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Years ago, if I struggled to put words to the page, I often turned to the sage advice of prominent writing juggernauts. With thousands of phrases penned before I was born, they all must be holding out on me–some missing, critical ingredient that I needed to bring the spice back into my creative life.
Hours and hours of YouTube videos, web articles, and potent quotes from GoodReads.com sometimes snapped me out of my creative lethargy for a bit–but searching online for writing advice more than two or three times is kind of like eating a plain bagel from a few different shops: they may have a slightly personal spin, but overall, it's still a plain bagel.
Do this. Do that. Make sure you never, EVER, do that thing your favorite author wrote a blog post about. How could you even dare to ponder the idea? Be gone, peasant.
I have a love-hate relationship with our modern culture’s obsession with advice. The majority of famous writers are indeed famous for a reason. They wrote the books, they climbed the publishing mountains, and now they inhabit the coveted spaces of Barnes and Noble tables and Target bookshelves. So, their lived experience braving the slow and cold march to the top is invaluable.
At the core of concise writing suggestions lies deep wisdom that has been arrived at over many attempts, successes, and failures. However, for us creatives who take the words of professional artists as unchallengeable gospel, personal takes spoken with confidence can send the budding artist on a mission to find and solidify their creative identity, rather than, well, creating. A veritable cart before the horse kind of problem.
So, here are 3 pieces of excellent writing advice deconstructed into their wise, yet potentially problematic components.
Write every day.
For the type A personality like me who has a task list after their other ten task lists, the creative expression of writing can seem impossible to fit into my already packed day. I want to write because I love doing it, not because it’s on my checklist after picking up the dog poop in the yard…
I have told my high school students, however, that you spend your time on what you care about. I can say I value writing and it’s important, but the two hours I wasted on YouTube watching skateboard videos would suggest something else. So one possibility is perhaps we do in fact have the time–we just simply aren’t using it well.
And real talk: Novels are not short works. If you’re going to produce a story upwards of fifty THOUSAND words, you’re not going to do that well in a day or over an all-nighter. Better to take small bites. Take it from someone who has a tendency to get creatively constipated from not making the time to scribble down all the prose that have been accumulating in my brain the last week: take little creative poops. It’s better for your imagination digestion. I don’t have any scientific evidence for this, so take it with a grain of salt and some Ex-Lax.
I think the danger of this advice to the creative can be our own limited definition. When a famous writer says write every day, what does that actually mean? There’s lots of kinds of writing–which ones count towards meeting my daily quota and which ones don’t?
If I jot a short poem on a napkin at lunch, does that count? What about the thoughtful yet efficient emails I have to send? Can my morning journaling time be considered my writing for the day? How about a few lines for a rap mixtape I’ll never release? I’ve got a full schedule, my guy.
Speaking from experience, I think writing every day is a worthwhile habit to work towards. However, given ups and downs with my mental health, being a full time high school teacher, and honoring my responsibilities as a Disciple, husband, dog dad, educator, friend, and so on in the right prioritized order, writing a few thousand words every day is not practical, if possible for me.
For me, given the time and mental capacity I have after a long day, I may only add a few ideas to my novel outline, write a line or two of a poem, and text some friends. Sometimes, that is allowed to be good enough.
If I truly am feeling lazy or anxious about writing and I do have the time and capacity, I have a harsher rule for myself:
Sucks. Get writing, buddy.
If you resonate with this as an artist of any kind, I would encourage you to reflect on these questions:
What is your definition of writing every day? Drawing every day? Painting every day?
Is your definition realistic for the life that you have? (Note: I did not say the life that you want. You may have that life someday, but it ain’t today, so don't let the future hinder you today.)
How can you better balance setting a high standard for yourself with grace when you fall short?
Have you tangled your personal worth in your amount of creative output?
What kind of writer am I?
Quick and Unofficial Definitions:
Outliner - A writer who maps out their story before they capture their prose. (Tend to be considered predictable and formulaic, but have a strength in narrative consistency–that is not universal, though.)
Pantser - A writer who thinks of a name, throws them a challenge, and explores how they respond. (Tend to be considered a free-flow style and while more surprising in twists and turns, can struggle with endings–that is not universal, though.)
Jimminy Christmas, did I hate having to make outlines in high school classes. When you’re a hormonal teenage boy, you don’t have time to outline AND write your essay. Who am I, Stephen King?
