Wednesday, June 24

Writers: Ignore This Writing Advice. If You Want.

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

This might seem like an odd topic for a writing site to address, but don’t listen to every piece of writing advice you come across—even good advice.

I’m a firm believer that there’s no right way to write, and what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. Heck, what works for one novel doesn’t always work for the next novel by the same writer. Writing is a fluid process.

The clearest example of this is the classic outliner vs. pantser debate. Two solid techniques at opposite ends of the spectrum, with a myriad more in between—and all of them "right" depending on the writer.

Some techniques don’t work for some people, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That just means you prefer (or need) a different approach.

This is why I advocate understanding what we do and why we do it. The more we know about our process and what we’re trying to achieve, the easier it is to spot “good, but not good for us” advice. Even if that process is, “I go with what feels right in the depth of my soul.” If that works for you, it works. If you’re happy with the results you get, there’s no need to change it. If you’re not happy, then it’s up to you to decide what to change to achieve the results you want.

It's also why I have guest authors every week who share different approaches in both writing techniques, styles, and paths to publication. 

The trick with writing advice is to look beyond the words to what the advice is trying to say, and apply it how it fits into your process. For example...

If the advice says, “don’t use adverbs” and you love adverbs, consider why and how you’re using them. The anti-adverb advice stems from the sad fact that a large percentage of adverbs are weak and not serving the story. But blindly following the no-adverb rule and cutting every single one from your work will most likely produce a clunky manuscript. More work will go into avoiding a perfectly good adverb than in making sure every sentence says what you want it to say.

The better advice here, is use the right word to get the job done, whatever that word is. Look beyond the advice and understand that adverbs are red flags for weak prose, and if you feel your prose is weak and you’re not sure why, this could be a reason.

(Here's more on getting the most of out a critique)

If the advice says, “you should outline,” and you hate outlining, don’t do it. Same as if they say, “oh, outlining steals your spontaneity and kills your writing, just write and see what happens.” Find the level of planning that works for you, be it detailed outlines half the size of the novel, or a one-sentence question that sparks a three-book series.

If the advice says, “cut your backstory, agents hate backstory,” you might hesitate before you hit the delete key. If “agents hate backstory” is the only reason for the advice, it might not be the right advice for that novel, even though it’s good advice 98% of the time. Backstory has its uses, same as adverbs or any other literary device, as along as it’s used well.

And then there’s the advice that refers to a small aspect of writing under certain conditions. If those conditions don’t apply to you or your work, clearly the advice isn’t for you. If you’re writing third-person omniscient with a distant narrator, then advice on crafting tight third-person internalization will send you in the wrong direction. Just remember it when and if you need it.

A word of caution however…

If you find yourself frequently saying, “yeah, but…” every time you hear/read/see advice, that could indicate a reluctance to grow as a writer. If more energy is spent on explaining why a certain piece of advice won’t work for you than on actually writing, you might want to take a step back and think about why you're fighting it so hard--especially if you've been receiving the same advice from multiple sources (as n a critique).

If you honestly feel you’re as good as you need or want to be, then fine, that’s your call. But if you’re struggling and want to improve, but refuse to put any of the advice you get into practice, it’s probably not the advice that’s the issue. Maybe it’s a lack of skills to understand the advice right now, or it’s a buildup of frustration blocking you from trying anything new. Whatever it is, try looking beyond the advice to the root cause and find a way to work past it that also works for you.

As SCBWI founder Lin Oliver once said, “It’s up to you to do the work.” No one can tell you what works for you, you have to try different things and find your own path, and sadly, sometimes that path is a rocky one.

Writing can be hard enough without contradictory advice, so consider what you as a writer need to do to write well. Also consider what each novel needs (and this can change from book to book). If the advice will help you make that novel the best it can be, then embrace that advice. If your instincts say no, or it will change your story too much, then it’s okay to say thank you and move along.

What “good, yet bad for me” advice have you received?

Looking for tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. I'm a panster. LOVE it that you kinda validated me. Wahoo. It works for me. Thanks, Janice.

