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When it comes to offering writing advice, I’m very careful. My usual recommendation is to find out what works best for you, and do that, a lot.

Mind you, over the last few years, I’ve come across a lot of tips and opinions about writing. I’m not talking about ‘How to’ books (though I’ve read a fair amount of those), I’m talking about things I’ve seen online or heard people say at writing groups, conferences, or on blogs. 

A lot of those statements seem to make sense at first, but the more I thought about them, the more I came to realize that, while no doubt sincere and/or well-intended, much of that ‘wisdom’ was impractical, potentially damaging, or just plain wrong.

With that in mind, I thought I’d list some of the more common misconceptions I’ve heard, along with an explanation of why (in my opinion) they’re really not helpful at all.

Forget outlines, Stephen King doesn’t use them and he does okay.
So what if Stephen King doesn’t outline? The guy’s an amazing writer who’ll probably be remembered as a literary genius 100 years from now. What works for him isn’t important.  Does that mean I think folks should outline? Not at all, I just don’t think Stephen King’s approach to writing a novel should be used as a reason to avoid them.

Robert Heinlein never did rewrites.
I’ve heard this one quite a few times, and frankly, it’s not true. 

Now, some folks may be tempted to point to Mr. Heinlein’s famous Rules of Writing #3 You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.’ The trouble is, too many people read only the rule and not the explanation. They think it means you should just write the story, then send it out, but I would urge you to read the explanation he put with that rule, in which he says:

‘My editing process involves several passes of the entire novel, then a chapter-by-chapter review. I hammer away at each and every chapter for as long as it takes. I risk exhaustion with this process, but it's what works for me. But at some point you have say, "I'm done", and resist all further temptations to re-write any more.’ 

I added the bold and underline on ‘further,’ but it sure doesn’t sound like Mr. Heinlein thinks folks don’t need to bother with rewrites, does it?

If you want to be a better writer, write every day and you will improve.
This is the sort of advice that sounds good, but when you think about it, how is writing every day going to make you a better writer? More prolific?  Sure. A faster typist? Absolutely. But a better writer? I don’t see how. 

Surely, that only happens when you get an informed opinion telling you what you’re doing right and what needs improving (or in many cases adding), so you can work on those aspects. For that, you need outside help, whether it’s from a good critique group, a helpful editor, or even a mentor.

Today’s publishing world is a lottery.
I wonder how many of today’s published authors realize that all those long hours spent slogging away, honing their craft, polishing their story-telling technique, were unnecessary.  Aside from being a silly thing to say, I imagine most published authors would find it quite offensive.

Christopher Paolini self-published and it worked out well for him.
Yes, and back in the early 1950s, my old gran won the all-county spittoon championships three years running - and to this day holds the distance record (24’ 6”). Neither of those things are likely to make any difference to the success or failure of a self-published book today. So it worked out well for Christopher Paolini.  Good for him, but using that as justification for taking the self-pub route is as daft as someone who’s looking to be traditionally published saying, “That book at the top of the NY Times best-seller list was traditionally published and it worked out well for him/her.”

I’ll go over some more (in my opinion) dangerous myths, lies and half-truths about writing in a future post, but in the meantime, how about you?

What bad (or dangerously incomplete) advice have you heard people offer to writers?


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( 111 comments — Leave a comment )
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Apr. 21st, 2010 05:49 pm (UTC)
Actually, Jon, I disagree with some of this. Nothing has been more helpful to me than writing (or trying to write) every day, without worrying about whether what I'm doing is "good" or "bad". Of course, you must write attentively! But, given that you're paying attention to your writing, the more you do it, the better you get. And, in the end, you are the only person who can tell whether what you have set down comes close to matching what you intended to say. Which brings me to my second point:

One of my rules is to be extremely wary of criticism, and consider the source. Critique groups can be extremely damaging, and certainly aren't necessary for everyone! But that doesn't mean you can get away without "beta readers". It's been enormously helpful to me to have a few intelligent, interested readers who will ask questions when they don't understand something I've written or want to know more. Their questions have definitely improved my WIP. Once I have a complete draft, I also intend to show it to a couple of other friends who haven't seen it yet. They will have a better idea than I or my other readers whether the book hangs together and tells a coherent story.

