How To Write (And Other Advice You Can Ignore)

There’s a truly frightening number of pieces on ‘how to write’ out there.

Four billion, eighty million, to be precise. I just Googled it, and while the Big G only took 0.74 seconds to turn up all that info, there’s not enough time in my whole life to go through it all.

Obviously, if you were trying to learn to write by popular consensus, you wouldn’t make a start in a million years.

Fortunately, most people are a little more self-confident than that and will at least narrow the field of influence to, say, other writers.

But even that leaves you with an utterly unwieldy amount of advice.

On one shelf alone in my overflowing collection I have 7 books on the craft of writing, a dozen more in my Kindle and at leat 3 in my Audible account… and if I were to look at every book I owned as a teacher of sorts, I’d be done for.

What if we narrowed the acceptable influences only to famous writers with huge audiences? Well, by now you might have twigged that even that reduced pool is still far too big.

And it’s too big because all those other people are not you.

Even the most carefully, creatively designed advice becomes prescriptive as soon as it is committed to the page.

It’s annoying, frankly. I like nothing more than a clear directive in pursuit of a goal, but advice just isn’t flexible enough for everyone to use it.

By its nature, once given, advice becomes fixed, immovable. But we all have profoundly different needs and processes.

I think it does a huge disservice to aspiring writers — even proven writers with a significant body of work — to believe that there is a ‘right way’ to go about the process, or a system that’s proven and should work for everyone.

There’s just not. There can’t be. We’re all too different, even when we seem the same.

On paper, we might have a lot in common — interests, values, priorities — but our schedules are different, our work demands are different, our sleep habits are different…

Every little part of our life — including how we write — is completely unique to us.

I’m thinking about this right now because I’ll be on the road for several days later this week, and all the preparation is giving me agita.

Actually, what was giving me agita was the fact that I had a completely clear schedule today — nothing at all on my calendar — which is extremely rare and precious, and I just couldn’t settle down to write because there was so much other stuff to do.

I hate this. I fought myself all day. I wanted to be writing, but couldn’t escape the fact that some tasks really did need my attention now.

And that’s what all the advice doesn’t take into account. Sometimes the work has to wait.

Sometimes it has to wait for ages. And actually, that’s OK.

Now, I know a LOT of writers, and writing teachers, who would disagree with me.

But you know, I’m starting to enjoy the occasional stoush with the establishment. I must be getting old. Another thread for another day.

Anyway. My point is that if someone’s advice doesn’t work for you, there is literally no reason at all that you have to follow it.

If you hear someone say that you must get up and go straight to writing, first thing in the morning, so that you’re not chasing the work all day, and so that you can enjoy the clarity of the early morning, think about whether that actually works for you.

Honestly that sounds delightful to me. But it doesn’t fit my life even a little bit. I want my mornings to be relaxed, peaceful

If you hear someone say that you must protect your creative time at all costs or you’ll never achieve anything, think about whether that actually sounds true to you.

Writing is really important to me, but this morning, for example, talking to my sister was more important.

There are plenty of things I’ll ditch a writing session for, because what would I write about if I didn’t have those things?

A whole lot of writing advice assumes that you have all the time, help and energy you need.

So if you’ve ever heard advice like that, and you’ve felt like a failure, or an idiot, or a fraud for not being able to figure it out, then please — let it go. It’s not you. It’s the advice.

You are the only person who can figure out the process that’s going to work for you. The process doesn’t have to be fixed, either.

It’s allowed to change based on what’s going on in your life. It can change day to day, season to season.

And if you thrive on fixed schedules and routines, that’s great too.

All I want is for you to think, without taking outside advice — even mine — about what works for you.

Only when you listen to yourself will you really start to get in a rhythm that feels right.