If you are a young writer looking for advice on how to write well, there is an endless sea of options available to you. There are hundreds of books on fiction writing, dozens of websites, thousands of classes, and a great many Masters and Ph.D. programs chock full of advice and ideas. However, not all advice is helpful. Here are the four worst oft-touted pieces of writing wisdom.
1. “Everyone on earth has one good book in them”
As Christopher Hitchens said: “Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases, that’s where it should stay.” Human beings like to tell stories; maybe everyone has a great idea for a novel once or twice in their lives. But it is a mistake to think that writing a publishable manuscript is something that any old slob can do. It may be difficult to believe this if you haven’t tried to write seriously yet, but writing is hard. It’s really hard. If you don’t think this is true, just sit down and try to write a novel-length manuscript that isn’t complete crap. Just try.
Just anyone cannot write, unless by “writing” you mean “reading and writing”. I think just about anyone can learn to spell, although scrolling through your facebook homepage may convince you otherwise. But there are some people who don’t see a distinction between “knowing how to write down words” and “being able to write a Pulitzer-prize winning novel.” Some people are under the impression that the ability to write a shopping list makes them qualified enough to write a novel, kind of like how knowing basic arithmetic pretty much makes you an expert in experimental physics.
There’s an old joke where a writer and a brain surgeon are talking at a party. When the brain surgeon hears what the writer does for a living, he says “You know, I’ve been thinking of retiring and becoming a writer.” The writer replies, “That’s funny. I’ve been thinking of retiring and becoming a brain surgeon.”
This piece of advice could more accurately be put: “Everyone on earth has one good book in them, if they hire a professional ghost writer who has devoted his life to the craft of writing and will take on the burden of all the actual work of writing a book, because not everyone is cut out for that kind of life.”
2. “Write what you know”
I’m just guessing here, but I don’t think you have ever been a secret agent or detective. You don’t live in a dystopian future where civilization has been reduced to roaming, cannibalistic tribes. You’ve never had to choose between two equally handsome men, both with incredible supernatural powers. Just face it; your life probably isn’t really all that interesting.
Okay, maybe that was a bit cruel. You probably have a field of specific knowledge that you could use to flesh out certain parts of your novel. You probably have had emotional experiences that can help you empathize with your character’s trials and tribulations. You probably know places which you can describe with incredible accuracy because they are familiar to you, but will seem exotic and strange to your readers.
However, you shouldn’t consciously write about yourself or your experiences, unless you are writing a memoir. You will end up writing about yourself anyway. G.K. Chesterton once said: “A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.” If you are writing a story about a 22-year-old college student and the three girlfriends he has had, and you happen to be a 22-year-old college student who has had three girlfriends, you are probably going to offend three girls and then just bore anyone else who reads your manuscript.
Instead of writing what you know, write what you think you’d enjoy reading. If this requires you to write about things you are unfamiliar with, research those things. Talk to different kinds of people. Really listen to conversations. Try to understand the thoughts and emotions of people who aren’t you. This piece of advice could be better put as: “Write what you think is interesting, and then use what you know to make your writing really come alive for your readers.”
3. "Be as original as possible"
Oscar Wilde once said: “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” I disagree. While you should always strive to write original, surprising work which only you could possibly create, there are ways in which readers expect consistency. For instance, consistent grammar and punctuation are usually very much appreciated. Personally, I'm very partial to standard spelling. A lot of people tend to like stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. They don’t necessarily need to be in that order, but you get the idea.
The basic rules of English syntax need to be heeded. Beyond that, there are a few other aspects of writing in which it may be a good idea to restrain your wild originality. If you can manage a James Joycean stream of consciousness narrative and multilingual puns, good for you. If you want eighty different narrators telling your story, knock yourself out. But practice caution: the reason such tactics are unusual is because they are extremely difficult to pull off. A more standard method of storytelling may suit your project just as well.
This piece of advice could be put: “Write what only you can. But don’t get crazy. And try to spell things correctly.”
4. "Good writers always write well"
As a general rule, most writer's very first efforts are not very good. There is such a thing as natural talent, but it needs to be constantly refined and built on. Writers need to churn out a lot of mediocre work for every worthwhile story.
Imagine you are someone who has no idea how to play a guitar. One day, you pick up a guitar and run your fingers along the strings. To your horror, all you produce is a weird jangling sound. You don’t sound like Eric Clapton at all. You are unable to recreate the solo from Hotel California. What if, based on that experience, you concluded that you’d never be able to learn to play and never touched a guitar again? Alternately, what if you taught yourself a few chords and then realized that you would have to put in years of practice to become as good as you’d like, and so concluded that the effort just wasn’t worth it?
I said earlier that anyone who doesn’t think writing is hard should sit down and try to write a book-length manuscript. If you try that, you will realize that in order to create something truly good, you will need to put in years of practice. If you want to write, you are going to kill a lot of trees writing stories that are terrible, and that’s okay (well, maybe not for the trees). Every writer does. Your work isn’t lost. It’s just practice: practice that needs to be put in before you can produce genuinely good work. It’s just like the annoying sound of someone just beginning to learn an instrument. While what they are producing doesn't seem valuable to anyone forced to listen to it, it is a necessary step they have to take before being able to play music.
This piece of advice could better be put as: “If you really want to write, you have to resign yourself to the fact that not every sentence you put on paper is an example of staggering genius. Great authors do a lot of mediocre work. You will write badly a solid percentage of the time. Don't let this discourage you. Keep writing."