Writing and Speaking

Don’t Let Anybody Tell You How to Write (or 8 Tips for Learning Responsibly)


Don't Let Anyone Tell You How to WriteMy mom tells me I’m going to put myself out of business with that title.

But, seriously, I mean it. Don’t let anybody tell you how to write. Not me. Not Stephen King. Not Writer’s Digest. Not Aristotle.

This is actually a huge problem among writers. I know because I’ve spent my own fair share of time walking that dusty, crowded path marked with prominent neon billboards that flash assurances of The Right Way. It adjoins Shortcut to Success and is littered with historical tourist hot spots promising you’re about to walk in the very footsteps of such idols as Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, Zora Neale Hurston, Madeleine L’Engle, Dean Koontz, Margaret Atwood, and G.R.R. Martin.

If only you’ll just follow this one path, doing it exactly the way everybody else did it before you, then you’re sure to reach the pot of gold at the end of the journey.

And if you deviate? If you feel the call of your own creativity, your own individuality and originality? If you go wandering off-road?

Well, God help you. Everybody knows you’re doomed, because everybody knows you can’t write a good story and be a real writer unless you do it that one very specific right way. 

And the only way to to find the “right” way is to kneel at the feet of the greats (and sometimes not-so-greats) and let them tell you exactly how to do it.

Strangely enough, I find myself in the weird position where people actually look at me like I know what I’m doing and ask me to tell them how to do it.

So if you’re going to listen to anything I tell you about how to be an author, then listen to this one thing: don’t listen to me.

In Which I Take Back Everything I’ve Ever Said (Including That Last Sentence)

Okay, okay, so a little facetious fun aside, let’s talk seriously here.

What I’m really saying is this: There’s a huge difference between learning responsibly from other writers and letting them tell you (directly or indirectly) how to write.

We writers are a funny bunch. Actually, here’s a joke I just made up: If you take a human being, with all his or her crazy dichotomous conundrums and contradictions, and put him or her under a microscope, what do you a get?

A writer, of course.

(Ba-dump ching!)

(And, yeah, okay, so I won’t go out for stand-up anytime soon.)

Perhaps one of the greatest dichotomies of being a writer is that we start out as inherently freewheeling creative individuals. You have a story that beats in your breast. You have words in your mouth. You are an inventor, a philosopher, a lover, and a fighter—all rolled into one pulsing, passionately imaginative need to express yourself.

And yet, ironically, as we foray deeper and deeper into the actual craft of being a writer, most of us feel compelled to become conformists.

This is so for a couple of reasons:

1. Writing Is Complicated and Difficult

In the writing wilderness, it’s easy to get lost, scared, and overwhelmed. I venture that almost all writers—even outright geniuses—feel at some point that suffocating burden of not knowing how to say what they want to say. Scratch that, sometimes we don’t even know what it is we want to say.

Perhaps that’s the greatest irony of being a writer right there: our purpose on this earth is to express ourselves and yet—we can’t. Never entirely anyway.

We want someone to help us. We want to learn from the accrued wisdom of those who have gone before us. And this is relatively easy because…

2. Writing and Storytelling Follow Logical Patterns

For all that writing often feels like this mystical, muse-touched experience, it is actually an extremely sensible discipline. The untrained eye might look at an excellent story and believe it just happened—it just popped from the writer’s brain, fully formed and Athena-like. But the more you study the many techniques that come together to create a story—and indeed the patterns found across the spectrum of all successful stories—the more you realize writing well is something that can be learned.

What this means at its most basic level is that other successful writers or observant critics can tell you how to write. Others can tell you how to create story structure, character arcs, themes, beautiful prose, strong voices, and gripping suspense.

And if they know secrets you do not—secrets that are otherwise keeping you from writing better stories with less stress—then why in heaven’s name would you not let them tell you how to write?

Indeed, as far as I’m concerned, that’s all to the good. What’s not good is when we move from the admirable open-mindedness of gleaning information from other writers to the scared and stunted mindset of believing we must do what we are told—or else.

Structures Aren’t the Destination, But Rather the Vehicle

I talk a lot about the balance of logic and creativity in artistic pursuits. A couple weeks ago, I posted “6 Steps for Thinking Clearly” as a writer. I love logic. I love linearity. I love systems and structure. They just make everything so much easier. They clear the clutter, emphasize the meaning and patterns within what might otherwise be a chaotic dump of information, and streamline the hardest parts of life.

In short, logic in all its forms is that shortcut we talked about earlier. When we understand what’s going on—what road we’re on and where it’s headed—it often gives us enough of an overview to avoid unnecessary roadblocks, inconvenient detours, and pointlessly meandering scenic routes. We can immediately identify the best route to our end goal and get there in the fewest number of steps with the least amount of hassle.

This is why story theory—specifically that of structure—is so endlessly valuable to writers. It removes the guesswork about where we’re going or what’s blocking us, and allows us to surge ahead with confidence and support. This is also true when it comes to narrative principles such as show vs. tell, genre guidelines, and even marketing trends.

It’s just super-nice to have someone come along, take us by the hand, and show us the path that worked for them and for others.

That’s all great.

The problem is this: logical constructs only work as a means, not an end.

