On Contradictory Writing Advice

You never really understand how the literary world is saturated with advice until you immerse yourself in it. The new writer, eager to learn and committed to the art, will soak up as much information from as many sources as possible. There is no shortage of books on how to write, nor organizations and bloggers eager to lend their wisdom (no, the irony of this post is NOT lost on me). However, the longer a writer spends in this world the amount of contradictory advice becomes clear.

As a prime example, read as many articles as you can on constructing the much feared query letter. Some tell you to sum up your book in the first paragraph. Others tell you to detail the plot and characters of your manuscript in a very precise but succinct format. Some tell you to include biographical details that show who you are as a writer. Others tell you it doesn’t matter at all. Some ask you to describe your career goals as an author and future writing plans. Others tell you to remain focused on the manuscript you’re pitching. The list goes on and on.

The truth of the matter is that as humans we’re always looking for explanations. Whether to problems, the unknown, or to why your favorite baseball team can’t seem to pull together a couple of hits. We want to know, nay NEED to know. This results in desperately trying to find a magic formula for our passions. The problem is as mortals our ideas and perceptions are completely subjective.

With the literary world this principle could not be illustrated better. How many times have you read a so-called “concrete” rule on writing only to then read a book that breaks said rule in glorious splendor? It happens all the time. See how much Stephen King ‘tells’ rather than ‘shows’ in many of his books for example. Or read some reviews of universally loved classics. Yes, there are many one star reviews of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

While such contradictory advice is interesting enough if you can identify it, there are also problems for new writers. Many in an attempt to be successful will try to incorporate as much advice as they can and thereby unwittingly write a mishmash of contradictions. I humbly include myself as an example. The better idea is to just freaking write what works for you. From there, seek to improve.

Zachary Petit at Writers Digest takes up this point rather well:

Don’t assume there is any single path or playbook writers need to follow. (Or, for that matter, a definitive superlative list of Dos and Don’ts …) Simply put: You have to do what works best for you. Listen to the voices in your head, and learn to train and trust them. More often than not, they’ll let you know if you’re on the right path. People often bemoan the surplus of contradictory advice in the writing world—but it’s there because there really is no yellow-brick road, and a diversity of perspectives allows you to cherry-pick what uniquely suits you and your abilities.

There is one truth I will say is universal: first drafts suck. I wish someone told me that before I first started writing. I spent a lot of frustrated hours reading over my material bemoaning how terrible of a writer I really was. Needless to say, such heartbreaking pity parties are counterproductive to becoming a good author. If there are writers out there who produce gold as words spill out of their head onto paper for the first time then accolades to you. But if you’re like the 99.9999999% of other writers out there – don’t fret that you used the same word 64 times on one page. Editing is as amazing as it is tedious. And no need to to call me out for not spending much time editing this post. It’s a blog, not a novel – lighten up.

On that tangent, I’ll close. Write on, friends.

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