The longer amount of time I spend writing, the more I am reminded of how little I actually know about it. Just as we get older, our writing grows, changes, and evolves with age and every new word we put down. We find newer and cleverer ways to say ancient things, making the process of writing as personal as the growth of the self. I’ve especially learned this after working with a lot of writers over the past few months of my job, many of whom have eons more experience than I can account for.
Everyone has a developed mantra and writing habits. This is even a bit true of the much younger writers I work with, but having been in their shoes, habits at that point are still very fluid and novice. You are impressionable and unsure if you are writing the “right way,” (hint: you are. For you, at the moment). Often, the internet is the biggest source for finding advice that clicks with your style, because there's nothing but wisdom on the internet, yes?
Since writing advice is often based on personal experience, suggestions on what “works” are more opinionated than actual gospel. There is no Right Way to write: only what works for you and what finishes stories. Nevertheless, there are several nuggets of internet wisdom that get passed around as writerly truth, even if they aren’t. These pieces are all well and good, but potentially harmful to the younger and more inexperienced of us. Even this article, by definition, is a little opinionated, but I still hope to dissect these writing ‘truths’, and why they don’t quite apply as well as hoped.
1.“Research your genre before you write.”
What that means: “Know what your reader expects, doesn’t expect, and how to draw them in better.”
What it becomes: “Genre is law and an easy recipe for success.”
This sentiment probably spurs from the more commonly used “read widely while writing”, which implies correctly that reading while you develop your writing skill helps you sharpen your work and read more critically. The next logical step would be, of course, studying your genre extensively to better understand what your audience knows/doesn’t know.
In more experienced and craft-based hands, studying your genre is an excellent tool to help the writer better grasp their readers, but this advice just as easily becomes a weapon of mass destruction for younger writers' work. Studying your genre turns to emulation of genre and repetition of plotlines/characters. Early writing isn’t so much about testing your voice elsewhere, after all: it’s about figuring out what your voice is. If you haven't figured that out quite yet, genre-seeking will lack the depth you wish to gain. At worst, it can become a reliance on reader expectations and flat tropes, which your writing will likely read of.
2.“You can write a novel in a month.”
What that means: “Practice your art at a sprint and flex your creative muscles.”
What it becomes: “You can literally write a whole novel in a month.”
I do not like NaNoWriMo in the slightest way.
“Why?” you ask. “What’s wrong with NaNo? It encourages young writers to get out there and work. Some great books have come from the challenge!”
“Agreed.” I say, but the successful stories in these sprints were often written by authors who had composed novels previously. There are aspects of NaNo that I have less respect for after actually writing 40k in a month, which was not a planned thing on my part. It was not a November, but July on both occasions. It was also the middle of a novel on both occasions, and I fell into that novel-length word count without really noticing.
The thing about doing this though, was after these 40ks were done and the caffeine had run dry, I still had a lot of book to go. I still had revisions to go. I still had beta-readers and editors and a whole lot of chopping to do. Something that isn’t very well disclaimed by the cute, clipped idea of NaNo.
You can’t write a novel in a month. Some folks can, but most of us need more work than that. You might just draft a novel in a month, but even this, on a first writing endeavor, feels a bit like advising someone that microwaving raw meat will eventually cook it. Sure, you could get there, but it’s a very dry result for something that may require more time and care. It’s not near "finished."
3.“The page count of your book...“
What that means: No double meaning for this one.
A personal pet peeve, but based on something I hear folks say around my communities. I know a lot of writers/readers who talk about their book (or ask about books) in terms of final page count. But when writing and especially when publishing (traditional or not), keep track of word count instead. I don’t know my page count and don’t worry about it. Page count is very arbitrary by the time something hits the Kindle or hardback, since books can be printed in any number of sizes and shapes. It’s no more accurate for length than measuring books with your fingers. Publishers, likewise, look for word count, which is something to consider when going traditional.
What that means: “Avoid clunky, backstory-filled openings that serve no purpose.”
What it becomes: “Never write prologues. Ever.”
I understand where this one comes from, honestly. I’ve read my share of sluggish, boring, and downright bad prologues. They are often the mark of early writing where we are, as Terry Pratchett wisely put it, telling ourselves the story. I say this, but I also know that my current series includes a prologue in every book without too much trouble. What’s the difference then?
Prologues, like any part of a book, must say something substantial and interesting. They must have a reason to move the story along. Unfortunately, a slew of badly handled prologues has created this blanket statement that publishers will never take you if you write them, which is only so true. Besides that, if you aren’t publishing traditionally, you have little to fear aside from your audience’s judgement. Prologues are only as good as the story and writer behind them.
5.“Said is dead.”
What that means: “Originality in writing is good.”
What it becomes: “200 replacement words for this one word!”
It does not matter how catchy this is, “said is dead” is dumb advice unless you are trying to turn your writing into a MadLibs game. “Said” is awesome and easy on editing- don’t make yourself work harder there than you need to.
This advice is, at best, a bit helpful during the drudge of editing, but this too often gets muddled with advice about first drafts, which is the very last thing you should be worrying about in a first draft. Originality in writing style is a mythology, and striving for this makes your work tougher. This also goes for similar replacement memes for “suddenly”, “looked” or any other overused word: please ignore until later editing. Sometimes “said” and “suddenly” are perfectly fine for a scene, as it turns out.
6.“Write what you know.”
What that means: “Use the world around you to create a more realistic setting/characters.”
What it becomes: “Write only about what you know.”
Perhaps one of the most misunderstood pieces of writing advice I see, if not the most. “Write what you know” seems to come from the most well-meant of ideas, but gets misused and thrown around often enough to create divides in some writing communities (you’ll often see response memes saying “write what you like.”) At its most basic form, “write what you know” makes a lot of sense, as we draw from our surroundings unconsciously when we create. Any seasoned writer who's reread their work knows this (and cringes at that reflection in horror, might I add). However, the ultimate backlash of this clipped phrase is telling young authors that they can only ever write what they know. Their hometowns, their experiences, and even themselves in many cases. The downfall of "write what you know" has been its own overuse, allowing a complex idea to become mangled in favor of catchy phrases.
I’m much more inclined to “write what you’re willing to learn”, since writing often involves our personal reflections, but encourages us to dig further and deeper than we are often comfortable doing. We will always write what we know: the challenge is finding the things you don’t know.
That is my personal preference though, and hardly gospel.
Caitlin Jones is an author, film editor, and lover of all things Victorian and fantastic. Please check in for information on her upcoming series.