How to Avoid Terrible Writing Advice
As writers, we often find ourselves taking advice from rather terrible sources. Teachers, friends, and even online posts like these, are chock full of bad advice which can not only kill a writer’s dream, but keep them from becoming the writer that they want to be. To be fully honest and frank, the real reason that most of us give up on our dream is because we look in the wrong places for advice.
Listening to Bad Advice
Everyone who had taken a high school or even a college writing class likely knows about the terrible analysis that we were forced into by our teachers. It was like they had given us a metaphorical hammer and set us to work breaking apart a beautiful monument. Once it was lying, broken and in pieces, we were asked to look upon it and see the pieces that made up its greatness. But breaking something down is not the same as building something back up. But most teachers expect this from their students. They think that showing us how to break things down will teach us to then use that same hammer and rubble to create a monument of equivocal beauty and wonder.
This idea fails and the process of creating is very different than analyzing a completed work. In my experience, looking at a book and taking apart the story makes the writer look extremely smart. This in turn makes the idea of creating something as good such a daunting task that I set myself up to fail.
All that being said, who should you turn to instead. Look for writing advice given by professionals who have published works in your genre. Money is the great validator of both talent and accomplishment. Most literary people, who teach at universities, have not had successful careers as published authors and as such, are not the best people to go to for advice. It is rather astonishing how easy it is to find good quality lessons from authors who are happy to share their tips and tricks which have brought them so much success.
Five Worse Pieces of Advice
1) The only way: If someone starts off by stating that their idea, philosophy, or writing technique is “the only way to…” then they are most likely wrong. There is not only one way, in fact there is no right way. It means there is no right way to tell your story. This is true because there are as many ways to write your story as there are people who want to tell them. No book is the same, no process is the same. There is not only one way for a writer to work.
2) Market oriented fiction is best: Writing for the market not only is a bad idea, but it’s a good way to kill your motivation and chances of actually getting published. For me, this is the basic equivalent of writing fan fiction. No one wants to read a knock of a story that doesn’t have anything original or makes the reader feel like they have read it before. This does not mean that if what you are writing happens to be what is hot or selling in the market that you should change and write something else.
3) Change your style: Writing differently because someone told you you should be like some other creator is both creative killing and voice killing. The reason people will want to read your work is because you made it. Your voice is important and as Neil Gaiman stated, make good art and do only what you can do. Don’t listen to people who tell you to write differently and change your work to something that does not reflect your own style.
4) Outlines are Mandatory: Outlining is a spectrum. One side does not believe in outlining and the other feels that an outline is absolutely necessary in order to create a novel. Neither is wrong and neither is completely correct. Despite the fact that most writers place themselves in one camp or another, outlining is more of a spectrum. Writers find themselves leaning towards one side or another, but ends up both writing into the dark and sometimes they outline.
5) Avoid Rewriting: There is a minority of writers, both professional and aspiring, that do not believe you should revise except to editorial demand. Dean Wesley Smith, a writer I both respect and like, falls in this camp. He had decades of experience and has made a living as a bestselling writer. His opinion is that rewriting only changes your work and it destroys the work created by your creative voice. Although he has proven that this form of creating has worked for him, I do not subscribe to this point of view. Neither do most successful authors.
Despite disagreeing with the idea that rewriting should be avoided as much as possible, there is a rather valid and concerning point to Smiths argument. How do you draw the line between improving your work and simply changing it. Revision allows you to improve upon the flaws of your first draft and create the work of art you truly set out to create. “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” –Leonardo da Vinci. There comes a time when you have to put down your book and move on. As writers, we are constantly learning and growing. If we ever hope to make a living as working authors, books must be finished and turned in. They will never be perfect, but that does not mean that the first draft is a clear representation of our current skill.
Revision makes sense. We can always find better words, include more complete ideas, and mold our story to deliver the message we intended to make. Jim Butcher gave this wonderful analogy. Writing is the art of delivering ideas from the authors head to the writers. This is done through words. He then related the words to a pipe which moves water. The pipe does not need to be made of gold, it only has to carry water from one place to another without leaking. A book works in the same way. Your words and sentences don’t need to be made of gold, they just have to get the story from your head to the readers head without any leaks.
Worst Advice: Not Developing Your Skill
Perhaps the greatest pitfall of any new writer is the idea that you are or you are not, or in other words, that you start out good enough to be published. Writing, like any skill, needs to be developed over time. You are NOT going to sit down and write a perfect novel in one draft. I am not arguing that this isn’t possible. There are always those people that defy all odds, do things that astonish the masses, and create art that should be admired. But these people are an exception to the rule. We are not all the writer equivalent of a Mozart or Bach. Most people need to write consistently over the course of time to become good.
It’s stated that in order to become a master of an art, you must spend 10,000 hours of practice. Breaking this number down to a more understandable figure, it takes anywhere from 6-10 years to get great at something you want to do. The more you practice, the better you become. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that a good majority of authors, especially bestselling authors who consistently publish good books, had a hard time breaking into the industry.
I am particularly interested in science fiction and fantasy, specifically epic fantasy and classic sci-fi. Because of this interest, I have followed several authors who write specifically in these genres and will use their experience as my examples. Jim Butcher said it took him 9 years to break in. Brandon Sanderson wrote 14 novels before breaking in, a feat which took him about a decade to complete. Patrick Rothfuss worked on his debut novel The Name of the Wind for 14 years before getting published. These are just three examples and I know there are many more.
It is not a secret to anyone who has looked into the publishing industry that agents and editors will often reject a book, novel, short story, ect. After a few short pages. This can often seem frustrating so someone who is being rejected and they might wonder how someone could tell that their book will not be any good. Trained professionals can easily tell the difference between someone who has trained and improved their art.
Hundreds to perhaps thousands of submissions are sent in forming slush piles that bog down agents and editors who are searching for new authors who have good stories to tell. You have to be good, better than the rest of the newbies, and you can only get this way by practicing your craft. If you are not writing, you are not getting better.
I’m sure most aspiring writers dream of one day becoming a best-selling author, thinking you can make it big without putting in the work will probably leave you disappointed.
B. I. C. H. O. K.
Remember, to take all advice with a grain of salt. But there is no advice, formula, tool, ect. That will replace B.I.C.H.O.K (But In Chair, Hand On Keyboard.) If you want to be a writer, write. There is no substitute for that simple fact. Mind blowing, I know, but it’s the hardest part of being a writer. A little ironic, don’t you think. Go out and write!