Upfront: I hate writing advice.
Like, I hate it. It upsets me the way people that don’t use their blinkers and hang sudden lefts upset me. Whenever I run across an article that’s titled “15 Things to Avoid When Writing…” Or “How to Make Your Stories Sell” my immediate, gut reaction is:
I’m like: WHO ARE YOU TO TELL ME WHAT 15 THINGS I SHOULD BE DOING? F*CK OFF, I’M MY OWN PERSON. AND I WILL DO THINGS MY OWN WAY, THANK YOU VERY MUCH. IF I WANT ROLL UP NARNIA AND SMOKE IT, I WILL, AND THEN I WILL WRITE THE MOST GENIUS THING YOU’VE EVER SEEN AND YOU’RE GOING TO FEEL REALLY STUPID AND YOU’RE GOING TO WANT TO BE MY FRIEND BUT I’LL BE LIKE, BUZZ OFF PUNK, REMEMBER THAT TIME YOU FLICKED A BOOGER AT ME IN MATH CLASS?
Obviously, there are a couple of things not very chill about this reaction.
1) It’s way not situationally proportionate.
2) It’s sort of weirdly personal? Like, what part of my subconscious was so damaged by being uncool in high school that I assume every piece of advice written on the internet is a direct attack on me implying that I don’t know what I’m doing? Slow your roll, Lizard Brain.
3) Issues with authority? Me? Surely not.
4) It implies that I never make any of the mistakes they’re telling me to avoid.
The last one I think comes from having always been a Smart Person. Not a prodigy or anything, but just a person who always got good grades and never had to try that hard to get them. A person who sucked up to teachers, and received the “what a good job you did” cookies, no need for a parent teacher conference, kid, you’re aces, hey want to help me grade this homework after school?
FYI, this was in no way ever a hardship. I am hella not complaining about any of that.
But I think one of the traps Smart People fall into, is that we get told for so long growing up just how freaking smart and wonderful we are, that we learn to overlook or forget how completely dumb we are too. Specifically in terms of experience. We feel like we got all these brains, so we don’t need Wisdom, because surely that came as package deal with the ability to pass tests with minimal studying. Didn’t it?
And that aaalll that advice we barely listened too back in the day (or last week) because we thought it didn’t apply to us (“us” being too smart, after all, to fall into such plebian pitfalls) came back to smack us right in the eye like a bee flying at speed.
What’s more, since we’re so freaking smart and capable of figuring shit out, every time we fail to solve a problem on our own it feels like we’re letting ourselves and other people down. Which is ridiculous. (Here’s a tangentially related post by the wizardly Mr. Wendig on that wanky nonsense known as talent. )
I do have a few more intellectual reasons for hating writing advice.
- It is, by its nature, reductive. It’s always going to leave out nuances that are important to a really good understanding of whatever bigger point the author is trying to drive at.
- Sometimes it’s all the same. If I do read advice I’m not looking for the same tips over and over again. “Write what you know!” Yes. Thank you. Clearly you took your own advice.
- Sometimes it’s trying too hard to be original and it just soars right over the realm of creative-thought and into surrealism. “Go plant a garden of rutabagas and spend a few hours every morning communing with the fairies. This will clear your mind and open the door for new ideas!” …What?
- Writing advice is subject to perspective and personal preference, just like anything, and it doesn’t matter what some big-shot author tells you to never do, you will invariably find that someone has done that exact thing, somewhere, to immense success.
So balls to writing advice, I say! I’M OFF ON MY OWN ADVENTURE AND I’M NOT BRINGING A MAP.
That said: I love writing advice. I consume it like candy (right after I’m done yelling at it.) And sometimes it’s nice to at least look at other peoples’ maps. Because like, if there’s a deep, spikey, snake-filled pit lying directly in my path, it might be nice to know about it before I stumble into it on my own and land amongst the old, sun-bleached skeletons of writers from aforetime.
On top of which, all that advice that I rail against? The advice that I bitch about because I’ve seen it a million times, or that I find to be so obvious even a drunk bear on a spinning merry-go-round with a BB gun could hit the broad side of it?–that is often also the advice that is the bee that comes careening into my eye later on.
“That thing!!!? I’m not doing that thing. I’ve never done that thing!” And then a month later, I’m going over a draft, and there is the thing, staring me in the face like: “Hello! I am your glaring mistake! I’ve been hiding behind your ego for the last 30 days eating shame burritos and stinking up the place.”
So I have a hate-love relationship with writing advice. Because on the one hand, it’s banal and usually dull and often is trying to cram me into a box that was clearly not built for someone Peri-shaped. (And really is not built for anyone anybody-shaped except the author.) On the other hand, sometimes I do learn useful things that I needed to know, and as a result my craft improves. And then I get to bore other writers in turn with the writing advice that worked for me.
And finally, there’s this weird kind of switch in my brain that gets flipped when I’m reading writing advice (again, *after* I’ve finished flinging cuss words at it), and it’s sort of like by reading the advice I remember all the things I’m actually trying to do with my own writing. It’s a little bit like a pep talk, it gets me excited again, adds some spark back into my old, worn out, mantras. And it’s a little bit like when you find that piece you never finished a year or more ago, and you read it out of curiosity and think to yourself, ‘Holy shit. This is actually pretty good. Did I write this? Who wrote this? Who snuck into my house typed these words into my computer when I wasn’t looking?’
Reading other people’s advice helps me achieve a little bit of distance from whatever project I’m currently up to my ears in. This is good because with distance comes a greater ability to recognize my own errors. Also, and perhaps more importantly, it helps me gain the perspective I need to recognize the good parts in my writing that I’d been previously ignoring in favor of berating myself for (allegedly) being less smart than my (apparent) smarty-pants should have allowed me to be.
Don’t do drugs. Do writing advice. But don’t be afraid to call that advice into question and defenestrate whatever parts of it are just not working out for you.