Like all professions, and especially in the arts, when you participate there is always a plethora of people and even masters of creation who have loads of advice to give the uninitiated.
Veritable loads of advice. Some of it useful, some of it heard so often it sounds like a rule, some of it completely wrong.
There is no shortage of advice for writers. There are well known truisms that, on closer inspection, are all wrong, or all wrong for you. I’m here to tell you that’s ok. You don’t have to follow specific bits of wisdom in order to be a good writer. In fact, there’s some I recommend you ignore from time to time, or even completely.
1- Write Everyday! If you want to be a “real” writer, you must write every day! How can you hone your craft if you don’t flex those writing muscles in a regular and structured way?
I call shenanigans. Sure, in a perfect world, it would be wonderful and helpful to write most every day. In a mystical land where writers only write and don’t have day jobs, it’s fine to set a goal of daily writing. If writing is your only source of income, sure you should do this. Here in reality, where the vast majority of writers, even best-selling authors, have a day job so that they can afford things like health insurance, rent, and other luxuries, this “write every day!” bullshit is crafted to make you feel guilty and down about an art that should uplift you. When you are as cool as Stephen King, yes, you can set aside 4 hours every morning to write. And you should, because that’s your job.
For the rest of us (Stephen, you can stop reading here) this write daily thing is not feasible, or even preferable. After working 8 hours, and then cleaning, cooking, taking care of children, pets, or parents, what kind of quality writing are you planning to get done? How is forcing yourself to practice your art when you are tired, sick, or dealing with too many everyday issues going to improve your work? It’s far more likely to make you irritated and resentful of that time you are forcing yourself to write when you really have too much on your plate already.
What to do instead? Write when you have time, energy, and enough brain cells left to take joy in your craft. Yes, you should push yourself a little, to make some quality time for you and your writing, but it isn’t going to be every day, and I’m telling you that this is perfectly fine. Many folks do awesomely with a “weekend warrior” approach to writing. Sure, write during the week when you can, but make sure to set aside a nice chunk of time on the weekend for just you and your words. No one should be fretting about how they can possibly manage to stuff writing 500 words in between taking the car to get an oil change and checking on their sick teen.
2- Write what you know!
The problem with this one is that it doesn’t really mean what it implies. It brings up images of Jo in Little Women, writing crazy stories about pirates and such until the professor tells her to write about what she knows and she writes a lovely little story about her sister, Beth. Folks think this is a tale about Louisa May Alcott’s own journey to writing.
Let me tell you a little about Miss Alcott. Louisa May called Little Women “moral pap for the young.” She wrote it because she needed the money, and she wrote what she knew would sell. In fact, her publisher specifically asked her for a story about young women, so she wrote it. And that tale does not reflect her own upbringing with a stern and unpleasant father, who at one point, moved the family to start a commune. Louisa certainly didn’t write what she knew.
And yet she did. She wrote about a time period she knew, and there are many similarities between events in the book and events with her own sisters. She simply used these bits and pieces to write a story she knew would sell.
Bits of personal experience bring a story to life, even if you are writing about space robot monkeys. I wrote a book about a man and a bunch of ghosts, but when my MC needed to buy a new car, I relied heavily on personal experience. I don’t know diddly about ghosts, but that doesn’t mean I can’t write about them. You don’t have to know about space robot monkeys to write a kick-ass story about them.
3- “Outline first,” and also “Just write it”
This one is pretty self-evident, and yet it eluded me for such a long time. I kept hearing “You simply must outline every bit of your story or you will never be a good writer!” I’m sure folks who do well outlining, cringed when they heard the many versions of “Why are you wasting so much time outlining when you could be writing! You’ll lose all the spontaneity of the story if you outline it to death!”
The truth is that anyone who insists that you write in a very certain way or your writing will suck rabid weasels is an asshat. Every writer has a way of working that works well for them. I don’t outline. To me, writing an outline is ponderous and painful and counter-productive. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a plan. I know how a story will finish before I start, and I have all the important bits mapped out—in my head. I will jot down random notes and keep a basic timeline, but that’s the extent of my written organization. This method works for me, and doesn’t keep me from using extensive foreshadowing, etc.
In the end, experiment with different methods until you find out what works for you, and lose the guilt because you aren’t doing what a bunch of strangers think you should be doing. And remember, any advice that suggests that there is only one way to do something is wrong.