The Upside and the Downside of the So-Called “Best Writing Tip Ever”

Dispensing writing tips is risky business. I do it for a living, and I’ve developed a sort of virtual crash helmet to handle incoming flack. While some things about writing are universally true – in the same way that gravity is there even if you don’t believe in gravity – others are more negotiable.

Especially when it comes to tips about the process of writing.


larrybrooks-199x300T6100This guest post is by Larry Brooks. Brooks  is the author of the new release from Writers Digest Books, Story Fix: Transform Your Novel from Broken to Brilliant. He is the author of two previous WD titles, Story Engineering and Story Physics, as well as six critically-praised novels. Visit his website at www.storyfix.com, named by Writers Digest to our 101 Best Websites for Writers for the last six years.


 

The thing about process is that, at the end of the day, from a purely qualitative perspective, it doesn’t really matter. Readers don’t care how the writer found and executed the story, whether they did it efficiently as if straight out of a how-to manual, or if they wrote if over a dozen years standing on their head in a dark closet with a legal pad and a Pink Floyd CD at full volume.

The things that make a story great don’t care what you call them or how you finally discover and execute them. They are simply there, like gravity, waiting to either give you wings or cause you to crash and burn.

The debate, then – if indeed there really is one – is about how to get there effectively and efficiently, which in the harsh light truth becomes a matter of personal choice. Because what works for one writer may not work for another.

In other words, what works for Stephen King and Diana Gabaldon and George R.R. Martin and Jonathan Franzen or the loud guy on the online forum may not work for you.

[9 Practical Tricks for Writing Your First Novel]

And therein resides the downside risk.

Because if you adopt a particular process, if you believe what you hear simply on the basis of who said it, then you just might be sentencing yourself to years of unnecessary frustration and failure. Or, it may indeed work for you, too, just like it works for the esteemed author who, just possibly, said or implied that theirs is the only process that works.

There is one writing mantra, perhaps the most common sticky note of the walls of writers everywhere, that I truly believe to be the most risky, and potentially toxic writing tip of all. And yes, it does in fact come from the lips of more than one famous writer who can get away with it.

Before I reveal what it is, allow me to first focus on the end of that last paragraph: “… who can get away with it.” Because – especially if you a newer writer – it is highly likely that you can’t get away with it.

Because you don’t yet know what you don’t know. And certainly, you don’t know what that wisdom-dispensing author knows.


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Quick story before drawing back the curtain on that.

I was teaching a workshop at a conference for historical novelists. I asked the group what their favorite writing tip of all time was, and began fielding responses that were all over the map, including some really strong morsels of goodness.

One woman was squirming with her hand up, so I called on her. And then, out it came.

“Just write,” she said loud and proud.

I paused. I think she was waiting for me to proclaim her tip the winner. Instead I said, “Actually… this might be, for some of you at least, the worst possible writing advice you could ever hear.”

Stunned silence ensued.

To explain why, two propositions are required.

First, you must accept that a novel is a complex thing, and that the skillsets and tool chest of the enlightened writer stem from a long and varied list. [Like this quote? Click here to Tweet and share it!] If one disagrees, if you think writing a good novel is as organically simple as beginning-middle-end, and that it takes no more knowledge than what you have picked up as reader of novels, then sure, go for it.

Just write. Wing it. See how that works for you.

The other proposition is that writing a novel is just as complex as many other avocations, in that it isn’t something everyone can do successfully without first learning a few things and then practicing until they become internalized.

For example, imagine if you suggested to a young doctor, prior to finishing medical school, that she just cut. Or tell a new lawyer to just talk. Or recommend to your daughter as she preps for your learner’s permit that she just drive.

Play golf? Forget the lessons, just swing. See how long it takes you to make the tour… because becoming a professional in this analogy is precisely the goal of the writers who are reading this.

Dire consequences await for each example. Because each endeavor is important. We’re not talking about a hobby here, this is your dream.

A neurosurgeon who reads my blog recently wrote to confirm that, after immersion into the deep well of storytelling craft, he absolutely agrees that writing a good novel is every bit as complicated and nuanced as performing surgery, where just cut has never been part of the curriculum.

[The Top 10 Elements of a Book People Want to Read

Then again…

… if you are possessed of the full spectrum of writing wisdom – the stuff that those famous authors already understand when suggesting that you just wing it – then the just write idea might fit right in with your process. Storytelling always depends on a good dose of intuitive story sensibility, which in a professional is always informed by craft rather than diffusing and infusing the story with impulsive decisions that are the equivalent of a child’s fingerpainting.

The key differentiation here, the one that can indeed empower the just write intonation and cut years off your learning curve is to realize what the end game of writing is for you. Are you seeking to publish, in any form? Are you in quest of a readership? Are you secretly yearning to make storytelling your day job and see you face in a bookstore window?

