As with any artist or fellow writer reading this, I’ve accrued a considerable collection of writing advice over the years. And as with any collection of advice, there’s the good stuff and the bad.
Now, I may not have an actual collection of advice, but when something resonates, it sticks. I wanted to share and elaborate on some of the best pieces of writing advice that I’ve heard—the stuff that has stuck with me and which I try to carry with me into everything that I write. This is some of the good stuff. Rest assured, there will be a follow-up post for the bad.
(Note: As much as any piece of writing advice can, I hope many of these can be applied to more than just writing. Many of them can and will apply to any creative process, and sometimes to everyday life)
#1. It’s Not About Inspiration
I first heard a version of this advice years ago. It wasn’t until more recent years, when I began to truly integrate it into my creative process, that it made any real sense to me.
I don’t know how far back it goes nor how relevant it still is, but there is an idea—more a stigma—that paints an unfortunate picture of writers as these romantic figures who seek muses or dire situations that will ignite the flame of inspiration inside of them. This is the idea, the cliché, that a writer cannot truly create nor be competently productive unless something or someone motivates or inspires them.
This certainly doesn’t sound harmful on the surface, in fact it may even sound normal. That’s certainly what I thought for a long time. Of course you have to be inspired to write. Isn’t that obvious? However, I believe it is more harmful of an idea than it is a helpful or useful one. It’s an idea that could potentially be detrimental to a person’s creative output.
The advice is this: The writer, or artist, must self-motivate. It’s that simple—and when it comes to the blank page, or the blank canvas, or even the beginning of each day regardless of any art, it’s that difficult. If an artist relied solely upon exterior sources for inspiration and motivation, when would those moments come? They would surely come, probably out in someplace beautiful, or maybe in the shower, or while on a long drive—none of which are ideal places for actually creating. Not to discredit the importance of the kinds of things that do feed motivation, but relying on any kind of outside source for motivation is the same thing as substituting a drug-trip for looking at the world with wonder and curiosity. The experience becomes inseparable from the substance in your mind and you come to rely on it.
Ever since I began to treat my own writing as work, my productivity has seemed to skyrocket, and my writing and editing process has transformed. And it’d be easy to think of this as boring or insulting to an “inspired artist” who doubts this piece of advice, and I understand. It doesn’t sound like fun. It doesn’t sound wondrous. I used to think that having a committed writing practice was a stilted and actually boring idea. By writing process I mean not necessarily a schedule, but at least a semblance of structure which, for me, is simply this: write every day. It doesn’t matter when or where, just sit down at one point and write. Little by little I’m shaping this self-motivation, hoping I can structure it all the more: write for at least two hours every day; write a few lines when I’d usually be waiting for the next thing; take some notes for characters or the story when I’d otherwise be scrolling through my phone.
There are plenty of writers who will scorn this in the same way I used to, and I say again: I understand. But I can assure you of what I’ve learned in my own personal experience: doing this will not demystify the wonderful mystery that is the creative process; doing this will not trivialize your art or somehow make it banal or uninspired. On the contrary, I have fallen in love with the discipline that taking this advice has given me, because it is turning me into the kind of artist I want to be. It is not a limiting construction around the process of writing, it is a launching pad.
I’ll summarize in this way, as I’ve heard it put this way before: An artist turns pro not by monetary validation, not by success from an outside source, but by deciding they are pro and carrying that attitude, that approach, that decision, into their artistic process.
#2. Be Ruthless but Forgiving
This is a simple one. I encountered it in a book called The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, by Stephen Koch, one of the best and most comprehensive books on writing that I’ve read.
It comes into play when talking about another piece of advice that I don’t strictly agree with: Write every day. Now, personally, I do write every day, or at least try to. But to claim that this is an absolute, as far as advice goes, is ridiculous. From a practical point of view, it isn’t always possible. And in the context of mental health, it isn’t always healthy or productive. So I prefer: Be Ruthless but forgiving. Strive to write every day. Self-motivate and make yourself write as much as you can, because that’s what it’ll ultimately come down to: You have to make yourself sit down and write. Be ruthless. But at the same time, be forgiving. You have to give it your best, but understand that your best is going to change from day to day, from hour to hour. In that sense, you have to learn to forgive yourself as effortlessly as you push yourself.
#3. Never Stop Learning Your Craft
At some point in my developmental years as a writer (though, really, all our years should be considered developmental), I adopted the attitude that books on writing were stupid and bullshit and that nobody could teach or “learn” “the craft of writing.” I add an extra bit of angst and quotation marks to that sentence because this was high school. And I was a very angsty high-schooler.
I don’t know where this attitude came from, but it seemed to stem from a denial of authority. I was a young existentialist before I knew what existentialism (as a school of thought) actually meant, and in my now retrospectively amusing angst and ground-stomping naivety, thought there was nothing about the writing process that could be learned from a book or taught in a class. I look back now and shake my head and think, “I was an idiot.” And I was, and I’d love to buy my English/Creative Writing teacher a beer sometime and properly apologize for him having to put up with me for so many years. If you’re reading this (which is possible, though I doubt it), Mr. Phillips, that’s you.
But I digress.
