Advice on Writing Advice

Writing advice is everywhere; every question you have is answered on a hundred websites by a thousand different people. From nobodies like myself to the words of the great and the good, but I wonder what is the value of all of this advice?

Well, follow me as I listlessly stroll through this topic and arrive at three, of many, conclusions:

  1. Learn how you write from observing your own actions.
  2. Avoid “how to write” advice like the plague while writing.
  3. Turn to support on/offline for the difficult or pleasant feelings of writing when you need.



Before I started writing Wishes Spent I spent time researching “how” to write a novel: should I write by hand, should I make a  detailed or a loose plan, when should I focus on quality of writing and when on plot. I read quotes and recommendations from all and sundry writing websites and from my favourite authors.

Such advice can be beneficial and detailed but also painfully vague – being told to write an introduction “that hooks the reader” is about as useful as being told to write a good book. The quality of the advice AND the relevance of it to your own text can be variable. 

I read to a point where I realised none of it (good or bad) meant anything to me because I did not know how I wrote. I have written before but not at this length and, lacking the powers of prescience I might desire, was never going to be able to imagine myself along theoretical models of advice for a year and a half in the future.

For me, that meant I had to write the damn thing and then make note of what worked well, and what did not. So I turned my back on nearly all of that advice and just started writing. I swore I would not look at other people’s ideas again on how to do this that and the other, until I had my own.

Of course its a long, mostly unknown, road and at times one needs support, or satisfaction for the curiosity of what the others do, and soon the internet pops up and you’re reading and interview with an author and they’re saying “writing is…”, “people always think that a novel…” and, before you know it, their ideas have hurtled through your face and into your brain.

Once they’re in there they don’t acclimatise and adapt to your patterns of thought, oh no no. They find those doubts, concerns, and fears you had been doing so well to compel to silence and pair up, whooshing around pulling up those saplings you’d planted (they don’t belong there), re-working your cement mix (that’s now what a novel is) and generally trying to overturn the lovely garden you’re building. You want to immediately ignore it but this person is a published author, or look how many comments this post has, or, worst in my case, but she is your favourite writer – the one you most admire, will you ignore their truths?

This would happen on and off and, at times, leave me full of doubt and questioning the whole novel. The worst was when I was knocked for six over new year 2015 by some advice from my favourite author. It wasn’t until I sat down and really thought about what she had said and seen how little it actually applied to my own conceptions and style that I was free. With that I became almost (almost) immune to the others’ ideas.

Models not Choices

The power of these “ideas” is that they are not suggestions (even when they’re written as such) they are models. Our brains work by  modelling the future – creating paths and lawns and fountains which we navigate around as it decides on our “best practise.”

When a piece of writing advice comes in, particularly a respected one, your brain starts to change its model: a piece of decking appears, concrete is being poured over recycled cobbles and so on. Of course decking can not appear in a garden without ruining it, and so you think maybe the garden is the thing that needs to change.

The upshot of this is that, in my case, I needed to create my own model and, a year and a half later I can say that, up to a point, I have. My second novel will be written in a different process, to the one I have just finished. It was  a big investment in time – but an investment worth a huge amount more to me than time spent reading other people’s accounts of how they write.

This is not to say that the internet and people’s advice is not useful. I re-wrote my ending and looked up advice on-line before starting and it helped clarify in my mind what I wanted to achieve. But this is before I am actually writing.

Emotions and Support

The other part of writing about writing, the emotional and intellectual experience, can be extremely useful. Last week I talked about how one woman’s post about her experience of “burnout” – this helped me get out of any post-writing blues that might have developed.

In my experience it is easier to ignore the idea of how you “should” be feeling. For instance, one person describes writing a novel as an ordeal or a joy. Normally you can’t help your feelings, they emerge from which bit of the garden you are sitting in, so to speak; as such, they can help you without necessarily affecting your model.

Of course describing how something felt can very easily slip into the other guy – Writing “is”a joy – well, what if your writing is not, are you doing something wrong?

For me all advice should be secondary to your own experience and your own reflection. The people online, the great authors, are all talking about themselves not you and your book. If you need support or help try to limit to times “outside” of your writing, or when you can take a healthy pause between sections. But, of course, if you find yourself struggling there are so many resources and such a strong and supportive community who want to help.

Any thoughts on your own experiences, comments on my terrible reasoning? Please leave a comment below I would love to discuss other’s thoughts further.



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