Writing advice is tricky. There’s no “one size fits all” piece of wisdom that will turn us into prolific, bestselling, or award-winning authors. Certainly, there are things that work for most people, most of the time. I always listen to authors who are further along in their writing careers than I am. They speak from experience. There are also those things considered best practices in writing craft. Industry standards are standard for a reason, and it would be unwise to ignore them.
But advice can come from many sources, through different media. At this point in my own writing career, I like to think about the intent behind the sound-bite. Also, because I’ve been doing this for several years now, my understanding of some advice has changed or deepened from my own experiences. So, here are a few pieces of common writing advice, and my take on them:
Write every day.
Except when you can’t because you work a full-time job, have kids, a spouse, and a home to take care of. Maybe you can only write on Saturday mornings. You don’t need to feel guilty because you can’t live up to someone else’s expectation of your productivity. What I take from this piece of advice is that if we want to commit to a writing project, we have to make it a priority and protect our space around it. If we only have one hour a day to write, fine, but we have to be sure to protect that one hour fiercely.
Write what you know.
But we’re fiction writers, you may argue. Why, yes, we are! As a science fiction writer, I make up entire worlds. I’ve written characters who are doctors, spies, engineers, and even mythical creatures, while obviously – or not so obviously, maybe – I’m none of those things. What I pull from this piece of advice is to write with consistency, authenticity, and integrity.
When I create a world for my story, the mythology, magic, or futuristic science has to consistently follow the rules I’ve designed. When I create a character whose career and life experiences are different from mine, I do my research so they feel authentic. When I am writing a character outside my own race, gender, or sexual orientation, I do so respectfully. Here’s a great article with more on this: Writing What You Don’t Know.
Finish what you start.
Okay, I stand by this ninety-nine percent of the time. In fact, when new writers ask me for a piece of advice, this is what I give them. Why? Because an unfinished manuscript will never become a book. Check out more of my thoughts here: Just Finish It!
Every writer will experience a lack of momentum, a conundrum about a plot twist, or a crippling moment of insecurity sometime during the writing process. The shiny newness of writing will eventually wear off, and we’ll have to power through the tough days to hit the finish line. I believe it’s worth powering through even if it’s only for the sake of getting to the end. We may have to rewrite, or even trash, some of our manuscripts, but until the whole story is out, we won’t know what we’ve got.
Kill your darlings.
Wait, kill who? This alarming bit of advice made me quite nervous the first time I heard it. Would I be required to kill off a beloved main character even if they were supposed to live happily ever after? Probably not. What I’ve come understand from this little nugget is that we have to be willing to sacrifice good bits of writing in our manuscript if they don’t serve the overall story. I’ve had to scrap entire well-written scenes because, during edits, I realized the story was stronger without them.
The idea here is not to become so attached to a piece of your own writing that you aren’t willing to change or discard it for the sake of telling your story better.
Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.
I’ll end here with a sports metaphor that my son has posted on his bedroom wall. We’re storytellers. Likely we have some talent if we’re in this line of work, just like a good athlete probably has some natural physical talent. But at the end of the day, if we don’t work to improve our skill, commit time and energy to our projects, and meet our deadlines, we really won’t have much of a career!