The Best Piece of Writing Advice I Ever Got — And The Worst

One of the surprises, for me, of finishing a first novel was discovering just how many of the most hackneyed pieces of writing advice actually turn out to be true. For example: Nearly every interview with every writer will include some reference to how important it is to just sit your butt in the chair—meaning, the best way to get writing done is simply to get it done.

This is true.

And then there’s the best piece of writing advice I’ve ever gotten. Spoiler alert: You’ve probably heard it before. Here goes: Write the book you want to read.

GIVEAWAY: Adam is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: burrowswrite won.)


shovel-ready-nove-cover-sternbergh       adam-sternbergh-writer-author

Guest column by Adam Sternbergh, who is one of three featured
debut authors in the January 2014 issue of Writer’s Digest. Adam
is the author of SHOVEL READY (Crown, Jan. 2014). In a starred
review of the book, Booklist said, “Mixing dystopian science fiction
and urban noir with a Palahniuk swagger, this could well be the first
novel everybody is talking about over the next few months.” Adam
is the culture editor of The New York Times Magazine. He lives in
Brooklyn and is at work on a second novel. Find him on Twitter.



I know what you’re thinking: Sure, fair enough, makes sense. But here’s the important distinction. It’s very easy to confuse this advice with a very similar, and very bad, piece of advice: Write the book you want to write.

Now, the book you want to read and the book you want to write may be exactly aligned — if so, Godspeed — but they may also be worlds apart, and you need to understand the difference between them if they are.

The book you want to write is the book that you imagine, in your fantasies, autographing the inside cover of at your overcrowded book signings; fielding congratulatory telegrams about from all your favorite famous writers worldwide; and eventually seeing the cover of projected across the back of the stage when you win every literary prize available. That’s the book you want to write—or, better yet, the book you want to have written. And these are all worthy goals, or at least engaging fantasies. Enjoy them. Then put them all out of your mind.

(Why writers who don’t have a basic website are hurting their chances of success.)

The book you want to read, by contrast, is the book you’d curl up with if you had an entire week or month alone, with no one looking over your shoulder. It’s the book you’d grab if you knew you’d be stranded in some faraway cottage or, what the hell, a tropical island somewhere. It’s the book you love and lose yourself in then stash on the shelf, dog-eared and half-destroyed, then pull out every year to read all over again.

That’s the book you want to read. And that’s the book you should be striving to write.

Now here’s the worst piece of writing advice I’ve ever gotten and I bet you’ve heard this one too: Write what you know.

This is probably the most common piece of creative-writing workshop advice with the possible exception of “Show, don’t tell.” (Which may be the second worst piece of writing advice, but this isn’t an essay about the second worst piece of writing advice.) To be honest, Write What You Know is perfectly fine advice, sort of, except for one thing: You have no idea what you know.

Personal case in point: I work in the world of New York media, and have for the past ten years. So when I sat down to write a novel, my first pass was—you guessed it—a light satire of the world of New York media. Because that’s what I know, right?

(The skinny on why to sign with a new/newer literary agent.)

And yet, despite my deep and abiding knowledge of that world, this first pass was terrible.

So terrible, in fact, that I chucked it and wrote Shovel Ready, a non-light non-satire that’s not at all about the media. Instead, it’s about a near-future dystopian New York, in which the main character is a garbageman-turned-hitman hired to kill the daughter of a famous evangelist. And it turns out that a lot of things I know — about hardboiled stories, about the social dynamics of New York, about religious mythology and its lingering effects, both good and ill — bubbled up into this book. But if you’d asked me before I started to make a list of “What I Know,” none of those things would have been on that list. In the end, I wrote what I knew. I just didn’t know that I knew it.

GIVEAWAY: Adam is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: burrowswrite won.)


This guest column is a supplement to the
“Breaking In” (debut authors) feature of this author
in Writer’s Digest magazine. Are you a subscriber
yet? If not, get a discounted one-year sub here.


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21 thoughts on “The Best Piece of Writing Advice I Ever Got — And The Worst

  1. momiji5

    I always sit down and start the story I want to write, that very mentioned story people will want to read again and again. I’ll even outline all sorts of compelling things that I think should happen, but in the end, I deviate completely from the outline and the story turns strangely dark, taken over by the crazy person that lives inside my brain and I struggle to decide if it should stay as is or force it back in line. I think that crazy person took over my comment. In any event, I agree that you never know what you know and what you don’t know until you try to write it.

