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Let's face it, some of the writing advice that floats around the internet is pretty dumb. Here's the one that really gets my knickers in a twist:
Don’t read other people’s work when you’re writing, because it will influence your voice.
Whoever thought that one up was an egomaniac, not a writer. I will concede that there are very special people out there who have wholly unique voices, are deep and dedicated thinkers, and are probably best left alone with nature and God because the rest of us are, compared to them, a bunch of ants. The French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, he who wrote The Little Prince, is reputed to have only been interested in reading two books (Pascal’s Pensées and Plutarch’s Lives), but I bet he read them ALL THE TIME and pondered them deeply, as well as observing the world around him at a level most of us don’t achieve.
No, it’s not those people that I’m talking about. It’s the rest of us. Since I write every day, if I didn’t read while I was writing I’d never read. If I thought that meant I’d become a profound thinker, I might be prepared to make that deal—but if I’m honest with myself, if I didn’t read my thoughts would probably become increasingly repetitive and trivial and I’d start watching Fox News.
Writers need other people’s stories (and in this I include non-fiction, as good non-fiction always tells a story). It’s like a big conversation that started thousands of years ago, and that with luck will go on for another few thousand. Who are your influences? Goodreads asked me when I set up my author page, because a writer usually doesn’t become a writer out of nowhere. We are readers first, and while most books are forgettable, some make an indelible impression on us that make us want to put down the book and pick up the pen. If you’re not reading, you’re not part of the conversation—you’re talking to yourself.
My counter-advice: read all the time, and let other people’s work soak into your brain and spill over into your writing. But learn to develop a critical eye when it comes to your own writing, and observe where the fine line lies between writing that’s informed and infused by all that you’ve learned from other people, and writing that’s derivative. (And even derivative writing has its place—just as art students learn by copying the work of the great masters, a writer can learn a lot by trying to write in the style of a favorite author. Usually, what you learn is how difficult it is.)
More useless writing advice:
Write what you know.
It’s absolutely true that when a writer intimately understands a place, or time, or profession, or issue, their writing can be that much deeper and richer than it might otherwise be. Angela’s Ashes wouldn’t be as powerful a book as it is if Frank McCourt hadn’t lived that childhood. Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, began the novel by writing pieces in the voice of her family’s maid. So yes, writing what you know can be an effective way to give your writing depth.
My problem with this piece of advice is that people quote it all the time as if it’s the only way to write well. It’s not. There are two great tools that can come to the writer’s aid in any situation: research and imagination. You can project your writer’s mind into just about any character’s if you take the time, do your homework and stretch that imagination till it hurts. For many of us, trying to write what we know would just result in a whole bunch of whiny trash about the hardships of suburban life*, and although there are a few people who do that well, most of us don’t.
My counter-advice: Write what appeals to you. If you don’t know much about it, research. If you can’t find facts, make bits up. If you’ve made stuff up about a real person or situation or place, be honest about this in your Author’s Note.
I’m on a roll now. Here are two more bits of dumb writing advice:
Read books about writing.
Don’t read books about writing.
Yes, I really did just contradict myself, but bear with me. I think there’s a point in most writers’ lives when a writing craft book or two can come in handy, but I’m against dogmatic pronouncements about whether you should read craft books, and especially against pronoucements as to which books you should read. Aside from owning (and using) a good dictionary, a thesaurus, and a style manual and/or punctuation/grammar reference, I believe that most writers should take their time in building up their writing advice library. The most important step toward becoming a writer is to write, edit, and put your work in front of some critical readers. If you’ve also read a lot of books (see above), you’ll soon start spotting the flaws in your own writing at the editing stage. If you’re courageous about putting your work in front of other people—and if you’re writing with a view to eventual publication, NOT putting it in front of people doesn’t make sense—you’ll get feedback that will guide you to where you need to be.
Frankly, a lot of books about writing won’t tell you what you need to know right now. Some of them (quite a few of them) really aren’t all that good. You’ll encounter a lot of examples from novels that you’ve never heard of (yes at least I TRIED with Angela’s Ashes and The Help, hey they both got made into movies) and a whole lot more neurotic navel-gazing or accounts of how much neurotic navel-gazing you’re going to be doing now that You are a Writer.
So, be cautious in picking up these tomes, read all of their reviews first, and if you feel you must validate your existence as a writer by reading craft books, try to make sure they apply to your specific circumstances. And take everything they say with a pinch of salt, because they might just be wrong.
And here’s my last piece of dumb writing advice:
Read writing advice posts like this instead of writing.
GET BACK TO WORK.
What’s the dumbest piece of writing advice you ever received?
*Most of us have never known real hardship. And are rich beyond the dreams of a large percentage of the world's population.