Bad Writing Advice #2 – Absolutes

NaNoWriMo just finished, so there are lots of new writers around. And many of them are going onto forums and asking questions about how the heck one writes a novel anyway. And they receive plenty of answers, from pro writers, from hobby writers, from fellow newbie writers even. Because if there’s one thing we writers love to do, it’s tell other people how to write.

Plenty of the advice these seekers after knowledge receive will be useful. But newbie writers often get very hung up on rules they’ve read, on forums, in blog posts, in writing books. Strict rules that say you must always do X. You must never do Y. Z is the only way to write and if you don’t do it that way you will always fail.

One problem with these supposed rules is that there is no agreement on them. The next writing book you read, the next forum post down, may flatly contradict the advice you just read. So how is a poor newbie to know which rules are the right ones?

It’s easy to answer that – none of them are “right”, because there are no “rules”. There are effective, commonly used techniques of course. And there are also plenty of great books that don’t follow them. Many of the supposed modern rules represent what’s currently fashionable. Books from the past may break all these rules. Would be rejected if they were submitted today. Yet people still read and love them.

Another problem with “rules” is that they are generally couched in absolutes. Which is why they don’t work for writing. All writers are different. All stories are different. A writer who is naturally a discovery writer, making the story up as they write it, might read that all serious writers have a detailed outline. But when they try to work that way it stymies them, they get disheartened and think maybe they are not a writer after all.

Or an outliner runs into someone who says your story must flow free from your subconscious and fly like a bird. That all you can do is follow it and record its flight, never lead it, never trap it. This might leave the outliner thinking they’re not creative because they actually want a colour coded outline with bullet points, character dossiers, family trees and maps.

And it’s not as simple as discovery writer versus outliner. Some writers might never write down any plans, but they know in their head where the story will go. Others will have the character open a door and step out into the unknown story ahead. Some outliners will have a loose plan, like a travel itinerary with lots of room for diversons. Others will have detailed plans for every scene. No way is better than the other or more creative.

There are no absolutes for the content of the story or for how to write it either. Newbies should take all advice as suggestions only. Use the bits that click and discard the bits that don’t. Anyone telling you their way is the only way is simply wrong. I give advice, but I try not to make it prescriptive. It’s a suggestion. It’s saying “I’ve found this works for me, maybe it will work for you?”

The writer should do what works for them. Try different things of course, but keeping in mind that they are options, not compulsory. When they find something they should try to remain open to ways to refine it to make it suit them better. And they should be open to discarding it, or at least doing something a different way if a new story demands a different approach.

By “works”, I mean helps the writer to finish stories. Finish drafting them, finish editing them. The end result is the only thing the reader cares about.


3 thoughts on “Bad Writing Advice #2 – Absolutes

  1. Thoroughly agree!

    Don’t write prologues! Your first draft is always shit! Without an outline, your story will be all over the place! Don’t edit as you go or you’ll lose your momentum!

    I tell people don’t even pick up a “how-to” book, regardless of who wrote it, until they’ve been writing for some time and have some idea of how they prefer to work, what seems to have worked, what got them nowhere. Then they can start looking at how others did things and see what they could try. Otherwise, pick up any two “how-to” books and I guarantee they’ll contradict each other – and that’s just confusing. Much better to say, “Oh, now there’s something I could try, since what I’m doing doesn’t seem to work.”.

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