Best and worst: writing advice

Today we’re doing best/worst writing advice you’ve seen or heard. Be sure to sound off in the comments with yours.

My least favorite is write every day. This is so often repeated it’s taken on the tone of a rule more than advice, and always with the implication that if you don’t, you are not a real writer. But seriously, all you bossypantses who want to tell me how to run my schedule need to step back. I’m a very good project manager, thank you very much. I’ve got this. And if I want to take Christmas off and spend it with my family, that is okay.

Of course this advice applied to any other profession would sound absurd. You wouldn’t tell a dental hygienist that she’s not a real dental hygienist just because she took a day off. But the undertone here is clear: not only must you write every day, but you must want to write every day. It must be unbearable for you to not write. Only then are you a true artiste.

Which is nonsense. Because not only have we got lives and things that come up and sometimes the flu, and not only are we grownups who can figure out our own work schedules, but for some of us, writing every day is creatively counterproductive. If that’s not the case for you, I’m happy for you, but don’t be all smug about how the way it is for you should be the way it is for everyone. Personally, I can get burned out. Sometimes walking away for a couple of days to recharge my batteries is the best thing for me and for whatever I’m writing.

It all comes down to letting your brain work they way it works, rather than insisting it work the way someone told you it’s supposed to work, or the way you’ve heard it works for a writer you admire.

My favorite common writing advice: write books you want to read. This one is simple to the point of seeming obvious, but I hear people worry over it all the time. Sure, they might like to read popcorn when they’re feeling fried at the end of a long day, and they might find popcorn more fun, but shouldn’t they be writing broccoli? Isn’t broccoli a healthier, more worthy goal? Or maybe they really like broccoli, but they’re concerned about how few other people like broccoli. Wouldn’t popcorn sell better? If they want to sell things to people, and the people want popcorn, wouldn’t writing popcorn be a better idea?

Look, I’m not telling anyone else how to write, because I just got done saying that bossiness is bad. But speaking as an avid reader, when I buy your books, I feel like I can tell if your heart was really in the story or not. And if you aren’t enthusiastic about it, chances are I won’t be either.

And I like “write the books you want to read” much better than its cousin write what you know. I’m not sure anyone who writes fantasy likes that one, but I think it’s especially a problem for those of us whose stories include elements of horror. It’s not so much that I don’t want to write about the things I know, as that I don’t want to know the things I write about.

Okay, now you.

20 words on the street

  1. “Write every day” has been really helpful to me (ducks). Also the advice always to stop in the middle of something so you know where to start immediately the next time.

    Not useful: the suggestion to simply write and not revise until you’re finished.

    • I think if it works for you that’s awesome and you should do it! Some people just deliver that one so sanctimoniously it grates on me. :)

      I think the stopping in the middle thing would be useful, but it would drive me so completely bonkers and result in my losing so much sleep that it would probably be bad for me anyway.

        • And incidentally, I think you writing every day is a fantastic idea, purely because it benefits me. :) I hope you won’t beat me up for saying this (although I think we’ve covered this ground before), but I am supremely indifferent to Richard Armitage, except as relates to Thorin or maybe Mr. Thornton or certainly Richard III. But I read your blog every single day, because I enjoy your writing so much. I’m pretty sure I’d read you talking about anything short of, like, poo or something. (I don’t know, maybe if it was a really good poo story.)

  2. IMO most of this “advice” is clickbait ~ I see links to it all over my writing groups. And the advice sucks, as you say. It’s the same old recycled poop we’ve heard since our first writing class in college. But every great once in a while you stumble onto a gold nugget, which I have and am just about to put on my blog! :)

    On the “write what you know” thingie… I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because of the dragon stuff I’ve started under my nym. Obviously there’d be no Star Trek, IDOJ, or Dracula if writers stuck to that advice. So, I’m thinking not to take it er literally, but more along the lines of wander only those emotional landscapes you have a handle on. Forex, if you’ve never felt wrenching loss, maybe you shouldn’t attempt a character whose motivation is driven by the death of a loved one because it’s doubtful you’ll get the nuances right and readers will know.

    • I agree that write what you know isn’t meant to be taken literally, but I still don’t love it when we’re speaking of it in terms of emotional experiences and all that jazz. Some of my fictional fear landscapes are not anyplace I want to go in real life, not in terms of the specific monster, but in terms of the fear/loss/tragedy/awfulness that monster represents. I don’t think writing about things I worry about at 2AM, but have never actually gone through, really counts as writing what I know. But a lot of times it’s those 2AM things that make my best monsters, and result in my best writing.

    • I never heard the term “clickbait,” but I knew exactly what you meant, and it’s nice that there is a word for it.

      I think we all want to believe that the Internet has everything, somewhere, but I think maybe that’s not quite true. You can find a lot by digging, eventually, but the layer of elementary fluff is quite thick. Not that I am not sometimes looking for, and quite satisfied with, the elementary fluff. Except for sometimes.

  3. I’ll give this a shot. I’m sure that, academically speaking, I am the least qualified of us all, but I always liked the advice to “kill your darlings.” (Which is very appropriate advice for me.)
    I was never sure exactly what it meant, but I take it to mean, mostly, that sometimes the particularly clever turn of phrase can only exist in the original flow of writing, which often gets lost during editing.
    Either that, or this is a warning to be careful of insinuating our own egos into what we write.
    Either way, good advice, I thought.

  4. Wonderful post, covering some of my own thoughts, and doing it in a really clever way. I’m so glad I found this blog. I do write most days, but NOT if it doesn’t suit me, or other things come up, or I’m tired and don’t have a single functioning gray cell left to use during the process. And I absolutely agree with Servetus on writing without revising until the end. I am simply not able to do that. I read my previous day’s work before I start each morning, and I can guarantee you, there is at least some preliminary revising and editing that occurs before I can allow myself to proceed. It’s how my brain functions, and after all these years, I’ve learned to work with that, no matter the issue at hand. Great post, and comments, as well.

    • Thanks for dropping in, Marcia, and I’m looking forward to reading Wake-Robin Ridge! I saw it on your site after our Scrivener exchange this morning, and went and bought it because ghost stories are right up my alley. :) (Extra points for being set in North Carolina!)

      • Thank you so much, Jen, but I do need to warn you that I always describe this book as “romantic suspense with a touch of spooky.” It’s not primarily a ghost story–though there is definitely a nasty haunting involved. But the heart of the book consists of two different love stories, 50 years apart, yet connected in several ways. Hope that won’t disappoint you. I like to think it’s a decent effort for a first novel, and the reviews make me happy, so far. I’ll be really interested in what you think. (BTW, even though I’m a Florida native/resident, my heart is in those mountains. Hope it shows in the book.) :) Thanks again.

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