Advice for People Writing Advice for Writers

Advice for People Writing Advice for Writers

7 Ways to Make Writing Advice Suck Less

I will literally click on any link that says “Writing Advice.” The link may come from the New Yorker or someone’s Angelfire website from 1999. Doesn’t matter. I will read that crap out of it.

Before we get to what that means about me (spoiler: nothing good) let’s maybe just agree that if you’ve read one list of Ten Ways to Improve Your Writing, you’ve read them all. Obviously, there are exceptions. There are always exceptions. But for the most part, we are just churning out vague and often self-explanatory advice to people who legitimately want to get better at something that is really, really hard.

I think when people write writing advice, they are hyperaware of the fact that there is no easy or universal answer, and so, instead of actually saying anything, they make vague statements about how you should revise. Of course you should revise. Tell us how you revise. Yes, you should be specific. No, we don’t think it’s presumptuous of you to suggest that we try revising the way you revise. It might not work for some people, but I guarantee that we will never become a worse writer for trying something that ends up not working. And guess what, there will be other lists of writing advice and wouldn’t it be awesome if that writing advice wasn’t identical to your writing advice, and if someone else’s advice about revision wasn’t just that we should do it, a lot, but that we should use this specific method.

  1. We do not need you to tell us that we should write if we want to be a writer. I get it, it’s cutesy. A lot of people spend way more time talking about their writing than they do actually writing. Touche. But, if we can’t figure out that much on our own, we probably have more pressing problems.
  2. Don’t tell us to read more. Tell us what to read. Yes, I mean give us actual book suggestions. Let’s make more writing advice lists that are like, Four Writers to Read if You Want to Suck Less at Plot or Ten Books to Read If You Need to Understand Multiple Points of View or Eight Books That Might Help You Figure Out Pacing. (And I’m not even talking about books on craft, though I am perfectly okay with you telling us to read those.) When it comes down to it, you should have to think about the advice you’re giving. And we should too.
  3. Don’t be clever. We get it, you’re a successful writer, and we’re people who read online writing advice. You’re better than us. Writing advice is not the place to show off. Yeah, Kurt Vonnegut’s writing advice is clever. But, let’s be real, you aren’t Kurt Vonnegut. If you can be clever while also being specific and helpful, do your thing. Otherwise, give us actual, specific, concrete things we can do to be better or else just give us a link to Vonnegut’s advice.
  4. Give us some credit. We don’t need to know that we need to finish projects, we need to know how. Oh, we should write everyday? Cool. Problem solved. Thanks for your help. If someone can ask the question “how” after your advice, you aren’t doing advice right. Advice is the how. And if you don’t know how, then you are not the right person to give this particular advice. That’s fine. You’re still a good person. We still like you.
  5. Try to avoid telling us to do something else for a living. We get it: writing is hard, the pay is shit, and we’ll spend most of our time trying to explain to people that there are books that aren’t mysteries or vampire teen dramas or Nicholas Sparks novels. We feel like enough of an asshole already when we have to throw around the word “literary fiction” to people who’ve read more Sparknotes than actual books, we certainly don’t need one more person telling us that we should maybe take up a trade.
  6. Be more specific. Maybe don’t call your list 5 Ways to Become a Better Writer, but instead, call it 5 Ways to Improve Dialogue or 8 Ways to Write Better Sentences. If nothing else, this will seriously quell any inclination you have to make number one on the list “Don’t.” Instead of informing us that we should write in the morning, or late at night, you can give us novels to read that do dialogue really well, or books that really nail writing on a sentence level. Maybe these lists will become a little more like homework, but I think that might be what people actually want, if they’re serious enough.
  7. Include information about the business side of things. I don’t know about you, but I know almost nothing about publishing (yet) and I probably couldn’t network myself out of a paper bag. (In fact, judging from the last sentence, I might not even know what networking is.) Now, I’m not suggesting you send us a link to a list of indie publishers or that you tell us to sign up for a LinkedIn account. Your writing advice should not be easily replaced by a google search. But failing to acknowledge that there is a business side to writing isn’t doing anyone any favors.

So why do people like me click on every link we can find that promises us advice about writing, even though we know that it’s probably just going to tell us not to use adverbs and that we should set daily writing goals? Personally, I will read almost anything in list form. Especially advice. In the midst of a happy, fulfilling relationship I will read a list of Ten Ways to Make Your Break Up Amicable, and even though I am not allergic or even “allergic” to gluten, I will read 10 Gluten Free Recipes You Wouldn’t Believe are Gluten Free. Because, lists!

But please, for our sake, own your writing advice. Personalize it. Don’t write it as if you think it needs to be a comprehensive, objective list. It doesn’t. The desperate among us (and let’s face it, what writer isn’t desperate) will read your list regardless of what it says. But wouldn’t it be nice if instead of reading your advice, feeling inspired for a few minutes, and then absentmindedly clicking back to Facebook, we read your advice and then went to our local bookstore and bought the book you suggested we read to help us see what an unreliable narrator looks like. Or if we took your advice and found a book we loved and re-read it, paying special attention to internal and external conflict and characterization and plotting. And if, like you told us, we actually outlined the plot of book so we could see the scaffolding, or the bones, or whatever you, clever writing advice writer, chose to call it.

Reading your writing advice should not make us a better writer, but actually engaging with your advice should. Give us homework. I think you’d be surprised how many people would do it.

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