This Is Not Writing Advice

I try not to offer “writing advice” on this blog – although at times the temptation to do so may be strong.  The reasons I might attempt to abstain from offering “writing advice” should be obvious: I cannot lay claim to any authority on the subject.  I’m not published in any meaningful sense of the word (I have a single publication credit – a nonfiction piece).  I can’t claim to be any good at writing, much less able to tell others how they can improve their own.  Likewise, I have almost no direct experience in the publishing industry, so there is little I can say on that matter that would stand against that “subject matter authority” test. 

Sometimes, admittedly, I may say something on this blog – with regards to writing or to publishing – that might sound an awful lot like writing advice.  It’s not.  Whenever I think I’m treading that line, I usually try to include a disclaimer.  This is how I am currently thinking about this topic.  This is what I would do in this situation.  This is what I am doing or what I currently plan to do in the future.  That’s the only subject over which I have any real authority: this is who I am and this is what I do.  The fact of the matter is, I’m flying as blind as the next guy, or blinder.  If you came here looking for writing advice, you came to the wrong place, and there are other places and other blogs likely to serve you better in that regard.

Even so, I am often quite opinionated about matters that touch on these topics.  And as such I will tend to blather on about them from time to time.

All of this is a rather circuitous introduction to an interesting post I read recently on the subject of writing advice: “Ten Bits of Advice Writers Should Stop Giving Aspiring Writers” by Nick Mamatas.  It lists ten common pieces of “advice” that professional writers (especially professionals that are young in their writing careers, it would seem) often give to aspiring writers (i.e. that class of people which include me, my singular publishing credit notwithstanding).

There is a very tiny, only slightly above infinitesimal chance that I might someday be in that category of persons who might be called “neo-pro authors”.  If, perchance and against all odds, I do find myself in that position and apparently inclined to offer “writing advice”, would you be so kind as to link me back to this, my post of today, as a reminder against the futility of offering such “advice”?  I would be ever-so-grateful.

That aside… as a short commentary on Nick’s own bits of advice: I have to say I agree with much of what he says, though not all (again, illustrating the crux of his own argument vis-a-vis the futility of writing advice).  Craft advice like “Show don’t tell”?  That’s so overbroad as to be meaningless advice when it comes to the specifics of actual storycraft.  Career-oriented advice like “Don’t give up?”  Heck, I don’t preclude the possibility at some future point that I advise myself to give up, if I find success is so illusory as to be an untenable goal as compared to the stress and anguish spent in its pursuit and not succeeding.  Sometimes giving up is the right thing to do (though I would never suggest to my hypothetical self that I ever stop writing; but that’s a different matter, I think). 

Yet I may quibble with certain bits of his counter-advice, of course, like not advising “Watch What You Say on the Internet”.  I think the latter is a rather nice bit of advice, even if it’s easy to generate counter-examples of people who have been very successful despite being complete tools on the Internet.  But that’s because I think it would probably make for a more pleasant internet experience if more people followed such advice.  Or not advising  to “write everyday”.  Well… maybe not (I don’t write every day), but the gist of the advice, it seems clear to me, is to make a regular and frequent habit of writing, which it would seem correlates positively (though by no means exclusively) with career success in writing.  If the latter is your goal, the former (i.e. regular, habitual, frequent writing) seems about as close as you can get to a necessary prerequisite.

But at the end of the day, it’s all subjective, right?  Or, what, intersubjective or something?  Wait.  What does that even mean?  Anyway.  You get the gist.  Our individual experiences as writers – be we long-time pros, neo-pros, or aspirants – are not universally demonstrative of anything.  All any of us can do is our individual best – and to try to push ourselves to redefine our own individual bests – and to set goals and try to achieve goals that are compatible with our own individual values and dreams.  And when we talk about those things, they will always be highly inflected by the personal nature of our experiences, goals, and dreams.  But that’s just my opinion.  It’s not writing advice, or anything.

13 thoughts on “This Is Not Writing Advice

  1. Most of the pieces of advice he lists are obviously nonsense, but the one that caught my eye was “Don’t give up.” I think the main problem with that is that “give up” is generally seen as a negative, so you’re putting a value judgment on it. Better to just think of it as “stopping.” Sometimes it makes sense to stop, sometimes not.

