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The Truth About Writing Advice

Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash

I saw a tweet the other day that said: Ask 10 writers how to write, and you’ll get 13 different answers.

As much as that did produce a chuckle from me, it’s also the truth. In fact, that might be an understatement.

The amount of writing produced about writing is almost insane.

Write every day, inspiration is for amateurs. Have a set word-count goal. Treat it like a 9–5 job. Churn out content like a machine. You can’t edit a blank page. Plot every syllable.

Go with the flow, follow your muse. Pantsing is just as valid as plotting. It’s OK to write one great novel and then retire. Take 15 years to write a pamphlet, slow and steady wins the race. You do you.

Be a reclusive artiste.

Get out there in the real world.

Write what you know.

Don’t write about your real life, be creative.

This famous writer wrote first thing in the morning on a laptop, with a huge amount of caffeine at hand.

That famous writer wrote in the middle of the night by candlelight, with a quill, while listening to Gregorian chant and drinking absinthe.

It’s enough to make your head explode.

I’m sure most of us have seen such articles, and many of us (myself included) get sucked into reading every single one of them. Whether we’re new writers, established authors, thriving bestsellers, or somewhere in between those labels. We all want to know more about writing, how other writers do it, and how we can be better.

Sometimes, we read about writing whether or not we’re even writers at all — maybe we’re just fans of an author and interested in their process.

I think this obsession with reading about writing is a combination of 3 basic traits.

Writer’s Curiosity: How do others do it?

Writer’s Insecurity: Do I do it right? Is there a better way?

Human Voyeurism: The slightly illicit but delicious pleasure of spying on others.

I have this book that I loved so much as an audiobook I actually bought the paperback so I could underline things. It’s called, Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors by Sarah Stodola. Some of my favorite authors are covered; Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Margaret Atwood, Joan Didion, just to name a handful of those mentioned in the book.

The writers are grouped in the book by their type of process: “Nine-to-Fivers”, “Productive Procrastinators”, “Plotting Ahead”, and “Winging It” are just some of the section titles.

In it you can learn that Toni Morrison pried writing time from her tight schedule mostly in the predawn of her busy days as a single mom — but she didn’t believe in forcing the writing if it was reluctant.

David Foster Wallace intended to write every day in his writing room full of antique lamps and walls painted black, but he often didn’t maintain a consistent habit at all, devolving into TV watching instead of writing.

Edith Wharton felt torn between a need to keep to a habit, but also to break away from them; calling them both “necessary” and a “producer of old age.” Meaning that someone who won the Pulitzer Prize couldn’t even decide within herself the value of keeping to a particular writing habit, though she mostly did keep to a habit.

But here’s the thing about all these books and all these articles about writing.

They’re informative, interesting, even sometimes suggestive of techniques which will become your favorite habits in the future. I’m not saying you should stop reading them! Read them all. I know I will.

But none of them contain the secret of what makes a good, or even a successful writer (which are two fundamentally separate things, and not always contained within the same body). That secret cannot be written down and shared between writers because nobody knows it.

That’s the unspoken truth of writing advice. Nobody knows where your writing, or my writing, or their own writing will land, either initially or over time.

You can be a renowned bestseller and the winner of the first Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in your lifetime, and then utterly forgotten 25 years after you die (Sara Teasdale). Forgotten for no good reason, I might add.

You can be a secret genius whose work never sees the light of day in your own life, but whose brilliance lives forever (so far) after you die (Emily Dickinson anyone?).

You can have a brief glittering rush of adoration, but die a miserable alcoholic who scrapes by doctoring movie scripts — thinking yourself a washed-up has-been — only to later be considered the writer of what many now call the greatest American novel (F. Scott Fitzgerald).

And I guarantee you that no matter how much fame or adulation Shakespeare enjoyed in Elizabethan England he never foresaw becoming what he is to us now. He couldn’t possibly have imagined not only still being performed and enjoyed 400 years later, but also being treated with a level of reverence often reserved for scripture.

None of us know how the work we create will hit or miss, or when. We don’t know that for ourselves, and we don’t know it for each other. I can give you a list of authors I adore, some from hundreds of years ago, some from last month, but I cannot tell you how their work will be received by my neighbor or my cousin, or my cousin’s great-great-grandchildren.

Nobody can.

We may well all be in this together, but none of us know where we’re going ultimately. What we do as writers is the equivalent, however high tech our methods, of dropping a message in a bottle into the middle of the ocean. It always has been and always will be, and there is no amount of writing advice that alters that fundamental fact.

And the methods that work best for one, may be stifling to another. We may do the same thing, but I doubt any two of us do it exactly the same way.

Writers are nothing if not individuals.

So, should you sit down at a set time and bang out a set number of words every day?

Yes, if that works for you. Yes, if it makes you feel happy, productive, or accomplished. Yes, if you’re sure you’re stringing words together in a way that constitutes a valuable use of your time and not just marking off another day — like a prisoner scratching the passing of time into their cell wall.

Should you only write when the muse moves you?

Sure, if that’s what works best for you. If you wake up in the middle of the night with a phrase or an idea that will not let you sleep, go for it. If your preferred method involves neglecting to sleep, eat, or shower because you’re too busy having the words pour forth, that won’t kill you in short bursts so go ahead.

How can you come up with ideas?

Personally, I keep a list of ideas I have encountered, and random thoughts I intend to write about. However, as much as I cultivate and value that list, and intend to get to all of them, I will also sometimes just read a tweet, a quote, or an article, and boom there it is. Suddenly, there is a thing I can’t stop thinking about until I purge my thoughts about it.

So, make a list, don’t make a list. Make a list and ignore it half the time.

Whatever works for you.

If you need to write in complete silence, then do it.

If you need to have Vivaldi or Cardi B blaring, then do that.

If you need a cup of hot tea to get your creative juices flowing, make one.

If you have to scribble your thoughts down on the back of an envelope while on the bus, do it.

Even if you know ten people have already told the same basic story you want to tell, and probably better than you ever will, tell it anyway.

Tell it your way.

There are only a handful of original human stories anyway, and we all just keep retelling them like we’re the first.

And, moreover, there are only actually three tenants to which any writer really needs to adhere:

1) Read. Whatever your preferred genre, whatever your educational background (for many writers of yore their sole form of education was reading), whatever your aspirations, whatever time constraints may apply; read. Read until you see that words are a kind of magic in their own right, and then read some more.

2) Write. Just write. Do it. Don’t just think about writing, don’t just read about writing, don’t just plan to write. Do it and do it now.

3) You do you. Try everything, or at least anything you want to try, and figure out what works for you. Then do that. Do what works for you and let other people do what works for them. There may be ways that work better or worse for you, or me, or them, but there is no right or wrong. There is only mine, yours, theirs, and ours. And anything that gets a word on the page is a successful method.

Now go take a deep breath, ignore everything anyone has ever told you about writing, including me, and just write.

Ignore the powerlessness of the message in a bottle thing, and just write.

Write what you want, how you want, when you want.

But write.

Write because you want to. Write because you need to.

Write because wherever that message in a bottle goes ashore, it can’t go anywhere if you don’t fill it and toss it in to begin with.

Just write.

That’s the best advice there is.


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