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Contrary Writing Advice Untangled

story mechanics course contrary writing advice

Writing advice is everywhere. All influential authors have been quoted on their craft, and novice writers are bombarded with this curated wisdom. New to the craft? Got stuck? Prepare to be thrown a random selection of ‘writing truths’ and be convinced that these contain the solution to your problem.

It’s tempting to believe that “if this worked for these famous authors, it will work for me!”

Yes, it may. It may be that eye opener you needed. Or it will feel like forcing a square peg into a round hole: as painful as it is futile. That isn’t to say that writing advice is bad advice. Not at all. But we tend to elevate simple quotes to religious creeds, and too many writers stress themselves about not being able to comply.

Needless self-torment, because many of those truths are often quoted out of context or sorely misinterpreted. These are my three pet peeves:

“You can’t write if you don’t read.”

This one comes in different phrases quoted from various authors. While true at its core, this writing advice is prone to an extremely narrow interpretation of ‘reading’ which I believe is unjustified. A broader perspective on this might be more accurate – and easier to apply.

We all know that ‘garbage in = garbage out’. Often used to explain the poor results of automated systems, this equation is really a fact of life. For a writer, it translates into the need to take in quality information in order to produce quality writing.

What a writer needs is tools to tell stories and tell them well. Reading three novels a week helps to that end, but there is more than one way to gather those essential tools. My own methods include:

  • reading non-fiction on all kinds of subjects,
  • doing intensive research for my stories,
  • watching quality series and movies to dissect their methods,
  • asking for and listening to the experiences of other people (friends, family, strangers on the train, etc),
  • reading and conducting interviews,
  • attending writing courses, and
  • reading fiction.

Not only can quality information intake expand well beyond reading fiction, it should. Fiction is not the be-all and end-all, even for fiction writers. It is just one medium of many, and all of those can provide valuable skills and information.

“Write what you know”

The idea behind this one is that you cannot write about things you don’t know anything about. The problem arises when it is explained as “write only about things you have experienced first-hand.”

That sounds sensible enough. You can’t adequately describe what you don’t know, now can you?

Then you realise what the world would have missed out on if the likes of George Lucas or Tolkien had stuck to what they had experienced themselves. Many popular genres would be in deep trouble if this gem was supposed to be interpreted this way. Not to mention all the writers who are in violation!

Fortunately for them – and for us – the adage’s intention is less single-minded. The key to ‘write what you know’ is knowing a lot. That way your stories aren’t limited by your own experiences.

The key to ‘write what you know’ is knowing a lot.

Rather than dissuading you from writing what you want to write, this nugget of wisdom encourages you to read up on subjects you aren’t familiar with before you write about them. Now that is solid writing advice.

“Write every day”

From what I hear from other writers, this Holy Grail of writing advice makes the most casualties.

“To be a writer, I must write every day. If I don’t, I’m not a writer.”

For over a decade, my failed attempts to adhere to this rule demolished my self-confidence. A chronic condition made it physically and mentally impossible to write every day, but I wasn’t a writer unless I did. As a result, this piece of writing advice actually prolonged my condition, and thus my inability to write.

The thing is, many writers (even the accomplished authors) suffer from Imposter Syndrome. To convince themselves that they are indeed writers, they feel they must write every day. Some write every day because they feel better if they do.

But it isn’t set in stone. It’s a writers’ coping mechanism, not a prerequisite!

Now I find myself wanting to write every day. What was so destructive a year ago has become enjoyable. The rule didn’t change, but my circumstances did. As circumstances change, so do we – and what does or doesn’t work changes right with us.

The Art of Being an Artisan

Rather than repeat the clichéd quotes above, let’s conclude with their intention that a writer’s work benefits when that writer:

  • voraciously hoards quality information,
  • never stops learning,
  • reviews their writing methods as they and their circumstances change.

I believe that before all else, writing is a craft. Being dedicated to continuously polishing and enhancing of your skills is the mark of a good artisan. It improves not only your stories and your writing process, but ultimately yourself as a person as well.

Are you a writer? Do you want to practice in-depth storytelling techniques and learn how to write more productively? Then click here for the Story Mechanics Course which I’m launching together with a personal development coach this year!

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