Writing advice to take with a grain of salt

Picture of a hippogriffAs a writer, I rub shoulders (virtually) with lots of other writers. On Facebook I’ll often see quotes from people like Stephen King, or Hemingway and others. Inspirational stuff. I think. But sometimes advice needs to be weighed and measured before it’s blindly believed. Here are a few I’ve encountered.

Read lots

Really? Oh, I don’t doubt you’ve read heaps of books. So have I – both for pleasure and as part of my university degree. Piles and piles, heaps of books. But reading doesn’t make you a writer. My husband is a voracious reader – and I do mean voracious. He isn’t a particularly fast reader, but he would go through a book or two a week. The prospect of him writing a book? Somewhere between Buckley’s and none. Reading may lead you to writing, reading may provide you with knowledge about a particular genre, it may cause you to think that you could write a better book yourself. But reading does not make you a writer.

Do more writing courses

How many have you done? Lots or none at all? I’ve done a few. But at the end of the day, all you’re doing is training up for the real event. Would I suggest people do writing courses? Absolutely. Then go away and think about what you learned and how you might want to apply that knowledge (if at all). Writing courses are subjective, in a way that (say) basic physics is not. You can learn Newton’s three laws of motion – and if you’re writing science fiction, that’s not a bad idea. They are facts, just as 1 + 1 = 2. But writing courses will teach you how a certain person thinks the job should be done. Do you think Shakespeare, or Dickens, or Tolkien, did a writing course? You might as well have done lots of reading (see above).

Take lots of editorial advice

So you’ve written the first chapter of your masterpiece and you take it along to the local writers’ group for comment. Or, in this electronic age, you post it to to Authonomy or some other, similar, group. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a necessary step along the way. Float your little paper boat and see how long before it sinks. Some will say they love it, some will say they hate it. Whose advice do you take? If you’ve done the writing courses, you’ll recognise others who have done the same courses. But beware, take care before you take advice from people who don’t read the genre, or people who haven’t read the whole book. Consider opinions by all means, but don’t turn your book into a hippogriff by trying to pander to everyone’s whims.

It’s cool to collect rejection slips

Sure, it’s part of the process. But you know what? It doesn’t happen to everybody. I have a writer friend who sent the synopsis and first three chapters of her first book to five well-respected agents. Within two (2) weeks she had a contract for three (3) books, with a six-figure advance. The other four agents passed – but she didn’t much care. Sure, I know some will paper their office with rejection slips. It might be smarter to think about why you’re getting so many? Have you targeted the wrong agents/publishers? Do your queries stack up? And then (um) is your book any good?

Your work is good enough to publish

Maybe it is. If you’ve been through rigorous quality control. That’s what it is, really, getting a book reading for publishing – even if it’s self publishing. Find out if people enjoyed the read – and I don’t mean the people who will love anything you do, including those sausages you burnt at the last family barbie. That’s where critique groups are useful if you can find people prepared to read the whole book and give you fair comment. If they say the ending’s weak or there’s lots of loose ends that go nowhere, maybe you need to reconsider your plot. But for now, let’s assume that’s not necessary. A professional edit from someone who knows what they’re doing is still a very good idea. So is copy editing. Remember that husband I mentioned? The one that reads a lot? He’s no academic, but he knows ‘drug’ or ‘drugged’ is not the past tense of the verb ‘to drag’. He knows the difference between their, there and they’re. If you write “apple’s”, he’ll wonder “apple’s what?” If you don’t understand all of these, go and learn English.

So what do you think? What other “advice” would cause you to pause and think?

16 thoughts on “Writing advice to take with a grain of salt

  1. rinellegrey

    So true. I’ve found that having read so many books has definitely helped my writing, both before and after starting writing. Before it gave me a vague idea of story, plot and characters. But when I first started writing, I didn’t have much time to read at all! It’s only now that I’m getting back into reading. And I’m analysing books a lot more now (really gets in the way of reading for pleasure!)

