Thoughts on… Writing Advice [by Jonas David]

If you’ve ever been on the internet, or in a bookstore, or stood within earshot of a writer, you are probably aware that there is an overwhelming glut of writing advice coming at you from all directions.

Sometimes this advice comes from famous authors, or editors, or journalists, or writers you’ve never heard of, or even people who don’t seem to be authors of anything other than ‘how to write’ books. How can you possibly know what advice to take?

Let’s look at six of the most common and simple bits of advice flying around out there and see whether they seem like rules to follow, or not:

Start with an outline/synopsis

How many times have you heard it? Before you start your novel, you need to know the beginning, middle, and end, and know every character arc and story beat. Some people even advise having each individual chapter planned, all before you type the first bit of prose.

This one piece of advice single-handedly held me back for years. Because, at first glance it makes perfect sense, and is perfectly logical. If you’re going to build a house, you need a blueprint. You need a plan. You can’t just–gasp!–make things up! I used to look down on ‘pantsers’ as being completely insane gamblers who rolled the dice every time they wrote, just hoping it would turn out.

Then, I tried the crazy ‘just go for it’ method, and my life as a writer truly began.

Before, I used to expend all my creative energy forcing out a plan. By the time I finally managed to outline a novel, though, I found I had zero interest left in actually writing the thing. I felt I’d already created the story, and writing it would be an act of copying, with no surprises. So I was left with outlines for novels I had no more interest in writing!

Once I gave myself permission to start without any plan at all, I became a much more productive writer.

But am I advising you that you should never outline? Of course not. This experience is only my own. Outlining obviously works for a heck of a lot of people, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many out there advising you to do it. What I am saying is that you should not take anyone’s writing advice as absolute. Each method you encounter is a tool that may or may not work for you. What you should do is try all of them, and see which ones fit nicely in your hand, and which ones hold you back.

And… even if you have already found what works for you, try a different method once in a while anyway!

After being a ‘pantser’ for most of my writing life, I found I was having serious trouble with some longform nonfiction I was writing. I decided to try outlining for the first time in many years, and guess what? Outlining works really great for me when I’m writing nonfiction. Even listening to my own writing advice was holding me back!

Always be reading

If you want to be a big writer, you gotta be a big reader. Stephen King has famously said that “If you don’t have the time to read, then you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” This is hard for me to disagree with. I know personally my skill at writing has improved drastically based on the quality and number of books I read. Books are also an infinite fountain of ideas. If you ever are lacking inspiration, just read something new!

But I have found that if I am reading too much, I just don’t write at all. I start way too many projects and don’t finish them because I keep getting distracted by new ideas. Reading is great for lighting the spark, but once you’ve got a project underway having new sparks constantly flashing can definitely be a distraction. I can’t count how many times I’ve been going strong on a new creation, then suddenly I’m blindsided by a stunning book that I just have to try and emulate, and my current story gets completely left behind.

It’s also worth noting that not everyone has copious loads of free time, and if you have to pick between reading or writing in your one spare hour per day, maybe you should pick writing?

Write every day

It’s important to build habits, and it is true that the more you write: the more you write. It can be an amazing feedback loop! But placing too much importance on the act of writing when you don’t actually have anything you want to create, might be putting the cart before the horse. I am reminded of some writers who, in order to meet their NaNoWriMo goals, will write hundreds of words of nonsense, or simply open the nearest novel and start copying pages. In my opinion, there is a difference between writing and simply typing words.

One thing you can certainly do every day is think about writing. Think about the story you have in mind. Think about what happens next. Think about how it ends. Think about what the characters might be thinking about. Think about the nearby landscape, the sights and smells and sounds. Keep the world of your book constantly alive in your mind, and even if you aren’t writing every day, if you are thinking about writing every day, eventually you won’t be able to keep the words in.

Write what you know

If this was rephrased to “write what you’re passionate about” then I could agree with it wholeheartedly. But limiting yourself to things you’re familiar with is quite a sad box to put yourself in! I truly enjoyed the hours I’ve spent reading about crows and pigeons and parasitic wasps for certain things I’ve written. I knew very little about those subjects when I started, I was just interested in them.

However, there is something to be said for using your own experiences and feelings in your writing. Each feeling you’ve felt is a tool you can use in a story, and each experience can enable you to describe such scenarios genuinely. But don’t limit yourself to writing only about things you’ve done! The feeling of jumping off a diving board, for example, can be extrapolated into the feeling of jumping out of a plane, even if you’ve never really done it.

Set a deadline

Deadlines can be very powerful, but for me they only work if they are real and reasonable. If I set a deadline to, say, finish my novel by the end of the year, the only thing that happens if I let that deadline pass by is that I feel bad about myself. And as the deadline gets closer and closer, and it seems less and less likely I’ll make it, I start to think “what’s the point? I’ll never get it done in time!” and stop writing completely. Putting all the importance on the deadline makes me forget that there is way more reason to write the novel than simply to have it done by an arbitrary date!

Real deadlines, though, often fuel me to write quicker. If there is a contest I want to enter, then I can get energy to meet the entry deadline, or if my writing group expects me to share something, that can be fuel to get something done in time.

Like all these bits of advice, this should be something you experiment with to find out what works for you, personally. Try writing with a strict deadline. Or, if you always have deadlines, try writing without one. See what happens. You may be surprised!

Go to school

Get an MFA. Take a creative writing course. Go to writer’s retreat… Is all of this necessary? Today’s job market and economy has conditioned us to believe that passion, talent, and experience are all useless when compared with the power of a degree. If you don’t have a certificate that says you can write, why even bother?

We bother because we can’t always know what our passions will be when we’re young. You might get a computer science degree, then later realize you have no passion for it and only want to write. You might be like me and never go to university for anything. With lots of practice and determination, you can get good at anything, degree or no. What’s more important than training is passion, curiosity, patience, and willingness to learn new things.

But, even if a degree is not necessary, it can definitely be useful. Although I never went to university, I did take a technical writing course. And only a month after graduating it landed me a job. But one should still not look at a degree as a magic pill to give you instant success.

So, should I take any advice?

In the end, there are as many ways to write as there are writers, but there are definitely methods and advice that apply to a lot of people.

My advice is to try everything, and see what works for you. There’s no harm in it, and it doesn’t cost anything in most cases. Try writing every day and see what happens, or if you already do that, try stopping for a week. Try reading a book you’d never consider otherwise, or take a break from reading completely and only think about writing. The one key to growth and improvement is to embrace change, and to be open to new ideas.

So keep trying new things! You never know what new tool you’ll find that will completely change the shape of your writing world.

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