Don’t kid yourself. All those noble goals equate to you becoming a professional.

And professionals don’t just write… until they can and should.

Thanks for visiting The Writer’s Dig blog. For more great writing advice, click here.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
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5 thoughts on “The Upside and the Downside of the So-Called “Best Writing Tip Ever”

  1. Randall

    I’ll start by saying I found the article of interest. I agree, “Just write,” is not the best advice. It is true all journeys begin with a single step; not all journeys are best begun without some planning prior to that step.

    Rules exist within the English language (or any language you happen to write in) for good reason. I will provide an example:

    NOt undertstrand sentence that type did here I?

    Of course you understood it. But it took some effort.

    Did you understand the sentence I typed here?

    Yes, of course. It was plain to read. The rules made it so, demonstrating that ignoring those rules is folly at best, disaster at worst.

    Writing is risk free, perhaps, in that it can do no physical harm but it is not risk free for the writer who intends to make a life of it. One bad manuscript can brand you a bad apple, possibly making more difficulty for you as a writer, possibly ending your career before truly begins.

    Regardless of your intentions: to self-publish or be published, to be represented by an agent or to go it alone, you must present something worth reading. There are times, in providing entertaining reading, when rules can be bent or broken completely. Dialogue can be greatly enriched by breaking the rules, making the things your characters say more lifelike.

    “I found your speech to be greatly pleasing,” Dane said, is not nearly as enticing to read as, “That’s purty inrestin’,” Dane said, as he spit a wad of tobacco juice on the ground.

    I will now finish with a tip of my own; when you are writing a blog for a website dedicated to the literary profession a bit of polish is in order. I prefer to provide my critical views in private but there is no option here for that.

    1. Randall

      I failed to follow my advice in my previous post! I’m going to eat crow now and point out my mistake:

      I stated “career before truly begins,” which of course should have been “career before it truly begins.”

      I was overconfident, failing to proofread my comment. See? We all learn something new each day. I learned not to be picky unless I can and will be picky about my own work.

      Enjoy all!

      1. jannertfol

        Nothing flags up errors like pushing the send/reply button, eh? 🙂

        In my response to the article, I meant to say that ‘just write’ advice shouldn’t apply to people who have a poor grasp of grammar, spelling, punctuation and sentence structure. Knowing these rules is essential for any writer. If you don’t have these basic tools in your tool box, it’s going to be very difficult—or impossible—to become a writer.

        You can break the rules on purpose in creative writing. Clever misuse of SPAG rules can make an impact, like your mis-spelling of “inrestin,'” above. But not knowing them doesn’t work. If you’d used that spelling in the middle of your narrative, it would have had a much different effect on the reader!

        So ‘just write,’ should definitely follow ‘just read.’ Voracious readers of decent books have a feel for what works and what doesn’t that no amount of creative writing instruction can bring. And reading trains the eye to spot SPAG issues as well.

        Typos? Hey, that’s another country….!

  2. jannertfol

    I actually do agree—to an extent—with the person who said ‘just write.’ Until you ‘just write’ you won’t know what you can already do.

    However, once you’ve ‘just written’ then the real learning begins. That’s when you discover what doesn’t work, what you can do to make it work, what you overlooked, what you need to add or take away. You find out whether your characters are memorable and vivid, and whether your story structure takes the story where you want it to go at exactly the right pace. You discover what your style does to the reader, and decide if that’s what you want to happen. If not, you learn how to refine your style so it has the effect on the reader that you’d hoped for. And you discover your target audience. And so on and so on.

    Driving a car (or doing neurosurgery) carries huge risk if you screw up. Writing carries NO risk at all if you screw up. In fact, mistakes are good, because you learn from them. I think it’s wrong to compare risky activities with writing. The only irreversible mistake you can make in writing is thinking your first draft needs no improvement so you self-publish it too soon. Or you approach agents with substandard material.

    Writer’s forums and writing groups are stuffed full of wannabe writers who are so scared of making a mistake they never actually get started. Their heads are stuffed full of rules and tips, and they can’t seem to move away from formulas and methods they’ve been taught. Or they’re so concerned about achieving perfection that they never get beyond the first couple of pages, and end up revising and revising until they get fed up and quit. I think this is maybe what the woman meant when she said ‘just write.’ But one more thing needs to get added to that. ‘Finish what you start.’

    Once you have a first draft completed, that is when the real work of learning to write begins.

    1. andreain2worlds

      Your last statement is, in my opinion, the key to it all. When you switch from writer to reader to editor, the real work begins. The blessings of imagination can only shine from within a solid structure.

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