We’ve been reading books on writing for years and, along the way, seeking wisdom from anyone who seems to have their head on straight. We’ve found there’s a few types of advice: life-changing stuff that makes writing make sense, common sense advice that everyone can use once in a while, useless advice because it’s impossibly vague or intolerably trite, and then straight-up bad advice that’s the literary equivalent of “go play in traffic”.
The genuinely horrible advice we’ve come across is not varied but it is ubiquitous. One common piece of bad advice comes in the form of the old myth that you need to drop everything and move into a garret and be miserable—preferably with tuberculosis or a terrible addiction—in order to be a good writer. At least, such advice demands, you must marry someone who will support you as you follow your dreams without distraction before they can be realized.
This is unforgivable hogwash and must be stopped. If you write ten words on the back of a napkin every day at work and, if you have even rudimentary skill, you will have the first draft of a novel in thirteen years—on the backs of five thousand napkins. The logistics are poor, true, but the principle is sound. Writing finds a way so long as you are writing—and writers write.
Another piece of plain bad advice is anything that suggests that your parents or friends are of any use to you as judges of your work when you are starting out. While there are absolutely some exceptions—and we speak from experience as both editors and readers—some of the most egregious literary crimes come with the cheerful endorsement of someone’s mother, barista, doula, or other close acquaintance. You are better served learning to judge your own work as best you can rather than taking feedback from those who love you as though it were unbiased, informed critique. Just let them love you without the feedback, it will do wonders for your writing.
Useless advice is as thick on the ground as snow in Alaska in January and as varied as the snowflakes (hopefully climate change won’t kill those similes too soon). Our favourite piece of useless advice: “Just write”. We can’t count how many times we’ve seen something like this on Tumblr or Twitter, often from a big-name writer who’s probably so tired of getting the question that they’ve written a keyboard shortcut for blurting out the answer. That much we understand, we get tired of answering questions, too, such as: “what’s for dinner?” and “honey, have you seen my socks?”. So tired.
But then that gem gets passed around between unpublished (or at least insufficiently famous) writers like some Holy Grail of writing, from which everyone is supposed to take a sip. Don’t do it. We’ll tell you what’s in there. It’s not wine, and you don’t want to drink it.
“Just write?” Really? Wait, here’s us without even a pen! We never would have thought of that one. This is just brilliant! Or, no, it’s not. It’s completely useless. It’s not even one-size-fits-all advice. It’s along the lines of “maintain a heartbeat”. If you don’t do it, you might as well be dead for all the writing you’ll get done.
“Write badly” may not sound like it—in fact, it sounds like an excerpt from the Book of Eeyore—but it is far better advice. Writing badly implies several important things: that you are writing in the first place, that you understand what makes writing work or at least that you can recognize when it’s going badly, and that you are producing something that can be improved upon by you or someone else. “Write badly” is actually brilliant advice.
So, happy writing badly to all of you who aspire to be writers. That, if nothing else, will get you places.
Until next time,
–Anah & Dianne