How Popular Writing Advice Sets You Up to Fail
What happened to creativity?
No matter how long you have been chasing your novel (or writing format of choice), if you have ever researched writing advice from those who have achieved literary success, you will be well versed in in the TED Talk-worthy inspirational rhetoric.
Don’t get me wrong, most writing advice is well meaning and sometimes you find the exact remedy to get you out of a writing rut. At times, reading advice from fellow writers can be all it takes to give me a motivation boost and to kick my creativity back into gear. Not to mention, most of this advice comes from writers who have achieved literary fame and success I can only dream of. Surely, there must be a few hidden gems of advice that helped them get where they are.
Now that my limited praise of common writing advice is out of the way, it is time to roast some writing hacks which are flashy in concept but disappointing in practice. This list includes advice that may work for some but, but pushing them as blanket rules for every writer is a dangerous game. Forcing yourself to follow advice that doesn’t work for you can leave you feeling intimated overwhelmed, and inadequate in your writing abilities.
Awareness of your own shortcomings as a writer can be a strength, but there must be a delicate balance between constructive criticism and the confidence. Feeling downtrodden over your inability to apply subjective writing habits (packaged as a cure all for all writers) to your own craft is a waste of energy.
Like all humans, writers are subjective creatures, and embracing our quirks and flaws is part of what gives our work a unique shine. Improvement is important, but that means thinking critically about what advice you employ and what you discard. This takes trial and error and the perspective that writing advice is there to help you. If something doesn’t work for you, you haven’t failed as a writer.
Is the substance of this advice enough to help make healthy writing habits for the long haul? Let’s take a closer look at some common contenders that make most “Writing Tips” lists in some shape or form. Beyond the spunky buzz words and idyllic descriptions of what it means to be A Writer, what do these writing hacks mean when put into practice?
In other words, here are some widely-spread writing tips, tools, and habits I have stopped holding myself to.
1. Early Bird Arrogance. This advice usually goes something like: “Wake up before dawn and write the majority of your daily word goal before breakfast.”
The ideal time to wake up and get shit done makes it way into a fair few writing advice resources. Usually, the ungodly hours between 4am and 7am are hailed as the golden opportunity for creative productivity.
During the first year of my undergraduate degree, various lecturers shared their writing routines to inspire us to establish our own. One, a published author, described her morning routine: wake up before 5am, sit at desk, edit yesterday’s writing (as a warm up), hit a goal of 1,500 words before it’s time to get the kids ready for school and then go to work. Several other lecturers claimed their routines looked similar, and we were encouraged to give it a go. This routine has also been implemented and encouraged by many successful writers.
There is one problem that make this incredible feat seem superhuman. I’m not a morning person. I never have been and have accepted I never will be. If anything, I’m nocturnal. Hitting the sack before 1am is an early night for me. I live in fear of lectures, work shifts, and events scheduled before 11am. With writing, I am my own boss, and one of the perks of that is lie-ins. Does that mean I will never make it as a writer?
If you are a morning person, or if getting up an hour or two before you would before work or school doesn’t make your skin crawl, this advice is for you. It makes sense to get straight to writing before people and other daily commitments can distract you. But if you are a night owl, and not a masochist, kicking your brain into gear at 5am can be unnecessary torture.
“I needed to be alone in the still of night, without the phone, without my friends calling, with my husband sound asleep. I needed that utter freedom” — Anne Rice
I would argue that scheduling your writing in the early morning or late night has the same benefit. There is liberation in getting your creative juices flowing at a time when there is no threat of distractions.
There’s double standard when it comes to perceiving early birds as organised and motivated while night owls are seen as lazy. Time of day isn’t inherently influential when it comes to improving your writing. What can benefit you is cutting off distractions and respecting your body clock.
Whether you peak at midnight, dawn, noon, or dusk, make the most of that time. Having a routine benefits most writers, but the beauty of routines is tailoring them to suit you.
2. Anything that implies that there is only one rigid way for successful writers to live their lives.
I like routine, even though I struggle to stick to it. I’m not perfect, but even if I curated my writing routine to be optimal for my own brain, packaging my daily to-do-list as a guide to success for every aspiring writer would do more harm than good. Unfortunately, at the core of most writing advice (and self-help books in general) is this delusional, egotistical belief of “it works for me, so it must work for everyone else.” But solipsism has its downfalls.
