How-to writing guide buyers: beware

Today, in my twitter feed, I read a comment that “The biggest lesson most writers need to learn is to avoid editing as you write.”

Now, I consider myself an edit-as-I-go writer, so this made me curious. I clicked on the link and read this woman’s advice on writing. I see she’s qualified that the statement is for most writers, but this just makes me wonder where she gets her data from. Was there a study? Perhaps she explains that in one of the several how-to books she’s selling on the subject.

Here’s the thing: writing advice is so valuable. I love to listen to different writers share their different approaches for what works for them. It’s inspiring and it always reminds me how many different paths there are to a similar goal.

The problem with writing advice is that often it’s delivered as if it’s coming from an expert who is letting you in on an absolute secret about the definitive correct way to do it.

My advice is that before you take advice (even mine), do two things: 1. consider the source and 2. decide if the advice rings true for you.

If you’re a big fan of Stephen King and you’re interested in learning how to write the kind of books he writes in the way he writes them, you might want to read On Writing. There are other helpful manuals written by other kinds of writers. Find one that’s right for you.

Not everyone writes like Stephen King or Charles Bukowski or Earnest Hemingway or Anne Lamott or Ray Bradbury or Sol Stein. Not everyone wants to. I’m sure each one of those authors has helpful nuggets of wisdom to share and I think new writers should be open to all of it, but skeptical when it doesn’t resonate.

The one-size-fits-all advice is something I see more and more as writers are pressured to create content for blogs that will strengthen their “platform”. I don’t think it’s helpful and I’m especially dismayed by how-to book writers claiming to be experts so they can make money off newbie writers. I think it’s exploitative.

Writers who make it through the gauntlet to publishing should absolutely share what worked for them with writers coming up after them. The stories are as fascinating as they are diverse. Some writers get an MFA while others are self-taught. Some writers plot everything out on color-coded note cards while others begin writing without any idea where their characters will take them. Some writers work in seclusion while others rely on supportive writers groups. Some edit only when their first draft is complete while others edit as they’re writing.

The more of these stories you hear, the clearer it becomes that there are many different ways to do it.  I think, especially for new writers, the biggest lesson to learn is which advice to take and which advice to ignore.


9 thoughts on “How-to writing guide buyers: beware

  1. I have been coaching my son’s baseball team for years and one of the things that I hear a lot from the boys is that they keep getting “confusing” or “conflicting” advice from coaches about how to hit or throw or catch better. I’ve watched it with my own son, even, as one coach tells him one thing and another tells him what on the surface might be the complete opposite.

    What I’ve told the boys on the baseball team when this has come up is that they need to take all of the advice, all of the suggestions, all of the instructions and listen to it carefully…then figure out what works for them and discard the rest. What usually is happening is one coach will focus on one aspect of the craft of hitting while another coach will focus on another part of it. Both parts are necessary to succeed, but the focus will be different based on that particular coach’s priorities.

    So, too, it is with writing advice. We get it from all directions and all kinds of sources and the reality is that while the advice may differ, it’s often just looking at the same problem or solution but just from a different side. I’d give the same advice as I give the teenagers on my baseball team: Absorb and listen to any and all advice, try things out…then keep what works and discard the rest. Ultimately we’re all different and therefore we all will have different results and different needs. But often we won’t know what we need until we try *something*.

    I do agree with you also that some of those advice books are exploiting young or inexperienced authors. I wish there were a way to prevent or avoid that.

  2. I tend to edit in stages. Often I’ll do a free writing session, delete it and then start what I call, “crafting” my words. That is I’ll put together a few hundred words, go back and do a light editing pass the move to the next block. Once I’ve got a whole piece, I go back and edit again.

    Anyone who claims to have found the, “one” method of anything is suspect in my mind. There are so many ways of doing things. The best I can really say is this, “This is how I write, try it and see if it works for you.”

  3. Alas I have found my writing soul mate-💛 I cannot quit my editing as I go affliction. And so I have become one with it. ☺️ jessica

    • I feel the same, Jessica. That’s why I’m so hopeless at Nanowrimo–the month is over and I’m only halfway through. My internal editor will just not be silenced. I just have to grin and bear it.

      • i always participate in nano as a rebel. it’s great for motivation – you don’t have to get hung up on wordcount. if i didn’t edit as i wrote, i’d get 50k easily but it would be too convoluted to be usable.

  4. I agree. We are not biscuits fresh out of the oven that were all cut with a 2″ biscuit cutter. I tend to do quick-editing as I write, then do extensive editing after the rough draft is done. I see this tendency in many people: they believe whatever they read. They internalize it and think it’s their own opinion. A vast number of adults cannot–or will not–think through what they hear and read using critical thinking skills. Maybe they lack those skills; maybe they weren’t taught them. I forget myself, at times, to challenge headlines or snippets: is it really true or is it hype?

  5. I wholeheartedly agree with you on the point that we should take all advice the same way: with a grain of salt. No one is the same, and YMMV should be understood. But I do think that writing advice comes (99% of the time) from a good, helpful place.

    (Also, it’s Stephen King, with a PH. Steven King, with a V, works for U of NC: – Just a heads-up!)

  6. arg. thanks for the edit! 😉

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