Writing Advice Is Bullshit

Looking at that title, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was my snapping moment — that finally I have achieved total author meltdown, and now I’m running through the streets, pants on my head, frothing on about how WRITING ADVICE IS MADE OF PEOPLE and CONTRAILS ARE HOW GMO BIG PHARMA SOMETHING SOMETHING OBAMA and BEN CARSON SHOULD BE PRESIDENT.

This is not that moment.

I know, I know, it’s very disappointing.

It’s just — it’s that month. It’s the month where lots of folks entertain the idea of being a novelist and they hunger for information, for direction, for truth.

My blog hits go through the roof during October and November.

I sell a lot of books about writing during this time.

Which is nice.

It’s all perfectly lovely.

It’s also all bullshit.

Now, before I go further into the cuckoo mines, I want to say — here’s another thing that happens during this month. People get mad at me for telling them how to write. I am, quite admittedly, a privileged guy even beyond the Normal Reasons. I’m a full-time writer. I make actual money writing. Not like, fake money. But the kind of money where I can support my family on it. I can pay all my bills and then buy Star Wars toys. I can buy myself a magical fucking writing shed to plonk down in the woods like a very pretty apocalypse bunker where I have an arsenal of books instead of an arsenal of guns. I’m not wealthy, I’m not famous, but I’m doing more than just surviving. I’m plump (hey shut up I lost weight) and pleasantly keeping on.

So, folks get galled that I would be so presumptuous to tell them how to do this thing. Which is both fair and also strange — yes, I’m privileged, but I like to think that I earned it. I didn’t buy my way into this gig. I have been working at it for almost 20 years (*weeps into open hands at the ineluctable march of time*). I have gone through many full time jobs, most of which sucked mightily. I have had years where my writing made me alarmingly little. I have endured the tooth and claw of rejection, countless rejections, so much rejection, goddamnit rejection. Plus: hey, occasionally crippling anxiety. That’s always a hoot.

Oh, and I still get bad reviews. I still get rejected. Writing is hard. Easier for me than many. But still hard. And publishing is harder. Publishing can be “passing pumpkin seeds through your urethra” hard. It can be “pushing a rock up a hill until the rock rolls back down onto you and then vultures eat your fingermeats but now it’s time to push the rock again, dummy” hard.

That’s me yelling at the clouds and shaking my fist at trees, screaming: I EARNED THE RIGHT TO YELL AT YOU ABOUT WRITING. And then I hiss at birds. Stupid birds.

I have an educated, practiced — if also narrow! — view of writing, storytelling, and publishing.

But please, let me reiterate: it’s all bullshit.

To explain:

Nothing I say is right.

Writing advice is not science.

About the only provable thing you can say about writing is that to be a writer, you have to write, and hey, it’s probably a very good idea to finish most, if not all, the things you begin. My “secret to writing” message remains: WRITE AS MUCH AS YOU CAN, AS FAST AS YOU CAN; FINISH YOUR SHIT; HIT YOUR DEADLINES; TRY VERY HARD NOT TO SUCK. And that’s it. That’s the end of it.

Everything else is just opinion.

Gassy, half-formed opinion.

What works for one person won’t work for another.

What reads well by one author will read poorly when written by another.

A technique works for me, fails for you. Or for you it is amazing and for me it is puzzling.

I love my word processor. You hate it.

Don’t ever open a story with weather, except when you should.

You should write in the morning unless you can’t or shouldn’t or won’t or whatever.

Be more literary! Be more genre! Be less this more that wait no the other thing.

This won’t sell until it does and then it sells a lot until it stops selling and nnngh.

You should do XYZ except unless ABC or 123 or wuzza wooza buzzy fuzzy.

Here you might be saying: well, then, why do it? Why yammer on about writing at all? WHY ARE YOU WILLFULLY HORSESHITTING US, YOU FANCY ASSHOLE?

It’s for a few reasons.

First, because as I have noted in the past, because I like to yell at myself, and this blog provides a convenient platform to scream at my presumed Audience Of One.

Second, because I am a noisy, opinionated jackhole.

