Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
2015 Writing Advice Series
Listen or Ignore (Part 1)
Weighing the Advice (Part 2)
Behind the Advice (Part 3)
What About -ing Words (Part 4)
A reader at the blog recently asked how I would respond to a writer who wasn’t keen on listening to advice regarding a major problem in a manuscript. While I promised to address that issue in an article, I got distracted by doing an Internet search of writers and advice.
I have to admit that I was very much bothered by one blog post in particular, one post that unequivocally encouraged writers to ignore writing advice, to eschew learning the rules of the craft, and to simply write because that was all that was necessary.
While I’d argue that you could get something of merit out of almost all advice, I couldn’t see anything useful in that article. Certainly nothing productive. And I actually found it damaging. What was more disheartening were the comments that wholeheartedly agreed with the recommendation to not learn the ins and outs of the craft and to ignore writing advice.
And we’re talking not only grammar but the fiction elements as well.
Yet how can a writer expect to write without learning how to write? Experience is a teacher, true. But experience isn’t the only teacher. And experience isn’t always the right teacher for a particular lesson.
If the recommendations had been qualified in some way, maybe suggesting that writers write a first draft without worrying overmuch about rules, I could understand and agree with such counsel. Writers definitely shouldn’t be creating an early draft with an editor sitting on one shoulder, slowing them down and telling them not to use certain words, maybe even suggesting that an early draft must be perfect
But that wasn’t the thrust of the article. The advice—the very forceful advice—was to ignore advice from others because only the writer knew what was good or bad about his stories—no one else could judge the merits of his work. Readers of the blog post were encouraged to not bother to learn but to only feel as they wrote and to be guided by their feelings regarding their writing projects.
I’m sorry, but that’s garbage.
Yes, fiction is art, and writers need to be creative. They need to do their own thing and push boundaries. But writing fiction also requires skills. And skills can be both learned and taught.
In what other field would anyone advise others not to learn their job? We wouldn’t tell a surgeon not to learn anatomy and how tissue and organs react when someone slices into them. We wouldn’t tell doctors not to learn about bleeding, and those with knowledge and experience would certainly teach med students that patients could die from blood loss, so they must follow protocols and procedures.
Doctors learn about infection, they learn how body parts are connected, they learn about disease and injury and the ways the body can recover.
Doctors learn how all the systems of the body work together and how a change, even a minor change, to one system can affect each of the other systems and affect them each in different ways and to different degrees.
The same is true in fiction writing.
The elements are connected, and a change in one can cause changes in every other element. The writer who doesn’t know this is not only at a disadvantage, but he can end up creating chaos with a simple change, the effects of which could have been anticipated or known if he only knew something about how the elements were linked.
Such knowledge is readily available through books and articles, through classroom instruction, and through writing advice, rules, and techniques passed from one writer to the next.
Truck drivers learn the rules of the road and they learn how to handle their vehicles. Yet even if drivers have driven cars for years, they likely know little about driving a truck. Driving a truck requires different skills and knowledge. Anyone who thinks a loaded 18-wheeler can stop as quickly as a small car has no business being behind the wheel of that 18-wheeler. A driver new to trucks wouldn’t even know how to park a big rig. A new driver might not even be able to put a truck in gear.
I can see the rationale for encouraging an artist to be free to explore his art, but there’s no reason to tell him not to learn, not to get the best education he can. And there’s no reason for any artist to learn from scratch what others before him have learned and have willingly passed on. If there was no way to learn what others before us had already learned, with individuals gaining no knowledge beyond that which we learn through our own experiences, the arts would surely suffer. Each artist or writer would make the same mistakes others had been making for thousands of years. But we don’t have to ignore what others have already learned—the knowledge is there for using. And developing. And expanding on.
There’s nothing wrong with building on the foundations of those who came before.
Every art, every discipline, has a body of knowledge. And that knowledge is marvelous.
Musicians don’t have to devise new notes in order to come up with new songs. They learn to play and sing the same notes every other musician knows and still they’re able to use those to create their own music.
Painters learn techniques that have been proven. Even if a painter devises a new style, he still learns how to portray light in his paintings. He learns how different brushes and different brush strokes and different paints produce a variety of effects. He learns tricks for creating effects using different media.
And he learns this not only through trial and error, but through the knowledge and advice of others. Knowledge gleaned by others and passed to new artists can help them learn much faster than if they had to learn every bit of knowledge through their own experience.
