Better Taken with a Grain of Salt?

A tweaked and recycled post from a few years ago, advice to be considered as those of us who do so are making New Year’s Resolutions to try writing, or to write more, in the new year.

Kate Flora: As we enter another writing year, and may be making New Year’s photo-89resolutions which include finally writing that book you’ve always dreamed of writing, I am here to help you along on your journey, by sharing pieces of advice I’ve gotten over the years which have proved singularly unhelpful. I share them as a warning against the world of writing advice with this caveat: Don’t take them at face value, or assume they are true for you, until you’ve tested them against your own experience, your own instincts, and seen whether they advance your writing or impede it. Some of them may work for you.


  1. If something you’ve written in your work-in-progress makes you cry when you pen dripping inkreread it, excise it, cut it, leave it out. This is something I totally disagree with. I have some bits in books I’ve written over the years that still make me cry when I reread them. It just may be that there’s nothing wrong with powerful emotion in our books. If you have a section you’re worried about because someone has given you the advice above, try it out on a few beta readers and see if they think it should be cut. Always be ready to listen to advice but also be open to listening to your instincts. In the end, it is YOUR work.
  2. If you don’t know how to write, it’s necessary to take several writing classes and read lots of writing books. I think here the answer is: not so fast. I love teaching, and yes, it helps to learn some craft and spend time in classes where you can get feedback from instructors and other students. But there is a downside–the risk that you will fill your head so full of advice about what the rules are (rules that often vary from one instructor to another) that you lose any ability to be spontaneous. There’s also the risk that you won’t be discovering yourself as writer. You won’t be developing a practice to get your writing done if you’re always filling your time with classes. You may become so wedded to prompts and assignments that you aren’t listening to your own imagination, exploring your own individual creativity, or learning what parts of the writing craft actually enchant you.
  3. Don’t write a word until you’ve written an outline. Again, not necessarily. If you’re a magnifying glassperson who can’t tackle a project without an outline or some signposts to guide you along the way, then yes, do an outline. It doesn’t have to be the kind we learned in 6th grade. But many writers aren’t plotters but pantsers, and love the excitement of discovery that comes with waiting to find out what happens next. See advice in 2, above. You have to actually write for a while to discover what kind of a writer you are, and that means hours at the keyboard, by yourself, finding yourself as a writer, not waiting to be told who you are by someone else.
  4. You should pick a writer whose style you admire, and learn to imitate that. See my comments above. Learning to distinguish the elements of particular styles can give you tools in your writer’s tool box to choose from, but slavish imitation, sometimes unaware imitation, will come between you and the writer you’re meant to be. There are great prompts in John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction asking you to write several styles, and this is a fun exercise to do. In the end, though, you want to be you the writer, not an imitator.
  5. Don’t worry if you don’t have an idea today, write only when the spirit movesScreen Shot 2019-01-02 at 4.20.51 PM you, the muse appears, or you’re inspired by a great idea. Nope. Despite the fact that we’re surrounded by those people who say, “I always wanted to write, but I tried it once and it was hard,” the truth is that writing is hard, but writers go to their desks and write on the days when their heads ache, when they’d rather rub themselves with sandpaper, when it seems like everything they write is gravel. Writing is a job–often a great job–but still a job, and so we go to work. This means you will be there, at your desk, fingers curled over the keys, at the magic moment when the fluttery little muse deigns to visit and whisper words in your ear. When you suddenly get into a flow so exhilarating you can hardly catch your breath. But we earn those moments by spending time with gravel or the merely adequate.
  6. Read all the bestsellers in the genre you plan to write in, and then write a book like that. It’s sure to sell. Alas, although it’s true that agents and editors always think they want a book just like the last bestseller, only different, by the time you’ve spent a year writing that book, there will be a new new thing and your book will be yesterday’s news. You’re much better off writing the story that enchants you, that matters to you, that you can immerse yourself in. There’s no guarantee you’ll sell that one, either, but at least the journey will have been a good one.

I could go one and on, but that’s enough for today. Don’t be discouraged. Writing is hard, sometimes brutally hard. It’s also magical, and so addictive that even when the books don’t sell, or don’t sell well, we don’t give up. And my one piece of advice, learned the hard way through ten years in the unpublished writer’s corner: Be stubborn. Be your own best cheerleader. While it’s true that rarely will someone knock on your door and demand the chance to publish your novel, and also true that getting published can be a brutal process filled with rejection, only you get to decide that you’re a writer.


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2 Responses to Better Taken with a Grain of Salt?

  1. Alice says:

    Thank you for your words of wisdom that come from personal experience.

  2. John Clark says:

    Imagine trying to find a writer who writes like me. Maybe if Hieronymus Bosch had been an author instead of a painter…

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