11 Writing Tips for Poor People

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I appreciate writing tips from fellow writers. I love seeing how other people function and how they hope their successful patterns might be successful for someone else. But while the bulk of the advice out there is helpful, meaningful, and from a good place, it’s also largely geared toward writers who are at least middle class:

Turn that spare room into your very own office!

Spend your writing time at a coffee house for a change of scenery!

Hire a nanny over the weekend for those pesky kiddos!

A lot of writing advice seems to come down to money which, unfortunately, isn’t much help for us poor folk. So to help fellow poverty writers feel more included, here’s some stuff that upped my own writing game:

1. Narrate your life as you live it. When a customer is yelling in your face because you can’t honor their expired coupon, just smile back dreamily and think, “They yelled with the fervor of a jaybird, their face cascading in color like old sunsets and new vomit.” When you’re stacking boxes, think, “The dull scrape of cardboard shushed the ghosts of jobs past, though they didn’t have much room to gloat.” Put it in a David Attenborough voice if you really want to.

Use the shit in your life as fertilizer for your writing. Even if it’s stuff that’s irrelevant to your story, it still exercises your brain in the craft and may help you settle into writing mode easier when you get home. I promise it’ll make your job hours more bearable, too.

2. Keep scraps of paper and a pen on you at all times. Got an idea for a plot point or a really good sentence? Write it down as soon as you can. Finish that customer and politely tell the next one you’ll be with them in one second. They’ll likely assume that note to yourself is work-related, and the odds of your boss catching you writing on a scrap of paper is way less likely than if you’re trying to use a notebook. The key here is to make sure your scraps of paper really are little, ripped-up pieces of nothing. Try to grab them from paper sources around your work space to make you even less suspicious, such as that bit of filler that spits out when you put in a fresh receipt roll.

This practice can also be good because, in order to avoid reprimand, you need to write fast. As in, no filter. As in, you don’t have the time to think about how good or bad what you’re writing is, and so you’re training yourself to become less reliant on some sort of perfectionist’s paralysis.

3. Think about writing. This should be easy if you’re doing the above two steps already. Just think about your writing as often as possible while you’re working. Let’s face it: We tend to work jobs that, once we’ve got the hang of it, can be powered largely by our own muscle memory. Use that wasted brain space on something that won’t suck your soul out through your eyeballs. This practice will also start to train your mind to shift back and forth between the craft and reality at a moment’s notice, which will be helpful when you’re finally ready to sit down and force yourself to write. Thinking about it all day gives you time to help solve plot holes and character issues, too.

4. Treat your writing like a third (or fourth) job. Since you likely have a schedule splayed out already to keep track of all your jobs and their ever-shifting times, add in this one, too. You’re welcome to try and keep it reliable, but the good news is that you can shift it around as needed to accommodate your paying work. Ultimately, with it on your calendar as a job, you’ll have a better chance giving it a piece of your day.

5. Write anyway. Speaking of treating writing like work, you know that if you’re showing up, you’re doing the job. It may be a shitty job that day, but you’re doing it. In writing, remember that the first (and second and third) drafts always suck. Just get the words down and fix it later. That’s not you being untalented or lazy. That’s the nature of the writing process even for rich folk who have all the time in the world. As Elizabeth Gilbert said in her famous TED Talk regarding her muse:

“Listen you, thing, you and I both know that if this book isn’t brilliant that is not entirely my fault, right? Because you can see that I am putting everything I have into this, I don’t have any more than this. If you want it to be better, you’ve got to show up and do your part of the deal. But if you don’t do that, you know what, the hell with it. I’m going to keep writing anyway because that’s my job. And I would please like the record to reflect today that I showed up for my part of the job.”

6. But also do self-care. Know when you’re working too much. This can be difficult because I think most people try to determine it based on whether or not they feel stressed out in a generalized sense, but this isn’t a reliable gauge for poor people.

Since sometimes I have trouble understanding if I’m burning out (because poverty stigma tends to make me assume I’m just being lazy with zero proof as such), I go based on these signs here. If I have enough red flags, I swap writing time for some BoJack Horseman.

