Anyone who’s ever wanted to become a writer knows that there’s a lot of “writing advice” out there. Not only is it near impossible to accommodate all of it, but much of it is contradictory.
While a formula for success would be convenient, the truth is that one doesn’t exist. Writers who’ve “made it” can share all they want about the steps that they took to get where they are, and you can try your best to follow in their footsteps. However, what worked for them won’t necessarily work for you.
I say all this to encourage you to take any writing advice – including that listed in this post – with a grain of salt. The only guidance that can be universally applied to all writing endeavors is that you must find your own way.
All of that aside, I’ve decided to share six of the most influential pieces of advice I’ve received over the years in regards to my writing. They may or may not be helpful for your own practice, but hopefully you’ll at least gain a little insight into how you might improve your craft.
1. Being Able to Write Every Day Is a Privilege
“Write every day” is one of the most commonly and emphatically repeated instructions for aspiring writers. It’s the literary translation of “practice makes perfect”, and there’s a lot of sound reasoning behind this line of thinking.
I used to ascribe this particular piece of advice, until in the middle a class discussion a professor said, “I think it’s important for us to remember that being able to write every day is a privilege.”
Her statement very suddenly shifted my point of view. For a long time I’d had a problem with maintaining a daily writing practice. I struggled to balance it with school and work and relationships and trying to get out into the world and have meaningful experiences.
The impact on my writing practice was twofold. For starters, I began to see my writing time as something I got to do, rather than something I had to do. Yes, I had a lot of other stuff on my plate. But I was fortunate enough to be in a position where I didn’t have to choose between sitting down at my laptop for an hour or making sure rent was paid.
Secondly, it eliminated a lot of the guilt and shame I had around writing or not writing. Before, if I didn’t hit my word count goal for the day, I felt like a failure. I thought that, if I wasn’t writing every day, I wasn’t a “real” writer.
When my professor said that writing every day is a privilege, rather than a necessity, I saw my practice in a different light. If I would never tell someone else that they couldn’t succeed as a writer because they didn’t get words on the page every single day regardless of the circumstances, why should I do that to myself?
2. Protect Your Writing Time
Despite my previous point, I do think it’s important to write regularly. Having a writing routine makes it more likely that you’ll actually get down to business and finish the pieces you start.
What’s more, once your routine is established, it’s important to protect your writing time. When you need to cut an activity out of your day in order to make room for something else, don’t let writing be the thing that goes.
This may mean telling your friend you’d like to go for lunch instead of breakfast, or saying no to things in order to make sure the next chapter gets done. While this sounds simple enough in theory, in practice it’s much harder.
For any creative pursuit, procrastination is a very real threat. Fear of failure is a great de-motivator, and it’s easy to let excuses creep in and keep you from accomplishing your goals.
Speaking of goals, it can also be easy to lose sight of yours. Writing takes a long time, and if you don’t keep concrete objectives in front of you, it can be easy to let your writing practice slip through the cracks.
If you ever want your writing to succeed (whatever that means to you), you’ll have to work to prevent that from happening.
3. Writing Is Rewriting
I can remember the first time I was ever complimented on my writing. I was in seventh grade, and my English class had been given an assignment to write down a story that had been passed down through our families.
After she’d finished grading our papers, my teacher called me out in front of the entire class and said I’d written a “very interesting piece of family history.”
Throughout high school and even my first year of undergrad, I was praised for my writing skills in this manner. I got very high grades in my English classes and the word “revision” very rarely came up.
It wasn’t until I got into higher-level writing workshops that I learned that scanning a short story for typos wasn’t enough. I got a huge wake up call when I realized that if I wanted to make my writing as good as it could be, I needed to tear it apart and piece it back together again – maybe even more than once.
Earnest Hemingway is credited with the quote “writing is rewriting“, and I’ve found his advice to be true. Sometimes, in order to produce the best possible version of a chapter or an essay, I’ve had to start from the beginning and tell it again.
It’s a time-consuming practice. However, especially if you’re feeling stuck, it’s well worth the hours and the effort.
4. Show, Don’t Tell
This is just about the most over-used and cliche writing advice out there. Unfortunately, it’s also very true.
If your education has looked anything like mine, you’ve probably heard this phrase from every English and writing teacher you’ve had since about the age of twelve. And you’re probably sick of it.
That doesn’t change the fact that it’s sound advice. I’ll also admit that, upon re-reading first drafts of my work, I’m more prone to “over-telling” than I like to think. At second glance, I can often increase the length of whatever I’m working on by half simply by going back through and showing what I told on my first pass.
Granted, word count alone isn’t a great reason to make such a change to your work. While summary has its place, scenes tend to be much more engaging and enjoyable to read. Action drives a story forward.
If you’re looking to improve your own writing in this regard, a handy trick is to use different colored highlighters. Go through your piece, color-coding scenes and summary. Depending on the type of work you’re doing, you may want to include additional colors for research or other elements.
This will help you visualize how much “showing” you’re doing in relation to your “telling”. If your summary far outweighs your scenes, you likely have some rewriting to do.
5. If there’s a gun hanging over the mantel, it has to go off before the story ends
The actual quote goes something like this:
If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise, don’t put it there.Anton Checkhov
I don’t know when or why my brain decided to add in the mantel, but the point is, everything in your story should have a purpose.
I think this is a good way to test the quality of your writing. You can apply this idea to just about anything – your plot, your setting, your characters, their haircuts.
If every element in your piece – large or small – has purpose, then you can avoid many pitfalls. Details with intention behind them seem more realistic. Plus, if you know why you’re choosing to incorporate certain features or plot points, you’re less likely to fall prey to adding them for shock value.
6. Read Widely
This is another one of those pieces of writing advice that gets thrown around a lot. However, it’s hard to learn how to write without studying examples of what you hope to accomplish.
That said, I don’t recommend that you read only acclaimed novels or award-winning poetry. Read whatever you want. Read a lot of it.
You can even learn from books that are less-than-stellar examples of literature. Reading will help you learn what you don’t like as much as it will teach you what you do like.
There’s also value in keeping a notebook with observations about what you’ve been reading for future reference. If you notice a technique you admire, jot it down and try utilizing it yourself in a later piece.
Writing advice is readily available in many forms. However, it can be hard to cut through the noise and determine how much, if any of it, is valuable.
The best advice I can give you is to take the recommendations that make the most sense to you and leave the rest. As for my own favorite words of wisdom, there are six I turn to most frequently:
- Being able to write every day is a privilege.
- Protect your writing time.
- Writing is rewriting.
- Show, don’t tell.
- Remember Chekov’s gun.
- Read widely.
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