Writing Advice Is Useless

The best way to make money as a writer is to publish a book of writing advice. There are hundreds of these books, promising all kinds of things. They range from soft, gentle promises to unlock your creative soul to foul-mouthed tough love.

Most are useless.

The problem with writing advice is that it is either so general that it’s barely usable, or so specific that it’s only of use to ten people in the world.

The best writing advice in the world is also the advice people are most resistant to. I suspect it makes them feel defensive. It certainly made me feel defensive when I was a much newer writer, procrastinating instead of working.

Here it is, are you ready?

  • Read widely
  • Write often
  • Be curious about the world

It’s frustrating advice because it doesn’t tell you how to be good. The thing is that being a good writer is a matter of practice and study.

Now, some writing books of the best sort give you guidelines on how to do that practice and study – Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer is one of these and I’m sure there are many more. But most seem to ignore it, or pay lipservice to it at best.

Like any artistic skill, the only way to get good is to practice.

At worst, writing advice can be actively harmful to the development of new writers. There are many people saying to always do this or never do that – always use an outline, never edit as you go, always follow the hero’s journey, never write an unlikeable main character etc etc. This is overwhelmingly nonsense and I suspect it turns a lot of writers away from finding their best artistic practice.

There are no ‘always’ or ‘nevers’ in writing. The ultimate writing rule is ‘do what you want, if you can make it work’.

Now, this isn’t to say I’ve never had good writing advice offered to me. Mostly that advice was from people who knew me and what I was trying to do with my work, or was in response to a specific question. That makes it useless to anyone but me, as no-one but me needs to know how to make the relationship between my two specific main characters even more fucked up.

As I have got more practiced and confident in my work I have stopped being so desperate for writing advice. I no longer think there is a magic trick to getting words on the page and making them good. It’s just work, that’s all. There’s nothing in the world that can make the awful, awkward stage where you’re bad at it and know that you’re bad at it pass any faster.

The market for writing advice is people who are new and anxious, and they will buy half a dozen writing books and eventually they will carve out what works for them – or they won’t, and they’ll give up.

Now, to be a hypocrite, I will tell you what works for me. Take it or leave it, or warp it beyond recognition for your own ends. Bear in mind I do not have a job due to disability.

  • I don’t write every day. I aim for 3-4 days a week, but allow myself often extended breaks due to disability.
  • I write pretty much as soon as I get up in the morning. If I’m up for it and I got my morning writing done fast, I will have a second session after lunch.
  • I write out of order, starting with the clearest scenes in my head.
  • I aim for 1000 words. If I can’t make that, I half the goal to 500. If I can’t make that, I half it again. And so on.
  • Now and then I set a goal to write and submit a short every month for 6 months to a year. I do this when I think I’ve started to get too precious and prone to perfectionism. The first time I did this four of the works got published.

Now, all that said, I’m going to list a few writing books I have liked. You don’t have to follow the advice in these, either. But they’ve helped me, even if sometimes it’s been because I thought ‘no, I disagree’.

  • On Writing by Stephen King. The publishing advice is out of date, but the rest is gold.
  • How Not to Write a Novel by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark. Aimed at commercial fiction, but a useful and funny book.
  • Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni King and Dave Brown: Simple, helpful advice on making your work shine.
  • Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer. Nice combination of facts, imaginative art, and writing exercises.

Featured image by John Scnobrich.