But critique groups - I think you need to be very wary of people or groups who are always trying to find something they can criticize in other peoples' writing. It's taken me years to get enough confidence and joy in what I'm doing to tackle a large project, and I won't voluntarily subject myself to criticism for its own sake. Criticism is overrated! There: that's one of my rules! And, in the end, writing is a solitary craft.

Readers, however, cannot be praised too highly, and every writer needs them at some point in the process. And, if you are lucky enough to have good ones, as I do, you need to listen to them. Because, in the end, you are trying to tell a story, and the story only lives when other people hear it. If they aren't hearing it rightly, you do need to fix it. Good readers can tell you what you need to know to make your story better.


My rules: Be here now. When writing, focus on the story, not on what other people think of it or what you think of it.
When you feel ready, seek out a couple of intelligent, sympathetic readers who are interested in what you have to say. Listen to them!
But avoid critics.
Try to write every day, at the same time of day, even if only for a few minutes.
Keep writing, and keep reading.

And heaven knows I am no authority! This is just what's working for me. But I would strongly advise all new or young writers to be wary of criticism. It's very easy to freeze someone for years by critiquing them too harshly.
Apr. 21st, 2010 07:12 pm (UTC)
My objection to the 'Write every day' mantra is when that's all someone does. For example; let's say I always started my stories with a detailed, flowery description of the setting, or I never used contractions in dialogue. Without someone to point out the problem and nudge me in the right direction, I'd never know why my stories always got rejected. I'd become frustrated, disillusioned even. All because I had no outside input.

Of course, practise is good, and regular practise even better, but if all a writer does is practise the same bad habits every day, without any kind of informed feedback or guidance, I don't see that it can be of much help.

Mind you, I'm with you 100% on the criticism thing. I would put special emphasis on 'informed' feedback. There are plenty of folks out there who, frankly, have no business critiquing anyone's work.
Apr. 21st, 2010 05:56 pm (UTC)
Before I read the rest of the comments, I'll give the worst advice I ever got. It was in a how to write book. It detailed a bad habit it knew I had and how I had to break it if I ever wanted to be a writer.The habit, the author of this particular book, guessed correctly, was reading.
How did she know?
Anyway the book said if I ever wanted to have time to write, I'd need to stop reading. It sounded plausible. I almost killed myself destroying my reading habit before I, (breaking the rules) read another how to write book, that said to read and read and read.
I do think she had a point though. When you have a reading habit as bad as mine was, you do have to break it to some degree. But to kill it utterly is complete BS.
Apr. 21st, 2010 07:14 pm (UTC)

I've never heard that one myself, but I agree, telling people to stop reading must be about the worst advice you could ever give them - and this from a 'How to' book too.

I'm gobsmacked.
(no subject) - mary_j_59 - Apr. 22nd, 2010 05:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - theladywolf - Apr. 23rd, 2010 07:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 21st, 2010 06:04 pm (UTC)
Well, the Heinlein myth may have been started by old Bob himself. When he heard that Asimov did two versions of a short story, Heinlein asked him: "Why didn't you type it correctly the first time?"

Also, Paolini wasn't self-published. His family owned a traditional publisher, which is completely different. He was traditionally published by his family! LOL.
Apr. 21st, 2010 07:16 pm (UTC)
Lol :)

I know about Paolini, but he's often mentioned when folks want to talk up the potential of self-pubbing. I wonder how he feels about that.
Apr. 21st, 2010 07:25 pm (UTC)
Strewth, 80 comments already. Nice post, Jon. Look forward to teh follow-up(s).
Apr. 21st, 2010 07:27 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Michael :)
Apr. 21st, 2010 07:38 pm (UTC)
"If you want to be a better writer, write every day and you will improve.
This is the sort of advice that sounds good, but when you think about it, how is writing every day going to make you a better writer? More prolific? Sure. A faster typist? Absolutely. But a better writer? I don’t see how."

