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Here’s the thing about writing advice. When you’re a writer, like many of us, there seems to be an overabundance of folks who either want to know what you’re writing or tell you exactly the best way you should write your story.
Over the past fifteen years, I’ve heard a lot of advice from many types of writers – professionals with loads of experience and publishing deals under their belts, to novices who believe reading a handful of craft books (or blog posts) gives them all the authority needed to dole out critical writing wisdom.
What I’ve discovered, however, is that even the most skilled, the most well-intentioned person cannot replace tried and true research and personal experience.
These are the best and worst tidbits of advice I’ve learned over the years and the reasons why I pay close attention to them or keep them well out of my mind when I write.
The Best Writing Advice
Put One Word in Front of Another
It’s an easy thing to say. “I can’t write” or “I’m stuck.” I used to believe writer’s block was a thing lazy writers said when they wanted to procrastinate. Then, the pandemic hit and I found myself fighting a pretty severe case of depression. My writing mojo left me. It’s taken three years, but slowly, after a lot of slow days and low word counts, (and crying), I’m working on my mojo.
This writing advice worked. What helped me most was the slow crawl process of not giving up. As Neil Gaiman says, “One word after another. That’s the only way that novels get written and, short of elves coming in the night and turning your jumbled notes into Chapter Nine, it’s the only way to do it. So keep on keeping on. Write another word and then another.” So, even when it’s hard, even when I believe I simply cannot manage to string a sentence together, I start with one word, then two, until I have a sentence, then a paragraph, then a page. One word at a time.
It’s that easy and that hard.
Find Your Own Path
Every writer has a journey and each path on that journey is subjective. What works for one person may not work for another. That’s true in publishing, writing, and perfecting a great gumbo. (Shout out to my fellow Louisianians).
There are folks that will tell you they have a “surefire” way to get published or write a breakout novel, but the truth is if there was a system in place, there’d be a lot more millionaire writers in the world.
Write how you want. If you like to outline, do that. If you like freewriting, then go for it. Discover what works for you and keep perfecting that journey.
Sympathetic Characters Make for Great Stories
Readers want to identify with your characters. They like to see themselves in the worlds and lives we draw in our fiction. That’s difficult to do if our characters are perfect, if their flaws are minimal and they are so unrelatable it’s impossible for readers to familiarize themselves with the people they’re reading about.
Make your characters imperfect. Draw them with realism you see in your daily life and your readers with not only see themselves in these characters but have a deep connection and sympathy for the story they’re living.
Kill Your Darlings
This misconception of this bit of wisdom is that it only applies to modifying or in some cases, eliminating problematic characters in your work. But the truth is, “Kill Your Darlings” refers to those precious pieces of writing, in any form, fiction or otherwise, that are too extraneous, that could do with a good chop. This could include entire paragraphs, pages, or even filler words that only bog down your work and make your voice passive.
The point is: be willing to release the ego and cut away the aspects of your work that don’t fit. Kill Your Darlings in exchange for tighter sentences, clearer descriptions, and pacing that leaves your readers diving deep into the page.
Read. A lot.
Stephen King famously said, “If you don’t read, you don’t have the time or skills to write.” He wasn’t wrong. But I’d go a step further and say you must read to improve. You must read to know your craft better. You must read outside your genre. If you want to improve, read. If you want to learn how professionals do it, read. If you’re in need of inspiration, read. If your work is slow and your life feels like a weight that won’t ease up, then read. There’s no better way to inspire, escape and learn than within the pages of a really great book.
The Worst Writing Advice
Write What You Know
We’ve all heard this piece of writing advice: you can’t write about something if you have no experience with it. After all, who wants to read a book about an explorer college professor who rescues ancient artifacts during his downtime by an author who has never picked up a book on ancient Egypt? Surely, they don’t know enough to write about that professor. Right?
Nah, not so much. Write what you know, and if you don’t know, find out. Life is a series of experiences and it’s up to you to find out what experiences fill up your life. So if you don’t know about that professor, baking, or American History but want to write about these topics, then fill up your knowledge base with the experiences that will give you the know you need.
Avoid Popular Fiction
This writing advice falls into the “don’t follow trends” category and while that’s great advice (because by the time you finish that shiny new vampire/fey/dragon shifter romance, the trend will be long over), it’s not a good idea to ever let anyone determine what you write.
Write the story that sets your soul on fire because if it does that for you, it’s likely to do the same for your readers.
Listen to Other Writers
Not everyone is informed. Especially when you’re a new writer, the best approach to advice is to stick to advice that comes from those who can back up their suggestions. The guy in your writers’ group who has never finished a story, never published a thing, or never let anyone read his half-complete manuscript might not be the best person to listen to when it comes to criticism.
Do, however, pay attention to your favorite authors and others that have more experience critiquing, writing, and editing. A great place to start would be craft books and workshops led by professional authors.
There’s Only One Way to Write/Publish
This one harkens back to finding your own path.
Finding your path is essential. Just because one writer was able to garner success by doing publishing or writing in a certain way, doesn’t mean their way is meant for you too.
Find the process that makes you happy. Find the one that produces the best results.
Determine what the best plan is for you and adjust as needed.
No one starts out knowing how to write. Edits are an essential part of improving and while it may be hard to determine who among your social group can help you improve, you should still seek out help. Do you have a friend or family member who loves to read or who exceeds at grammar? Can they give you an honest, sometimes brutal opinion? Have them read your work.
Writing is rewriting. The best way to start the process is to get an honest critique. No one is above it and no one can get away from it.
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