Why “Gentle Writing Advice,” Exactly?

If you follow me on Twitter (you fool), you may have seen that I have been doing a thread over there of so-called GENTLE WRITING ADVICE. (That thread is here.)

And I just wanted to talk about, for a moment, why I’m doing that.

So, an indeterminate amount of time ago — my Pandemic Brain tells me it was either a few weeks or seven-and-a-half years — some anonymous individual popped onto Twitter and pooped out some manner of self-identified HARSH WRITING ADVICE. And it was framed as much of this kind of advice often is, which is like, BOOM, FACT CHECK, IF YOU CAN’T WRITE 5000 WORDS A DAY WHILE HARBORING A VENGEFUL INTESTINAL PARASITE, YOU’LL NEVER SUCCEED. Or something. I honestly don’t remember what the advice was. (Correction: I found it. It was worse than I remembered.)

And I did a funny thread of how this advice often sounds, which is, blah blah blah, kill and eat your fellow creatives, if you use adverbs you’ll get butt cankers, whatever. But then I also started doing the opposite of that, a series of gentler, softer pieces of advice — not as a goof, but as a real thing. I thought it useful to talk about why I’m doing that, and am continuing to do it still.

A lot of writing advice is frequently prescriptive. Meaning, it is there to impose law and order onto the chaotic act of writing and art making. Creativity is a lawless land, and art/writing is the act of refining that chaos into order, and so it makes sense in a way that advice is frequently about the imposition of that structure. And artists and authors are viewed as these wifty, wispy spirits who can’t keep it together and who would starve if you didn’t press a taco into their searching hands once in a goddamn while. Certainly my own career is one made out learning that, indeed, if you wanna do this thing, then that requires work and effort, and it isn’t always pleasant, it isn’t always fun, and so it behooves writers to learn that lesson. So, writing advice tends to drift away from the chaotic, unpredictable tangle of writing and storytelling and into the “reality check” style of harsh writing advice — it is often presented as if one is doing a favor by delivering it. “Here,” says the author, “is a hard truth someone may not have told you, you’re welcome.”

I don’t think this is malicious. I even think that some part of it is designed to counter advice from charlatans and abusers who want to sell you fake empowerment or some kind of self-help advice in that direction. I think it often comes from a good place: “I learned these hard lessons, and most people won’t tell them to you.”

Here’s the current problem du jour 

These days, most people will tell them to you.

They will, in fact, mostly give advice in exactly this fashion.

I mean, how often do we endure lists from big authors where it’s TEN WRITING RULES and it’s a deeply prohibitive listicle of Dos and Don’ts, and if you violate them, you’ll never be published and your stories will suck open ass and you will die in a lightless, artless abyss as the God of Story will have turned His Sacred Gaze from you. How many times must we be told that adverbs are BAD BAD BAD (even though adverbs are a necessary part of language that includes words like “often” and “everywhere” and “after”). Or how if you use dialogue tags other than ‘said,’ you’ll get a chafing thigh rash? I mean, sure, yes, okay, if you write —

“I went to the mall!” Derek yammered hydroponically

— then you deserve the side-eye from an editor, but that’s not because of adverbs or dialogue tags, it’s because you wrote a… ennhyeah, a not-great sentence. You eschewed clarity in favor of stunt writing. Stunt writing is okay sometimes. But sacrificing clarity, probably not. But again, the problem there isn’t adverbs or dialogue tags, and assigning writing advice to tackle those specific things is not necessarily helpful. It demonizes the wrong stuff.

Think about it. How often have we been told to kill our darlings without also being told we have to learn what hills we need to die on? How often have we been told you have to sit and write 2000 words a day and not been told that some days you’ll be unable to do that, and you need to not write those words because some days are genuinely for sitting there and staring at the wall and then saying “oh fuck it” before going to look at some birds? And then, in looking at birds, you find an answer you didn’t expect to find because you were able to clear your damn head for five minutes. Some advice says we must write in short, declarative sentences — but sometimes, only a long sentence will do, and it is in some long sentences that we can both contain a world of information and metaphor while also creating rhythm and beauty in the flow of that very sentence.

My point here is that harsh writing advice is in ample supply these days.

And, frequently, it’s a very masculine style of advice, very Western, very pedagogical with a lot of stern grumpy faces and lectern-pounding.

It lends the very act of talking about writing this feeling that there are answers to how we do this thing that we do — that writing and storytelling is an equation, and as long as we adhere to the formula and plug in the proper variables, we will Properly Compose Content. And we will win awards and become bestsellers, huzzah and hooray.

