Someone came to me for writing advice recently. They wondered about where to start and how to make sure they wrote well. I have written a lot on writing, but I have never really written something aimed towards beginners or had even tried to answer those questions. But, I’ve been there. I asked those questions. I’d ask everyone for help with writing, and I’d read anything about writing that I could get my hands on. Now, I’m on the other side. I’ve been writing for a long time, and now I realize a big problem with advice. To clarify though, my issue is not about the writer wanting advice, but it’s about the advice given. Too many writers immediately start talking about craft, trying to get the beginner acquainted with a bunch of jargon. However, I wish that someone had told me when I was barely beginning that a writer does not need any guidance in the act of writing. Instead, the writer should focus on writing and reading. Only after something has been written should the writer seek any further advice.
The problem with asking for advice at a stage when the writer is barely beginning is that advice, even if it’s well-meaning, can be extremely destructive. Although, to be fair, no one is immune to this issue. Any writer can be hurt by advice before they write. For example, there’s me. About one year ago, I graduated from an MFA program in Fiction, a program that is all about creative writing. I enjoyed it. I learned a lot. However, when I sit down to write, I’ll sometimes freeze. I get extremely anxious over all of the different moving parts in a story, and it overwhelms me.
That’s probably one of the greatest issues with offering or giving advice on writing. You have to be careful how much advice is given, or it can overpower a writer. And, it’s worse for a beginner. Take for instance a conversation between a fellow writer and me. We can spend hours talking about a story, focusing on characters, motivation, drive, tension, scene, movement, lightness, and a lot of other jargon. Making it worse, this is not exclusive to me though. It’s all over the internet. If a beginner were to search for writing advice, they’d be flooded with so many terms and ideas on craft that they’d freeze in the same way that I do.
Because of this, my first and most important advice is an anti-advice. As a beginning writer, do not listen to any advice. Ignore all the posts online about characters, tension, motivation, or any other writing jargon out there. On the other hand, I do have a caveat to this though. My rule of “do not listen to advice” applies to the phase in writing when you create from nothing. You see, art is not a science, so there isn’t some formula that you can follow to write a perfect story. Sadly, it doesn’t work that way, or anyone who had access to a word processor could whip out a novel in a week (not one of any value anyway). I should add too, though, that you can also see this as a normal advice: just write.
However, I do have an absolute advice that should always be followed by any writer at any level. You should read. A while back, I read online that a lot of writers stop reading when they are writing because they don’t want to be “influenced” by what they write. To be honest, I have never read anything more ridiculous than that. You see, writing is like any other practice out there. A baker cannot stop tasting because they will stagnate or worsen. There’s even a saying for it, “don’t trust a thin baker.” Writing, like all of those is not done in a void, so please, for the love of the craft, read.
And when I say read, I do not say read the legendary authors like Shakespeare or Hemmingway (though there’s a caveat, again, as you’ll see). When I say read, I mean read what you love. Going back to my baking example, if the baker hates baking, he’s going to absolutely hate whatever they make. Don’t fall victim to that fallacy in thought. Reading the greats, if it’s not what is natural to you, will not do you much good. That’s not to say you should never read them. There is always something to learn from literary work, especially from the legendary authors. But, if you absolutely hate them, it will be infinitely harder for them to have any positive effect on you.
Ultimately though, I do have to add an argument to the advice online. I mean, I’m literally a blog about writing. It would be the ultimate irony for me to say “ignore all advice” and then move on to write about all the things I just told you to ignore. No, advice is still extremely useful. It’s just that you shouldn’t use it until the revision process.
A long time ago, I heard a Hemmingway’s famous quote, “writing is rewriting,” and that spiraled me towards an obsession with revision. Additionally, as a composition instructor, it would be extremely unethical from my part to ignore the writing process. In fact, most composition books insist that the revision of an essay should take longer than anything else in that prosses. That’s the part that matters. After all, how can you make something without the materials?
The initial crafting phase, when you write the first draft, is the collection of materials. That’s when you throw everything you got, the good, the bad, and that which must not be spoken about, and you hope for the best. Once that’s over though, you need to take that raw work and smith it into something good. It’s like a rough diamond. It may have many impurities and be worth nothing. But once cut and processed, it gains value.
The advice online is like the tools of a diamond. So, revision is when you use those tools. But, as with the other points, there’s a caveat (yeah another): do not try to apply every single advice at a time. Revision is a long process, one that requires care. Too much advice can hurt this part. If you try, for example, to revise a story by changing characters, tension, plot, and motivations, you’d be changing so many moving parts that you would have no idea how to fix it any of it should the changes break something.
I know that it’s kind of crazy that a writer’s advice is to ignore advice when you write, but this concept—I must admit—does not come from me. It’s the idea that one must turn off their inner critic that took me to this realization. I sometimes spend way too much time trying to figure out the perfect way to write that I end up writing nothing as I said before. So, this is meant to fix it. To be perfectly honest, it’s because any beginner who is trying to learn how to write simply has two jobs. Their primary job is to, obviously, write, but their second job is a little more nuanced. The writer must develop a taste for writing. That’s why I say, “read.” A writer doesn’t need anything else. With those two things, a writer has the very best teacher, books, and they have the perfect mindset, one that desires to write.
Being paralyzed by too much writing advice is a very common problem. Thanks for addressing it and the importance of focusing on getting a rough draft written.