piece of writing. Prompts are great as guide posts, and I wholly embrace them for inciting the unexpected, stoking intuition, and allowing ... Read more

Writing Tips /

A Writing Prompt from Anne Anthony
BEGUILING

THE PROMPT

Write one breathless paragraph using the first person point of view in response to this digital collage. Include all five of your senses and the word "beguile" in your micro-fiction.


Anne Anthony

Anne Anthony’s stories and poems feature flawed characters with superhuman traits. She’s been published in Longleaf Review, West Trestle, Litro Online, Anti-Heroin Chic, and other literary journals. Her short story collection, A Blue Moon & Other Murmurs of the Heart, was published in 2019. She’s a senior editor and art director at Does ... Read more

A Writing Tip from Leonard Kress
HEADLINE POETRY

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

I was driving to work a few weeks ago, listening closely to a news report about the survivalist Eric Frein, who had just murdered a Pennsylvania State Trooper and managed to evade capture by hiding out in the dense forests of the Pocono Mountains. Although hundreds of people were engaged in a desperate and dramatic search for the killer, he had thus far evaded capture.

I listened closely to the report. I grew up in Philadelphia and the Poconos almost rivaled the ... Read more

Poetry Tips, Writing Tips /

A Writing Tip from Matt Broomfield
WRITE WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes

Revoke the tired shibboleth, and write what you don’t know. But first, come to know it, as though it were your own. Live as you read and read as you live: avidly, with catholic interest, above all vicariously. Delve into profoundly conservative Regency biography in the same frenzied spirit with which you breathe tear-gas at Belgrade Pride.  

As a poet you perhaps find yourself standing awkwardly round the corner of your own life. No matter. Force yourself ... Read more

Poetry Tips, Writing Tips /

A Writing Tip from Mark Danowsky
DABBLE IN EKPHRASIS

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Ekphrasis provides an opportunity for artforms to engage with each other. As a poet, this often means engaging with visual art. 

Ekphrastic writing is an excuse to look at other artforms as an outsider. You don’t need to feel competitive. After all, you’re a poet and they are a visual artist. They are experts in their field just as you are in yours. 

Keep in mind, you have no requirement to like/appreciate a famous artwork simply because ... Read more

All Genre Prompts, Writing Tips /

A Writing Tip from Eileen Toomey
DEADHEADING

Estimated reading time: 1 minute

You planted the mums the week before the early September heatwave. Even though you watered every morning, there are many withered blooms. Without thinking, you pull the dead buds from the stems, leaving a little pile at the base of the tall black pot.

This process is called deadheading, and it has nothing to do with music.

Deadheading encourages the plant to continue to bloom by removing the old growth just as writing involves removing or ... Read more

Craft Chats /

A CRAFT CHAT WITH CECILE CALLAN, author of "Home Away From Home"

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

In her short story “Home Away From Home” (Issue 43), Cecile Callan takes readers into a smoky bar in the city, where richly-drawn characters are thrown together and forced to face themselves. Callan shares insights about writing the story with senior fiction editor Andrea Caswell.

Andrea Caswell: Tell us about the story’s title. Is there really a cocktail called “Home Away From Home,” or is it an original recipe of yours?

Cecile Callan: The title ... Read more

Fiction Prompts, Writing Tips /

A Writing Tip from Angelina Sciolla
GETTING INTO CHARACTER

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Often when you encounter a creative writer, you may be meeting a small business owner, a teacher, physician, or a parent doing any number of these things. As they orient themselves to shifting responsibilities and modes of written communication throughout the day, writers are essentially role-playing their way to creative expression.

It can be difficult to navigate these stratified scenarios because they require different skills from your writer’s toolbox and even different philosophical approaches. It’s not just about being mindful of ... Read more

A Writing Tip from Isabel Legarda
WRITE LIKE AN ANESTHESIOLOGIST

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Write like an anesthesiologist.

By this I definitely do not mean intentionally (or unintentionally) put someone to sleep, but rather, approach your writing project as a living, breathing being you put active energy into protecting through dangerous territory.

“Dangerous territory” for writers includes:

  • daily challenges like time scarcity, procrastination, distraction, and interruption;
  • occupational hazards like exhaustion, multi-tasking, the need for research, and neglect of
    other important tasks or life relationships;
  • faults to ... Read more
Fiction Prompts, Writing Tips /

A Writing Tip from Micah Muldowney
PACHELBEL’S CONUNDRUM

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Before I was a writer, I was a musician. I’d only just begun when they let me in on their dirty little secret:

 Most songs are just three chords.

Some are just two. Even the harmonically ambitious ones are usually just Pachelbel’s Canon, reskinned. It’s a proverb, to the point that Ed Sheeran famously used it to get a copyright lawsuit thrown out.

Many aspiring musicians find this empowering—after all, with just a handful of fingerings, you too ... Read more

Poetry Tips, Writing Tips /

A Writing tip from Leonard Kress
Poetry as Meditation

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

For several years I have been working on a series of sestinas that embody certain important aspects of Buddhist mindfulness meditation. Each sestina—and I have written nearly 100 so far—is a timed and focused meditation, contingent upon time, place, and physical, mental and emotional states.

