Does writing advice really help?

from pixabay
from pixabay

People vary vastly in their approach to work or play. So when I see a lot of writing advice doing the rounds (including my own), I’m rather skeptical.  Unless the advice is really specific, regarding tone, structure, syntax or something else, it serves little purpose for me beyond motivation, which, admittedly, is a huge part of success in any endeavour.

Some of the advice comes from writers themselves, when a dry spell probably compels them to write about something and what better a topic than the one they know most about—writing?

A lot of the impetus for writing about writing comes from a high demand amongst readers, who would be writers, and are looking for some magic recipe that will tell them how write. They expect such instructions to be clear and bulleted, exactly like the ones on how to put a bookshelf together or how to identify nasty weeds in your garden.

Again, such lists serve a purpose, to an extent, if you’re looking to churn out writing that will fulfill a purpose, and in theory, will help the next person write a similar thing should s/he be able to get to the instructions just like you did. Catch the reader’s attention with the intro, use a quote or an anecdote and end with a question or comment. Or, make sure the characters develop and edit out the parts that don’t fit.

But really, if someone has not recognized that they need to catch the reader’s attention or to make the characters come alive like real people from his or her reading of good authors, and is spending valuable reading time on reading a list of five points with clear headings and sub-headings on how to write, is this a person who should be thinking about writing for an audience at this stage?

That is not to say writing about writing serves no purpose. In a discussion or workshop based setting, whether face-to-face or online, talking about craft in a specific manner really helps. Where is this piece not working? Am I failing to connect here? Am I too verbose? But without a specific piece to start from, is it possible to discuss writing?

My problem, at its core, is with the generalization of the idea of writing to a scenario where people start believing in the how-to’s to the extent that they start producing independent texts about it. The furthest a how-to discussion can go perhaps is description or analysis of good writing but it can hardly prescribe or even suggest how to write successfully.

For example, observing a certain number of tragedies or comedies can tell us a few tenets of those genres and by reading a vast number, we might vastly improve our own writing capabilities. The process by which we absorb qualities of good writing and the extent to which we do that and how it all comes back to us when we are writing ourselves  is a matter of deep consideration.

But if someone comes up with a book on how to write tragedies or comedies would it help anyone beyond assuring them that they are spending some time and money in the noble pursuit of learning a trade?

Specialization and secret sauces on how to do something by way of instructions work in a lot of areas. But how far does it help writing?

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” is how Anna Karenina starts. But can we say the same about writing, that good writing is all alike and that every failed piece fails in its own way?

In fact, I’d contend that it’s the reverse–it’s easy to find plenty of commonalities between bad pieces of writing but it’s really very hard to come up with a set of rules for good writing because writing, by its very nature, has to be set free to succeed.

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34 thoughts on “Does writing advice really help?”

  1. ndeed when we write something then it is at once a feeling of need. calm and clear reply so mind his results were nice and good. how do you think ?

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  2. I enjoy reading writing about writing for insight, perspective and access to experiences that I might not have had myself, but as with any art form it feels like some rules should be broken and some shouldn’t be made in the first place. Your last sentence is perfection 🙂

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  3. There’s so many people and companies promising you lots of success. Most of them charge you for their “advice”. And after reading most of this pages(the free ones, of course) I get more confused and with a headache.
    So, what I do now is following the basics of writing and from there, I let my instinct flow freely. After that, I cut the unnecessary stuff.
    Everybody here has a valid point and I love this post.

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  4. As always, thanks for sharing your thoughts on a topic of great interest to many of your readers.
    “That is not to say writing about writing serves no purpose.”
    Too many books about writing are similar to recipe books.
    There is one, however, that I absolutely love: Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. Instead of telling us how we should write she introduces us to a large variety of writers who have written some of the best books we get to enjoy. In many cases these writers haven’t followed the so-called rules that are supposed to create good writing.
    Maybe that’s the piece of hope for us…

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  5. Hmm again. After several degrees, including a PhD, I foolishly assumed that I could write, though I had no idea if I had the talent to write fiction. So I wrote a practise novel and threw it away, then got down to work. A year or so down the line I made the interesting discovery that writing fiction IS a trade. There is much that can be learnt from these despised books, even if most of it is about what to avoid. You need, for instance, to fully understand the difference between ‘show’ and ‘tell’, even if you then ignore it. The effects of different tenses, POVs etc are all things that can elucidated by such books. You read differently after having been made aware of and analysing these techniques.

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  6. Writing advice and how-to books have been useful to me, but practice has been more valuable. I like your last sentence. I wholeheartedly agree that “writing, by its very nature, has to be set free to succeed.”

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  7. The only way to learn is to do it. I hadn’t written a thing between college and my angst ridden first 6 months in a strange land 16 years later. Then I had another break of 10+ years. My blog was primarily meant to teach me the craft of writing. And I believe it has become easier to put a piece together. I haven’t read King, I’ve never taken a creative writing course and I don’t read writing advice. I just read Bittledworder on writing because she makes points clearly and is always, always sensible.