We impose rules and limits on creative ideas to help us better understand them, to better define their edges. Stories are so much more than their structures, just as the writing life is so much more than its “rules.”

What this means is that however many tools your fellow writers may be able to lend you, they cannot and should not dictate what you build or how you build it.

8 Ways to Learn Responsibly

Learning responsibly how to write is not the same as being told how to write. The former is dynamic, evolving, and life-affirming; the latter is, bluntly, brainwashing. The former enables curious artists who push their own boundaries as well as those of the art form; the latter churns out automatons who lack the motivation and courage to pursue either individuality or originality.

As intuitive as this all may be, it still gets confusing. “Follow the rules, but don’t follow the rules!” It’s enough to make a writer dizzy.

I’ve realized lately that even more than becoming a good writer, I want to become a good student. The one, I believe, leads inevitably to the other.

Whereas the emphasis on being a good writer (or good whatever) sometimes indicates definitive ideas of success or failure, the emphasis on being a good student is different. When you focus on being a student, you accept the inherent realization that there is no specified destination. There is no “making it.” There is only the journey. And that means you have space in which to harmonize the dance between “the way to do it” and an infinite number of alternatives.

Here are some guidelines:

1. Learn the “Rules”

Whenever a writer goes off on a diatribe about non-conformism (like this one), it’s hard to avoid sounding a little anti-establishment. But as I’ve said before, this isn’t a total sum game. This isn’t a question of being for or against the principles of the craft. Writing is a craft. It is a discipline. It follows established patterns and principles. Accomplished authors understand, accept, and love the patterns of story.

2. Respect the Art (More Than the Artist)

Ever noticed how many writers—especially the super-successful ones—often offer conflicting bits of advice?

In many instances, this is because writers themselves don’t fully and consciously understand their craft. Sometimes, this is especially true when it comes to their own stories or processes.

Does this mean you shouldn’t listen to them? Not at all. But it does mean that sometimes the greater truths will come not from the authors’ mouths but from their pens. Instead of looking to other authors for the “secret” to great storytelling, look to the great stories to see if you can figure out the secret.

3. Take Nothing for Granted

By all means listen to what other writers are saying. Piggybacking on the understanding and experience of other people is one of the most exciting blessings of life. But (and this is may be the most important but in the whole article) don’t ever take anything for granted. Just because Stephen King says it doesn’t automatically mean it’s true. Taking the words and ideas of other writers as gospel is a sure sign you’re shutting down your own ability to think, not just logically, but creatively.

4. All Information is Good, No Information is Final

Information is information. It always tell us something. Even when a piece of information is categorically wrong, it’s still telling us something. The mark of a student is an open mind. And the essence of an open mind is the ability to hold information loosely—forming opinions on it but being willing to adjust those opinions as new information filters into the picture.

5. Hone Your Powers of Observation

We often think of learning responsibly as sitting with a book and ingesting facts. This is true, of course. But this is perhaps the more stagnant half of learning, since in these instances, we are essentially being told what to think.

Balance this ingestion of information against your own powers of observation. Stand back and look at the big picture.

  • Look at the patterns you see in the books you’ve read.
  • Look for the things that ring true over and over in the advice you read, versus the things that ring false.
  • Look for the places where the advice of your favorite authors is exemplified in their own writing—and where it is contradicted.

When someone tells you the sky is blue, make sure you go outside and look.

6. Cultivate Self-Awareness and Self-Honesty

While logic may not come as naturally as creativity, it is actually much easier to learn, thanks to its linear nature. Creativity, on the other hand, is easy to take for granted.

An idea pops into your head and—pow! you’re creative! Nothing more to it.

But that’s entirely true.

Disciplined creativity is not random and is often not first-blush. Rather, it is a by-product of perhaps the greatest discipline of all—the ability to be aware of one’s self and what one finds there. Ask yourself:

  • What is it you want to create?
  • What is it you want to discover?
  • What is it you believe about the world?
  • What is it you believe about stories?
  • What is it you don’t believe?

The answers to all these questions, and more, are the driving force behind true originality.

7. Don’t Be Afraid of Having Your Own Opinions, But Don’t Afraid of Letting Them Go

The “rules” of writing are long-established and well-respected—to the point they can often seem too intimidating to question.

But never be afraid of having your own opinions. You think story structure is garbage? Good for you!

But never take your opinions (or, more specifically, your own understanding of your opinions) for gospel, anymore than you do another writer’s opinions. It’s hard to master anything if your ego keeps getting in the way—whether through self-negation or self-glorification.

Hold yourself most loosely of all.

8. View the Mastery of Writing (and Life) as Long-Term Projects

Fierce on the Page Sage CohenThere are many practical reasons why you shouldn’t let others tell you how to write. Perhaps the greatest of all is this: writing is a ultimately a discovery of one’s self. And nobody can tell you how to do that. As Sage Cohen writes in Fierce on the Page:

Writing and life are long-term projects. The destinations can be ambiguous and hard to reach.

She also says:

We don’t live in our lives but in the stories we tell about our lives.

Learn to tell your stories with honesty, integrity, and a never-ending sense of creativity and curiosity. There are no greater gifts a writer brings to the world than these.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think is the most challenging part of learning responsibly? The most rewarding part? Tell me in the comments!


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