There has always been a rebellious nature inherent in me personally, and I learned a lot by growing up with that in me and in many ways—ironically—rebelling against that very nature to realize that being contrary for the sake of being contrary is a cul-de-sac of self-congratulating thought. Which is to say, I don’t truly regret ever having had this attitude, since there is a wisdom in overcoming it that was necessary for me to experience, but it held me back in so many more ways than I ever could’ve realized before. If I may be sarcastic toward myself and perhaps overenthusiastic in simplifying this aspect of this advice: Be open.
I won’t say that every writer needs or should seek out more conventional means of self-education in their own craft. There is so much more to be learned simply by writing than most books or classes could probably teach. But seeking out ways to better learn your own craft will introduce you to things you may not have known before, or perhaps you knew but didn’t know how to apply. It will provide for you a necessary foundation, even if that foundation is strictly grammar.
And a writer is going to write anyway. Why not absorb what you can otherwise? Why not hone and refine your craft? Why ever settle? It is the same in everyday life, I think. It is so important not to lose your sense of curiosity and wonder. In the same way, in my own personal interpretation of this advice, I intend never to grow stagnant in my craft.
I now own a small number of books on writing, handpicked of course and skimmed beforehand to ensure they’re the kinds I want to invest in. And though I’m terrible at reading non-fiction, what I’ve learned from these books so far has been invaluable and even wonderful. Many of the pieces of advice in this blog post incorporate versions of what I’ve met in the pages of these books. And it’s easy to forget that although an artistic community can be a wonderful and enriching thing, the creative process—for artists such as writers—is primarily a solitary thing. It’s easy to get stuck in your own head, to create an island for yourself. I’ve found that the right books on the craft can provide a bridge from that island. Plus, there’s nothing like learning. Like really, truly learning, especially when it’s about that thing—that art, that craft—that gives your life so much meaning.
#4. The Importance of the First Draft—and of the Second Draft
This is another short and simple one—and an incredibly important one. Neil Gaiman has talked about it, Stephen King has talked about it, so on and so on.
It is incredibly important to finish your projects. There is the common advice to plough through the first draft and finish it without doing any editing, which I still maintain is impossible, but it’s something to strive for. By impossible, I mean specifically the editing part. I often edit sentences as I write them, and it works for me because it doesn’t interrupt my flow, and part of the sheer joy of the writing process is, for me, the construction of sentences. But the idea remains the same: if the story is working and moving, finish it. Keep a notebook handy for large-scale edits that come to you as you go, and if you absolutely must go back and edit, then do what you must. As long as you finish it. Once you’ve finished it, you have something to work with as a whole. You can then shape it, reshape it, reorganize and deconstruct and reconstruct.
And that’s where the importance of the second draft comes in, just as important as the first. No draft is more or less important than the last, just make sure that you give yourself to each one and see it through.
#5. Your Art is Not a Hobby
For this post, this will be the last piece of advice--though there will be subsequent posts, and of course a “Bad Writing Advice” to go along.
And this piece of advice ties directly into the first in the most wonderful of ways.
It is maddeningly common, as a writer, to hear some variation of this: “Oh, you’re a writer? You know, I’ve always wanted to write a book, I just never had the time.” Or, “Maybe when I retire I’ll finally write that book.” Or anything of that sort. At this point it’s a cliché to say I’ve heard this a lot, but only because it’s true: I’ve heard this a lot, from a lot of people. It’s ultimately harmless and I know it’s someone’s way of trying to relate, or of trying to get on the same page. But there is an underlying, hopefully unintended message to this: That your art is something done in your spare time. That it’s a hobby. That it’s easy, because obviously they’d do it too if only they had the time.
That’s how this ties into the first piece of advice. A true artist makes their time. It isn’t about having the time, it isn’t about “having a book in you that you’ll get to one day,” it’s about making the time. Or, for some artists, myself included, it’s that you can’t even help yourself from doing it. It’s what you can’t keep yourself from doing, and you probably happen to love it so you discipline yourself into doing it as much as you would be doing it anyway.
In our world it’s very easy to believe those external sources and stigmas and ideas about art and artists, and it’s very easy to fall into despair or resignation. That’s why taking this kind of advice is so important.
Your art is not your hobby. For some it is, of course, and that is more than perfectly okay. I’m with… Ray Bradbury? I think it was Ray Bradbury who said something about how we should all create art, even if it’s terrible, because it is a beautiful way of being human and taking advantage of the simple, amazing fact that we can express ourselves and make art. So yes, create art, even if it’s a hobby to you. It is a beautiful hobby, and it makes you no less an artist.
Even so, there are those of us who create art not as a hobby, but as a passion and a way of life. Do not let anyone make you believe your art is a hobby. This doesn’t mean it has to be all that you do. You may have a day job or a career that sustains you and allows you to make art, but if your art is what you really want to be doing for a living and the rest is there to support and sustain that, still: do not call it a hobby. It is your passion. It is your lifestyle. It is the fire underneath everything else. And because that fire is inseparable from you, it’d be a shame to let any external source extinguish or dim it.
And now we’re getting cheesy, so I’ll leave it at that.
What do you think of these pieces of advice? What else would you add or take away? Let me know! I hope you found some of these helpful in some way. There’ll be more to come soon.