The artist learns how to use his tools and then creates something new with them. He certainly doesn’t ignore what others have learned, both the positive and negative lessons—he learns both what works and what doesn’t. He learns why some options work and some don’t. Ignoring this knowledge would be foolish. Ignoring the depth and breadth of knowledge, acting as if such knowledge doesn’t exist, is unreasonable.
Judging Our Own Work
And I have to disagree that the writer is the best judge of her work. That’s simply not true for every writer.
The knowledgeable and experienced writer? Yes, she knows her strengths. But she still has weaknesses. And it’s likely she’s blind to those weaknesses. That outside eye is always helpful to point out weaknesses and even make suggestions to overcome such weaknesses.
A writer who doesn’t know his craft definitely isn’t the best judge of his work. A writer who doesn’t know how to write effective dialogue or doesn’t know there’s such a thing as ineffective dialogue isn’t going to write effective dialogue. A writer who doesn’t know correct grammar or doesn’t care about it isn’t going to be able to communicate effectively with readers. A writer who doesn’t know how cliches and repetition can dull a passage won’t bother to cut either from his stories.
The writer who doesn’t know how to include subtext, who doesn’t know what it is, won’t weave it into his dialogue. The writer who doesn’t see colors won’t include them in his descriptions. The writer who doesn’t know the importance of scenes is likely to include much more narrative summary and fewer scenes than is good for a story.
The writer who doesn’t understand the elements of genre isn’t likely to highlight or even include those elements in his story and will therefore write a story that doesn’t satisfy the genre’s lovers.
And these are just a few of a story’s elements. Can you imagine what kind of story is produced by the writer who doesn’t know the elements that are necessary for a successful story in a particular genre? Who doesn’t know how to manipulate those elements? Who doesn’t know how to rewrite to highlight the elements that will bring life to his story? Who was told that the rules for grammar and plot, character and dialogue didn’t matter?
The elements of fiction do matter. As do the rules for writing stories that readers can both follow and appreciate.
If we’re talking about someone simply wanting to give writing a go for the fun of it, for a challenge, then that individual doesn’t necessarily need to embark on a course of study in the writing arts. But how will the hobbyist even know what he can accomplish if he doesn’t learn anything about his tools and materials? If he doesn’t know which tools are available to him, he won’t use them. And if he doesn’t make use of the variety of tools, he won’t ever write a story that’s as full and rich as it could be.
Thus even those writing for fun and challenge would benefit from knowledge and advice.
And an individual who wants to be a writer, who actually wants to do it well, owes it to himself to learn the craft and to learn to use his tools.
As a carpenter uses a hammer for some tasks, a saw for others, and a drill for still others, so writers have different tools for different jobs. Tools have purposes, and if a writer doesn’t know the purposes of his tools and doesn’t have experience using those tools, what he creates won’t resemble a solid piece of fiction. Just imagine the carpenter using a saw for every task—what he builds won’t be put together as solidly as the construction put together using the proper tools for each job.
If you don’t learn rules and techniques, all the feelings in the world will get you nowhere. If you don’t know techniques for expressing feelings, if you don’t know which fiction elements can affect emotions in both character and reader, which writing techniques are best for displaying emotions, any attempts to express emotions or create them in the reader will be hit or miss at best.
A writer who feels as he creates or as he reads his own work is no guarantee that any other reader will also be overcome with emotion. There are techniques for creating emotions in the reader, and the writer experiencing emotions as he writes is not one of them.
Word of Caution
I’m fairly sure that most readers of The Editor’s Blog aren’t looking for advice that says you don’t need to learn how to write to actually write, but I will share this word of caution—be careful about the writing advice you listen to. Look for clarification if you need more information when someone shares advice or tips. Look also for verification from multiple sources. I’m not saying that multiple sources can’t all be mistaken, but if several sources promote the same advice, it’s likely that they, and you, are on to something.
Do write creatively—yes, give us something new and different. But give it to us in ways that we can appreciate and understand. Write in a manner that allows us to follow your characters as they explore their worlds. Don’t stop us at the borders of your books because you refused to ask for advice on how to lure readers into a story, because you didn’t follow recommendations on how to hook readers.
And once we’re inside your story world, give us something to hold our attention. Captivate us with word choices and with plot and characters who entice. And then satisfy us by giving your story the ending it deserves.
Get yourself an education in both writing and fiction—then get yourself some experience in both—and use what you learn to write engaging and memorable stories.
My intention with this article isn’t to shame someone for their advice. But such harmful advice shouldn’t be encouraged or ignored, not when people actually think it’s helpful or worth following.
When you leave The Editor’s Blog, I want you to be encouraged and armed with knowledge. I want you to be ready to face your writing and editing with every tool and skill you need to master the task.