Monday, 17 November 2014

The One Piece of Writing Advice

There is a lot of advice out there for writers. Rules, guidelines, tips. Most of it has some merit, but if you were to follow every little suggestion it would be very constricting and frankly would rob you of a lot of the fun of writing.

But if you were only willing to follow one piece of advice, what would it be? Is there one piece of advice that trumps all others?

The sensible and reasonable answer is that it depends. It depends on what kind of writer you are, what your personal strength and weaknesses happen to be, what your goals are. Each writer is different, each writer may require a different blah, blah, blah. 

And that is all very true, but putting all sense and reason to one side, I say yes, there is one piece of advice which if you follow, ignoring all others, will still improve your writing immeasurably (or measurably if you happen to be particularly adept at measuring things).

That piece of advice is this: Finish it.

Not to be confused with how to write a first draft or the best way to get over writer’s block. Purely from a desire to learn how to write better, to  get the stuff in your head across to the reader in a way they find engaging and interesting, and to improve your storytelling in print form, this is by far the most helpful approach, and probably not for the reasons you think.

It isn’t the easiest, though. That feeling of wanting to give up or that what your writing isn’t going to be worth the effort can be very strong. 

There are a million reasons why you should hit delete and start again.

A million doubts that are most probably all true.

Everything you suspect about the story, about yourself as a writer, about the reaction of prospective readers, most likely an accurate assessment. 

But you don’t make something better by knowing it’s not good enough. And you don’t get better by knowing what needs to be done. You only get better by doing it. Practice, even without guidance, will return dividends.

Because no matter how unsure you are about the mechanics of writing, you are an expert on the art of storytelling. You’ve been experiencing the art form since you were a child. On a daily basis. Books, TV, movies, jokes, anecdotes, gossip, it all informs your art, whether you’re aware of it or not.

So you have this deep reservoir of knowledge then surely when it tells you what your writing isn’t very good you should listen and dump it, right? Abandon ship. Run for the hills.

Well, here’s the thing, if you stop halfway then it’s very easy to convince yourself of whatever conclusion you’re in the mood to make. The stories going nowhere; it’ll be embarrassingly bad; you’ll just have to start again anyway. Stop writing, bullet dodged. It almost feels like an accomplishment.

But a strange thing occurs if you persevere. If you push through that feeling urging you to go and do the dishes, the laundry or whatever, and you write an ending, any ending, one of two things will happen. Either it won’t be as bad as you feared, which is great and a good confidence boost, but also quite rare. Or, more likely, it will be pretty bad. 

Just rubbish.

Only, when it’s on the page and not just an assumption in your head, all that anxiety and worry that you're wasting your time dissipates. 

You’ve already wasted your time, no point worrying about it now. Instead you can start to see exactly where it goes wrong. Some of what you wrote will make sense, other bits clearly need to go. Your innate sense of what’s good and bad will kick in properly. Not on a hypothetical version of what you might write, but on the actual words in front of you. 

And while it’s true that what each person needs to learn is specific to that individual and their personal style, the best person to analyse and improve your writing is you. And the best way to do that effectively, especially early on, is to force yourself, grimly, teeth-clenchedly, to write all the way to an end. Only then can you properly assess what you have produced, not what you might produce or what you should have produced.

Finish it, even when all common sense tells you to go bake a cake instead (when you don't even know how to bake a cake). Finish it.
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15 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

And if you never finish anything, you'll never know how to write the ending of a story!

Sarah Foster said...

Brilliant. I can't even count how many story ideas I've given up on, some without even starting. But convincing myself to finish *editing* is a lot harder than convincing myself to finish writing...

dolorah said...

A project never seems to be finished for me. Sadly, I have too many starts in my computer as shiny new ideas pop up, and eventually join the ranks of stagnation..

Author R. Mac Wheeler said...

beyond that...leaving out the stuff the reader skips is a good rule of thumb.

Traci Kenworth said...

I guess it's true: there are no rules.

Lexa Cain said...

Bummer, considering I just chucked a half finished WIP to write another I'm far more passionate about. At least I'll finish this new one. ;)

Elise Fallson said...

Yes. This is excellent advice, but to what degree? I mean, I finished my first ms ( which is all kinds of rubbish and why it's now on the shelf) but it's not a polished final draft kind of finish, it's a finished book that needs about six years of editing. Does that count? Also, what kind of cake are you baking? ;)

Chemist Ken said...

I've found the best way to learn is not by just reading books on writing. The best way to learn is to get all of your story on paper so that you can begin practicing what you've learned on your own words. It's during the subsequent revising that you really begin learning.

celiackiddo said...

Great advice, and timely for me as I'm currently pushing through my WIP and feeling moments of doubt. Yet I also wonder to what degree, Elise stated. When is it in your best interest to walk away and start something new? But there is no one answer to that. Every writer has to gauge that one for him or herself, and the answer may change depending on the day. But in general, I find this advice sound and inspiring!
-Dana

Patricia Lynne said...

That is a good piece of advice. Sagely even. ;)

Jan Moran said...

Excellent advice! I worked on a novel for years, but only when I said, "I'm over it," did I actually publish it!

Nikesh Agarwal said...

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mooderino said...

@Alex - very true.

@sarah - yeah, it can be quite a mountain to climb. And there's always the memory of that story that wrote itself...

@Dolorah - it's often easier to start the new idea then finish the old on. Annoying isn't it?

@Mac - can be hard working out what that is exactly. Best to leave out the parts you skip, i guess.

@Traci - oh, there are a lot of rules, all breakable.

@Lexa - the next one always the next one...

@Elise - have to finish more than one and you'll see the progression. Slowly. Eventually. More time for cake (any cake).

@Ken - I read a lot of how-to write books, find about 5% of it useful.

@celia - start something new whenever you feel like it, just finish first. Doesn't have to be good, you don't have to keep working on it. Just the act of finishing rather than stopping halfway will make a big difference.

@Patricia - I'm all about that sageliness.

@Jan - closure is a nice feeling.

@Nikesh - thanks. I'll be sure to check it out.

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