Now that I am writing articles or stories I actually want people to read, by capturing my thoughts in a Google Doc, outlining, then writing, the quality of my work has improved by leaps and bounds simply because I am more organized.
A natural question to arise then is am I an Outliner? Because step one of my writing process is scribbling out my incoherent ideas, does that make me a Pantser? And if we want to get really existential with it, does it actually matter?
The problem to me with this advice of putting yourself in the camp of either this or that is I don’t believe those two kinds of groups capture the nuances of every writer’s workflow–because they aren’t meant to. Rather, those two groups are meant to get you started. Do you enjoy the writing process more in an artsy, “see where this goes” style? Or is the threat of plot holes and a disjointed narrative enough of a threat to have you producing an outline that would make your writing hero blush?
I mean hey, we could make the argument Tolkien’s Silmarillion was a glorified outline.
There is nothing wrong with considering yourself an Outliner, Pantser, or a Hybrid of both. Your end goal is to write good stuff. Whatever is going to accomplish that, go for it.
But, this identity game can become a problem if it keeps you from actually writing. If the percentage of your free time is split with 30% writing and 70% watching “Am I a Pantser?” videos, that’s worth some self-reflection.
As a writer, I would encourage you to reflect on these questions:
Have you let the Outliner or Pantser writer identity dictate how you produce too much?
Are there other workflow techniques you haven’t entertained because they didn’t fit into either of these pre-constructed identities?
Could you explain your own personal writing process to someone, no matter what it is?
How much time do you dedicate to researching writing styles versus actually writing?
Your tools don't define you.
Nobody likes a tool, but man do we love tools. Like the swiss army knife: That's like twenty tools packed into one.
Man, what a tool.
Tools can save us a lot of unnecessary energy. This is true of writing tools as well. Just like Outlining or Pantsing, tools are not the be-all-end-all of the writing process, but they are a great source of creative fuel.
Struggling with where to take your story next? Why not research some of the seven character archetypes. Feeling like there is a distinct part in your narrative arc that feels flat? Try plugging your plot into the 5 point story arc graph or the Dan Harmon story circle.
There is a later essay to come, but I don’t think writer’s block exists. Rather, I think we run into a problem with what we are writing and we don’t have the energy or idea to get around it. Happens to everyone–don’t fret. But! You do have a billion tools at your disposal. Even though we were just knocking the idea of spending too much time looking for writing advice–sometimes, it is necessary. And super helpful.
Fitness and business mogul Alex Hormozi said in a video I watched recently (to summarize): Routines are good, but routines can become a crutch.
This is in no way to suggest that storytellers should go willy-nilly with their words. As a teacher whose assignments are heavily writing focused, I’d be very ornery if my students started to turn papers in that read like the ramblings of a drugged out hamster trying to describe the American political system. Although…I’d bet that would be a hoot to read. Would it get an A? Probably not.
Writing tools like story templates or software like Plottr aren’t the problem. Instead the problem, I would argue, is giving credit to the tool, rather than the artist and the ingredients used.
Houses are made using the same tools: saws, hammers, drills, whatever. And yet, we can have one house that is aesthetically pleasing, space efficient, and a pleasure to be in, while the other one is cheap, falling apart at the seems, and set on a bad foundation.
All in all: Using tried and true tools will not magically make you a good storyteller or writer.
Writing as if the tool will make your story a good one perpetuates stagnant stories that result from the same plug-and-go ingredients that seem more like an attempt to copy past writers, rather than be inspired by them.
As a case study, romantic comedies are low hanging fruit, but an accurate example. Girl meets guy or guy meets girl, generic relationship drama ensues, they seem like they won't get together, then they get together. *blegh* So when something comes along that still is faithful to the formula but uses some personal ingredients and flair, it connects in a real way. For example, the film The Big Sick. We don’t experience it as a formula–we experience it as a story.
As a writer, I would encourage you to reflect on these questions:
Should you return to the story arc or story circle tools to practice your story telling fundamentals?
Do your stories feel like formulas? Or, do your stories steep your audience in the mystery and energy of your personal style?
Have you tried any creative ways of messing with the story arc or story circle tools? For example, check out the story arcs that Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs followed. How could you try something like that in your stories to expand your skill set?
Are there other story writing tools or tried-and-true methods you haven’t used yet? Which one could you try this year to see if it impacts the quality of your writing for the better?
It would be hypocritical to offer you all this advice after suggesting some advice doesn’t always apply to us. So, dunk your writing in what tastes best to you. Peace out.