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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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Comments

jtglover
Apr. 21st, 2010 01:41 pm (UTC)
Just the basis for the Paolini thing, I guess, but --

"New York is an insidious, incestuous place where you need to know someone to get published. The slush pile is for losers, and self-publishing is for winners."

So many, many things wrong with that statement, and yet it gets circulated many places on a regular basis.


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.

Disagree, at least to some extent. By writing regularly and in an uninformed way, one might pick up bad habits, but if one's reading at the same time--reading a variety of works by different authors--I think that at least some of the lessons you're getting from the reading are likely filter through into the writing. (And Lord knows, there are plenty of bad editors, myopic critique groups, and misinformed mentors out there. )
jtglover
Apr. 21st, 2010 01:41 pm (UTC)
ETA
Thanks for the post. Always good to re-examine the worth of old chestnuts.
jongibbs
Apr. 21st, 2010 01:51 pm (UTC)
I think there's a lot of cynicism about the publishing world. Whether it's deserved or not, and how much of it comes from those who never make it there, I couldn't say, but I've heard a surprising amount of would-be authors say that it's all about luck.

As to your other, I quite agree. Reading from the market in which you hope to get published makes perfect sense to me, but I've rarely heard that advice included with the write every day mantra.

By the way, I'm not saying writing regularly doesn't make a difference, but I think there are other things (like reading) which need to be taking place at the same time for it help a lot.
jtglover
Apr. 21st, 2010 01:55 pm (UTC)
I've heard a surprising amount of would-be authors say that it's all about luck.

Ditto. And I've heard enough anecdotes about same to believe it.

but I think there are other things (like reading) which need to be taking place at the same time for it help a lot.

Gotcha. Thoughtful reflection about writing--whether in a critique group or while reading novels--has gotta be there.
jongibbs
Apr. 21st, 2010 02:02 pm (UTC)
Lol, I don't know about thoughtful, but my crit group certainly makes it painful :)
msstacy13
Apr. 21st, 2010 02:20 pm (UTC)
Ah, but there's the thing--simply writing something every day will not make you better at it. There has to be something that allows the writing to evolve, that reveals what you're doing wrong. Without that, you're only flirting with carpel tunnel syndrome for no good reason.
jtglover
Apr. 21st, 2010 02:41 pm (UTC)
In principal, I agree. In practice, however, I encounter far, far more people who write just a little bit every once in a while -- which I think is less likely to lead to improving your skills than the practice of regular writing.
msstacy13
Apr. 21st, 2010 03:10 pm (UTC)
I must admit also that if a person writes every day,
they will soon realize whether or not they actually want to...

And with my highly unpublished and critically unacclaimed novel,
I did write on 48 of 49 consecutive days...

You are more likely to actually write something
if you are actually writing something...

Things What I Wrote and Other Stuff

No longer in print but there are still some copies floating around out there


No longer in print but there are still some copies floating around out there















 











THE MEAGER PUDDLE OF LIMELIGHT AWARDS


Books by my writer friends - compressed

NJ Writing groups - compressed

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