    I gave a good try at being a professional musician (many years ago), but I didn’t have the talent (plus there were other difficulties), so I stopped. People always get all gooey and ask, “Ohhh, but don’t you regret it?” Actually no. I regret that I kept at it as long as I did. I have never missed it, and I have never picked up an instrument since.

    “Don’t give up” is the kind of advice that keeps a lot of people in really bad marriages, for example. Some situations cannot be rectified. That’s when it’s time to get out and move on.

    Oh, and he is absolutely correct that the people who most need the advice about how to act on social media are the ones who are the least likely to listen. 🙂

    • I think you’re right about the negative connotation ascribed to “giving up”. Reframing it as “stopping” something that’s not working could potentially be helpful to some people. I feel that way, sometimes. But I don’t think that, as a practical matter, either “giving up” or “stopping” in this context necessarily means abandoning the act of writing. You for instance are perfectly happy not to be playing an instrument anymore. But there are a lot of amateur musicians who are perfectly happy playing music in a limited context, where only a few people, especially close friends and/or family, are ever going to hear them perform. They have no real, professional, grandiose ambitions. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There are writers like that, too (especially writers in the fanfic community). And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with stepping back and saying “Professional writing… maybe that’s not for me. I’d be happier if writing were just my hobby.” Some people aren’t cut out, for various reasons, to pursue the professional side of writing. And that’s okay. Heck… I consider myself to be basically just a hobbyist, at this stage. I want a professional writing career… but I haven’t proven I’ve got the chops for it, yet. And if I don’t… well… I’ll still write as a hobby.

  2. I was LoLing when I saw “Show Don’t Tell // F*** you.” Heh.

    Personally, I don’t mind advice so much as giving only one side of the story. It’s also nice to know when the flip side can be more effective. Granted, people are more likely to listen to a “published” author who gives writing advice than any one else, but hey, if it’s good advice… And there’s a difference when the “advice” is presented more as, “This is something I’ve tried and seems to work well in such-in-such cases,” versus, “This is something you must absolutely (not) do.” The former tone is easier for me to get into, at least.

    Mark C. Newton blogged about Mamatas’ article not long ago, as well.

    • I just read Newton’s post, now, but I hadn’t seen it before. So thanks. But yes… It’s not terribly helpful when a writer tries to paint like their advice is somehow the “One True Way” to do this or that or whatever. It’s clearly not, and anyone with a little time and the inclination could easily dig up counter examples. Luckily, most of those authors and writers that I see writing about the subject tend, on the whole, to be very clear that their advice is based only on their own personal experience, and isn’t universally applicable. That said… the epidemic that Mamatas describes, of neo-pros spewing writing advice all over the place all willy-nilly like, doesn’t overlap much with my actual experience in reading writing advice by published authors. But I did find his thoughts interesting in the context of an aspiring author giving unqualified advice. I see that a lot… probably a lot more often than I see pros giving unqualified advice. And it made me think about my own blogging, and whether things I write might be construed in the same light… So I wanted to make clear: what I write here, it’s not, generally speaking, advice. It’s my own thoughts and observations and experiences.

  3. Pingback: Narrative Structure: Breathe In, Breathe Out | The Happy Logophile

  4. Some of the “rules” that are handed down are so over-simplified and unhelpful that I do wonder sometimes if the writers who are somewhat farther up the mountain are throwing banana peels back over their shoulders to hinder the progress of those who are following. 🙂

    • Heh. Sometimes I think it seems that way. But I think there’s often a different explanation, actually; things like: (1) The author simplifies the explanation because they honestly don’t really understand it very well themselves or (2) The author is sharing their own experiences, not realizing that conditions on the ground for new writers have changed so dramatically that their own experiences aren’t actually relevant to new authors. #1 can be solved with a little introspection and honesty (“Hey… let’s be honest… I don’t really know how I succeeded. Luck, I guess.”). #2 requires a little more awareness of the changes in the industry and some contact with newer authors. As an occassional consumer of writing advice, I account for both by trying to read a wider variety of opinions.

