This month’s GYWO discussion post topic was debunking writing myths, and I thought I would post my article here as well.
Last year, I finally got around to reading On Writing by Stephen King, and he has a lot to answer for in terms of writing myths. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of good stuff in that book, and not all the myths listed below derive from it, but people have taken some of his advice and turned it into very rigid ‘rules’ for writing that can prove both restrictive and discouraging.
So, here’s my take on some of the most popular writing ‘rules’ out there, and why they don’t always apply.
1. Write Every Day
This one comes up *a lot*, with the suggestion being that the only way to get ahead with your writing is to write every single day. Now, I’m sure this works really well for some people, and it’s definitely a good idea to build a regular writing habit. However, writing every single day just isn’t practical for some people, and fitting your writing into whatever tiny gaps your schedule allows throughout the week doesn’t mean you’re not a ‘proper writer’. Also, I tried writing every day for about ten days last summer and absolutely hated it. It became a horrible chore, and my focus narrowed entirely to how many words I had produced, rather than enjoying the process. Three or four times a week, for a scheduled session of at least 90 minutes, is what works for me, and I’m sticking to it.
2. Show, Don’t Tell
This is the idea that ‘showing’ what’s going on in your story, through dialogue, character action and direct scenes is always better than ‘telling’ it through bald statements, summary and exposition. And for the most part, showing is better. Demonstrating that your character is unsettled by having a shiver go down their spine (cliche aside) is more effective than stating that they’re scared. However, this rule is often taken to extremes, with people suggesting that ‘telling’ should never be used. And that’s just plain not true. You do want to avoid pages and pages of explanations, and dialogue tags other than ‘said’ are generally a bad idea, but sometimes you just need to cut to the chase and spell something out, or summarise a lengthy period of time when little of significance happens. Be aware of this one, but don’t let yourself be a slave to it.
3. Never Use Adverbs
As with the example above, this is another ‘rule’ that shouldn’t be taken to extremes. Yes, there are often better ways to describe things than by using an adverb, and they are best avoided when explaining how dialogue is spoken (usually, you should dispense with this altogether – if your dialogue needs explaining, rewrite your dialogue). However, adverbs are not wholly the enemy, and a few sprinkled around where it really is the most expedient and expressive way of conveying something is fine.
4. Write What You Know
This is a ‘rule’ that’s often misunderstood. If all writers only composed material based on their direct experience, it would all be very self-indulgent and lacking in creativity. As writers, we have active imaginations and we should absolutely use them to make stuff up. You’re not likely to have actually met an alien, but that doesn’t mean you can’t put aliens in your stories. What this ‘rule’ is trying to say is that you should draw on your experience and emotions to inform your writing and make your characters’ reactions more credible. It doesn’t mean you can’t imagine them in a weird and wonderful situation you could never experience in real life.
5. You Can Only Write When the Muse is Willing
I fell foul of this ‘rule’ for a long time, always waiting for the ‘right frame of mind’ so that my writing would flow with ease and grace. Sometimes, that would happen and it was amazing. But the rest of the time, I just didn’t get anything done. I spent years, wishing I had more time and more energy to dedicate to my writing – but my most prolific writing periods were always when I was busiest with other things. That was when my juices were flowing and I had to cram my writing into tiny spaces. More recently, I’ve discovered that if I just sit down and get on with it (starting with a clear, itemised list, of course) I can always get *something* done, even if it isn’t my best work. But small progress is still progress and it’s important to get into the habit of just cracking on with it, even if you don’t feel that enthused. Otherwise, you’ll waste a lot of time waiting for divine inspiration that probably won’t arrive.
6. Writing is a Solitary Passtime
Look at where we are. This community itself tells us that this one isn’t true. And some of my best writing has come out of interacting with other people. I love bouncing ideas off friends, getting feedback on my writing, collaborating on projects, or just getting together with other writers to exchange experiences and moan about how difficult our chosen craft is. I always come away from contact with other writers more energised and more enthused. So, don’t lock yourself away in an attic, under the impression that you have to be alone to write your magnum opus. Get involved, make friends, share your writing life – it will only improve the experience.
7. Real Writers Find Writing Easy
This is just plain ridiculous. I can guarantee that even the most famous and successful writers have days when it’s almost impossible to get any words down and even contemplating writing feels like dragging themselves and all their worldly possessions through sucking mud. And generally, they’re not shy about letting the world know it. I think every interview I’ve ever read with a professional writer has referenced the difficulties they’ve faced with their writing. We’re all in this together, and it’s always going to be tough at least some of the time.
8. A Debut Novel is A Writer’s First Novel
The automatic thought when a book is advertised as a ‘debut’ is to assume it’s the first thing the author has written. But that’s very unlikely to be the case. It just means it’s the first novel they’ve managed to get published, and invariably there have been failed attempts and many rewrites before that publication happened.
9. Writers are Born, Not Made
Following on from the above, every single writer has to learn their craft and spend time improving it. If it happens at all, it must be incredibly rare that someone would dash off a first attempt at writing, and have it turn out perfectly first time. Every writer has a folder somewhere with their earliest painful and embarrassing efforts (assuming they haven’t burned them) – and if they claim that isn’t true, they’re just plain lying. Some writers are more talented than others, but techniques can be learned, and everyone has room for improvement (and the ability to work to achieve it).
10. Writing Method X is Better Than Writing Method Y
If you take away anything from this post, it should be this. Every writer has different techniques, rituals, work ethics, routines. No one method of writing is going to work for everyone. The most important thing to do is experiment, be creative, find out what works for you, and then rock it, no matter what anyone else says. There are no hard and fast rules that are set in stone and unable to be broken. If you find you compose best dictating into your smartphone while water-skiiing, then go for it. Nobody can tell you how you should approach your writing – it’s yours and nobody else’s and you should go about it in whatever way best suits you.
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