Duration, for example, translates to space—the 36 lines in each individual poem is the amount of time it takes to wander through those lines, just as a meditator might practice sitting or walking meditation for a ... Read more

A Writing tip from Moriah Hampton
Hair Splinters: Listen Before You Write

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Writing is about relationships—relationships we cultivate with ourselves, and our readers, subjects, and communities. To have good relationships, it’s important to listen. A conversation I had with my friend Gabby recently reminded me of the importance of listening for creative development.

“My boyfriend had to dig out one of my hair splinters,” Gabby said, looking at me in the mirror above her workstation at the salon.

“A wood splinter?” I asked, sure I'd misheard her.

... Read more
All Genre Prompts, Writing Tips /

A Writing Tip from Andrea Marcusa
DON'T FEAR THE WACKY STUFF

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes

Do you ever have wacky ideas or thoughts that you scribble down, but then decide they're too awful to keep? If so, I have a suggestion for you. Put them in a file and label it something funny, like "Wacky Pantry." Then, come back to them a few months or years later.

Often, the thoughts or ideas that we feel compelled to write down are the ones that feel wrong, not "us," embarrassing, or poorly written. We might think that ... Read more

Craft Chats /

Andrea Caswell Speaks with Brendan Stephens
TITLES, FIRST SENTENCES, AND HOW "HELL'S MOUNTAIN" CHANGED

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

In the story “Hell’s Mountain” by Brendan Stephens (Issue 42), readers are invited into the Underworld with a narrator who must scale a looming mountain to discover what awaits at the summit. Senior fiction editor Andrea Caswell asked the writer and Cleaver contributor to share his insights on titles and first sentences, and to describe how “Hell’s Mountain” changed during revision.

Andrea Caswell: Could you tell us “the story” of that first sentence? Long ago, after I ... Read more

All Genre Prompts, Writing Tips /

A Writing Tip from Jessica Klimesh
WRITE LESS, READ MORE

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

As writers, we’re often told that we should be writing every day (or, at least, regularly), that we shouldn’t just wait for the muse to strike.

But writing doesn’t have to mean just writing. Tasks related to writing also count as writing: editing, revising, submitting, thinking, and—an important one—reading.

So, if you find yourself staring at a blank screen (or notebook page), no ideas coming to you, pick up a book or go to your favorite lit journal, and read.

... Read more
Fiction Prompts, Writing Tips /

A Writing Prompt from Janet Burroway
DISASTER STRIKES

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes

There has been a disaster and you must leave your home. You may choose one object to take with you, and only one. What will you take?

You arrive at a border, where the guard tells you that you may not take your object across.

But if you discard the object here, you may pass and she will give you something to take to the other side. What is it?

What will you do?

Sit with this ... Read more

Writing Tips /

Andrea Caswell
RIFFS ON REVISION

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes

Most of the work of writing is rewriting. No one wants to hear this! We thrive on that rush of creativity and sense of possibility inherent in a first draft. After our initial inspiration and abandon on the page, revision can feel like a fall back down to earth. I have to revise this? What a mess! The good news is, revision is some of the most “creative” writing you will ever do. Here are some tips for enjoying the process.

Thwack, Writing Tips /

Beth Kephart
BE INSPIRED

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes

I know. I know. So grotesquely obvious. Except for the essential sequitur: Be inspired by what?

The metronome flick of your puppy’s tail?

The mellifluous hum of the antique AC?

The letter m, lowercase, written, for the first time, by a child?

The problem is, the possible sources of inspiration can be measured by infinitudes, and to write we need some curb or cramp, a boundary or horizon, a wall against which to toss our nouns or a pocket into which ... Read more

Revising, Writing Tips /

Andrea Caswell
5 TIPS FOR REVISING

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes

Revision is an important but often-dreaded stage of the writing process. Having to revise can feel like facing a harsh reality after the freedom of free-writes, and of first drafts bursting with inspiration. But if you flip the lens and adjust your POV, you can see revision as an opportunity to engage with your work more deeply and creatively, as you practice critical writing and editing skills. 

Here are my five favorite suggestions for a more positive revision process:

  1. Start from the ... Read more

Tricia Park
TIPS TO UNSTUCK YOUR WRITING

Second in a 5-part series

Sometimes, the hardest part is getting started. We get overwhelmed by self-doubt and too many (or too few) ideas as we sit, staring at the blank page.

Often, we just need a prompt to fire up our writing engines. Here’s a free prompt for you to try out today:

Timeline of your life.

●     Set a timer for 10 minutes.

●     Draw a horizontal line across a page. This is the timeline of your life.

●     Mark off the first year at ... Read more

All Genre Prompts, Writing Tips /

Tricia Park
TIPS TO UNSTUCK YOUR WRITING
First in a 5-part series

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Sometimes, the hardest part is getting started. We get overwhelmed by self-doubt and too many (or too few) ideas as we sit, staring at the blank page.

What if I told you that you could write more quickly, with more fun and ease?

Writing is hard because we have a lofty idea of what writing is. We imagine people–fancy people–with degrees and credentials and quills and thick notebooks into which they spill their flawless thoughts from their flawless ... Read more