Advice for Writers: Don’t Read Too Much Advice for Writers

There always seems to be a steady stream of posts from literary magazine sites giving lists of advice for writers.

Zadie Smith has a series of 10 points in The Atlantic at the moment, highlights including

  • Don’t romanticise your ‘vocation’. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle’. All that matters is what you leave on the page.
  • Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.

And Jack Kerouac has a rambling list of 30 pointers, typed up in about the most annoying font ever here at Brain Pickings, the picks of which include

  • No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
  • Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it

Not forgetting Vonnegut’s 8 tips on writing great stories ( ‘Start as close to the end as possible.‘ ) , or Etgar Keret’s 10 Rules for Writers ( ‘Always start from the middle.‘ ) Grr! Which?! or John Steinbeck’s 6 tips ( ‘If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.‘ )…

Reading through all of can be exhausting. These are great writers, and one feels that perhaps there will be some magical iota that will suddenly be the key to producing great work. Some time ago I read the Paris Review Interviews with writers, and was fascinated by all of the different ways that writers work… but confused about which methods I should try to integrate into my own.

The more you read the advice, the more it tends to boil down to some key paradoxes: read lots of great writers (but don’t try to write like them); write in your own unique style (but make sure you are in tradition).

Steinbeck then went on to rubbish the rules anyway:

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader.

So I think perhaps that’s the best advice: there is not going to be perfect advice. Writing is a craft, and this means that it is going to take practice in order to hone it. But it also carries something of ‘the gift’, and unless there is that ‘aching urge’ then what is produced will be no more than consecutive words.

One of the big struggles for me was actually admitting to myself that I was a writer. And that’s perhaps helpful: if you can write – if you can hold a pen and scribe letters and words – then you are a writer already. Not a good one, perhaps, but don’t suffer the pain of trying to be something you already are.

The second struggle I had was broken by reading a pretty cheesy old book called The Courage to Create. The title had it really: just be brave enough to begin. Get over that fear of criticism, of not being worthy enough to write. Just do it.

And that is what it essentially boils down to. No matter how many brilliant pieces of advice you read, or how well you prepare yourself, or how many wonderful books you read or internet-free computers you get or beautifully serene writing rooms you build, at the end of the day you have to sit down and write the damn thing. Letter by letter, word by word. It’s disciplined, hard work and takes time. LOTS of time.

Moreover, when you’ve written it, you then have to be prepared to take it on the chin and write it again, but better. I’ve met so many people who’ve started novels and given up, and many more who say they want to write but haven’t got round to it, and a few who’ve written a complete first draft and then got discouraged. The ‘aching urge’ is how you’ll know if you want to be a writer: it remains when you realise that you’re going to have to sit down and write it for the second, third, fourth, fifth times, because you have to. And I should know, because I’m still tapping away, even while my first novel remains yet-to-be-published.

So here’s the irony of reading a blog post about advice to writers: stop reading blog posts about advice to writers, and get on and write.

But, I’ll leave you with one adage that I’ve found helpful, something I’ve told people who’ve asked me about beginning. And it’s this:

Write to discover, not to reveal.

Don’t set out to show people your great pearls, or parade them around your wonderful world. Write to go find new pearls; begin each fresh page hoping to turn corners into new places you didn’t realise exist.

Anyway, now to go do as I say, and get some stuff done…


One response to “Advice for Writers: Don’t Read Too Much Advice for Writers”

  1. acetate monkey

    I’m sure you don’t wish to collect a load more tips, and I have no literary urge, but your post reminded me of a colleague’s advice for writing research: “Don’t get it right, get it written”. Once something is down, the thought process, story/theory, clarity etc. can be worked on and improved, but something needs to be on the page to start with.