Writing is a craft, and storytelling is an art, and together they form this nebulous interstice where it’s just clowns juggling medium-sized cats and those cats are juggling little cat-sized chainsaws and the whole place is on fire and did I mention the “place” is actually a blimp and it’s drifting swiftly toward a flickering lighthouse operated by orphans? All the harsh writing advice is all about how to steer out of disaster and how to not get cut by cats wielding chainsaws but it all too often fails to acknowledge the glorious chaos of the act, the strangeness of it, the unpredictability. It fails to give you advice on how to go with that chaos instead of against it — how to appease the clowns, how to become a cat, how to turn the light in the lighthouse on once more. It also fails to teach you how to crash. So much of writing and storytelling is in the crashing. So much good comes out of that part.

Too much of our advice presents for us a map, a magic incantation, an instruction manual, but those inevitably fail under rigorous testing. The map is to a forgotten world, the incantation was unique to the wizard who first spoke it, and the instruction manual is in Swedish.

Further, we are currently mired in a fucking pandemic. (In case you haven’t noticed. And going out in the world, it definitely seems like some people haven’t noticed.) Everything is harsh. Shit sucks. It’s very hard to write anything in this situation, I’ve found — the last four years in general have been pretty corrosive to creativity. So I just don’t feel like this is the best time to say, HEY HERE ARE THE HARD TRUTH RULES, YOU PIECE OF SHIT, YOU BETTER DO ‘EM OR YOU’RE GONNA DIE. Like, when our 9-year-old is having A Day, you can’t just pound your fist and growl at him and tell him to JUST GET IT DONE, whatever “it” happens to be. Sometimes you need to sit down and talk him through it, and appeal to him on a human level, a compassionate level, and allow some days to be hard. And on those days where he commits to just doing a little of whatever it is that needs doing, he often goes ahead and gets it all done anyway, because you didn’t try to force it. Some things you can’t force. Emotions are one of them. And emotions are all bound up in the creation of art and the telling of stories.

Now, I’ve also learned that this thing that we do must walk the line between self-care and ass-busting-work. It is work. It is good to acknowledge that it takes work. But we also need time to decompress, and to be kind to ourselves. While also at the same time recognizing that an overage of kindness can start to drift into the making of excuses, and if your self-care stands in the way of getting anything done ever, then it has become the opposite of self-care — it has ceased to be a way out and instead, become just another trap. Just in the same way that hard-grr-bust-your-assery can lock you up, burn you out, and do the opposite of what you needed done.

I’ve certainly been the guy who has pounded that lectern, and told you what to do and what not to do. I don’t even want to look back at old writing advice for fear of what hell I unleashed upon you. I’m sure some of it was helpful, and some of it wasn’t. And some of it may have been helpful then, and not helpful now, because context matters, and times change, and who we are as writers change, too. I mean, Christ, once upon a time I was like, DON’T BE A SNOWFLAKE, WRITERS CAN’T BE SNOWFLAKES, but…

… maybe writers are snowflakes? We’re all pretty unique. Sometimes we melt. And when we all get together, we can form an avalanche of awesome stories. I dunno. Maybe it’s okay to be a snowflake, a fingerprint, a singular being — as long as we don’t become too fragile or narcissistic about it?

All of this is a very long way of saying, I think harsh writing advice is too plentiful, and the pandemic is hard, so maybe it’s time to try the gentle stuff for a while. With the asterisk footnote that says, all writing advice is bullshit anyway, but bullshit can sometimes fertilize.

Be good to yourself.

Progress is progress.

Write on.

32 responses to “Why “Gentle Writing Advice,” Exactly?”

  1. Holy crap. I needed this. I’ve been feeling like a granite slab is on my chest. Frantic that if I don’t finish a book, I’ll never get an agent, andohmygodnobookswilleverbepublished. And then I’m paralyzed, staring at my laptop, waiting for the magic to happen. Gentle is an act of self-kindness.

  2. I saw both threads. I am currently on “sabbatical” after my wife agreed that my leaving a toxic work environment was the right thing to do. I’ve been blogging for a while, but am currently trying to write an actual book(memoir culminating in 20 years working in jail). I’m harsh enough judging myself every day. I appreciate the gentle advice

  3. I so needed to read this today – been beating myself up for a while about how little I’m writing at the moment. And then you remember, uh, yeah, pandemic. (Plus, in my own case, perimenopause. Brain fog, anyone?) None of the ‘write every day/produce x words’ stuff is helping at all at the moment, so I’m going to just try to apply advice of the ‘gentle’ kind to myself whenever I can face putting pen to paper.

