Top 6 Reasons to Beware of Top 10 Writing Tips
- Write Like Me. Idealism generates a lot of writing advice, self-promotion even more. The idealist sincerely believes that she has discovered some (or all!) of the secrets of good writing and wants to impart these to others, to save them time and frustration and to raise the general standard of books. The self-promoter wants—consciously or half-consciously—more people to write like she does. Rules that elevate her kind of book while downgrading other kinds mean more—well, you get the drift. The “write like me” subtext, often slyly disguised, shapes many book reviews written by authors. But what does motivation matter, you might object: I want to write like my idol. Then do. But ask yourself, in moments spared from fashioning yourself after X: a) if the world needs another X (X being, after all, out there); b) if becoming alter-X is truly your creative goal; and c) if the rich and bewildering diversity of the world’s books were to be simplified to aisles of X and pseudo-X, would the result be closer to reader heaven or hell?
- Blind Spots. No one reads, much less appreciates, everything. Not every genre, and certainly not every approach within that genre. So, while your tipster may seem to be imparting wisdom gleaned from an open-minded survey of all literature, he isn’t. No matter how avidly he’s read over decades, he’s still only nibbled at a tiny corner of the world’s books, a corner further reduced by ingrained tastes and prejudices. A good point to remember when seeking advice in general. Does your advisor know and like the kind of book you’re writing? Or are you showing, say, your wondrous crime novel set in space to someone who hates both crime fiction and sci-fi? It sounds crazily self-defeating, and it is—but I catch myself and others doing something like it all the time. Trying to please the eyes of myopes whose gaze stops short of us.
- Hidden Trade-offs. A book is an approximate thing, a negotiated settlement. Even a superb book can’t do all things well: be strikingly original, richly imagined, deep in thought and feeling; have a fascinating plot, hurtling momentum, unforgettable characters, beautiful language. An excellent book will scale a couple of these peaks and perch midway up, or barely climb, the others. Not just or even primarily because of a finite supply of talent—but more importantly, because the elements of a book tug in different directions, so that to satisfy one you have to sacrifice a bit of another. To take an obvious example, you don’t savor phrases and flip pages—not at the same time anyway. So be aware that your tipster is telling you with each tip how to improve one element of writing without necessarily disclosing what it will cost in terms of the others.
With these general caveats in mind, let’s glance at three common writing tips to show how wary realism qualifies received wisdom.
- Write every day. It’s taken me years to un-learn this chestnut. I’m still working on it. In childhood I internalized a “practice makes perfect; don’t be lazy” ethos that I still try to live by. The trouble is, I also live with recurrent mental illness, which means that for major chunks of the year, I’m incapable of writing. Whipping myself to produce at such times, as I did for decades under the banner of self-discipline, resulted in reams of incoherence, repetition, blankness…and deep frustration. This is where self-discipline becomes self-laceration and works to kill, not strengthen, the creative impulse. There’s a time to stop. Not give up—but divert to the gathering kinds of activities—daydreaming, jotting loose notions, reading (and re-reading) indiscriminately, nosing about for what’s next—that “fill the well” and are also part of writing. Learn your own creative metabolism, and nourish it diligently.
- Show, don’t tell. Another workshop truism—who’s in favor of plodding explication?—that’s been taken way too far. We fight our way back from it to a decent respect for simple utterance, since at its most extreme “show, don’t tell” involves us in contortions of drama, metaphor, evocation, and suggestion, all in order to avoid plain declaration. Of course there’s a balance to be struck, but we learned it in primary school when the freckled girl with braids showed us a cool thing—a snakeskin—and then told us, simply, where she’d got it and why she’d brought it to share. Show and tell.
- Good writing doesn’t call attention to itself. All good writing does. It’s why you pause to re-read the capsule description, the one-liner, the crisp banter, the plain sentences before a surprising twist, a tense fight scene, how boredom was made interesting, the clear paragraph setting out a complex idea or event—these and a hundred other fruits of good writing call attention to themselves and beg to be savored again and again. Elmore Leonard was fond of saying that, when revising, he cut out anything that sounded like writing. Luckily, he was kidding us (or himself)—or we would have lost the best of what can only sound like Elmore Leonard writing, writing so distinctive you constantly re-read it to marvel and puzzle at how it was done. Good writing compels attention.
Mike Barnes has published nine books across a range of genres: poetry, short fiction, novels, and memoir. His stories have appeared in Best Canadian Stories and The Journey Prize Anthology, and he has won a National Magazine Award Silver Medal in the short story category. His collection of poems, Calm Jazz Sea, was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award; and Aquarium, his first collection of stories, won the Danuta Gleed Award. His newest book is The Adjustment League (2016), the first in a trilogy of noir novels. He works as a private English tutor and lives in Toronto.