    I find that my writing is beginning to take on a life and character of its own. Is it following King or any one of the many billeted lists hat will teach one to write? I don’t know – because I haven’t read them and I probably never will.

    Why? Because I am who I am and I write like me. Will I ever write a best seller? I’m inclined to believe that that will never happen. Just something I learned along the way.

    I just keep writing and leave the rest to the readers. Oh… I’m a reader too.

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  8. Try to spell properly…………………..advice? Sure, take it or leave it. We can write full of mistakes and we will reach an audience who does not care, and that is fine and dandy.

    there are many kinds of food and menus.. But if we want to reach a different audience, a little advice surely couldn’t hurt. Again, take it or leave it.

    As for me, I am not good enough to give advice, but I’ll surely pay attention if something can easily help.

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  9. How true. I would like to have you as a genie, who’ll pop up from time to time, to tell me these things. Though I might not remember everything. I am so old. When I was little, someone gave me an anna (not Karenina, silly, the coin). 😀

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  10. I think when bloggers give writing advice, it can be halpful, even if we already have figured it out from our own experiences.This is true if the advice presented in an intersting and friendly style, with rationale given for each point. Other times, I find that bloggers (including myself!) are sharing stuff as we ourselves are learning it. Not a bad thing, but something the writer needs to be aware of, I think…

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  11. My best teachers in creative work were the ones who asked the best questions rather than dispensing the best advice. In terms of general “writing advice” (something I dispense occasionally on my own blog), I try to keep it to techniques (mostly things that help me get the ideas out). I’ve also started posting close readings to look at how some of the common bits of advice play out in published work.

    In terms of reading posts about writing/writing advice…I primarily keep my eye out for techniques to steal. Most writers do little things idiosyncratically. Sometimes when they write about the way they do it, I find something that resonates enough that it might work for me (or be something I can adapt). The basics, though? The “have good characters and make sure they do interesting things,” the “show, don’t tell,” and the rest? Yeah…those are things you quickly internalize if you’re actually writing and trying to improve.

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  12. Well, I’d say that the advices can be helpful just to some extent. For those who are not quite sure or experienced with the matter, or those who wants to reevaluate some techniques. Except these two scenarios, everyone else should just forget about obsessively following rules

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    1. As I gain experience, this post makes more and more sense. I’ve got to write like me. And there is now way for someone to tell me how to do that.

      Lucas has a real point. When I was JUST starting out, I knew nothing. I was in a foreign land with no map and poor grasp of the local language. If I wanted to get to the good stuff, I needed a guide. After seeing the good stuff, I could wander into the unknown to find the good bars and better food and interesting conversation.

      I may be a special case in that I took the minimum number of English/writing classes to pass my degree (one). In starting creative writing now, having frameworks, basic ideas, and general good writing sense has been helpful for me. At least I know what a story arc is now.

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      1. I would say some people are just more language sensitive ( I think this can be your case) , while other have more difficulties at figuring it out how writing works. For the last ones, the advices can be somehow more useful. Even though, it still remains questionable IMHO. Always when I tried to follow blindly the so-called rules, my texts became hollow and meaningless, as if it had a fake smile on its face

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      2. Absolutely. I think one needs a good guide when one is learning a new language and when one needs some help being pointed to the “good stuff.”

        But having said that, what I was speculating on was really whether one ought to be told or taught what a story arc is, for example, and whether that is always a good thing.

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  13. A few years back, I eagerly started to read “On Writing” by Stephen King. Being one of my favorite writers at the time, I was excited to learn from the “master”. Turns out, he isn’t the “master”. While I agreed with much of what he said, he didn’t have the secret formula to success. Afterwards, when I started into scriptwriting, I saw a lot of people telling people how to write a successful script. It was then that I realized that no one, no matter how successful, no matter their connections, has the magic formula to being a good writer. You either have the skill to some degree, or you don’t. The only advice I’d give was from Mr. King, but it is the simplest thing. He said to read and to keep writing. That’s it. Everything else will either come, or it won’t.

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    1. Funny you should mention Stephen King’s “On Writing.” By itself, it’s an excellent composition. How far does it actually help as writing advice? I feel not more or less than another piece of well-written essay in that reading it helps us think or emulate rather than get “taught” writing. I used it as reading material for several batches of students and I noticed that the best readers, those who got the symbolism of the piece etc. were also the best writers. So yes, I also learnt that **keep reading and keep writing** to be a good writer.

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  14. There is no magic recipe, but it helps to read the advice. When I started out writing, I read a lot of advice in books and online, and found it very helpful. Now I read less of it because I find the same points repeated over and over.

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  15. I agree. All good writing is different, but if I stumble across a bad bit I can see the mistakes. On my MA I was taught what makes a bad writer and how to avoid the same mistakes, rather than what makes a good writer.

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