Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

The Danger of Following Advice About How to Write (Or: Advice from Nobel laureates r teh suk)

Because writers love to write, there is no shortage of things that have been written about writing. Add the countless interviews with famous writers, where one writer talks to another writer about writing, and pretty much everything there is to know about how to write has been written. That’s a good thing.

It’s also a bad thing.

Or, more accurately, it can be a very bad thing when writers read just enough about writing to “become dangerous.” Particularly when a new, inexperienced, and/or unpublished writer is faced with advice from someone more experienced than she is; i.e., pretty much everyone. What I advise doing with that advice is precisely what I advise doing with regard to advice you get from other writers in the same situation in On Critiques and Writing Advice (Or: Editing on teh interwebs r teh suk). Whether the advice comes from a Nobel Laureate, Pulitzer Prizewinner, ten-time NYT Bestselling Author, or some schmuck like me, what you should do with that advice remains the same:

You should be willing to consider everything, but don’t get bullied into anything. If you get advice that improves your writing, it was good advice. If not, disregard it.

Many of you may respond to this by saying something along the lines of 

 

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The answer is, yes. I am absolutely serious. Which leads to the follow-up inquiry:

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Or, more accurately, WTF makes me think I can ignore the advice of someone who won the Nobel or the Pulitzer or sold a bagillion books? Let alone tell you to listen to me instead of them.

God, I must be an arrogant prick.

Except, that’s not really what I’m saying. I am certainly not saying to ignore the advice. That’s where the you should be willing to consider everything part comes into play. You should never ignore a piece of writing advice from anyone. The point here, and it cannot be overstated, is that you can’t write better just by doing something someone tells you to. Ever. You have to figure out how the advice offered fits with your writing. Regardless of who’s giving the advice, it might not work for you.

Which brings us back to me being an arrogant prick. It’s also where you can use the tsunami of advice about writing to your advantage. You see, there are few things, if any, that writers agree on.

I have absolutely no problem ignoring Steven King’s advice to sit down and write because outlining is a waste of time. The fact that E. L. Doctorow seems to agree with him doesn’t sway me, either. While they’re both fine writers, I’ve tried writing with and without an outline. I write better with one. So King and Doctorow can kiss my lily-white ass.

Arrogant? Not really. If there was a general consensus among all the great writers that outlining hampered storytelling, I’d be inclined to force myself to write without one, figuring I’d eventually get their point. But there isn’t. A quick internet search says that, among others, the list of people who completely disagree with Steve end E.L., include: Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, James Salter, Henry Miller, J.K. Rowling, William Faulkner, John Grisham, John Irving, Margaret Atwood, Hillary Mantel, and what appears to be a majority of renowned writers. All three of last year’s Pulitzer finalists outline, too. 

So it’s not that outlining does or doesn’t work. Steven King thinks he writes better without one. More power to him. John Irving thinks he writes better with one. Who am I (or who is E. L. Doctorow) to tell him he’s wrong? And nobody, other than me, is in a position to tell me whether I write better with or without one. 

It’s tempting to look at a phenomenally successful novelist and try to emulate her process as much as possible. The problem is, while there are valuable things to learn from that process, not all of it may add value to your writing.

Writing habits are a good case in point. Some writers advise that you must write first thing in the morning. Others say you must require yourself to write a certain number of words per day. Still others advise that your brain is at its peak in the late morning and early afternoon. One famous writer says that, until the story is completed, you must dedicate nearly every waking hour to it’s completion. Another is more concerned with having a firm cutoff, so your writing does not get stale. E. B. White likened writing to surfing, and advised waiting for inspiration to arrive then riding it like a wave. None of them are wrong. None of them are right, either. Except with respect to themselves and their own habits.

