Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
A reader’s recent comment brought to mind how I once felt about writing. She jokingly mentioned that using something from a list I’d provided felt like cheating.
I once felt that way as well, that somehow I wasn’t doing it right, wasn’t doing it all myself, if I relied on tips from other writers or writing experts.
I felt guilty if I had to furtively look up a grammar rule or the rationale for using a particular sentence construction, if I studied writing tips or took the advice of another writer.
But that’s not a worry you should have.
Get help and advice and training from wherever you can. It’s not cheating to have beta readers or a critique partner. It’s not cheating to read a craft book or take a class or get a degree. It’s not cheating to use an editor.
It’s not cheating to make use of existing writing tools.
You do not have to start from scratch, as if you’re the first writer forging your way through the naked page, needing to develop every tool and method. Needing to make all the mistakes in order to learn from your own experience.
You will make mistakes and you will learn from them, but you can learn from the experiences of others without making their same mistakes. It’s okay to begin at the level where the craft is now—you don’t have to develop your own story-writing craft from the very beginning.
Use resources. Look for help. Find out what works in different circumstances and find out why those techniques work in those circumstances. Then make use of what you learn.
You don’t have to reinvent fiction writing, even though you can be creative and invent something new.
Use practices that lead to successful scenes and passages, techniques that we all know will work. Rely on those who have come before you. Use established tools. Use specialized information. Use what’s already out there.
Painters don’t have to reinvent paint and brushes and canvas. They don’t need to reinvent perspective and rules for mixing colors. They can use the tools of the art to create something new—they may incidentally discover a new medium or create a better brush—but they don’t have to start from scratch to develop both the tools and the art, both the techniques and the product. They learn to use the tools that already exist and they learn how particular techniques produce certain effects, and then they create.
The same holds true for writers and writing: the tools already exist—use them. Use any tool that helps your story and/or that helps you to be a better writer. Don’t feel that you’re cheating, that you’re not doing all the creating on your own, when you use a tool or technique created by someone else. No one’s asking you to be a tool developer—you’re creating a story. Use the elements and ingredients that are known to go into good stories.
Using the same tools other writers use doesn’t mean that your stories will sound like the stories of others. It does mean that readers will recognize the format and the elements and therefore will have no troubling slipping into your story worlds.
Try what others have tried. You may be more successful than others; you may be less successful. But you aren’t penalized for using the tools another writer has used, for using the techniques another writer has successfully worked into his or her stories.
You can write a story in first person present tense or third person past or omniscient—all have been done. But the thousands of different choices you make to craft your story will make it different.
Use any tool—use every tool—that you can find. Every tool that works for you and a particular story.
You may find a tool that only two percent of fiction writers use. Its use will give your stories a feel or a look or an approach that most other stories don’t have. But that’s okay—not everyone uses every tool. Not every painter uses oils. Not every carpenter uses a spokeshave. Not every chef would use herb scissors.
But virtually all fiction writers will write in scenes, with standard sentences and paragraphs. Most use everyday words that readers will understand, even if their combinations of those words are unique.
Most writers begin a story at the beginning and show a progression of events leading to a climax.
There are many, many tools you will use that you only need to learn how to use, many techniques you will need to practice. You don’t need to spend your creativity on developing what has already been developed; save your creativity for plot and characters and for finessing your style.
What is already out there is yours to use simply because you are a writer.
If you’re in the club, you get to use the facilities and all the goodies. If you are writing—I’m not saying you’re a published author, but a writer—you have the right to use the tools of the trade. Dive right in and start using them. And throw the guilt out the window.
Unless you are actually stealing the words or sometimes the ideas or sometimes the deliberate style of other writers, you aren’t stealing from them when you use the techniques that worked for them. You’re a member of the guild and as such, you’re welcome to the same tools and knowledge they are privy to.
Take advantage of the trails others have blazed. Go your own way when it’s necessary to differentiate your work from the stories of others, but don’t imagine that you can’t use the same tools and trails that others have used.
Banish any hint of guilt at using what the experts use. Banish too the little voice that insists you’re cheating when you rely on other writers, that lies when it says you don’t deserve to use information learned by, developed by, or shared by others.
Take advantage of knowledge and the experience of others. Writing is a craft, with techniques and tips and tools passed from mentor to apprentice, from experienced professional to beginner, from teacher to student. From friend to friend.
Take what belongs to the craft as a whole and use it to make stories uniquely your own.
Write great fiction without feeling guilty for not having developed pen and paper.