    1. No kinda about it! Pantsing is a totally valid way to write. And that's coming from someone who is so NOT a pantser :)

  2. I think this is some of the most important advice for writers. Probably one of the biggest challenges for a new writer these days is the amount of 'noise' to sift through. When I started writing (back in the stone age), there wasn't any noise. I liked to read, and I decided I liked creating my own stories too. For years, I just wrote, with no advice or instruction from anyone. By the time I started going to any workshops or listening to any other author advice, I already had a number of novels under my belt. When I decided a couple of years ago to start publishing and started to listen to some of the internet noise, it was far easier for me to say 'yes, that is something I need to work on' or 'no, this method works for this story'. Just think of all of the books that would never have been written if the author hadn't been willing to write 'outside the box'. S.E. Hinton. Steven King. Harry Potter. Yes, even Stephanie Meyer.

    1. Yep. There's just so much out there and it's far too easy to get lost in the noise. Filters are a good thing to help there :)

  3. My problem isn't the “good, yet bad for me” advice. My foundation in writing, though scarce for public works, is good. I've always done well accepting the grammar rules and understanding the writing is an art so is subjective at all levels. I do struggle briefly with how far the take the advice I decide to make use of. For instance, I just ended a sentence with a preposition. It's a big no-no in any English class. Still, for casual and conversational writing, I, personally, think it's all right to use. However, is it okay in the dialogue of a novel? Is it one of the rules to break? My opinion is yes, but what would an editor say?

    1. Depends on the copy editor. I've have ones who were sticklers for grammar and some who used their judgement on voice.

      But it is also their jobs to point out "errors" and then leave it up to the authors to decide what to do with it. Most editors I've known have been story first. If what's on the page is working for the story it's fine, even if it breaks a grammar rule.

  4. After studying the rules of writing for the last five years, I've come to the conclusion that much of an author's voice depends upon which rules they choose to follow and how much to follow them. If you find a combination that readers like, that's all that's important.

    1. That is a fantastic definition of voice! Love it. And I agree.

  5. A few years ago, before I'd published any books, an author shared her advice for writing a novel. She said that she always began by writing character sketches and backstories for each of her characters. I took her way as gospel. The trouble was that her way didn't work for me. The next time I saw her I confessed that I was unable to start writing the right way.
    She said, "Right way?"
    "Yes," I said, "I want to start writing the story first."
    "Well, then do that," she said.
    "But you said to write character sketches and backstory first."
    That was when she said, "Oh, no. That's just what works for me. If you like to start writing the story first, do that. Do what works for you."

    1. Great example. New writers don't always know they have options, so they hear advice and think that's the way it has to be. So much frustration you could have avoided if she'd made it more clear that was just her way and not the way (not assignment blame mind you. I'm sure she never even thought to stress it)

  6. Janice,

    Thank you for the permission to ignore advice that doesn't work.

    Like PD, I started writing back when the internet was just the internet. I didn't even use it for research. If I had a question, I asked a real person.

    I wrote the stories on my mind and heart and didn't worry about getting them right. I didn't even know there were rules.

    Then I discovered writing groups and advice poured down on me like a monsoon. After years of contradictory advice from writers I respected, I felt more fettered than helped.

    I wish I had known then what I know now: That the best advice any writer can take is to try things. If they don't work, toss them. If they do work, use them. And if they sort of work, adapt them.

    Even better, know yourself, your writing style, and your voice well enough to sift through the deluge of advice.

    Thanks for a great post!

    1. Absolutely. Great way to sum it all up.

  7. This is equally true for marketing advice. I really do think there's more contradictory advice on how to market one's books than there is on how to write them. And that's saying a *lot*.

    1. Oh absolutely, thanks for bringing that up. There might even be more ways to market than there are to write!

  8. Hi, I've recently discovered your blog. Lots of useful info!
    I've been reading writing advice for well over a decade and it's all contradictory. It's important to know the rules but you once you know them you should feel free to break them if it's necessary to convey the story that you're telling.