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Here’s what’s wrong with writing tips

What you need to know if you're starting to write

You might have heard of several different ‘rules’ for writing and you might have heard contradictory advice. Confused? Read on.

Here’s what’s wrong with writing tips

Here’s the thing about the ‘rules’, the well-known, often repeated ones anyway. They’re almost all right and they’re almost all wrong at the same time. How so? Let’s look at some of them:

  • Show not tell.
  • Write every day.
  • Write what you know.
  • Murder your darlings.

What have they all got in common?

  1. They all short – too short to apply to every writer, in every situation.
  2. For each one, you (or people on the internet!) can come up with ways in which they aren’t applicable or are downright unhelpful.
  3. They’re presented as if the action you need to take as a result is self-evident – it’s not.
  4. They contain nuggets of truth so valuable that they get passed on, often out of context with no tacit knowledge attached.
  5. Once you’ve experienced how these work in your writing life the way they work seems obvious, hence numbers 3 and 4 above.
  6. If you don’t show up and write, collecting tips isn’t going to help you!
  7. They contain a hidden ‘yes but’.
  8. They contain a hidden wisdom.
  9. They contain a hidden foolishness.
  10. They are not supposed to be sticks to hit yourself with. If you find yourself doing this, try the ‘yes but’ conversation I suggest below.

What’s a ‘yes but’?

Let’s delve deeper into the idea of the hidden ‘yes but.’ Imagine a conversation between you and a writing teacher who only speaks in Creative Writing aphorisms.

“Show not tell.”

Yes showing is important, but I need some moments of summary narration in my novel.”

“Write every day.”

Yes, I’ll try to write in bed every day before I get up, but I’ve got two kids and a demanding job. I don’t want to be too hard on myself. ”

“Murder your darlings!”

Yes, sometimes I hold on to pet phrases or scene that I should cut, but there’s nothing wrong with taking pleasure in my writing. Sometimes I write for the sake of it!”

You get to decide if your ‘but’ is valid – great now you know what the issue is, you can work on it – or whether it’s an excuse. It isn’t necessarily an excuse, neither is it necessarily valid.

What do I mean by a hidden wisdom?

Imagine you found a dirty looking stone lying on the beach, took it home, polished it up and discovered it was a diamond. The wisdom behind ‘Show not tell’ could be ‘take your readers along with you, allow them to imagine your world and look around’ or ‘don’t give us all the plot at once’ or ‘explore the objective correlative’ (i.e. link the emotional content to something concrete). In fact I think ‘use the objective correlative’ is often what’s meant by ‘show not tell’ in a myriad of ways.

The wisdom behind ‘write every day’ is ‘write regularly’ or ‘sometimes a regular writing habit is the solution to your problem.’ The wisdom behind ‘write what you know’ could be ‘find what you love and write from that place’ or ‘Want to write about something? Do your research!’ Crucially, it doesn’t mean only write what you already know about. And that brings me to the issue of hidden foolishness.

What do I mean by a hidden foolishness?

The ‘hidden foolishness’ in a writing rule comes either comes from applying the writing ‘rule’ too literally or as if it were blanket guidance OR from a series of negatives:

  • not taking context into consideration
  • not working out your ‘yes, but’ and
  • not polishing up the writing rule to look for its hidden wisdom.

Postscript

You might have to ask other writers or read what they’ve written to discover a writing rule’s ‘hidden wisdom’ if you’re just starting out, which is why books like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird or Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones can be so powerful to read.

More soon. Until then, happy writing,

Louise xx

P.S. You might also like ‘What are the rules of good writing?‘ and ‘A Man with a Gun.’

P.P.S. If you like this post, check out my ‘small steps guides’ to the writing process.

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