Have you noticed that everyone wants to tell you what to do all the time? The Internet is chock-full of advice on every imaginable topic every day. New studies are released weekly telling us what we should eat (and not eat) in order to ensure optimal health and ultimate immortality. Do you suffer from aches and pains? Hiccups? Knock knees? Dozens of experts want to tell you what to do so solve your problems. And people eat this stuff up. Based on my news feeds, our collective appetite for advice appears insatiable.
But what about writing advice?
Over the years, I've learned a great deal about craft, marketing, and publishing by attending workshops and reading articles. Some of the presenters' advice has been invaluable, but some has seemed repetitive, obvious, or simply not for me. I've been told I must be on every social media platform I can find. I've also been advised to choose only the ones I enjoy. I've been told to spend half my time writing and half my time marketing. Some authorities say write only the stories of your heart, while others say ignore the market at your peril.
We get the same conflicting advice about writing craft issues. Editors have pet peeves they impose on their writers. So do some agents. I'll never feel the same about the word "that" after working with my first editor. Some writers and editors are very strict about POV. Others take a more relaxed approach. Some slash all adverbs; others are more lenient.
I recently read a mildly paranormal/ghost love story written by a new writer friend. Finishing that short book was a painful slog. I had to force myself to read past the first chapter because she broke every single rule I had ever been taught. Yet this book had been contracted, edited, and published by a professional publisher (albeit a very small one). She has 20 5-star reviews on Amazon. For all I know, those may be from family and friends, but they still gave me pause. Who am I to say this woman is a terrible writer just because I hated nearly every page of her book? If she asks my opinion, I simply plan to tell her we are polar opposites as writers, both in the stories we tell and the way we tell them. Nothing more.
I have come to the conclusion that both reading and writing are such intensely personal activities that we should take all advice with a grain of salt. Choose what resonates with you and don't feel guilty about setting the rest aside. One writer whose advice I always trust, however, is Stephen King. I'll leave you with a few of my favorite quotes from his fabulous On Writing.
“The scariest moment is always just before you start.”
“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut.”
And, perhaps, the most astute observation of all:
“Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.”
I, for one, am taking your advice to heart, Alison. The only thing we, as writers have in common is that we are each unique. Thanks for the food for thought.
I love that, about just getting up and going to work. Great post, Alison.
You're right, advice is conflicting and often makes me crazy. My agent is a comma minimalist. She made me take a bunch out before submitting. The editor who contracted the book put them all back in! From now on I put in commas where I want them! We all have good instincts about writing. We shouldn't be afraid to use them.
Margo, after we've reached a certain point I think we just have to trust our instincts.
Liz, who doesn't love Stephen King's advice?
Jannine, I look at those details in every book I read, and they're all different!
Great post. I sometimes write craft articles offering advice. It may help someone somwhere, but the reality is that I'm summarizing what I've learned for my own benefit.
Exactly, Melissa. Just like I did here!
Thanks for the post. I think our worst move as a society was from taking wholistic approaches to specialized ones. The shift shows in every part of our lives, and often in a negative way. Diversity in everything is key!
I agree with you about Stephen King. I definitely value his advice. Other "experts" advice I'll take with a grain of salt.
Ashantay, thanks for stopping by.
Jana, even though I'm not a fan of Stephen King's stories, ON WRITING is chockful of wonderful advice.
I had to stop trying everyone's advice on how to improve my skills. All it ever did was waste my time and efforts. Sigh. I had to learn to trust myself.
I agree wholeheartedly, Alison. Everyone has a different opinion on things, and at the end of the day you just have to go with what you think is best for you.
Tami, since even the "rules" aren't consistent anymore, we should at least be comfortable with our own choices.
Well said, Alison. 7 steps to this and 10 steps to that...if only it were so easy. I remember the first agent who told me to never use semi-colons...as well as dump all the 'thats'...sigh. It has to be fun...I'll go with that.
Rolynn, I'm reading The Goldfinch now, and Donna Tartt uses LOTS of semicolons. Since she won the Pulitzer prize, they must not be completely off-limits.
Very well said, Alison. As an editor and writer, I have my own set of pet peeves, you might say. It's funny that I can't see things in my own writing that I see in others'. I am not a stickler for rules, unless the rules make the writing or story better. For nearly every rule, there is an example of why it should be broken, right? I'm not a fan of semi-colons or colons or parenthesis in fiction, but semi-colons are acceptable from time to time. (just my opinion, who am I to argue with a Pulitzer prize winner???) As for Stephen King, I ADORE HIM! I love most of his fiction and I think On Writing is one of the best and most interesting writing books ever written. Thanks for an awesome post!
Alicia,I try not to use semicolons in fiction, either. That's one reason Ms. Tartt's jumped out at me every time (at least TWICE on every page!) Style is such a personal thing. I assume her editor made little effort to change hers.
Great post, Allison. It also depends on the author's "bigness," I think. A big-name author can get away with breaking a whole lot more rules than a new one...no matter whose rules you're following.
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