Third, because bullshit still works as fertilizer. What I mean is this: the things I say at this blog and in my writing books is just advice. It’s not right. It’s also not automatically wrong. It’s just advice. It’s like if you ask me about sneakers and I’m like, “I wear these sneakers called Hoka One Ones, and they’re really great.” They are a real sneaker. I actually own and wear and love them. They’re great for me. It’s true. It’s like walking on air. It’s improved my running. They’ve ended my plantar fasciitis and also ended other associated running pains. And they might be great for some of you. For others? You might fucking hate them. But these shoes are what I know and so I will recommend them if you ask. Hell, even if you don’t ask.

My writing advice is that.

I have been doing this for a while.

I have learned lessons applicable to me and possibly applicable to some of you.

And so, I share them in the hopes that you will swill this briny brew around your mouth — maybe you like the taste, or maybe you make a face like you just licked the ass-end of an irritable llama. The goal is that somewhere in the spongy fungal morass I grow here at the blog you will find that the bullshit sprinkled about has been a proper fertilizer instead of just a nasty-ass, stink-making air-destroyer. But at the same time, don’t treat what I say — or what anybody says — as gospel truth. Consider it. Taste it. Smell it. Lift it in your hand. And then use or or lose it. You do you. I mean, shit, even if the writing advice gets you pissed at me — good. Then it’s making you think about this thing that we do. It challenges you. That’s a good thing. Maybe it clarifies why you do what you do even if it’s not how I do it. Good. Great. Rock the fuck on.

So, yes.

Writing advice is bullshit. But maybe, just maybe, you can use it to fertilize your own work.

80 responses to “Writing Advice Is Bullshit”

  1. Yep, sometimes the most value I get out of writing advice is to give it side-eye and say “That reeks.” That you don’t proffer your way as “the” way makes your advice a bit less stinky.

  2. Well said, pointy head. My favorite 10 rules of writing, courtesy of Jim Frey (How to Write a Damn Good Novel):

    1-3: Read, Read, Read
    4-6: Write, Write, Write
    7-9: Suffer, Suffer, Suffer
    10: Don’t use too many exclamation points.

  3. OMG, Chuck! I love this post.

    Seriously. Love. This. Post.

    At DIY MFA I’ve noticed certain themes come up again and again both on the site itself and classroom discussions. These “writer’s life lessons” basically boil down to the same thing as what you’re saying.

    • Honor your reality. (Basically accept who you are, where you are right now.)
    • Fail better. (Failure is inevitable. Strive to learn from each mistake.)
    • Don’t compound failure with guilt. (Feeling guilty won’t make words magically appear on the page. Quit whining and just write already.)
    • Resistance is your compass. (When you’re avoiding a particular project or topic, that usually means it’s exactly the thing you need to pay attention to.)
    • The only “best practice” is the one that actually works for you. (I really dislike when “experts” spout “best practices” like it’s their way or the highway. A technique only works if it actually… WORKS for the person using it.)

    Keep posting awesome stuff! You rock!

  4. I think it’s your LISTEN TO ME UNLESS YOU DON”T WANT TO! attitude that helped me get motivated. I read your book (coming soon, 25 reasons I liked Chuck Wendig’s book!) and it helped me get over 20 years of excuses on why I can’t be a writer. It’s not Day 5 of November, and despite a birthday, being sick (on said birthday) and my day job i have just shy of 11k words and hope to pile in another 1-2k tonight. I know it’s a hot steaming mess, but it’s my hot steaming mess, and it doesn’t have to be perfect, and polished and set in stone by November 30. Basically your advice is very good for stripping off the stuffy wrapping paper and varnish that has kept me from doing what I want to do. So even if you are a gin drinking heathen, you’ve helped this beer drinking clown get his muse back.

  5. I do do me. But I cheer when you say things that as a veteran in the word mines I know is dead on, speak the truth, jesus approves! Hence my tweets yesterday. But, you can’t listen to music. It’s a must for me. YMMV. You do you; I’ll do me. You’re there and I”ll get there. 😉

  6. [Takes his copy of ‘The Kick-Ass Writer’ out to the middle of his driveway with a bottle of lighter fluid and a disposable lighter muttering something about there being no god.]

