Can They Really Teach Me How to Write?

Any new writer is inundated with what he or she can learn. We have writing books, writing classes, and the many, many blogs we can find with the click of a mouse. But — regardless of whether you think writers are born or made — can any of these things help us?

The easy, unhelpful answer is… maybe.

Sometimes writing advice is just what we need to hone our craft, but often it’s white noise, the multitude of the voices rendering a new writer helpless. The usefulness of writing advice depends on three things: the writer, the advice, and the person giving the advice.

The Advice

For advice to be useful, it must first be good. This might sound like something obvious, but there is a lot of bad advice out there. The best thing to do is to look for a specific topic. “How to Write a Book” is going to bring up a lot of stuff that you won’t leave. However, if you’re having trouble with tension or dialogue, those are good things to look for.

However, if they tell you that it’s a guaranteed method of doing something, I’ve found that it doesn’t usually work. There is no step-by-step process of writing other than “put words on paper.” Everyone has things that work for them, and it’s important to keep in mind that writing is a craft and an art.

It is a craft, though, which means that there are specific ways of doing certain things. Learn how to spell and learn at least intermediate grammar. You don’t have to be perfect, but we have the internet at our disposal. If you’re not sure about something, take five minutes to look it up.

In other words, be specific, but not formulaic. If the advice doesn’t make sense to you, then it probably won’t work for you. There is no magical formula for great writing. Just use what works for you; a lot of this will be trial and error.

The Professional

This is another hard one. Some writers can’t teach, and shouldn’t. Their methods exist only in their heads or they only work for those writers. Some teachers (especially if they’re editors or some other sort of professional) aren’t wonderful writers, but they understand what works or doesn’t work.

Voice is important to me, which is likely why I gravitate toward advice from the writers I read. If I don’t like how something is being said I often (for better or for worse) ignore it. I sure I’m starting to sound familiar, but use what works for you. If you don’t like a certain person, chances are you won’t like their method or advice either.

You, The Writer

Writing advice, like any other, is about how you take it. It’s like it was in school; if you’re not willing to learn, you won’t. Not everything will work for you, but if you dismiss everything out of hand that’s never going to work for you either. Many of these people have gone through the process of learning, so it doesn’t hurt to listen.

That said, don’t take everything as gospel. They don’t know everything. Writing 500 words in the morning, and only 500 words — no more and no less — might work for some people, but I know I would lose my train of though if I stopped mid-sentence, or mid-paragraph (which I’ve done before). However, I also know that if I let my Muse run wild without any sort of deadline I’ll get maybe two stories a year. Not books, either, stories.

I’m going to say it again: use what works for you. Don’t bog yourself down with too much pre-writing research either. It’s a balm and a distraction. At one point you just need to write.

To close things up, here’s my favorite piece of writing advice from my favorite author, Neil Gaiman. It’s often just what I need to get working on my current piece.

Start at the beginning. Or, at least start somewhere: it may turn out to have been the beginning. Keep going to the end.

Do you read writing books or blogs? Do you have any good pieces of writing advice you’d like to share with us?



6 comments on “Can They Really Teach Me How to Write?

  1. a.j.gryphons says:

    Not quite true. There are some writers that are formulaic and it works for them. Roberts, Grishom, Koontz, King, etc.

    • b.h.quinn says:

      As far as I’m aware they created their formulas. I think it works if (a) that’s your genre (mystery especially), and (b) you’re the one who figured out what works for you and your audience.

      There’s also a difference between a formula and framework in my mind. Framework helps you learn how stories work, but a formula says that if you do this-and-that, you’ll become a bestseller. Maybe it’s the difference in expectation management and ease that differentiates them for me.

  2. There is no universal rule on how to write a good book or paper; except that one must be willing to write their ideas, share them with an audience, and revise as necessary. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer that gets it right the first time. Usually the person has to revise a draft because either they didn’t like how it came out or a certain editor vetoed the idea altogether.

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