How to read writing advice
Don’t take writing advice as gospel
Most writers like to think about what they do. The process of taking a page from blank to written has fascinated us since Aristotle’s Poetics. And because we writers use our pens as thinking muscle, we write about it in order to think about it. Invariably, all sects of literature left us some kind of writing advice.
But writing advice is contradictory.
Let’s take Bukowski, for example. His opinion: “unless it comes unasked out of your heart and your mind and your mouth and your gut, don’t do it.”
Other authors, like Flaubert, hold the opposite. That “one arrives at style only with atrocious effort, with fanatical and devoted stubbornness.”
If you try to religiously follow all writing advice you receive, you’ll be pulled in so many different directions that you’ll be probably shred to pieces before you can move an inch. “Write in the morning.” “Don’t write in the morning.” “Write about what you know.” “Write about what makes you curious.”
For instance: if we were to believe in Poe’s Philosophy of Composition, where he exposes the crazy logical steps which create his most famous poem, The Raven, we would believe in this passage:
The question now arose as to the character of the word. Having made up my mind to a refrain, the division of the poem into stanzas was, of course, a corollary: the refrain forming the close to each stanza. That such a close, to have force, must be sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis, admitted no doubt: and these considerations inevitably led me to the long o as the most sonorous vowel, in connection with r as the most producible consonant (…)
Instead, let’s listen to William Faulkner for a while:
“Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him.”
There is some wisdom to what he says.There is no monolithic truth: there’s what works for you, and there’s other stuff.
Don’t take writing advice as gospel.
Be, then, supremely vain: no one really understands how your mind works. Writing advice is supposed to make you think about writing. You should approach tips and techniques like an interested skeptic, armed of many grains of salt, prepared to prod their soft bellies, check their teeth and ask for their pedigree.
Writing advice should make you pay attention to new things. Since it sheds light into other people’s process, writing advice can show you how other people get by. The way each person’s brain operates can make them work on a certain schedule, on a certain kind of desk, and you’re not supposed to do the same. You’re free to do whatever takes you to the finish line. That doesn't mean, though, that you can’t be inspired, or even broaden your understanding of the craft by reading other people’s advice. Read them to learn your options.
Writing advice should also tell you what writers think other writers need to hear (most of the time this includes them.) It should show you how other authors believe the trade works below the surface. Some of them see cogs and pumps under the hood; some see reaching roots and ripping seeds under the ground of a yard. And there’s no right way to look at things.
You’re supposed to read advice and ponder. Reflect on how it applies to you. If you read a method that seems rubbish, ignore it. But if you see a technique that sounds interesting, try it out. If it’s not for you, no problem, move along. Knowing what is not for us is terribly important. There is a chance, though, that what you've experimented rung true. If you try something and it suddenly makes sense, if you realize you were always meant to write at 4:00 in the morning or on little squares of cardboard glued to the wall, then you’re probably closer to what writing is for you.
And make mistakes: what is to be a writer than to find what writing is?