Okay, so technically you're right, but . . . it's a good habit to get into. How good of a writer are you going to be if you don't put your butt in the chair at your pc?

Apr. 21st, 2010 07:55 pm (UTC)
I know, but there needs to be more than just butt in chair, don't you think?
(no subject) - glynisj - Apr. 22nd, 2010 08:20 am (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 21st, 2010 08:29 pm (UTC)
'Reading books about writing doesn't do much good.'

Well, they certainly did me some good. Mind you, I left school at 16 with skin-of-your-teeth passing grades (including English), so I needed all the help I could get :)
(no subject) - rowyn - Apr. 23rd, 2010 02:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 21st, 2010 09:19 pm (UTC)
If you want to be a better writer, write every day and you will improve.
This is true.

You need outside influences such as feedback to improve the quality of writing.

However, the only way to build up the stamina to write on a regular basis is to write.
Apr. 21st, 2010 09:40 pm (UTC)
Re: If you want to be a better writer, write every day and you will improve.
I agree, but all too often, the 'writing every day' bit is cited as the main, if not the only, part of that equation, when the fact is, without those outside influences you mention, new (as in not sure what they're doing) writers won't get far at all if that's all they do.
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 21st, 2010 10:57 pm (UTC)
I couldn't agree more, Jenn, but sadly, a lot of folks in writing groups etc. (usually the not-yet-published ones) don't see it that way.

I don't think it's done with malicious intent, but it can still do damage.
Apr. 22nd, 2010 01:43 am (UTC)
I was kinda hoping the lottery ticket one had some truth to it . . . sure I don't buy lottery tickets, but one day I may get desperate and be willing to go that route. Alas, here you are telling me it is a sham.

Great Post!
Apr. 22nd, 2010 10:56 am (UTC)
Hehe, thanks Tracy. on the plus side, if you win the other lottery thing, you'll be having so much fun spending your winnings, you won't worry about writing :)
Apr. 22nd, 2010 02:51 am (UTC)
I agree with you on the write every day thing. It doesn't help unless you're doing something in addition to help you improve.

For better or worse, I'm pretty good at ignoring advice that doesn't work for me, so I haven't run across much damaging advice.

The closest I came was when I frequented a board where many people extolled the virtues of writing fast, bragged about how fast they wrote, and held regular weekend marathons (that I could barely handle now, much less back then). They kept saying that it didn't actually matter, but they acted like it did. It was really discouraging, but had the simple solution of not visiting that board any more.
Apr. 22nd, 2010 10:58 am (UTC)
You're right. It's a shame, but sometimes you just have to walk away. I wonder how many other good writers they put off.
Apr. 22nd, 2010 04:13 am (UTC)
I didn't know that about the rest of the Heinlein quote, and I've been going to genre oriented workshops and critique groups for 11 years, so I can't blame anybody else for not knowing it either.

I guess I just gave away my opinion about critique groups and workshops; yes, I do find them very useful, because I'm lousy at seeing the flaws in my own writing. Some of these have dysfunctional dynamics and are reallly just playgrounds for literary bullies, and the first one I joined turned into divorce therapy group, but I think a dedicated bunch of writers can help each other a lot. I even have a friend (whose further along the publishing curve than I) who I have read my query letters.

I read an article in Scientific America about how people mastered skills. To become a "master" of chess or music takes ten years, on average, of practice with informed instruction. Didn't I read somewhere that it takes about ten years to start getting novels published?

As for the slush pile being for losers, I believe the "New Yorker" is responsible for that. One of their editors said on national TV that they didn't bother reading their slush piles anymore and only bothered with established authors. Well, the "established authors" threw a fit, threatened an embargo of submissions, and the New Yorker backed down, at least publically.

I've read elsewhere that more and more publishers prefer to have agents read the slush piles for them, and slowly but surely the slush reading seems to be shifting towards the agents. You can just look at the Writer's Market and see how many have the "agented submissions only" mark next to their name.

