1. Spell-check at least three times- once after you’ve just finished writing, again when you’ve finished looking it over, and again when you’re ready to submit. It’s just better that way.
2. Grammar check it. If you don’t trust the grammar checker (I don’t), get someone else to read it over for you.
3. Train yourself to see what’s actually on the page. Most studies prove that people will, when reading aloud, correct what is really on the page to what should be there. I believe the statistic is for that every ten mistakes, only two will get noticed. Read silently as well. If you have a tendency to write “the” for “then,” study the word when it comes up and make sure you’ve really put “then.” Don’t assume you’ve gotten it right and go blithely onward.
4. Don’t write “for others.” I’m not talking here about fics done as favors for friends, but writing for reviews, for popularity, for BNF status, or even writing something you don’t really like just because you believe it will get you noticed. Yes, reviews are fine, reviews are wonderful, and if you believe you have a great story and aren’t getting noticed, it can be rough. But does it really matter, in the end, if a hundred people review your story or if one does? If you have access to hit count statistics, then you know how many people are reading your stories even if they don’t review, which should be a comfort. If you don’t, then you can promote your fic. But if you’re writing, say, a sarcastic Draco into a piece of HP fanfiction just because you believe that reviewers like sarcastic Draco, then you’re a lot more likely to be writing crap.
5. Don’t decide that you are A Sensitive Artist, and the world Does Not Understand You. Almost nothing kills fiction faster (other than perhaps a shoddy understanding of spelling and grammar). Everything you write is not great. Everything you write is not publishable. You must revise. If you’ve trained yourself to write really great first drafts, you’ll probably still have to go over them for typos and factual errors if nothing else. If you have a problem with angst, teenage or otherwise, and can’t manage to keep your fiction separate from your personal problems, then don’t post anything for others to see until you’ve worked that out. “To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.” -Oscar Wilde.
6. Test your characters to destruction. Don’t run with the first plot and character you come up with; let them simmer in your mind for awhile. And then, if you find that your character just doesn’t fit in the way you thought he or she would, sacrifice him or her without hesitation. I don’t mean that plot should always dominate; I mean that if you find your spoiled little princess simply isn’t strong enough to handle the demands of saving the world, don’t make her a spoiled little princess. I’ve seen any number of stories that could have been better with a character of a different gender/race/religion/sexual orientation/personality/creed. But the author insisted on keeping the character in a mode that was sometimes admittedly self-based, and other times was probably the one they first came up with. If your character’s personality, defects, and strengths are not essential to the story, and do not serve to give the character depth, why not eliminate them? Does the one who saves the world have to be male? Conversely, does she have to be female? Do you have to give your character the most powerful enchanted sword in the world, or are you only doing it to make her sound cool? Test them, and if they don’t work, come up with something else and test that. It doesn’t end.
7. Don’t make the story all one level. Take delight in the language and the way the story is told as well as in your clever plot twists. Pay attention to the POV’s you choose as well as to how your super-cool heroine will get the guy. If you’re writing a LOTR fanfic and the scene could best be told from Merry’s POV, why not switch to him instead of keeping it with your Mary Sue just because you’re afraid to write from a male POV? If you’re writing original fantasy, why switch to the bad guys if your heroes are going to learn all about their conflicts later? Mad character-jumping, sometimes within the same scene, or even a floating viewpoint that isn’t inside a character’s head at all, seem to be major problems with amateur writers. Anchor your story, and delight yourself in the language.
8. Don’t be afraid to write something new. This doesn’t mean something as big as shifting genres, though it can. If you think you suck at descriptive writing, why not try and practice it until you can master it? If you’re afraid to write from a male POV because you think you can only empathize with females, why not try one and see what happens? Half of what people are afraid of comes from fear of trying and failing, I think.
9. Be aware of what’s been done before, and be aware of the consequences if you choose an overused idea. This doesn’t mean that you have to come up with a completely original plot, but it DOES mean that if your fandom is haunted by, say, American transfer students, then you should be aware of what will happen if you make up a character like this. Don’t whine that readers should “Give me a chance! This fic is different!” If it looks and smells like dogshit, then most readers will not hang around to pick it up and find out if it feels like dogshit, too. It’s your responsibility to either make your overused plot clever and interesting, or find one that hasn’t been overused.
10. Don’t get too personally attached to your writing. If you can’t take criticism, don’t show it to anyone, or don’t show it to anyone but family and personal friends. A story may be “your baby,” but unlike babies, readers are not obligated to coo at you about how cute it is. You may get flames; you may (if you’re lucky) get constructive criticism. Don’t whine about it, or if you must, do it in private, in a journal that’s not online perhaps. Pick yourself up and go on. You can always do better. Facility for poetry supposedly starts declining in the early twenties, but most novelists get better as they age. You will never write a story that eats all your creative prowess alive and never gives you anything else. Just keep trying with something new.
11. Don’t use writer’s block as an excuse. I think too many people do, when really it’s fear of failure or sheer laziness holding them back. I know that it was laziness that afflicted me during the periods where I wasn’t writing novels. Try something new or force yourself to grimly write lackluster prose that you don’t show anyone, but don’t sit on your ass for months.
12. Try to write every day. People laugh about this advice, but really, it’s the best advice about writing I’ve ever heard. It gives you constant practice. If two people who are both 24 start writing on the same day, and one writes every day of the year while the other only writes for about three months total, who do you think will be better at the end of a year? Ask yourself, when you make excuses, if the excuses are really for things that can’t be put off, or if you’re just being lazy again.
13. Don’t sit around waiting for “inspiration” to strike you. From the way many online writers talk, it’s as if their muses are real people, and the authors are entirely subject to their whims. If your muse is a real person, hunt her down and drag her bound and handcuffed to the keyboard. Books, as one writing book I’ve read says, get written with hours of steady work, not in the three or four days a year you might feel “inspired.”
There. The innocent have been protected.