Navigating Your Way Through Conflicting Writing Advice, by Lia Weston
When I got a dog, one of the worst decisions I ever made was to go online and read everything I could about canine training. ‘Positive reinforcement is the only way to get a dog that behaves,’ said several sites. ‘Positive reinforcement will only result in a disobedient dog,’ said several more. ‘Do X, Y or Z and you will scar your dog for life,’ said others, with every tip contradicting another one. By the end of the day, I had a minor nervous breakdown and was convinced that my pet ownership was doomed before it had even begun.
It can be the same way with writing. When one decides to embark upon an ambitious project, such as a novel, it’s tempting to start binge reading. There are thousands and thousands of blogs, courses, Twitter feeds, and (of course) books that will claim to teach you how to write. In addition, there are agent blogs, publisher blogs, reviewer blogs, reader blogs and more. (I’m also aware of the irony of writing this on a ‘How To Write’ website, but there’s a point coming, trust me.)
Although having this mass of information at your fingertips is a boon, it’s not always advantageous. The problem is two-fold. Firstly, it’s incredibly common to discover – as I did with the whole dog thing – that everything you’re reading is contradicting everything else you’re reading. These are a few recent examples I’ve come across:
- Always use an outline.
- Outlines are death to the creative process.
- Stop writing mid-flow so you’ll have a point to come back to.
- If you stop mid-flow, you may not be able to regain momentum.
- Write every single day – no excuses.
- Writing every single day will make it feel like drudgery; it’s OK to sometimes take a day off.
- Write what you know.
- Only idiots write what they know.
See what I mean?
Some articles are also excellent at putting the fear of God – otherwise known as ‘the fear of never getting published’ – into people. You will recognise these because they use phrases such as, “If you use a serif font in your cover letter, the agent will promptly SET FIRE to your letter without reading it. They will also not return the ashes, even if you enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope.” Take these notes with a grain of salt, always. (Unless the tip is: “Read the submissions guidelines.” ALWAYS read the submissions guidelines.)
Secondly, the plain fact of the matter is that the more time you’re spending sifting through notes, exercises and posts, the less time you’re spending actually writing. I understand the fear, though, that you need to learn how to do everything perfectly before you even begin typing because, if you don’t, well, what happens if you’re doing it all wrong? (Quick quiz: How many writers who procrastinate are actually just terrified of producing something less than perfect? Many of us, I suspect.)
So what’s a writer to do? The answer is surprisingly simple: Be selective.
Be selective in the books that you take on. Look for recommendations from authors you admire. Work out what area you’re least confident in (e.g. structure, grammar, dialogue) and search for well-respected books that deal in these areas in depth. Seek to master your weak points.
Be selective in the blogs you read and the emails you subscribe to. Nothing says, “let’s procrastinate!” like an Inbox full of ’10 Tips To Ensure A Best-Seller’ or ‘How To Take The Perfect Author Photo’. Keep these to a minimum. Do you really need to know about trends in the YA scene if you don’t write YA? Doesn’t that link always lead to advice you think you’ve read before? Unsubscribe all but the most essential and useful ones. Even then, try to check them only once a day, and shut down your email while you write. Guess who doesn’t need a ‘Hot New Releases!’ pop-up? You.
Finally, be selective with your time. One of the best things you can do for your progress and sanity is work out a weekly split schedule. Look at your calendar. Block out the times that you are irreversibly committed (e.g. work, sleep, friends, taekwondo) and see what’s left. Let’s say you find a spare five hours in your week. Dedicate one of those hours to learning, and the other four to the actual practice of writing. This will a) keep you learning, which is an important and on-going part of being a writer, and b) keep you producing work, which is the actual point of being a writer.
Overall, the best way to learn how to write well is to just write. Churning out words, discovering your voice, working out how you operate best, and then refining your techniques will speed up your progress faster than slogging through any How-To book. There is always room for learning more about writing – and don’t ever believe that you can’t discover new and helpful information – but make sure not to do it at the expense of what you actually need to be doing: writing.
Lia Weston’s author website: www.liaweston.com
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