I think the theory behind writing fast is to get past your conscious doubts and release your subconscious muse. I can think of a perfectionist friend or two who should force themselves to write faster instead of obsessing over every detail, because the perfectionism stops their writing. They never finish anything longer than a poem. And writing fast gives people an odjective measurement rather than a subjective one, which must be comforting to some people. And it is a helpful skill in the high octane world of romance writing.

We shouldn't deny the element of luck involved in getting published. What if the magazine editor only had room for another 1000 words of story and yours is 2000? What if you and a Big Name both submitted a story about clones; he obviously gets published because he's a better writer, just your bad luck that he submitted to the same magazine instead of another. What if the editor published a story like yours last month and doesn't want another?

As for contacts, I recall a Big Name Author in a class at a workshop looking at the table of contents of an anthology by a Big Name Editor and grunting. "He put all his friends in here." But the thing is, the Big Names have been around for years, they all know each other from parties, conventions, workshops, and award ceremonies. How can they not know each other? And it would be natural that the Big Names wrote most of the good stories; it's how they became the Big Names to begin with.
Apr. 22nd, 2010 11:22 am (UTC)
For query letters, I recommend taking advantage of Jodi Meadows' kind offer to evaluate them for people http://jmeadows.livejournal.com/tag/query%20project. She's a lovely lady. I'm sure you'll find her insightful comments and advice most helpful.

I found that Scientific America study interesting. Especially since Jim Hines' recent author survey showed that the average author took ten years to make a decent advance for a novel (http://www.jimchines.com/2010/03/survey-results).

I do agree that writing every day can help, but all too often, that advice gets thrown out there without the caveat of needing a decent outside input too, which is why I consider it a half-truth.

There's luck in publishing, sure, but it's not a lottery. If you can write well, you're more likely to get published than someone who can't.

As for anthologies, from my limited knowledge/viewpoint, I think most editors try to get at least one big name (as in, what the editors consider a 'big' name) on board. That makes perfect sense to me - this is a business after all. Like you, I've no problem if all the contributers are big names. The only time I raise an eyebrow is if the editors or the people responsible for choosing the content include their own work. It's their choice, of course, but it just doesn't seem right somehow.

Thanks for a great reply, Paul :)
(no subject) - paulwoodlin - Apr. 23rd, 2010 10:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 22nd, 2010 03:03 pm (UTC)
Well, a college professor once told me that because English wasn't my first language (Spanish is) I would never amount to anything if I tried writing. As you can see he was wrong!

Also I read a lot of people discouraging writers to self-publish. That is just so unfair. Now that I am teaching creative writing I go around, just like you are doing here, and destroy absurd myths.

Great post, Jon! :)
Apr. 22nd, 2010 06:44 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Heidi :)

That college professor sounds like a bit of a jerk. What business does he have telling folks they'll never amount to anything? Good for you, proving him wrong!

As for self-publishing, I'd never try to discourage anyone from taking that route, but that's not to say it's necessarily the same (or as good) as traditional publishing, but that's a never-ending argument for another time ;)
(no subject) - paulwoodlin - Apr. 23rd, 2010 10:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Apr. 23rd, 2010 11:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 22nd, 2010 03:41 pm (UTC)
Wow, you seem to have struck a nerve. Lots of folks leaving some excellent ideas/opinions on this topic. Me? I just stopped in because you said 'what a crock' and as I've said before - I just love that expression!

Ok, ok, for the record - I don't believe there is any hard fast 'rule' that work for everyone. It's all a crap shoot, you take what works for you and ignore the rest. Though I'm willing to accept the possibility that I'm completely wrong.
Apr. 22nd, 2010 06:45 pm (UTC)
'...take what works for you and ignore the rest'

Sounds like an excellent plan to me :)
Apr. 22nd, 2010 05:30 pm (UTC)
Forget outlines, Stephen King doesn’t use them and he does okay.

Agreed! haha
Apr. 22nd, 2010 06:40 pm (UTC)
If only :(
(no subject) - misha_mcg - Apr. 22nd, 2010 06:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Apr. 22nd, 2010 06:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
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