I’m not a person who tends to dispense a lot of advice. I can tell myself that this is because I’m so great at withholding judgement, refuse to believe I know better than others about what’s best for them, but if I’m being honest, it probably has more to do with minding my own business. I don’t want to be responsible for steering someone in a direction that turns out to be wrong for them. A lot of perfectly good advice can come back to bite the advice-giver in the ass.
So it’s a funny position to be in, working on this blog and pretending that I’m some kind of writing or publishing expert. So much of writing, and even getting published, is just feeling your way and learning by doing. No one took me by the hand when I decided to write a book and guided me on how to do it—I just sat and put pen to paper. Then I scratched up what I had written and tried to do better.
I’ve always been a big believer in learning by doing. Which is not to say I’ve never read any craft books or learned from them—I have. I’ve also learned more than I can say simply by reading poetry and fiction and deciding for myself what I love, and what I don’t.
Unfortunately, I already gave away the most important tip I would offer new writers in my earlier post, Dorothy Parker and the Vicious First Draft, which is simply that first drafts are supposed to suck. If you approach a first draft with an eye to perfection, you may never build the momentum necessary to write a book. This happens to me a lot on this blog. There’s a certain amount of overlap, so I try really hard not to repeat myself.
One thing I would like to say, even as we explore this topic on our blog: be wary of writing advice. Consider the source—is it coming from a writer whose is experienced, whose work you admire? And even then, does it make sense when applied to what you’re doing? If it’s advice about habits, does it work for you? If not, feel free to toss it.
To this end, I’m going to have a little fun here and use some space to question a few popular bits of writing advice:
Write what you know
I do agree that this is a great place to begin, but I hope it’s not where you end. Writing about things close to our own experience helps us to write authentically, but if we all had to limit ourselves to that, the literary world would be a lot smaller. Or we’d all have to run out and start fighting fires and throwing ourselves out of airplanes just to have something to write about.
I think part of what this is advocates is just doing good research. If you want to write about something unfamiliar, make sure you learn all you can first. But let’s not forget that we are blessed with imagination. Once you’re confident writing about what you know, take a chance. Write about something—or someone—you don’t. It’s the only way we can grow.
Write every day
Why? If writing every day helps you stay connected to your work and feel productive and all that great stuff, and you can actually carve out the time, then great. Write every day. But for me this advice sounds like a rule that’s completely arbitrary and won’t necessarily work for, or apply to, every writer. It’s a great way to make beginning writers doubt themselves if they can’t follow this mantra. Better advice, in my book: write whenever you can. Once a week, or multiple times a day, whatever works. Make the time.
Find your voice and stick with it
This is a tricky one. What is your voice? How do you know if you’ve found it? Well, I don’t know. I have a particular voice and style, but you’d never be able to pick my writing out of a lineup. I’ve developed it over many years of reading and writing literary fiction, and it has all the usual hallmarks of imagery and less expected word choices that are common to the genre, and I don’t think it stands out much from the rest of the literary fiction crowd.
I do think it’s possible to stress voice too much, over the other mechanics of writing. As a reader, I tend to be put off by any voice, particularly first person, that feels like it’s trying too hard to be witty and quick. I just want to read something from the heart. I also think that sometimes the best writing “voice” is one that the reader doesn’t even notice, one that doesn’t get in its own way. Instead of spending a lot of time trying to find your unique voice or trying to be clever, I suggest writing as truthfully and accurately as you can. If you do that, then maybe your voice will find you.
And don’t forget to break out of that voice from time to time. Try something different, mix it up. I tend to write in third person, but every once in a while I’ll hear an unusual first person voice in my head, and exploring that keeps me from getting bored. Hopefully, it makes me a better writer.
Show, don’t tell
This ever-circulating writer’s nugget has become one of my biggest pet peeves. Like all these maxims, its substance makes perfect sense. Don’t tell the reader that Sharon is nervous when you can give them a more immediate detail and say that Sharon was biting her nails. But it seems to me that good writing comes from a balance between showing and telling. The beauty of writing is that it allows us into the minds of the characters. It’s not a movie. It’s not limited to what we can show. Sometimes, in today’s culture, where I find writers using screenplay advice to craft their novels, I fear some of us forget this. If you aren’t occasionally telling the reader something that can’t be shown on a screen, you aren’t making the best use of your craft. A novel is not a screenplay.
And that’s the end of my ripping apart the rules.
I think the one main thing I’m hoping to get across here is that, if you are writer, you have to learn to trust your gut about your own writing. This is something I never really had to learn. I’ve just always known how to do it. But if trusting your instinct doesn’t come naturally to you, then my advice would be to find a way to slow down and really listen to it. Because the more you put yourself out into the writing world, the more conversation there will be around your work. Writers in groups you join and critique partners will all want to have their say. Their say will be valuable, but I think more for the things you’ll choose to reject than the advice you’ll adopt. It may take other people’s voices clamoring in your ear in order for you to find your own. But let your own be the deepest, the most resonant. If I fail at something as a writer, I want that failure to be of my own making.