  2. Emily Dill

    I love this advice. I have multiple beginnings to short stories and novels scattered on my laptop, because several times I have started to write a book that I think OTHER people want to read. I’m now several chapters into writing a more humorous, sarcastic story because it’s the sort of thing that I enjoy reading. And if I know anything, it’s sarcasm…which probably is not something I should brag about. 🙂 Nice article!

  3. Debbie

    If my book were published, I’d have an out-of-body experience and be the first in line waiting for the doors to open. Then, I would pour a nice cold drink, put my feet up, grab that good book, and start reading!

  4. snuzcook

    Short and to the point. It really made me think about the difference between ways to ‘know’ a thing. In the example in his article, Mr. Sternbergh’s initial work of satire about a profession and a culture that he ‘knew’ from experience failed. But his more successful work appears to draw from a totally different type of knowledge–the understanding of what makes people tick in a genre entirely different from satire. So it is possible that if he were to write a thriller where the media culture is merely a familiar setting, it might be very successful.

  5. sawyerliketom

    (When it comes to setting down to write fiction, I have found Sternbergh’s advice to be true– that pursuing familiar emotional truth rather than familiar situational truth is more effective. Trying to replicate the setting one is familiar with, and conjure up a plot to go along with it doesn’t work out very well. If we don’t find writing a book by that process impossible, it’s because we don’t realize we are writing a book that is more autobiographical in events, not just setting, than intended, and would maybe be better-served to the genre of memoir– but more on that later.)

    I’m interested in how this advice pertains to memoirs… because who would want to read his own memoir as the objective third person? What’s contained in those pages is the life you do live and have experienced. We read books to experience someone else’s slice of life, and to ruminate on our similarities and differences to the characters; this lost-and-found experience of the self is impossible to facilitate when reading an account of your own experiences and perspective. So you are not going to want to read your own book, likely finding it stale and superfluous, and finding yourself bored by the predictable plot and transparent protagonist. By this logic, if we are to write the book we want to read, we should not write memoirs at all.

    Sternbergh has his reasons for this opinion, and they stir up some interesting dust in the field of memoir. His advice to NOT “write the book you want to write” suggests that memoirs are the easier and weaker choice of channeling understanding/knowledge/wisdom/experience, because memoir authors feel a strict unyielding adherence to the truth (i.e. the concept in their heads: what they want to write). He believes that that understanding/knowledge/wisdom/experience would be better served sublimated in another work of art– one that is flexible (i.e. fictional) and, to ensure that loyalties to real-life events don’t have too much influence, as different from the setting and/or plot of the events that happened as possible.

    I don’t entirely disagree with him, which is the dissonant distress of the memoir-author (knows he should be writing about anything else, knows that, wonders at his own arrogance and audacious assumption that his own experiences are sympathetic and interesting and lend themselves well to the narrative form, but he is writing the book anyway, because he wants to because he feels he has to). Why do we write memoirs anyway?
    I believe that sometimes any attempt to deviate from real-life events, or the abstinence of attempts to express them, can be maddening and dissatisfying to a writer, especially if perpetuated. Some of us need to express the actual story that happened– the way it happened– to, as Dave Eggers put it, “dilute the pain and bitterness and thus facilitate its flushing from [our] soul[s]”. And if we do not do this, or try to alter the story in some way, it will keep manifesting in any work of art we try to create, and in the always-leaning-towards-the-true-whole-story way, every book undergoing a strange transformation into the would-be memoir, but not in full, in that perfunctory manner, so that the features belonging to the true-to-life story are not faithful or subservient to the fictional story that is being crafted.*
    It is this kind of conflicted, ambiguous, and spread-too-thin book that Sternbergh says is not quality writing and he is right. The book will have remnants of the attempt at fiction, with intentionally suppressed elements that nevertheless pervade. When forced, a book like this feels like a farce of one story or another. When non-convergent storylines have to fight to be the priority within one work of art, something needs to be resolved.
    So we afflicted with a temporary disability to write fiction must accept that right now, we can’t go all the way the other way and create a work of absolute departure from our personal situations. (Dave Eggers describes this predicament and decision in the copyright page of AHWOSG: “…At the time of this writing, the author had no imagination whatsoever for those sorts of [fictional] things, and could not conceive of making up a story and characters– it felt like driving a car in a clown suit– especially when there was so much to say about his own, true, sorry and inspirational story, the actual people he has known, and of course the many twists and turns of his own thrilling and complex mind”.)

