You’re Supposed to Take All Writing Advice with a Grain of Salt

Including mine.

Shannon Ashley
Sep 22, 2020 · 8 min read
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I don’t have a lot of use for most things that constitute as writing advice. I’m more lenient with things like inspiration, and I’m especially suspicious of criticism of other writers. At least, the kind of criticism that says, real writers do this, and bad writers do that, etc.

As a general rule, I don’t trust writers who make a big deal about how much they care about the art of writing and how little they think others care. If you really care about writing, I believe that comes through when you write and I don’t think you need to prove anything to anyone by patting yourself on the back and ridiculing others.

To be fair, I don’t think these folks are lying when they talk about how much they care for and value the craft. But I’d say they’re focused on the wrong things when they start getting their panties in a bunch because they can’t understand the popularity of certain other writers.

Writers have always been a persnickety bunch — myself included — but the best way to quit worrying about how well other writers are doing and how unfair you feel that might be is to focus on your own path.

Busy yourself with your own writing. Busy yourself with inspirational and creative ideas. Keep in mind that negativity breeds negativity and there are no longterm health benefits to that.

You can care a lot about your stats or you can care a little, but I guarantee you that the writers who care only a little are the happiest and most well-adjusted people around. In general, writing is the sort of profession — or hobby — with lots of rejection. Certain negative comments are going to bother you because you’re human. You are going to run into self-doubt. You’ll be happier and more productive when you recognize that it’s all just a part of the gig.

It’s good to sit with your fears and to feel them from time to time, but you don’t need to live by them, you know? It pays to learn how to get your fears off your chest and move on — luckily, writing helps. Writing is the sort of gig that comes with its own built-in life preserver. You’ve just got to use it from time to time and really write the stuff that’s personal, precious, and dear to you. Even if you never publish those things and your most personal words never see the light of day, the exercise in vulnerability will stretch your muscles and give you a reprieve.

Money is great — until it’s the number one thing you live for and the number one thing that stresses you out. Some writers spend a great deal of time thinking about how to keep the money coming in, but I find it more valuable and fulfilling to focus on your voice. Hone it to own it and be grateful that nobody else can be you. Like it or not, you and your words, your perspective — that’s the real commodity, and no one can take it from you.

Lists, charts, graphs, etc. These can be “nice,” but keep in mind they’re never the be-all-end-all of anything. Sometimes, I see my name on lists that I don’t believe really matter. It’s not that seeing your name next to some sort of compliment doesn’t feel good. But most lists can’t measure or track the truly important parts of writing — like the reading and the resonating. The inner work. Or, using your voice for good.

And let’s be honest. There’s a whole lot of writing out there that never really gets its due, and there’s writing that takes a very long time to gain any traction.

Sure, seemingly overnight successes do happen in the writing world, but when they do they’re mostly misunderstood or misconstrued. After all, writing success is never just about the writer. It’s also about the readers — not to mention the culture, the timing, and the luck.

I don’t really believe in the whole notion of “making it” or “getting there.” Writers are not a monolith. We’ve all got various goals.

My baseline goal as a writer is to support myself and my daughter. So far, I’m doing that, but I have other goals too. I want to get to a point where I never have to worry about dental work or healthcare. And I don’t want to pick one niche or feel forced into writing anything I don’t believe in.

Writers are allowed to have different goals. Writers are allowed to hope to become household names. Writers are allowed to dream big and dream bigger.

Of course, if you’re going to dream big, then you’re also going to have to write and keep writing. In other words, you’ll have to do the work and remember that entitlement gets you absolutely nowhere.

Quit worrying about so-and-so. How they supposedly only write an hour a day and make $500,000 a year. Don’t worry about the people whom you suspect became so damn popular that they now use ghostwriters.

The only question you need to care about is what kind of writer you will be. Nobody really knows how anybody else got to wherever they’re at. Nobody really knows how hard another writer worked. Or how hard they still work. No one really knows the battles anyone else has to fight.

You’ve got to take various writing rules with a heavy grain of salt. Common sense will tell you when they matter and when they’re overrated. Certain styles of writing demand more attention to specific rules. It helps to know what you’re trying to do.

When it comes to essays, novels, or conversational stuff — you’ve got plenty of wiggle room. People like to correct me anytime I use the word “alright.” Yes, I know that the proper use is “all right,” but unless I’m telling you that your answers on the quiz were “all right,” I feel “alright” about being improper.