  7. I really needed to read this today. I’ve been stressing myself out thoroughly over all the things I “should” be doing and how I’m doing this whole thing “wrong”.

    Thank you.

  8. ‘ I’m not wealthy, I’m not famous, but I’m doing more than just surviving’— Understatement of the year, Chuck. You’re famous. You have, like, 8701 blog subscribers ( including me), you are a celeb on Twitter ( I know coz I stalk you there, haha), and you have aspiring upstarts like me in your debt for the inspiration you give us. As for wealth, that’ll come in time, given your rising fame.
    And I love this blog post 😀

  9. Like with any other advice, the rule is “Take what you need and leave the rest.” If you get angry because someone with advice deigns to offer it, revisit your reasons for doing the thing you’re doing. You probably should try something else.

  10. Pumpkin seeds through the urethra… Phew. I swear that image is going to keep me up at night… 😉
    Thanks for the post – always good to read something raw and honest. And painful (pumpkin seeds – yeah, that image is not leaving my head anytime soon…

  11. I’m ancient. Sort of. Way older than any of you. Been selling and, like you, making a living at this for 30 plus years. I’ve had great years, lean years, won awards, made lists, got sick of the bull and quit for 8 years, but now back doing something different. Because I can’t NOT write. Everything you say is true. All those who’ve commented above speak truth. Learn the rules and break them. Be you. Love your blog. Glad I found it however it did.

  12. This makes sense to me. Not everyone likes the plain truth. This sounds like the plain truth. They want magic. Good for you. Writing is hard work, and there’s not a magical solution to doing it.

  13. So, what did I take from this? I wanna go down the cuckoo mines, that’s what. Tell me where those Goddam cuckoo mines are located!

  14. I completely understand your point here, Sensei, but your shit works for me AND it’s entertaining as hell! You’re writing advice books are highlighted and tabbed with stickies. You have enabled me to art harder!

  15. I have purchased and read enough writing advice and how to books to fill a library. None of them make me laugh at myself (and you) as much as your books, and blog, do. So keep it up. If I never publish one word, at least I was moderately entertained. You rock!

  16. got a little blog and a little brand, a little line all polished and pretty. you’re the real thing. the really real thing. no nonsense you can tell cause u used the word shit. if u say your a good writer and write about good writing people will think you’re a good writer, you don’t even have to bother to write well.

    the responses of brilliant, or OMG, or priceless, the wisdom and loved it and you rock, these are the minds that are reading, the little zombies, the walking, talking, typing dead. Betsy and Eldon, Tom and Pat.

    Writers write, the rest are fucked and forgotten.

    Building little empires out of blogs, cliches, and feeble sheep. now you are famous. really famous you can count the numbers, hits and clicks. you are loved.

    yeah, u earned your place.

      • To be honest, if given the choice between being on the receiving end of passive-aggressive and just plain ‘ol in your face, neck-vein-popping aggressive, I’ll most likely take the former.

        There’s something close to admirable about someone, whether you agree with what they say or not, whose prepared to swim against the tide of opinion on a popular site such as this and voice a contrary opinion (Like the character of Michelle in Season One of THE NEXT STEP. Just curious, but exactly which part of that last sentence told you I have a six year old daughter?) – when they must surely know, short of being lined up against a wall and publicly shot, they are going to come in for some major reactionary rock throwing from multiple and various defenders of the realm.

        And the ‘Good on ya, mate’. That;s gotta be an Aussie talking. Right?

  17. I came across your blog late and by accident. I was looking for tips for writing fantasy and it pointed me to your “25 tips on….”. Number 25 i remember was about how we should write about our dreams as a way to start writing. I took this to heart has i was already thinking about was it possible to do a fantasy novel based around how dreams and reality mix. And now thanks to you i have managed to do just that, 1 completed novel about dreams and the nature of reality and I’m now moving through book 2.

