Doing You: Navigating the Sea of Writing Advice

A red tulip standing alone in a sea of daffodils. Text: Something for Sunday; August 4, 2019; Doing YouIf you’re a writer, you’ve no doubt been deluged with writing advice. Not all of it is helpful. Not long ago, Danielle Dutton wrote a column for LitHub describing advice she called “terrible,” even though it all came from famous published authors. Her list ranges from the picayune (“Don’t use semicolons” – Kurt Vonnegut) to the vague (“Write only when you have something to say” – David Hare) to the positively misanthropic (“Don’t have children” – Richard Ford.) More recently, Jonathan Franzen posted his list writing tips that annoyed so many people it triggered an avalanche of counter-lists on Twitter.

Can we find advice that’s actually useful? Jeff Somers, who wrote a book expressing his personal view of this issue (Writing Without Rules), addressed one specific example: Do you really need to write every day? Maybe that’s not the best way to think of it. Read his comments (and watch the 2-minute video of him discussing it, with his cat). I like how he gives us a different way to think about this piece of advice, instead of throwing it out all together. Jami Gold took up the same recommendation in her blog, and included the popular phrase “You do you” as part of her blog title. Like Jeff Somers, she concluded that each of us needs to find our own balance between writing and all the rest of life. More broadly, Joe Fassler wrote his own article for LitHub abstracting seven key principles from the conversations he had with 150 successful writers. I’m happy to say there’s nothing here about semicolons and no bans on having children. I find this list more useful than the others I’ve read. It’s interesting that it ends with the line, “Find the joy, and when you do, there are no rules.”

Here, then, is my list of sure-fire, guaranteed, solid gold tips for writers.

  • If reading writing advice makes you anxious or unsure of your ability to succeed, stop reading it. Yes, right now. Yes, that includes this list!
  • If you do read advice and something seems like it might work for you, give it a try. Remember, though, that it’s just a date, not a marriage. Give it a shot and see if it works. If not, kick it to the curb and don’t look back.
  • If you see a suggestion that sounds completely outlandish but doesn’t offer any actual harm, you can give that a try as well. Using Comic Sans for editing? Sure, why not? Talking out my scenes with a plush toy? What’s the worst that could happen? Go ahead and step out of your comfort zone, if you feel like it. It’s still not a commitment. You can keep it, ditch it, or modify it, depending on how it works for you.
  • Looking at the sea of advice, I notice one thing that shows up again and again: There are no rules. There are suggestions that can be adapted or discarded as needed, but no hard and fast rules. By all means, feel free to try something that works for others, but never assume the same thing will (or should) work for you. Play with the process until something clicks. How you write is not beholden to how anyone else in the universe writes.
  • When anyone tells you that a writer must do this or that, quote W. Somerset Maugham at them:"There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." ~W. Somerset Maugham

The overall rule: You do you.

What techniques have you tried in your writing life? What works for you?

5 thoughts on “Doing You: Navigating the Sea of Writing Advice

  1. I’ve read several lists of rules for writers, but I never stopped to think why I paid no heed. The reason was, I felt I was listening to someone who wouldn’t look at me. Today, while reading your post, I found out that I’m not ever likely to heed advice about writing. Most advice is aimed at people who want to sell their work. I’m content to earn no money by writing, and more importantly, I don’t ever expect to get money for not writing (blackmail). That said, I liked your list. It’s the most practical thing I’ve ever read on the subject. Way to go, Celia!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So true. When I first started, I spewed out my story as quickly as I could, per advice, and then went back to revise it. It totally sucked and I couldn’t fix it — it needed a total rewrite. Now, I write slowly and thoughtfully. On the other hand, per advice, I got up early to write, even though I’m a night owl. This still works best for me. I can totally focus on my writing before all the craziness of the day distracts me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Back on the Horse: Returning to Writing | Word Wacker

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