All writing advice should come with this disclaimer

Writing advice tends to come in absolutes. You must write every day! You must outline (or not)! Your novel must follow the three-act structure (or seven-point story structure, or or or)!

But I think all writing advice should come with a disclaimer.

This is what worked for me. Maybe something else will work for you.

Look, writing is complicated. There’s no one right way to write a novel. The undertaking is so complex, so involved, with so many moving parts, that there’s just no formula you can follow to get it right. A novel isn’t an IKEA coffee table; there are no instructions for putting the thing together. The process of writing a novel is more of a chemical thing: combine the complexity of the undertaking with the unique way your brain is wired, and you get…what, exactly?

Well, hopefully a way of writing a novel that works for you. Your own unique, idiosyncratic creative process that brings you joy and keeps you working, and which you will write about some day in your own writing-advice book to enrage and befuddle the aspiring writers who come after you. (Karma!)

The fact that there’s no one way to write a novel is totally liberating. Or is it totally terrifying?

It can be either, I suppose. To the beginning writer, it’s usually the latter. Because while the experienced writer has learned what writing methods and processes do and don’t work for them, the beginning writer has little or no experience to draw from.

The beginning writer doesn’t know what works for them. Not yet.

To illustrate, how about a story?

I was so confused

Back when I was just starting out as a writer, I devoured writing advice. I got it from blogs, from message boards (remember when those were a thing?), and, of course, from books. I was a connoisseur of writing advice. I read more writing advice than I actually wrote. Reading about writing was fun—writing was not. (At least not at first.) When I was reading about writing, I was so inspired by everything I read. I could do this! But then, when I went to the empty page to apply everything I’d learned, the words didn’t flow nearly as easily as I thought they should in the heat of inspiration.

Also some of what I read confused me. One writer said one thing, another said the exact opposite. I still remember reading an interview with crime writer James Ellroy in which he claimed to create detailed outlines of his novels that were more than 100 pages in themselves—almost as long as some novels! But others didn’t outline at all, didn’t plan at all. Ray Bradbury, in Zen in the Art of Writing, said he just free-associated his way through his stories, which was totally mystifying to me. My writerly free-associations resulted in nonsense; how could all of Bradbury’s science fiction stories have leapt fully-formed from his subconscious? I didn’t get it.

The writing advice that influenced me the most came from Stephen King’s On Writing, which came out in 2000, when I was a senior in high school and just beginning to dabble in fiction writing. That book is still the best book on writing I’ve ever read—but a lot of the advice I gleaned from that book turned out to be dead wrong for me. (Emphasis on for me.)

Some advice should be discarded

I learned plenty from King’s book about grammar, about setting, about characters, about story—and about the life and vocation of a fiction writer. But the pieces of advice that stuck hardest were the pieces of advice I most needed to get rid of later.

The main piece of advice I had to discard was the idea that if I wanted to be a serious writer I should be writing 1,000 words every day. 1,000 words a day! Even now I can’t quite believe where I got this idea from. Looking back, King never said that I had to do this. What he said was that he generally manages 2,000 words a day. I guess I figured I could do safely do a little less than a man who wrote for a living, and aimed at 1,000 as a nice, round number.

This turned out to be exactly the wrong advice for me. I spent years chasing that 1,000 words a day. It became my white whale, and ended for me just about as well as chasing Moby Dick did for Captain Ahab. The goal of 1,000 words a day had me thinking for years that I was no good, that I sucked, that I had no dedication, no willpower. It wasn’t until later that I realized I should set my sights lower, much lower, at least to get started and develop a writing habit. Not 1,000 words a day but 250, and not every day but 4 or maybe 5 days out of the week.

The paradoxical outcome of setting my sights lower was that I got more done, felt better about my efforts, and was finally on my way to developing a sustainable writing practice. Instead of beating myself up for not hitting my goal of 1,000 and then quitting, I was patting myself on the back for meeting—and often exceeding—my goal of 250 words. I was gaining confidence, practicing my craft. Now, with some experience, I do generally hit 1,000 words a day (still not every day of the week, though!). But it never would have happened if I hadn’t allowed myself to mentally add a disclaimer to the advice I thought was infallible, and come up with my own personal rule—one that was designed to work for me and for where I was in my development as a writer.

It’s all about design

It may seem strange, my telling you to take writing advice with a grain of salt on a blog dedicated to writing advice. But the point of Designed to Write isn’t to give you infallible rules, writing commandments, formulas or instructions you can follow to achieve your writing dreams. The point is to give you the tools you need to think critically and non-judgmentally about your own creative goals, your obstacles to achieving them, your unique strengths—and then to build a writing habit that’s designed to work for you.

Can I help? Join Designed to Write today for advice on how to design a writing habit that lasts!

Also published on Medium.

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