I see lots of writing advice. Sometimes it’s some writer’s best practice. Other times it’s a time-honored truth. And sometimes it sucks with the power of an army of shop vacs. I’ve seen writers asked for the best and worst writing advice they’ve heard, so I thought I’d do that in a pair of entries this week and next. In order to end on a more positive note, I’m starting with the worst.
The worst writing advice I ever got went something like this…
So, you want to write? Don’t. That’s right: don’t write. Just walk away from the keyboard, leave the room, and never come back.
Another version I’ve heard says that if you feel the urge to write, you should go lie down until it passes.
I’ve run into several other versions, but they all say the same thing. If you think you want to write, don’t do it. Just give up. Don’t even try to write. Quit now. This is not for you.
If you dig deeper into this kind of advice, you’ll find that what they’re really trying to say is that it’s hard work, and for the vast majority of people who try it, it pays only in tears and crushed dreams. The last time I checked, the mortgage company does not accept payment in dreams, crushed or otherwise. So, you should give it up. Maybe that’s harsh, but for at least 99% of you, it’s excellent advice.
Excuse me, but I say BULLSHIT.
Yes, writing is hard work. Yes, it usually pays poorly. And yes, most of you won’t be particularly good at it.
But telling you to not even try is like telling a kid to put down the ball because he’s not likely to make it onto a professional baseball team. Or perhaps you’d rather tell a 5-year-old to put away the finger paints because she’s unlikely to be the next Picasso? Or to tell your son to stop looking at the stars because there are so very few astronaut slots?
To hear those words coming from a professional writer smacks of elite hypocrisy. “Here, take this advice that I did not heed and am glad I never did, but for you it’s spot-on. Yes, I used to suck just as bad as you, but I’m brilliant now, and you’re not. So go away, kid. You bother me.”
They justify this by saying that for every potentially great writer they discourage, they save ninety-nine others the heartbreak of crushed dreams. I say to hell with that, because I think those other ninety-nine will have a lot of fun trying, just like all those young athletes who never turn pro.
So feel free to ignore that advice. If you want to write, I say you should go for it.
For what it’s worth, the distant second in the race for worst writing advice ever was that if you’re going to be serious about it, you need to go back to school, get a degree in English, and learn both Latin and German, preferably with Latin being your second major. The idea was that you could then understand the English language well enough to know when to use the Latin-derived word instead of the Germanic-derived word.
So, here I am writing science fiction and fantasy… is “phaser” from the Latin? What about “zombie”?
How about you? What’s the worst writing advice you were ever given? (Or skip writing and go with any bad advice.)
That reminds me of the song “Bathysphere” (I first heard the Cat Power version, but apparently it was originally by Bill Callahan) which is to me one of the saddest songs I’ve heard, and should serve as a solid warning to anyone who would have children.
Here is the relevant lyric:
when I was seven
my father said to me ‘but you can’t swim’
and I never dreamed of the sea again
Yep, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. The first time I heard this particular advice about writing, I was 16.
The worst writing advice I’ve had wasn’t really couhced as “advice” as such, but it had a huge impact on me. I’d just finished my first (and only successful) NaNoWriMo, and had written most of a first draft of an epic fantasy novel. It was about 60K words, and although it was very roughly and largely terrible (like many first drafts), I was thrilled. I knew I had a lot of work to do, and that the ms would likely double in size by the end, but I essentially had a long, complicated outline. A “draft 0” if you will.
I was telling a non-writing friend how excited I was and she asked if she could read it. I balked and said, “Well, it’s not really at the point where it can be read. It’s just a first draft.”
To which she replied, “Why would you spend so much time on writing something if you’re just going to write it badly?”
And that, my friend, is when I started trying to write the “perfect first draft” which resulted in me not getting more than 1500 words written on any story idea for the next 5 years.
To some extent, I started off that way. I would start each writing session by reading through and editing everything that was already on the screen, and then (if time permitted) adding more. That pretty much kept me in short story territory.
But my first NaNoWriMo broke me of that. No going back. No edits. Just vomit it out onto the page. You can clean it up later when you can see it in its entirety.
I’ve always thought of that as quite useful advice. Anyone with a real drive to be a writer (something you need to survive in this career) would say ‘fuck you, I’m going to do it regardless.’ If you encounter that advice *and give up* you probably don’t have the staying power for the job anyway.
I’ve heard that as a justification as well, that the *real* writers won’t give up at this advice, but how do we know that? Did the world’s next Hemingway decide to become an accountant instead?
What I do know is that I’ve heard a few excellent authors bemoan the fact that they started their careers so late. Why did they wait? Because someone told them they couldn’t make a living at it, so there was no point in trying.
So yes, they *eventually* ignored that advice, but they could have started their writing careers twenty to thirty years earlier, and that would be a lot more great books out there.
But all of that ignores the notion that maybe those 99% would have had a good time trying. I like telling a story. I think a lot more people would if we didn’t stomp them with this particular advice.
I do get where you’re coming from, but I find it hard to believe that people are so influenced by stupid advice they find on the internet that they would choose to give up their passion because of it. Yes, I could see someone giving up for two or three weeks in a funk after reading that, but giving up forever? I can only conclude that if someone takes that advice they can’t really have wanted to be a writer. And if they didn’t really want it, why should anyone worry if they don’t have it?
Maybe those people decide to take up macrame (or some other artistic pursuit) as a result of giving up writing, and they find they love macrame so much that when people say to them “give up macrame right now,” they go “Shan’t!” Then it was a good thing that they stopped wasting their time on writing – about which they clearly felt tepid at best – so they have more time to spare on something they *do* love enough to stick with.
TL/DR: Being told to give something up is a useful way of finding out how much you’re prepared to stand up and fight for it.