I once had three different men tell me in 24 hours that I used the wrong word in one of my stories. All three men wanted me to say “uninterested,” but I’d been brazen enough to write “disinterested.” They were all caught up in thinking the word had only one usage, and I had used it for the second meaning:

Go ahead and laugh at this sort of thing as a writer, but don’t get bogged down by it. A big portion of your job is simply learning how to let the criticism roll down your back so you don’t find yourself hampered by critiques.

Rules, man. Rules are there for a reason but it doesn’t mean they’re always the good call.

Some people won’t like what you write. Let me be clear. Some people will never like what you write. Other people will only like you some of the time. Others will start out liking you (or disliking you) and eventually change their mind.

You don’t need to change their mind. Seriously, don’t even try.

Look, I’m not suggesting that a writer never sat down to pen the next great American novel thinking, “I really hope they like me.” All I’m saying is that’s the sort of wish that doesn’t make much sense.

There are so many different types of writing in the world, which means there is something out there for everyone. Instead of spending your time trying to figure out what everybody wants to read, you could spend your time writing what some folks truly need.

It’s far better to write what really matters to you and then focus on reaching the people who will love it too. If you try to convince people to love what you’re doing, that’s an exercise in disappointment.

In the same vein, let’s talk about this notion of real writing. When you write, other people are going to pop up to tell you whether or not your work “counts” as real writing. Some folks seem to be mildly obsessed with the idea that “fake writing” is somehow getting too much of the glory.

Such conversations are futile and rooted in snobbery or status quo issues and shame. And some people will try to shame you.

Try to keep in mind that writers have always done this to each other but you don’t have to partake in the practice. Throughout history, certain writers have looked down upon all types of work, though my favorite criticism is typically pointed at novels, Jane Austen, personal essays, or “spilling the beans.”

If you’re familiar with my work, you likely understand that a lot of other writers take issue with my style. Some say the vulnerable essay is dead, while others simply complain that my stories offer too much information (TMI). There’s also been criticism that I only write like I do “for attention,” “for shock value,” or just because I’ve “got issues.” Okay, people.

Well, here’s the thing. People really do tend to be pretty polarized about “naked” writers. The ones who bare secrets and talk about whatever happens to be taboo. But discomfort is actually the point to a lot of heavily criticized writing. Shame is an uncomfortable thing. Revealing secrets is an uncomfortable thing.

But…

Our culture thrives on shame.

Believe me, it’s not just the vulnerable writers who get an awful lot — and likely, too much — criticism. We’re just the low-hanging fruit. In reality, it can happen to anyone regardless of what they actually write about because we live in such a shame-oriented culture.

Shame is easy. At least, it’s easier to shame other writers and suggest they offer nothing valuable to the world than it is to buckle down and do your own work. It’s easier to complain that someone’s getting more than they deserve than accept that the writing industry is hard.

Writing advice isn’t inherently good or bad because it matters how you use it. But, anything that keeps you from writing because it boosted your fear or trepidation is not great. Never let another person count you out or make you feel that writing is only for those who’ve been educated to a certain degree. That’s what elitists do and that’s what the elite have done to readers throughout history.

Don’t let them do it to you.

Write what you know, or don’t. It’s honestly up to you. I happen to be the sort of writer who writes what she knows, but I’ve got respect for those with the chops to cover far less certain ground with imagination and creativity.

For every writing rule you hear, there’s always someone out there who’s successfully broken it. Typically, multiple someones. It’s really up to you which rules you prefer to keep, break, or simply apply pressure. All in all, the only rule that really matters is consistency.

After that, you’ve got to ask the important questions. Do you like what you do? What sort of writing life do you want to have? What do you like to write about and what do you love to write about?

Remember, writing is creative work. Creative work gets to be an act of love. If you’re hating your work or just hating whatever you do, clearly, something’s got to give.

By all means, if you need writing advice, take it, but recognize that you’re the only one who’s going to do the work. Other writers and teachers can only take you so far. The only truly valuable advice is the stuff that you can use in your day-to-day life.

It’s the stuff that makes a positive impact.

In most cases, you’ll be better off if you just ignore the rest. Writing is hard work, yes, but often, we make it harder than it has to be.

Write and, above all else, be free.

Honestly Yours

Essays with heart

Shannon Ashley

Written by

Single mama, full-time writer, ex-vangelical. It's not about being flawless, it's about being honest. Top Writer. shannon.ashley.medium@gmail.com

Honestly Yours

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