The dirty little secret of being a writer is that none of really feels like we know what we’re doing.
We’re insecure. We worry about our work. No matter how much praise you get, how well your book sells, how much you may like it yourself, you can always find another author (and usually droves of them) who are selling far better than you, who garner far more glowing accolades, and whose writing you like better than your own.
This makes us susceptible to what I like to think of as The Advice Trap.
What is the Advice Trap? It’s thinking that how other writers do things is how you should do them. That’s a problem because, besides writing, a favorite activity of most writers is talking about writing. It’s fulfilling and makes us feel like writers. Plus, it’s an excellent work avoidance technique. Writing blog posts about writing is a very easy way to avoid going back to that unfinished book you really need to finish. (Yes, yes, I know.)
The result of this is that there is a crap-ton of writing advice out there if you’re inclined to look for it. (Go on, Google “how to write a novel”; I dare you.) You can easily waste days reading posts and random bloviating from other writers on how they write and how wonderfully their methods work for them.
If you’re just getting started and haven’t done much of anything yet, doing this kind of research probably can’t hurt. But if you’ve already got some work under your belt and you’re looking to improve, it can be very dangerous to your productivity.
After 20-plus years in this business, I am continually amazed at how many different approaches to writing I’ve come across. And the one common denominator is that none of them do things exactly like I do. I still occasionally read these “how I do it” posts, but I can’t remember the last time I really came away with anything useful. They’re an interesting look into other writers’ heads, but I find them of little value in polishing my craft.
If you’ve got good habits down, by which I mean you’ve been able to complete works you feel are ready for other people to read, worrying about how other writers do it is more likely to tie you up in knots than improve your writing.
This is the main reason I’ve tried to stay away from instruction lists in this series, instead trying to discuss things writers need to think about when they’re writing. How you translate that into good prose is something you have to figure out for yourself.
(One important aside here: I’m talking about the act of creation, not the task of polishing your first draft into something publishable. That’s an entirely different process that does in fact have some best practices that are worth following. But we’ll cover that another day.)
Here, the opening to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is applicable. He was talking about families, but he could have just as easily been talking about writers:
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
You’re going to spend a lot of time being unhappy with your writing. For the most part, you’ll be going it alone.