What really makes my eyes roll is when this authoritative advice isn’t limited to writing itself. You may search for writing advice and half of what you encounter is unsolicited advice on your lifestyle. Apparently, imperfections in your diet, sleep schedule, exercise routine, furniture layout, and what you do in your spare time will be the downfall of your writing career. Is every successful writer secretly Patrick Bateman?
Of course, not looking after your body and mind properly will hold you back in many ways, indiscriminate of writing. More nuanced advice on how living off-grid, cutting out caffeine and alcohol, or doing a full cardio workout before you begin writing boarders is not only subjective to whoever suggested it, but it boarders on condescending.
Encouragement to spend your free time in a very specific way crops up far to often in writing advice. Which brings us to…
3. All or Nothing Attitude. “You must treat writing like a full time job. Hit at least 2,000 words a day.”
I admire the spirit of anyone who lives by this principle. But it is not realistic for every writer. It is incredibly dismissive to imply that those who cannot reach such a high daily standard just isn’t committed enough. Toxic positivity is a thing. Let’s stop pretending that motivation and mental energy aren’t depletable, so long as you have the right attitude. Other commitments, such as your day job, studying, housework, and childcare require energy and often can’t be neglected, even if writing is prioritised.
Making a living from your writing takes time and luck, even in the best-case-scenario. Unless you are very privileged, it is impossible (or at least, irresponsible) to drop all your other commitments just to focus on writing. For many, a fruitful writing practice consists of dedicating some of the free time you do have to writing. Whether this is ten minutes a day or four hours, it depends on ones individual circumstances.
Naturally, the more you write, the better you will become and the more you will increase your chances of success. However, if you consistently dedicate small amounts of time to your craft, you can still succeed. You can still push yourself without burning yourself out.
Other commitments, mental illness, and disabilities make this kind of writing advice impossible for many writers to live up to. If this is the case, don’t let this all or nothing mentality paint you as a failure. A less glamourous reality that no one seems to talk about is that even the most successful writers start out by juggling a day job with their writing commitments. Once their writing careers take off and they are making enough income, they can start dedicating all of there working hours to writing. For those of us who are not at that stage yet, let’s normalise having other commitments without feeling guilty. Then, we can start establishing methods to realistically manage this.
4. Literary Puritanism. “Spend every second of your free time reading the classics.” This often becomes a lecture of: “Don’t watch TV, play video games, read or write fan fiction, etc.”
Again, mind your business. Although I cannot underestimate how much reading can improve your writing skills, the problem with this advice is the snobbery. While a lot of classic novels are classics for a reason, there is no need to limit your reading to them. As a literature student, I found that reading too many Victorian to Modernist era novels (even the ones I enjoyed) left me feeling bogged down and uninspired to read at all.
There’s no shame in reading for pleasure. It’s easy to forget that what motivates most non-writers to read fiction and articles is pleasure. So why can’t writing itself (and what inspires it) be a pleasurable process. As lowbrow as it sounds, anything can be the source of inspiration, including trashy fiction, TV, and video games. Restricting yourself based on some pretentious pearl-clutcher’s rules is not worth it.
If it is presented as what it is, reading the rituals of other authors can be insightful when it comes to figuring out what gets you in the creative zone. For example, Daily Rituals by Mason Currey is an encyclopaedia on how the greatest writers, artists, and musicians got their own ideas flowing. Some are ridiculous. Some are ingenious. None are the “right” way to create your best work. If anything, this compilation of history's greatest minds and their unique rituals prove is testament to the fact different minds require different tools to get going.
In my experience, such jingles of advice trigger one of two reactions. They can leave me feeling powerfully inspired with their ability to oversimplify my current struggle into something theoretically achievable. Otherwise, they fill me with a sense of inadequacy as a writer. These tips seem to tap me on the shoulder and whisper “you have a long way to go before you can even get started at doing this properly”.
With no insight on how I can improve my habits and time management that will ensure success (other than “just do it!”), it’s not surprising that well meaning advice can leave a sour taste of disillusionment. Any writing advice you come across is subjective. No matter how many imperatives the author uses, every writing rule can be challenged. Whether you’re reading or writing advice on how to succeed as a writer, remember every writer is different so there is no one size fits all.