Breaking the Writing Commandments

Kitten lying on its back among flowersAs I mature as an author, I’ve started to realize that a lot of writing advice—even advice that’s widely touted as “good”—is really quite bad for me.

Whether advice is good or bad for you has more to do with you than with the advice. For instance, a lot of people struggle with negative self-talk. That’s not me, and never has been. I’m fond of saying that I don’t have an inner critic—I have an inner cheerleader. So advice that’s aimed at silencing the inner critic is really quite awful for me.

To know whether writing advice is good for you, it’s important to understand what the advice is meant to achieve. If it’s trying to solve a problem you don’t have, following it can make you unhappy and unproductive. Here are some examples of writing advice that’s turned out to be terrible for me.

Set Word Count Goals

Purpose: Ensure productivity

Productivity has never been a problem for me. I love to write. I’ve got a great relationship with my muse. Nothing makes me happier than writing fiction all day long. But the moment I set a word count goal, writing goes from being a joy to being a chore. I look for reasons to avoid it. So, no more word count goals for me.

Write Every Day

Purpose: Establish a consistent writing practice

As with any intense activity, if you write every day, there’s a good chance you’ll burn out. You need time to refill the well, because that’s where your stories come from: your experiences, your joys, your worries. You must have a life outside writing, and that means some days, you won’t have time to write. That’s okay.

If you’re writing most days, that’s probably good enough. If you’re writing a day or two a week (or less), then setting up a strict writing schedule, and sticking to it, might be a good practice for you, at least for a while. But even during periods when I’m not writing as often as I should, telling myself I have to write every day turns it into a chore (see above).

Finish the Book

Purpose: Complete a manuscript instead of continually tinkering with it

Obviously, at some point, you have to finish the book, or there’s no point. (Well, some manuscripts turn out to be practice ones with no future, and that’s fine, too.) But you don’t have to finish one book before you move on to another. I’ve probably got a dozen manuscripts in some stage of development. I like to write things down as they come into my head—whether it’s a logline, a scene, a synopsis, or whatever. My stories develop slowly, with my unconscious mind working on them over time. Some manuscripts I tinker with a lot as the story unfolds in my brain. Then there are the crunch times, when I know the story, and just have to get the book out to meet my publishing goals.

I’ve learned that I spend a lot of time cocooning, which is then followed by a flurry of activity. That’s my process. You need to find the process that works for you, and it may not be the one prescribed by a writing instructor.

Show, Don’t Tell

Purpose: Write scenes instead of summary

I naturally write in scenes. My first drafts are almost all dialogue, with a few stage directions, like a screenplay. But fiction isn’t like television or the movies. It requires much more description. Sometimes you need to state outright what the point-of-view character’s scene goal is. “She needed to convince the banker to let her into her brother’s safe deposit box, so she could find a clue to his whereabouts” sounds a lot like telling to me. But without this information, readers might have no idea of the purpose of the scene, or why they should care.

Limit Backstory

Purpose: Avoid a data dump

I naturally open my stories in media res, at the height of the action. I tend to start too late, with the inciting incident, rather than too early, talking about the protagonist’s childhood. I probably care less about the protagonist’s childhood than readers do. I need to add backstory, not to eliminate it. (If you want a great example of the importance of backstory and how to weave it artfully into a novel, read Ain’t She Sweet by Susan Elizabeth Phillips.)

No one ever created art by following the rules. Art comes from breaking them, from trying something no one’s ever tried before. If other people’s voices are limiting you, like they did me, then stop listening. Trust yourself first.

What writing advice that sounded good at the time has turned out to be bad for you?

Image Copyright: vvvita / 123RF Stock Photo

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About AndreaJWenger

Andrea J. Wenger is an award-winning writer and editor in Raleigh, North Carolina. She specializes in the fields of creative, technical, and freelance writing.

Posted on April 22, 2015, in Blog Posts and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Great advice, Andrea! Like you, I don’t set word counts and my scenes come in dialogue. Trying to write following someone else’s rules would drive me crazy.

  2. Me too, Christy. Right now I’m in the process of unlearning all the stuff that’s bad for me, so I can get back the enthusiasm I had when I first started writing seriously.

  3. Critiques too early in the story writing/development process always stop me cold. I need to get the story down and in order before I let anyone eyeball it or before I attempt to apply any rules to it. 🙂 And I write dialogue first too. I love dialogue!

    • Agree, Sheila. Some people like critiques on first drafts, because it helps them decide what direction to take the story in. I’d really prefer to get critiques at the third draft stage, when I’m ready to start polishing it.

  4. I’ve never been a fan of word counts either–structuring time has always worked best for me. I am so glad you included the ‘write every day’ commandment as breakable! I’ve crossed paths with so many people who say that you cannot call yourself a writer unless you write daily. So Harper Lee was the non-writer of such a famous book? Exploring the definition of writer is a tricky one!

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