When Advice Doesn’t Work

Quick! Stop reading writing advice!

…actually, wait. You know how every single author out there seems to have a quote that says, “keep writing”? Yeah, you can take that advice. That one is gold.

Now, as to the rest of it? That advice, you can toss or keep as you see fit. When listening to writing advice, do not be blinded by the fact that the speaker is a successful author. The fact is, there are as many ways to write as their are writers. I know you’re nodding along right now, but you probably do not actually believe me, so I am going to illustrate this point with martial arts, instead.

A little-known fact on the intertubes: I am a second-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. As such, one of the major responsibilities is to teach other students how to do various kicks, punches, and blocks correctly. On the one hand, there is indubitably a correct way to execute these movements, in terms of body placement. On the other hand, every single person who does Tae Kwon Do tells their body how to do this set of things in a different way, and some of these ways are highly esoteric. It ranges from, “I need to get my foot there,” to, “I am imagining a string attached to my foot, yanking hard,” all the way through to, “I am picturing the rush of water through a mountain stream.”

And so, when teaching, the best thing a black belt can do is offer their own advice to someone who is struggling, and then say, “and if this doesn’t work for you, go ask around – all of the black belts will teach a little bit differently!” No two black belts will tell you how to execute a move in the same way, and by the time you reach black belt, you will have a philosophy built up around the way you practice. Your philosophy may even have changed a few times; part of it is learning to persevere and achieve, being open to experimentation in how to get from A to B.

I’ve heard black belts talk about the freedom of learning to work with their body and hone their muscles and flexibility, and other black belts talk about the fact that they’ve learned that their physical body is not important at all. Both of these groups have impeccable form and can do incredible things. In fact, were you to watch them do the same list of movement, you would think that they were doing the same thing. But the way they get there is completely – completely – different.

It is the same with writing. Some writers will sit and let the words pour from their fingertips, and edit later, while others agonize over each word in every sentence. Some writers do both of these, depending on the piece or their mood. Some writers let the characters guide the story, and some writers like to keep a very tight rein on their characters and plan the story out in advance. The way you get from blank page to manuscript will not be the same way that anyone else does it.

So the quote from Vonnegut that tells you that you should never, ever use semicolons? The quote from Stephen King that says that you should never even have wanted to use an outline? The quotes that tell you that your prose is either too full of adjectives, or doesn’t have enough of them? The advice that tells you that you must either read everything, or stick to the classics, lest low-class writing sneak into your mind and taint your precious writing skills? You can take it or leave it. Ask around until you find a writer whose advice speaks to you, and don’t worry that you are on the wrong track.

Keep writing. That is the holy grail of writing advice. Everything else is optional.

-M

One thought on “When Advice Doesn’t Work

  1. Hahaha, I was getting to my wit’s end with all this ironclad advice. When I noticed that various successful writers were contradicting other successful writers, well …

    By the way, I just downloaded Contract of Defiance, and I’m looking forward to starting it!
    -M

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