    The others, I agree totally. One of the hardest things for me to learn was to take an editors comments, and consider how I wanted to approach them. Sometimes, that wasn’t the same way the editor suggested. Sometimes it was. Sometimes I disagreed entirely! Because when it came down to it, it was my story, not the editors!

    Writing courses, I haven’t done any. I’m not a course person. I have read writing books, but only after writing my first couple of novels. I don’t think I would have been able to use that information sooner, and I think instead it would have made me freeze up!

    1. Greta van der Rol

      Your experience just underlines how everyone is different. I have always been a ‘course’ person. And yes, being a writer most definitely does get in the way of reading pleasure. You notice things that you would have ignored in the past. Re-reading old favourites is interesting in that respect.

  2. Richard

    Hi Greta,

    I agree that reading alone doesn’t make one a writer but at the same time nor does simply writing. The combination of senses, thought, desire, experience, etc. forms the words, but reading can help tame the doubts that hinder so many otherwise excellent writers who may be holding back because they believe their work is less than perfect and thus unworthy.

  3. Laurel C Kriegler

    When I was in school, my Mom used to ask me why I didn’t write because I read so much. While I had a vivid imagination, it only applied to the stuff I read – I wasn’t coming up with my own plot ideas. That only happened when I was 26 years old. That was when I tried to write my first novel ideas down.

    I have a good friend who is an excellent writer (and, in fact, writes as an art form), but he is not widely read at all. Not even in science fiction, which is what he writes when writing prose.

    For the last year, thanks to having a baby, I’ve done far more reading than writing. I have definitely learned a lot along the way, as I’ve read both good and scrub-mind stuff. That said, it doesn’t help me spot the snags in my own writing – I still need another pair of eyes to catch those – but a writer friend has told me that my writing IS better in a first-off draft.

  4. Kira Morgana

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    If you’re a writer or thinking about being a writer you’ll understand this helpful post…

  5. Paul Trembling

    When I had work up on Authonomy, I had some very helpful comments that pointed out some things that I was doing wrong. I also had some contradictory advice that didn’t help much. One person thought that my opening was one of the best they’d ever read. Someone else told me to scrap it entirely! I went with the first one. But it made the point that some advice is purely subjective, and should be considered in that light.

  6. Pete

    Oh dear. Greta! Reading doesn’t make you a writer – but how can you possibly disagree that reading makes you a BETTER writer?

    There is so much that is learned from reading, good AND BAD stuff. Not as a student examining a text, but just as a reader, to feel when you like something and begin to understand WHY you like it. To see when things don’t work and understand why. This can be learned in an MFA course, sure – but it is learned more naturally, and I think innately, by reading the best stuff you can get your hands on, and a whole lot of stuff underneath it.

    I have no hesitation in saying I wouldn’t be half the writer I am now (for what THAT’s worth) if I hadn’t read the hundreds of novels I have in the past 4 years.

    1. Greta van der Rol

      I don’t think I’m disagreeing with that, Pete. But, sorry, reading doesn’t make you a writer. Lots of people read, but never write. Sure, reading will inform people like us – in a more natural way than any writing course, about all the things you mentioned. But if you’re so busy reading, you won’t have TIME to write. So there.

      1. Pete

        Well, since the advice, “read more,” was directed AT WRITERS, one presumes they were already writing when the advice was given. Smeh!

        1. Greta van der Rol

          I don’t know about you, but I only noticed “stuff” in writing (head-hopping, multiple tags, adjectives etc) after I started writing myself. Before that I just read in blissful ignorance.

  7. Imogene Nix

    Enter competitions. Sure there is room for that… but you know what? They are subjective at best. Like you pointed out with editorial advice… it’s not a one size fits all. You might get lucky and pull in a major contract, but not everyone does.

    Do your best, get people around you who will give you honest feedback, that is more useful to any writer.

  8. juliabarrett

    I’m the wrong person to ask. I rarely take advice when it comes to writing nor do I give it. On occasion I will, albeit reluctantly, edit for another author if requested. Once upon a time I was an editor but I got to be the anonymous editor, someone else was the face. Worked out well for me.

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