Writing advice


Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

I recently found this quotation from Lilly Helman:

“If I had to give young writers advice, I would say don’t listen to writers talking about writing or themselves.”

This really rang some bells for me. I know a lot of people out there have studied how to write, either through texts on how to write, or writing workshops, or even with accredited degrees. If those methods work for them – fantastic!

Personally, I studiously avoided studying writing while I was working on my novel, ‘The Artemis Effect’. There were a couple of reasons for this.

  1. I was only initially writing it for myself, and perhaps a few friends, and so I felt it didn’t really matter if my writing wasn’t great literature.
  2. I felt that by taking it to a writer’s workshop, there was a chance I would be so deflated and disappointed by their responses that I wouldn’t finish the book. A writer’s ego can be a fragile thing! A wise lecturer I had at University once said that it is infinitely easier to criticize than create.
  3. I’m reluctant to show anyone work which is really incomplete, as it isn’t really being judged on it’s merits.
  4. To be brutally frank, in all my creative efforts, whether painting or writing, I find that intellectualizing the process is destructive.

Since starting blogging, I’ve read lots of great advice on writing, from how to develop your characters properly, to how to make dialogue sound more realistic. I’ve used some of that advice in the prolonged editing process of the novel, and I’m sure it has improved the story, but I’m still glad I didn’t have all that advice coming in as I was writing it the first time. The process of writing for me is very much about my brain and the page, free from as many distractions as possible, including good advice. My writing is ultimately unique because no-one but me could have written it. I realize that this may sound like a slightly egotistical approach, but it was really a way of avoiding getting bogged down in the fear of inadequacy that some advice can generate.

I’d be very interested to hear if this has been anyone elses approach, or if writing courses and workshops have genuinely helped you get there! πŸ™‚

To finish, I’d like to quote Richard Bach, who said:

“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”


17 thoughts on “Writing advice

  1. I have found I have done both. Stephen King’s book On Writing helped me avoid some of the pitfalls that I would not have otherwise. I am a member of a writers group that I share things with, but generally only things that I know I need help with, so it’s a great help when I’m stuck. But I agree that the most important thing a person can do is just write. One does not need a course, a writers group or a self help book to write. One just has to have desire and time. If it helps to write the novel first, then seek help during rewrites, then that is the way to go. I have learned the great thing about writing is there is no one way to do it.

    • Thanks Tony – I feel a little less odd now! I can imagine that if you are stuck on something, then a supporting group to bounce things off could be quite handy. πŸ™‚

  2. Like most things, I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all approach. People have to find what works for them. There are those who feel they need to know everything about everything before they can do anything; there are those who just want to run out naked into the wilderness without a clue what they will find; there are those who are so arrogant they don’t believe anyone else can teach them anything; there are those who use courses and advice books as a procrastination technique to avoid actually starting anything; there are the sensible ones who combine doing and learning in equal masures. And there are many variations in between. Personally I’m a run naked into the wilderness kind of gal πŸ˜‰

    • When I do something creative – I think I’m a run out into the wilderness naked kind of gal too! πŸ™‚ Funny, because I’m much more of a planner in most things in life.
      I definitely don’t think that I know so much that no-one can teach me anything – just that I need to have a shot at it and make my own mistakes before I’m able to really absorb their lessons.

    • I tend to agree! Particularly since not all advice is going to work for everyone. The trick I guess is finding what really works for you – or perhaps identifying your particular weaknesses so you know what to look out for.

  3. So true (and I’m so tired of writing advice)! My internal editor sometimes doesn’t know what to do because I’ve heard too much of it. It definitely gets in the way of creativity. Much better to just write and much more fun that way.

    • Definitely much more fun! As I say, I didn’t initially write thinking that anyone really would read what I had written, so some of the weight of ‘having to get it right’ was lifted. I suppose that why there has been so much said about ‘freewriting’ – just getting word on the page without the internal editor kicking in. Must be a way of getting back to basics, perhaps particularly if you have absorbed a lot of ‘do’s and don’ts’.

  4. Honestly, some of the best advice I’ve ever followed is “read, read, read.” By reading books and short stories, whether good or not-so-good, I’ve really learned a lot about how I want my own writing to look.

    • Now that’s great advice! And so much more entertaining than studying the art consciously. I don’t know about you, but there are some books which I’ve read and found to be absolutely absorbing page-turners, but which aren’t technically terribly well written. While I can appreciate high-falutin’ literature, it’s not always what gives the reader the best story. Would you agree?

      • Yes, I agree. But I’ve also learned about what doesn’t work by reading poorly written novels. I’ve caught some weak portions of my writing by reading other novels that, coincidentally, had similar weak writing. As I read it, I thought “Wow! I did something similar, and if I don’t like it here, odds are a reader won’t like it in my book.” I fixed these, and I feel my writing is much better because of it. So I think reading pretty much anything can potentially teach us how to write better.

  5. The only reason I can think of to read a book on how to write is if you’re procrastinating from doing any actual writing yourself. Writing is art – there is no right or wrong. I’ve never believed in Art School for the same reason – learning how somebody else did it makes you a mimic, not an artist. Just sit down and let your brain explode – it may not be very good a lot of the time, but at least it’s yours and at least it’s original. It’s the same thing with music – my friends all took guitar lessons when we were kids and they have the ability to sound like Jimmy Page or Jerry Garcia or whomever, whereas I taught myself (my parents wouldn’t pay for lessons) and instead of sounding like somebody else, I sound distinctly like Jamie. Would you rather rewrite in somebody else’s style or manner, or create your own? That’s the real question people need to ask themselves.

    • Great comparison to learning the guitar! I’m also teaching myself the guitar (I’m only a beginner though) – maybe there is a stubborn streak being exposed there. πŸ™‚

      I do think there is something to be learnt in Art classes, but it’s perhaps more about some basic techniques of using different materials, and perspective etc. Perhaps what we need to know about writing we get through the daily practice of reading, speaking, and of course all that grounding we have at high school! All those essays must have been for something.

  6. I’m studying writing and I love it but the workshopping process is difficult because it can be quite soul-destroying, you gotta toughen up! I know people have mixed feelings towards my degree about whether we can even be taught how to write and how can we be marked etc but it has definately improvement my writing skills and given me interesting things to study about. I am doing a novel major but to be honest I haven’t had enough desire to write a novel I want to write non-fiction articles and features. But I still love the fiction side of things anyways and its good to challenge oneself.

    Totally agree with what you’re saying that. Well done on your endurance! Another thing I hear alot is that because we’re studying full-time juggling part-time work we don’t actually have time to write our novels or short-stories. So true!

    • I think it is different for everyone – if you are getting something out of your studies, then that is wonderful! I guess I felt when I started writing (and not just then) that I wasn’t really interested in tearing it apart, even though I recognise that this could make it better.
      In my work, I know that the lecturers at Uni could be really quite horrible, and really lead people to doubt their skills, to the extent that many talented people dropped out. However, I’ve never had criticism even vaguely that destructive in the real world.
      Time to write – yes – sigh – its always a problem when we’re juggling things! πŸ™‚ Maybe why the novel took so long!

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