  5. I’ve noticed a vague trend that the longer aspiring & neo-pro writers blog, the less they tend to write about rules / writing craft (unless craft is purpose of the blog), and some like Newton, stop writing about it altogether when they are published. Personally, I’ve written less about writing in recent months, and I think I’m moving away from that. The more I write, the less I believe in absolutes. No one can even agree what a ‘good’ story is. Two years later, I’ve started seeing how much conflicting advice there is out there as well. I think we all have to find our own paths, and get it done any which way we can. How I write is not how someone else writes… and even the way I write keeps evolving and changing over time.

    That’s not to say there’s no value in advice, but I take all advice with a grain of salt. Sometimes learning about a new method / technique can help me out.

    • It’s only anecdotal, but that feels true to my experience as well. I think it has more to do with time and experience spent blogging than it does with experience in writing: the more you blog about and read other blogs about writing, the more you realize that there’s not much new to say on the subject. That’s part of why I try to couch the things I say in terms of personal experience. If I’ve made some discovery or had some epiphany about writing, it’s very unlikely I’ll have been the first, and almost as unlikely that anyone who happens upon my blog will be encountering that idea for the first time on my blog either. The discovery/epiphany itself is nothing new. It’s only by surrounding it with the personal that I can make it at all relevant, because then the thing that I learned has context. Otherwise, it sounds like I’m saying “this is the way you do it”, when in reality it’s “I’m writing this thing, and as I write it, I’ve found that this way of doing things works for me.” I’ve also learned to follow up my posts with a question more frequently. I think that tactic also makes it clear that I don’t actually have answers: I’m asking the questions. And that further distances me from being a “One True Way” advice-blogger. But I do think that learning about different techniques, different paths through publishing, different experiences and different ideas enriches my own experience and writing, and that’s why I still read writing advice stuff.

  6. Funny. The truth is that what works for one person won’t work form someone else. I spoke with a best selling author once, and he said don’t be afraid to call a big time agent and ask them to lunch. Then an agent posted “don’t just call someone out of the blue and try to take them to lunch”

    In the end, nomatter what you do, I think it is just plain luck.

    I don’t call myself an expert on anything either, but I love to spit back what I’ve learned from others. The truth is, there are so many people out there hungry for that special tidbit that will help them. If I can help, it at least makes me feel good. And I have made some friends along the way.

    • I think you’re very right: luck, and timing, and a host of things a writer can’t control are just about as important in the process as skill, talent, and quality writing. In that sense… writing advice can’t really do much to help, except possibly position an author to take advantage of good ortune when the opportunity presents itself. For myself, I’m not generally looking to help others achieve any measure of success, per se, so much as to just share my own experiences on the off chance that doing so is interesting or entertaining to someone. I don’t suppose myself to be in a position to help anybody. But I find reading about other people’s processes and experiences interesting (although less interesting if they try to position their personal experiences as “The One True Way”), and so I figure the same could possibly be said of my own experiences.

  7. I have to say, I don’t think there’s any harm in amateur writers sharing advice – even if it’s just a success story of how you got yourself out a slump. I think the idea that we can only afford to learn anything from ‘professionals’ is really sad. If something works for you, share it – you never know when it might work for somebody else.

    • Hmm. Perhaps I wasn’t clear in my post: I’m not advocating the idea that we can only learn from “professionals” (and neither was the Nick Mamatas post I linked to, it being a list of advice he thinks professionals should stop giving to newbies like myself). Rather, my point is that “advice”, as such, is so subjective that it has to be understood within a very specific context: the experiences, goals, aspirations, successes and failures of the indvidual offering said “advice”. The word “advice” is often understood to mean “this is how you should do things”. My point is that when I share stuff about how I do things, I’m not offering a prescription. I’m only sharing my own experience and my own ideas. And that’s all anyone can do: this isn’t a science and there are no sure-fire cures and no clear prescriptions. So the word “advice” is a bit misleading. But none of that precludes the idea that we can learn from the experiences of others. Indeed I believe we can learn from the experiences of others, both professional and amateur, and I do so all the time. But I always keep in my mind that there are many possible paths to take, and that I must chart my own course, and that the experiences of others, while instructive, are not binding on me. If you got something else out of this post, that was not my intention… I suppose the error was mine in not being clearer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s