Writers: Why You Shouldn't Listen to Others

(And Why You Shouldn't Listen to Me)

I receive an endless feed of articles on my social media accounts that profess to offer advice, tips and information to authors about how to write, edit and sell books.

The titles of the articles often make bold, simple promises, which is why they spread so widely. It's why they appear on my feed. I clicked on a few myself, so more showed up. Sometimes the advice comes from authors who have published and sold far more than I ever will. More often, it comes from authors who have never published.

We're drawn to these articles. I continually find myself clicking links, partly out of a desire to gain perspective from other writers or would-be writers, but also partly out of a hopeful curiosity to see if there really are easy answers. To see if they know something I don't know.

I think that many authors, myself included, are inherently somewhat insecure and for good reason. We put ourselves out there, investing thousands of hours into work that generally doesn't pay a thing. And even though it doesn't pay and even though it has taken that much time and effort, we're still subjected to criticism (sometimes valid, sometimes nit-picky) from people who have never even tried to write something themselves.

Writing is hard. Really really hard. When things are hard, we seek out advice and quick fixes. We look for anything that might make the process a little easier; a little more certain. 

That person has an article! we think. They've obviously had some success. I should figure out how to do whatever they did.

We feel that someone somewhere out there must have an answer.

I have an answer, too. You might not like it. I won't even make you wait for the end of the article. I'll tell you right now and then you can close this page and never return if you like.

Hard work. Damn hard work. Stick to it. Try different things. Write something, make it the best you can and then let it go, move on and write something else. It might sell, it might not. That's it. There's no secret, you just have to do what you already knew you had to do: sit down, focus and write your story.

But don't listen to me. My advice is no good. I don't know any more than you do.

I really don't. And neither does anyone else.

I recently read an article that inspired me to write this post. It was called "5 Things You Need to Cut From Your Writing Right Now!" or something to that effect.

It got me angry.

These universal turn-offs in writing will make your reader dump your book for good,

it boldly claimed, as though there are any such universal turn-offs.

I've read a lot of articles lately warning emphatically against sins such as

  • passive voice,
  • flowery prose,
  • dialogue descriptors other than the word 'said',
  • the evils of the cliché
  • and why the world might just end in flame if you ever, ever consider telling the reader something rather than showing them.

It's all well and good to make yourself aware of general writing rules and conventions. It's very important, in fact. As a writer, you must learn the accepted techniques of your craft, but only so that you can be intentional when you then go ahead and break those rules.

Do your research. Study the art of writing. Any artist, musician, or professional who wants to be taken seriously has a responsibility to build their technique in this way, but only with the intent to expand beyond the accepted techniques and create something new and unique.

My personal philosophy in life is that every rule has an exception. Everything is bad for you when taken to the extreme, but most things aren't harmful when used in moderation. I typically shun absolutes, and many of these articles deal only in absolutes.

Take, for example, the absolute that there are "universal turn-offs" and that you should never ever commit them. This is inherently flawed. The evidence would suggest that there could be no such thing as a universal turn-off.

Just look at the wide variety of writing styles, genres and reader preferences in any bookstore. Some people love a well crafted mystery or thriller with unexpected twists and turns. Some people don't want anything unexpected at all. Some people love a quick, simple read written in simple language. Some people want a descriptive and poetic piece of writing.

Flowery prose simply and unequivocally is not a universal turn-off, yet it appears on the list. It may universally turn-off the author of the article, but it certainly doesn't apply to all readers; maybe not even the majority of readers.

For every Hemingway, who surgically and relentlessly cuts every ounce of fat, leaving nothing but the raw, bare bones of the story there is an equally successful Tolkien who tells the reader how many petals are on the flower underfoot, what shade those petals are, what their fragrance is and if they have any medicinal properties. After describing whether the rain had left any dew on the flower, Tolkien will then teach the reader about the place of the flower in the lore and mythology of the Elder Days.

Neither is right. Neither is wrong.

For every lover of Tolkien, there is a lover of Hemingway. For every hater of Tolkien, there is someone who absolutely cannot read even one page of Hemingway.

My advice, for what it's worth, is to tell your story. Tell it in the way you know how. Tell it in the way you want to tell it; in the way you think it needs to be told.

You might find readers who hate it and disparage you for writing it.

You will also find readers who love it and enthusiastically seek out more of your work.

The point is that you wrote it. You achieved what most never do.

And as long as you have poured yourself into it; as long as you have worked hard and put in the effort; as long as you have lovingly crafted it and carefully edited it, it will be what it is supposed to be.