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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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Apr. 21st, 2010 02:31 pm (UTC)
Some thoughts.

Chris Paolini didn't self publish in the way most other people think he did. His parents already ran a small press, had the experience in publishing and then chose to publish Eragon. Which then garnered attention and was bought by a larger house. It's REALLY skating the line to call it self publishing.

Second, I'm going to disagree with you on the point that you don't see how you'd be a better writer if you write every day. Come now, you are also a musician and you can't convince me you don't understand the value of practice on your own. Sure, if one spent all those practice hours under the watchful eye of a teacher/mentor, you'll get MORE out of the practice than you would if you do it in a room by yourself. But that hardly is a requirement to improve. I can, for example, learn to play a song by listening to an albumn over and over, and playing along note for note until I've got the whole thing down. I don't need an outside opinion to tell me every note I screwed up in the guitar solo. I can hear it with my own ears. Same is true for writing. Yes having external help will speed up the process, and informed opinion is like having a good music teacher help you through the tough arpeggios. But it's not necessary. You can make it on your own without help. (Why you wouldn't want to have help, that's a whole other question)

On the otherhand, if you don't actually write, you aren't going to get better at it. Just as if you don't suddenly become a concert pianist by sitting around talking and thinking about how you'd play the piano. You get better by doing.
Apr. 21st, 2010 02:57 pm (UTC)
good point re Eragon.

However, you get better at piano by practicing,
not simply running your fingers over the keys.

I've tinkled every day for years,
but haven't gotten any better at it.

Even if it is self-directed, writing regularly is only of help
if it is actual practice, actual exercise.

That's not to say you should stop writing every day,
only that no one should begin writing every day without understanding
that it is exercise, it is practice.
Apr. 21st, 2010 03:47 pm (UTC)
Writing with intention to write a story is practice. If you are writing with a purpose, with intention to improve your craft, to write in a conscious manner, you will improve. Could you improve faster with good, reliable feedback? Yes. Absolutely. But every story you write is practice for the NEXT story you write. I primarily object to Jon's contention that improvement requires outside input.

I'm concerned that in attempting to debunk one "myth", he's skating the line of pushing forth another one: that you need to be in a critique group.
Apr. 21st, 2010 03:57 pm (UTC)
I'm not saying it has to be a critique group, but unless your writing's already of a standard where editors and/or slush readers offer you a hint as to why you just missed the boat on your submission, surely you'd agree you need some form of outside input - whether that comes from a person or even a 'How to' book.

Otherwise how can you even tell if your 'improving' in the right direction?
Apr. 21st, 2010 04:44 pm (UTC)
Well, there are those who say that you get your feedback in the form of rejection letters and acceptances. That's all that matters. I think that's the old "School of Hard Knocks" method. It can work.

And a reasonable point can be made that, in the end, it's the ONLY feedback that actually matters. I can tell my critique partners anything I want about their stories, where I think it's good, where to improve, etc, but in the end, it's just opinion. (Albiet, I'd like to believe it qualifies as an informed one.) In reality, the only time my opinion matters, is when you are submitting to a project where I'm the editor, and I have some say over whether the story is accepted or rejected. Other than that...

Which isn't to say I do not value critique partners, or outside viewpoints. Personally, I use both. And I think that the whole writing gig is hard enough not to avail yourself of some allies on the path...if you can find trustworthy allies. I just think it's important to keep a healthy dose of skepticism when approaching people for feedback.
(no subject) - jongibbs - Apr. 21st, 2010 04:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 21st, 2010 04:02 pm (UTC)
He may have phrased it inelegantly.
I'm certain he meant only that it must have a feeback loop,
even if that's just reading it to one's self.
Apr. 21st, 2010 04:07 pm (UTC)
Inelegant? Moi? Inconcievable! :P
(no subject) - msstacy13 - Apr. 21st, 2010 04:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 21st, 2010 03:27 pm (UTC)
Fair points all, but my beef with the 'write every day' advice is that it's not going to get you where you want to go - let me insert a 'probably' in there before I go on.

Some folks might improve if that's all they did, but I think for most of us, that's not the case.

In my case, I'd written (almost) four seperate novels (first drafts anyway) before I decided I needed to stop fannying about and take some time to learn what the heck I was doing.

Much as I loved my novels' stories and characters, quality wise, there was little difference between the first and fourth effort. After many rewrites (each time applying what I'd learned), I've finally improved the first novel enough for someone to want to publish it - albeit only in e-book form. I can't speak for anyone else, but I know that wouldn't...couldn't have happened if all I'd done was write every day.

That said, you're absolutely right. We do need to practise those literary arpeggios, but if you're using a poor (or wrong) technique, you limit on your potential.
Apr. 21st, 2010 04:15 pm (UTC)
There are a lot of ways to practice writing. One of which is to sit down and write a story. In fact, EVERY TIME we sit down and write a story, it is practice for the next story we write.

One of the reasons you tend to hear the "write every X" advice coupled strongly with the advice of "start your writing career with short stories" is because it takes many repetitions to show the improvement, and by the nature of the short story, you can write a whole heck of a lot of them in the same amount of time it takes to write even one novel. And thereby you should start to notice improvement in them at a faster pace.

I bet though you couldn't see it at the time, there were improvements between the fourth novel and the first. Think about how many times you had to go over scales and arpeggios to get them right on an instrument when you started to learn to play. I can remember taking a week or more to get down pat some of the more obscure scales and arpeggios in keys that were more sharps than naturals. Writing is similar.

I think the problem with writing is that people conflate the art of storytelling with the physical act of writing words in coherent sentences. You may know how to write a darn good business letter, or a proper essay for school, but that isn't exactly the same thing as storytelling.

Bah, I think I'm beginning to meander off topic. I'll stop here.
Apr. 21st, 2010 04:17 pm (UTC)
'I think the problem with writing is that people conflate the art of storytelling with the physical act of writing words in coherent sentences.'

That was kind of my point :P
Apr. 23rd, 2010 02:31 pm (UTC)
Yes, I was going to quibble with that one, too. Outside criticism can be very helpful, but you can learn by watching and doing as well. Still, that "practice makes perfect" chestnut is not nearly as true as we'd all like it to be. If only!
Apr. 23rd, 2010 02:40 pm (UTC)
Perfection isn't all that it's cracked up to be.

In my opinion, the point of practice is not to make you perfect, but to make something "natural" to you. Like in martial arts, the goal is to practice a manuever over and over until it becomes second nature and you no longer have to consciously think about it. Or with music, the point is to practice enough that you don't have to think about the notes in the music, and can instead concentrate on the ephemeral part of the performance, namely the interpretation, the feeling and emotion you put into the performance.

I think that's the same with writing. Practice isn't to make you perfect, it's to free up your conscious mind to handle more advanced tasks within the storytelling process.
Apr. 23rd, 2010 02:58 pm (UTC)
Still, I'm sure you'd agree that for both music and martial arts, it's a heck of a lot harder to improve without the input and/or interaction of others more skilled than yourself.

I'd say the same goes for writing.
Apr. 23rd, 2010 03:10 pm (UTC)
Harder, yes. Impossible? No.

I'm not against people seeking out mentors and friends along the path to their goal. I'm only against the idea that you MUST have these to make a success.
Apr. 23rd, 2010 02:33 pm (UTC)
Yes, I was going to quibble with that one, too. Outside criticism can be very helpful, but you can learn by watching and doing as well. Still, that "practice makes perfect" chestnut is not nearly as true as we'd all like it to be. If only!

Things What I Wrote and Other Stuff

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



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