7. Have your own space to write. I don’t know the studies, but having a specific space to write really does seem to help your brain readjust and settle in faster than if you try to write in a place where you do other life stuff. But you don’t need a separate office with tons of plants, 200 writing tools you’ll never use, and a window that overlooks a sea symbolic of your own failings.

I once found a simple wood dining chair left on the sidewalk, dragged it home, and put it right next to my bed because it was the only space I had. When it was time to write, I moved from wherever I was into that specific chair. And you know what? It worked. Hurt my back like hell, but it worked.

8. You don’t need to experience the other classes to write about them. Just like rich folk can choose to write an impoverished protagonist, we can write about ours going to France even if we barely know what a plane looks like. How? Read, research, and imagine. It sounds cliché, but it’s true. I’ve read so many wonderful stories from people who’d only learned about their protagonist’s experiences from books. And if that doesn’t convince you, think about this: Historical fiction authors can’t experience most of their protagonist’s journey either, and yet they have a whole genre dedicated to the practice of trying to accurately depict it anyway.

9. Take full advantage of the internet and your local library. Start getting friendly with your local librarians if you got them. (Trust me, you want them on your side.) If you live in a major city, your library may also be connected to your city’s other libraries, creating the ability for you to request needed material from one area to yours. Don’t see a book you need? Ask a librarian and they might order a copy if it isn’t part of their interlibrary loan.

10. Make use of gray time. Yeah, you’re probably already working so much that you’re not sleeping. So when finding opportunity for writing seems impossible, look for where you might have what I call gray time. Think about all the places you’re in that suspended state of not work and not downtime, like when you’re sitting in a waiting room.

Rich people tend to use that odd thing called a—*squints at notes*—lunch break, but we poor people have our ways, too. One place I overlooked was my travel time, especially when the bus was (perpetually) late. And since I was on the outskirts of the city, my commute was often at least one hour. Add in the ride home, and that’s two hours of writing per day right there. I used to think that I needed that time for decompression, but once writing became part of my travel routine, I began to feel better than when I used to spend all that time with my forehead against the glass thinking about how much I hated my life.

11. Unleash your poor people skills. They call our labor “unskilled,” but I’d like to see them walk in off the street and successfully make eight special-order sandwiches at once during lunch rush while being simultaneously yelled at by three other customers.

All labor is skilled. And you, my friend, have skill. I know it because I’ve done the work you have. You have intense discipline and work ethic. I know because I’ve seen how you juggle multiple thankless jobs in a perpetual life-or-death financial spiral. You have wonderful imagination. I know because I, too, have spent more of my reality than not daydreaming about a better life. You have critical thinking skills. I know because you need to balance different job schedules, budget the food bill against the phone bill, and figure out how to convince the landlord to give you one more month.

You’ve got all this and more, but these are some of the most crucial skills for writing a novel. Hard work is needed for getting the first draft done. Imagination is needed to fill in the details of sensations, feelings, and empathy. Critical thinking is needed to solve plot problems during the editing process.

In short, you’re just as skilled and needed in the writing world as any rich person. Will your path to a novel be harder? I mean, yeah. Probably. But let’s face it: You’re already used to that. And perhaps more importantly, you’ve already proven time and again that you can handle it. You got this.

4 comments

  1. Great post, Milo! And much of your advice is good for ALL writers-rich, poor, and in-between. A lot of of it is about good time management, not just having the right space to write in.

  2. Kate Burcak

    This article is absolutely perfect. Really nice to see an article geared toward people who can’t reasonably afford writing retreats, extra bedrooms. “Use the shit in your life as fertilizer for your writing” – perfect. Using “grey time” also transformed my writing into a habit, that one is really critical!!

  3. Julia

    Agree with you, Kate. Great article. I was just about to raise my hand and mention libraries when we got to that bit. They are gold – free heating, seating, meeting, printing, research, connection, internet, expertise, friendliness – all that and more. Free computers and you can take your work home on a thumb drive.

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