Our topic this month is bad writing advice. Most of the writing advice I consider “bad,” isn’t really bad at all. It’s usually perfectly good advice that just doesn’t work for me. Conversely, my idea of good writing advice is probably terrible advice for someone else.
The trick with most advice is figuring out what works for you and then having the courage and confidence to stick with it, even when everyone else insists that your way is the wrong way. This is true for advice about everything, from parenting and downhill skiing to time management and cooking.
Here are a couple examples:
Write Every Day:
People living in solitary confinement in a federal penitentiary might be able to follow this advice. And perhaps also cloistered nuns. But for me at least, this is really hard. I have kids and dogs and a house and a yard and a car and teeth and hair. All these things require regular maintenance, and in the case of the kids and dogs, actual attention. I can plan to write every day and often try, but All the Things get in the way.
So, for me, Write Every Day is bad advice. Instead, I set aside time to write as often as possible, usually in the morning. Daily writing is my theoretical goal.
In reality however, I might only write three days a week or five days, or no days at all. I try to protect my mornings because I write best in the morning. I try to find a balance between pulling my weight as a mom and a citizen and saying no when asked to volunteer. I try really hard to put my writing before all the things that suck energy from my body, creativity from my mind and time from my day.
But when the dog is vomiting and the kids have strep and the washing machine quits, or there is a global pandemic shutting down all the schools and Starbucks too, and I am trapped in my house with family members who cannot for the life of them figure out how to find clean underwear or start the dishwasher, then I must accept that writing will not happen on those days.
Set a Word Count Goal:
Here’s another excellent piece of advice that is really bad advice for me. I have a friend who gives herself a goal, like 2,000 words. Once she hits that goal, she shuts the laptop and goes about her business, because her writing is done for the day.
I wish I could do this, but I can’t. When I have a word count goal, I stare at the little number on the bottom of the screen, asking, “Am I there yet? Am I there yet?” Writing becomes a terrible slog to an unknown destination instead of a secret world I never want to leave.
Instead, I give myself time goals, like “I will sit in this chair and write for three hours, getting up only to go to the bathroom and/or get another mug of black tea.” Is this physically unhealthy? Probably. But when I give myself a time goal, the minutes fly by. I look up and realize that three hours have passed. I can only get words on the page when I don’t count them.
Expect Failure and Rejection:
No one actually gave me this advice when I started writing, primarily because I didn’t know any other writers. I only knew non-writers, and like most non-writers, I thought that everyone who writes a book becomes both rich and famous, because look at the once obscure and penniless person now known as J.K. Rowling. I had unrealistic expectations, to put it mildly.
I was pretty sure my first book would be both an Oprah pick and a movie. And then…it wasn’t. It was rejected. Repeatedly. I had to write and re-write and re-re-write a second book before I could even get an agent, much less a movie deal. And the book that got me two offers of representation from agents was rejected again by editors when it finally went on submission.
I didn’t know this was normal. I thought rejection was a sign from the universe that I shouldn’t be writing at all.
Then I met other writers. They put their arms around me and said, “Bless your heart, baby fiction writer. We know it hurts. But you can’t give up, because rejection and failure are part of the process.”
That’s probably the most painful advice I’ve ever received about writing, but it was also the most helpful, so I’m passing it along here, free of charge. Unfortunately, this advice also applies to proms, jobs, parenting, board games, DIY home improvement projects, pie crust, and life as a whole.
Writing a Book is Hard:
I didn’t get this at first. I thought writing a novel was just hard for me, because I was doing it wrong. But no. Writing a novel is hard for everyone. There’s no silver bullet, no magic process or piece of advice to make it easier.
We can accept or reject all the advice we want, but at the end of the day each writer is alone at the keyboard. There are no short cuts. Only we can do it, and only one word at a time.
So maybe the best bad advice I’ve ever received can be encapsulated in a cliché from a sneaker company.
Just do it, writer.
Just do it.