    It may just be opinions that you offer, but if that opinion helps one person achieve something then it is very well received.

  18. It’s kinda funny, the posts where you basically tell us “DO IT OR DON’T, I DON’T GIVE A FUCK, HERE, HAVE SOME BEES FOR YOUR FACEMEATS” often motivate me the most.

    Everyone gets in a slump, but when you tell me FUCK IT, NOBODY CARES, CAREBEAR, it reminds me that my excuses are just that, and back to turning fingers into pulpy stumps I go.

  19. …And he said, “About the only provable thing you can say about writing is that to be a writer, you have to write.” I would add, and also you have to read everything you can.

  20. Funny history about the word “jackhole”. Growing up in SoCal, KROQ was my favorite station and I listened to the The Kevin and Bean show on my way to work. They threw down a challenge some years back to come up with a curse word that wasn’t banned by the FCC. They got listener input and over the course of a few weeks settled on the winner: jackhole – combo of jackass (banned) and asshole (banned). Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla, who got their start on the show, now own Jackhole Productions.

    It always makes me smile whenever I hear or see it now. It’s pretty impressive they got it into the common vernacular. Remember Chuck, when you do all those radio and television spots, jackhole can be your go-to-a-okay curse word!!

  21. You gave the best advice I have ever gotten – item 13 from your “NaNoWriMo” Survival Guide (Let Characters talk). I’m having fun and finding it easier to get/stay in the dream if I just keep people talking. The thought of editing it out is daunting but that’s a worry for December. Thank You!

  22. I had a chance encounter with JK Rowling a few years ago. She went through hell getting her first Harry Potter book published. No publisher likes to take on a “children’s book” she exclaimed, through the exhaustion she endured.

    “My first reading was at a prominent book store,” she said. “They put me in a basement room. Five people showed up, and three of them found out they were in the wrong room. But I had to write that book.”

    Personally, I went an easier route: I took a column in a local paper, for about $25 a column. Later I found out that local newspapers are always looking for columnists — just try it, and get used to being published, even if no money is involved. That would be my advice.

    I learned the craft from older writers in that newsroom. This was the only job I ever took with this attitude: What I don’t know I can learn. And learn I did. The veteran writers in that newsroom were always willing to help new writers … so ask questions.

    I went on to become a full-time sportswriter, eventually at a major newspaper. I won a few national writing awards … (I still don’t believe in writing awards … who is to say one writer’s style is better than another?)

    Books came later. A different animal. But I was an established writer by that time. Personally, I found books to be much easier than daily deadlines. But books live in an entirely different universe than newspaper writing. I found that universe to be highly capricious. Still, I had to write those books. Just like Rowling had to write her book.

    Writers write, and that’s that. If you have to write, then write. Learn the craft through hard knocks. But never write to the reader — rather, write what you have to write, your way.

    Just make sure other eyes see your writing before you release it. You do want to make sense.

    And that’s my two cents.


  23. Here you might be saying: well, then, why do it? Why yammer on about writing at all? WHY ARE YOU WILLFULLY HORSESHITTING US, YOU FANCY ASSHOLE?

    Second, because I am a noisy, opinionated jackhole.

    Isn’t that just the same thing? 😉

    Looking at that title, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was my snapping moment — that finally I have achieved total author meltdown, and now I’m running through the streets, pants on my head, frothing on about how WRITING ADVICE IS MADE OF PEOPLE and CONTRAILS ARE HOW GMO BIG PHARMA SOMETHING SOMETHING OBAMA and BEN CARSON SHOULD BE PRESIDENT.

    This is not that moment.

    I know, I know, it’s very disappointing.

    Can you just, before you do this, announce this so everyone can write it down on their calendar and prepare news articles about this ahead of time?

    In all honesty your writing advice is practical more than the ones that are like “oh just do this and this and BAM STORY-TIME!” So you have that going.

  24. I’d even argue that “try hard not to suck” is objective (except for the whole grammar thing). What sucks is subjective. If there’s a story in you, someone wants to hear it. That’s what I keep trying to remind myself. 🙂

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