I’m reasonably certain that advice from successful writers about writing habits is advice for overcoming those particular writers’ weaknesses. If you’re prone to procrastination or easily distracted, committing yourself to sit down and write for a set number of hours first thing in the morning makes sense. It worked for Earnest Hemingway, anyway. If you tend to obsess about minutiae to the point it interferes with getting a reasonable amount of words out, setting a minimum word count will compensate for that. I suffer from writer’s diarrhea, not writer’s block, and I could happily write seven or ten hours at a time. But I’ve also found, particularly with humor and satire, my writing starts getting stale after four. The key for me is a firm cutoff, and it has nothing to do with the number of words I’ve written. All of those essays and interviews about author habits are interesting, but they don’t change what my individual strengths and, more importantly, weaknesses are.

A friend from writers boards loves to quote Heinlein’s Rules of Writing. The most famous (infamous) of which preaches:

 You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order

Contrast that with Earnest Hemingway:

I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.

Heinlein says, “refrain from rewriting” Vladimir Nabokov says, “I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” Those opposite, mutually exclusive approaches worked, both men achieved their goals. 

So, there it is. Plenty of advice about how to write, which begs the question:

I think the first step is take writing advice for what it is — that particular author’s take on how that particular author writes best. Sometimes, maybe even how that particular author wrote a particular book or story best. None of the advice out there will tell you how you should write everything. It’s useful, but its usefulness is almost archaeological. You can look at how prior writers achieved success. It can’t hurt to take note of those things. Just realize you are looking at something that happened to someone else in the past, not a blueprint for your future success. Being able to take bits and pieces of knowledge and tailor them to ideally match your strengths and weaknesses is a blueprint for success.

The real lesson is seldom found in the advice itself. That advice does, however, give you a way to understand the reason for the process. 2,000 word per day minimum? That goal seems to insure against procrastination or getting sidetracked with research questions. Advice to wait for the “perfect wave” makes me think E. B. White constantly came up with ideas, unless he was writing something else. He had to stay unconnected from a story until he knew it was the right one, because the faucet turned off for him when he was working on a story. Don’t revise? Many people think this advice is stupid, but a writer prone to endless cycles of revisions won’t ever submit anything. Even a rough draft is a better submission than no submission. Somewhere between never revising and revising until you’re in a pine box is something we can use. 

So, I’m not saying ignore writing advice from great writers. However, you don’t want to follow it, either. It’s useless at face value, but there is a lot of value to understanding the motivation behind it. For fun, take the next piece of writing advice someone quotes at you and research its opposite. There’s about a 99% chance you will find a Nobel Laureate saying that you must avoid doing whatever that piece of advice is telling you to do. 

The bottom line is: Our novels are the product of a lot of variables, the most important of which is how our brains individually function. As much as I love reading Kafka and Hemingway, I’m also happy my brain functions differently from theirs. No matter who’s giving it, we can’t just follow advice about how to write. But we can mine it for the lessons it stems from, learn from the perspectives it offers, and even take it for a test drive. It it works, use it.  But that way you’re using it because it works for you, not just because someone told you to do it that way.

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5 thoughts on “The Danger of Following Advice About How to Write (Or: Advice from Nobel laureates r teh suk)

  1. Nice piece, and very true. It gets even crazier when you start reading all the advice Editors toss out on their blogs or on online writing sites populated by writers at various places in their careers.

    Heinlein’s advice

    “You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order”

    Is, in my opinion, probably the worst piece of writing advice ever, especially for unpublished writers in the modern market. First drafts almost always suck, and even when they don’t, they have plenty of errors that will land them in an agent’s or editor’s circular file.

    Plenty of other bones to pick out there. As you said, the harm doesn’t lie in the information provided. It comes when someone takes any piece of advice too seriously or in the wrong context.

  2. Very nice. I think it is important to remember, everyone has their process. Even any 1 writer changes with time and their work. When I’m on a roll, this is easy to remember. When I’m looking at my words, struggling and seeing only suckage, easy to forget. 🙂

  3. What great post! I have to say, I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels this way about writing advise. I did a post on my blog saying similar things, wondering “should I write this?” Am glad I did…

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