    We must accept the compulsion go to the furthest extent in the other direction– to complete-truth to express the true story and write the memoir. When an author does this successfully, a miraculous change takes place and he is “purged” of the pervasive influence of his own story on his work. Once he has worked on and completed the memoir, his subsequent fictional stories are untainted (except by inextricable wisdom/world view acquired from the life experiences themselves, not usually the writing of them). Dave Eggers achieved this. His psychological writer’s block now resolved and gone, Eggers has flourished and published multiple (critically-acclaimed) novels, non-fiction books, collections of short stories, and even children’s books, none of which are, to my knowledge, similar to his own story.

    Some ignore the compulsion until the point where they can’t anymore and pen the damn thing (Cheryl Strayed, Tobias Wolff, others…)

    *There are exceptions, of course. I heard that Cheryl Strayed’s precedent to Wild, Torch, has the same plot setup and similar characters to those of a term of her own life and of a significant part of the subsequent memoir, and that the novel is no worse for quality. This would be a rare feat, considering the extent of pervading personal experiences the book enjoys. I cannot testify because I have only read the memoir.

    My best guess is that Sternbergh condemns “show, don’t tell” because he interprets it to mean deliberate omission of definitive verbs, even nouns, to describe something or a situation, and, in their place: long-winded unspecific descriptions meant to “hint” to the reader what something is, or where, or at an event that has happened (onscreen or off)~ similar to euphemisms, but often of plot. Because the reader knows something is being kept from him, but he doesn’t know what, or understand what is offered (even in a trivial sense), he is vexed and distressed.
    While I don’t think Sternbergh is wrong, I do understand the possible origins of his interpretations-turned-opinions, and associate them with his writing (and likely reading) style subscribing to the noir genre, the trademark of which is brazenly straight-forward minimalist text, and omissions are cut so clean they are not missed until they are brought around further on in story, where they fit in, and the reader is delighted at the trick instead of confused or rolling his eyes. Palahniuk is one such magician. I also conjecture that Sternbergh’s view of “show, don’t tell” is influenced by his immersion and inertia in the minimalist style of magazines.
    I respect his style and subscriptions and am eager to see what’s inside his mind, because this article perturbed me, and because I’m a fan of the genre and of Palahniuk’s neurosis novels, and because my heart skipped jump-rope just reading the reviews.

  6. Dagondan

    Adam, I’d be interested how you dealt with progressing from the initial story into your novel. I presume you spent great deal of time on the concept, outline, characters, etc., effectively falling in love with it. At what point did you realize this is not it? You mention you didn’t make it after the first pass? Why didn’t you give it another go? Why to venture into a whole new story (genere perhaps)? I’ve gone through a similar experience and felt rather depressed about the entire experience. Cheers…D.

  7. edlieb

    I spent so many years reading how-to-write books that I now prefer simple bromides, hard-boiled statements, like what you provided above. I am a journalist by profession, and although fiction is light years away, I have found that the act of writing volumes of copy (I am also a dedicated blogger) has sharpened my writing ability. I need to work on the other stuff — the ability to think of a worthwhile story, populate it with intriguing characters, and nicely pace it to an inevitable but surprising conclusion.

  8. KColvin64

    So figuring out what you don’t know you know is a key point in writing what you know? Nothing like giving a girl a headache. Well here’s to good advice! Actually the essay was extremely informative to me, and I will definitely put it to good use. Thank you!

  9. Shennon

    Great advice! I am currently writing the series that I want to read. I enjoy rereading my novels as much as I enjoy rereading any other of my favorite books.

  10. dymphna st james

    Good luck with your novel I plan to buy it. I tend to write what I know about it but with embellishment and enhancements. Your book sounds fascinating. I read about you and your novel in Writer’s Digest it’s good that they have spotlighted you on the website. Original premise.

  11. Elliott J. Scott

    Thanks, for the opportunity to win your latest book, Adam! And I really appreciate you taking the time to give us some insight into your journey as a writer. For me, one of the most frustrating things writing mentors do in regards to giving advice, is that they just beat around the bush and never actually come right out and give tangible advice. This isn’t true all the time, of course, but in my experience, it’s true most of the time. Which is why I’m glad you “came right out and said it”. However, as it pertains to Melanie’s question, I would like to know why you think “Show, don’t tell” is the second worse piece of advice.


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