About 25 years ago, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I’d just read the Little House on the Prairie books and realized–thanks to my fantastic school librarian–that they were written by a person, a living human being; and that some people write books as their jobs. (Until that point, I’d honestly thought stories were manufactured in factories, just like the books on which they were printed.)
Since that realization and decision, I’ve heard a lot of writing advice–and not all of it has been good. But even the most misguided words, if reframed properly, can offer inspiration and assistance. Below are some of the most well-meaning but ultimately useless gems I’ve been handed, and how I’ve managed to make them helpful (your mileage may vary; apologies if one of them made a huge difference in your life and changed everything for the better):
- “Write what you know.” I’m a bit torn on this one. We all have to start somewhere; but if all you ever write is drawn solely from your personal experiences, you’re going to be as boring as that person on Facebook whose statuses consist entirely of “Ate some chips,” “Watching TV” and “Going to bed now.” So I’ll chalk this up as training wheels advice: great for getting started, but eventually you need to ditch it.
- “Who cares if it’s good? Just be proud that you finished writing something.” I appreciate the kindness behind this sentiment, but I disagree with it. Not everything you write is going to be good, and you shouldn’t fool yourself into thinking it is simply because you created it. However, the opposite isn’t true, either. Don’t walk around with your back in a sad arc, burdened by the shame of your less-than-perfect works. Use that embarrassment to drive you to be a better writer, not to stop you altogether. And speaking of perfect…
- “It’s not done until it’s perfect.” This declaration usually comes from my own head, not an external source. That makes it even more treacherous, as it’s far harder to escape. But as Voltaire said, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Your writing doesn’t have to be perfect, and striving for perfection will probably drive you mad. The real key to writing is recognizing when it’s good enough.
- “You really shouldn’t write until you’ve read ____ / studied ____ / gotten an MFA.” I know I need to read more Shakespeare. And when someone tells me they have an MFA, I congratulate them and smile and wonder if I’m effectively hiding my sudden terrifying inferiority. But to me, the most important thing I can do to improve my writing is just that: writing. Reading and studying are crucial, but they’re not a substitute for actually writing, revising, and honing your own work. You wouldn’t say, “Well, I’m not going to even start working out until I have the running shoes and lightweight workout clothes I want,” would you? No matter what equipment / training you have, your first few workouts / stories are going to be rough. But you can’t become a great writer without becoming an okay one first.
- “Why don’t you write something with vampires / wizards / zombies ? Everyone seems to love vampires / wizards / zombies right now.” As I do with vampires / wizards / zombies, I’m going to pretend whoever tells me this doesn’t even exist.
- “If writing is so hard, maybe you should do something else instead.” Sometimes, a combination of stress, pressure (internal and external), and rejection may push you away from the keyboard for a while, though hopefully not forever. But don’t ever think you should stop writing just because it’s difficult, or because you’re not as good as you want to be yet. Again, the only way you’ll become a better writer is to just keep writing. Or, in the words of Winston Churchill: “When you’re going through hell, keep going.”
Surely this isn’t the only less-than-helpful writing advice out there. What about you, loyal readers / writers? What awful advice has been handed to you?
When she’s not revising her first trilogy of YA novels, hugging her rescued dogs, or playing “Rock Band” with her husband, Sarah Rodriguez Pratt writes for her blog ThatsAGirlsCar.com. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in English from Harvard University and a Master’s in Information Studies from UT-Austin. A native Texan, she grew up in McAllen but has called Austin home for over a decade.