Free advice: worth everything you pay for it

There is a saying I’ve heard a few times: “Those who can, do. ThoseClark_Stanley's_Snake_Oil_Liniment who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach others to teach.” Now, as amusing as that may be, we all know it’s not entirely true. There are people out there who are quite successful in their fields who are also quite successful teachers.

Nevertheless, when it comes to writing, and learning to write from writers, it’s most definitely caveat emptor. It’s not necessarily because those offering advice don’t know how to write. It’s very clear that many do know how to write. But what they know is how they write. That doesn’t necessarily help them know the best way for you to write.

That’s not to say they don’t know a lot of things that are universally applicable. There are some standards in writing, such as character, description, plot structure, etc., that no writer can be successful without at least a basic understanding. But even then, there is no single correct way to create or develop a character, no “sweet spot” between too much and too little description. With most elements of writing a good writer can tell you what’s needed, but not necessarily how much.

And yet as writers it’s very hard to progress without someone giving us ideas as to what might help improve our work. So how do we apply the numerous bits of advice that are out there? Here are a few thoughts.

There is no one way. For every piece of advice out there from an author who has found success doing something a particular way, there is another author who has found success doing the opposite. As much as we’d love to believe that there is one easy way to success and we just have to find it, it’s just not so. So even if your favorite writer is telling you “do it this way,” you should be telling yourself “this is probably not the only way.”

Experiment, experiment, experiment. If something you hear sounds like it might be useful, try it. If it works for you, great! Use it! If it doesn’t work so well, take a closer look and see if there is still some part of the idea that works for you. For example, I once read a book on outlining that got me very excited about outlining. Until I tried it. I found I was outlining so deeply that I didn’t want to write the book itself because I felt like I’d already written it. However, I did find several pieces of that writer’s approach to be valuable, and I still apply them even though I’ve largely gone back to being a hybrid outliner/pantser. I “shifted the needle” farther toward outlining, but found I couldn’t go as far as that writer recommended.

Remember you are unique. No two writers are the same. One may love to research and will spend months exploring a topic and formulating ideas before ever putting words on page. Others know where they want to go and can’t wait to get started. They’ll only stop and go research when they reach a point where they need to know a particular detail or realize their experience is lacking in an area. Some revel in lush, extensive description, others give you just enough to let the reader fill in the details. While you can and should train yourself to do more than what you currently do in many areas, there’s no need to try to be some other writer. Be yourself–your best self, certainly, but find the balance that works for you.

Don’t forget writing is work. Remember Westley’s sage advice in The Princess Bride: “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” Anyone trying to teach you how to write best-selling novels in one easy lesson is probably hoping to be long gone with your money before you realize they lied.

I do some woodworking on the side. Early on in life I didn’t have many tools yet–I couldn’t afford them–so I made do with what I had. I was still able to finish my projects, but it was hard work and the results weren’t always as high quality as I would have liked. Over the years, however, I have acquired more tools. I can complete many projects much more quickly, and with better results. But it’s still work. Those tools have made the process require less work.

Which brings me to another point:

Acquire the tools that help the most. Whether from our own intuition or from reader feedback you may have an idea where our writing skills may lack. Those are the areas where learning from others may be the most helpful. If you’re already pretty solid with your description, but regularly feel your characters are missing something, it could be helpful to seek outside advice on characterization–and certainly time better spent than trying to squeeze more “umph” out of your descriptions. Shore up your weakest areas first rather than trying to improve in all areas at the same time, or working to improve areas where you’re already strong. Don’t know what areas those might be? It may be time to get some experienced readers to help you identify them.

I’m certainly not trying to tell you to ignore the advice of other writers. Far from it. Other writers can be excellent sources of information. Just remember that what works for them may not always work for you. As with medical issues, it’s best to get more than one opinion.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom is a Utah transplant, works for a regional bank, and spends his lunch hours working on his latest novel. His wife, three kids, and four pets find him amusing and somewhat useful, so they keep him around.