    • ((hugs)) I am so there. Covid isolation, political turmoil, the frozen tundra, and perimenopause trial run #3 — is it really over, finally, or will I find yet another months-delayed surprise some morning?? This Time For Sure!! — brain fog/exhaustion is kicking my butt so bad. I havent written new fiction since late 2018.

  4. Timely advice as I slog through another draft of my screenplay. I won’t feel as bad about staring at the wall today.

  5. Rule #1: Writing is an art and there are no rules. Rule #2: There MIGHT be some worthy suggestions depending on what variables and nightmares you had last night. Rule #3: Great idea about the “gentle advice”. Hoo-raH!

  6. I love this! The “rules of writing” have always crippled my creativity like a child trying to dance in the corner of her father’s board meeting. After this last year (or 4 years for that matter), it feels like we are all recovering from finally escaping an abusive relationship. I’m seeking positivity right now. So thanks!

  7. I read a lot of this and that advice on writing. Tried bunch of it. In the process I found out it’s all actually an EDITING advice and I should never, ever have seen this before finishing first draft. The so called Rules are stifling. They suffocate joy of writing, the getting-outta-here feeling I’m writing for. I can’t write shit when the Bad Adverbs rule is peeking over my shoulder and breathing in my ear.
    Also, no advice ever reassured me that staring at the ceiling for four hours a day while plotting is writing as well.

    Thanks for reminding me that, Chuck.

  8. Thank you, Chuck. I’m chucking a beautiful Pink Lady apple (this week’s choice) across the pond and hoping it lands on your land or better still in your hand.

  9. Both my wife and I experienced harsh writing advice from faculty and critique groups in college and even high school. These unpleasant encounters kept us out of writing classes and groups for at least 10 years. We met in a class taught by a woman whose philosophy was “there are no sharks in here, only dolphins,” and that’s the way she ran her workshops, a kinder but gentler approach. Writing is an intensely personal endeavor and new writers need time to develop their skills in a nurturing environment before getting clubbed over the head by reality and the marketplace.

  10. Thank you for writing this. It’s hard enough to get some tread in the publishing world but then there is all this “advice” (some of it fantastic but most of it bewildering) that makes you feel like an imposter. I have paid for marketing webinars only to leave it even more confused than when I started, feeling stupid (is it just me that didn’t understand exactly what I’m supposed to do?) and lost. More recently I have decided to be a lot more choosy about the advice/guidance I either read or listen to. It saves me a lot of stress, lol.

  11. Like every book, every writer is different – and every situation. I am very proud of the fact that I did manage to launch the first book in my mystery series (!) but I am very aware that I’m one of the lucky ones in the pandemic. I have a place to live, a relatively secure job, I’m healthy, and the community I live in recognizes science and compassion as requirements, not options. For me to not do the work would be a cop-out, but I am so very aware that for other people mired to their eyeballs in crazy (and snow and ice and cold and a failed power system) that doing what you can do to survive each day is most important. Keep up the good work, Chuck, when you can! Following you always brightens my day.

  12. Yeah, harsh writing advice is in ample supply for sure. It feels like it has been for a long while now, tbh. I do like your point that, regardless of the advice and/or its intent, context matters.

  13. This is great, Chuck! I’ve read my fair share of vague how-to’s and got nowhere! Then I just started having actual conversations with other writers and that made all the difference. It’s better to take advice from genuine people and not people just trying to sell you something. And heck, if they are trying to sell you something, that’s okay too, as long as they deliver what they promise and you actually LEARN something.

  14. Thank you. I am a reader and sometimes that is hard to do with all the audio and visual hoo haa haa. I enjoy your chaos and hope you keep it up and inspire someone to join you in that chaos. I love the images and also the kindness in this message. Also – keep going outside and taking pictures of birds! Hope to meet you at a book signing at an independent bookstore someday when we all can do so. Or maybe we will all become sleepwalkers. heading to Ouray….

  15. I’m one of those lucky people who has a little bit of outdoor space into which I lure the city birds, so I actually can go to the window and stare at them when my brain refuses to brain. Birds are fascinating. They are tough, pushy, argumentative little bastards. The mourning doves are such dicks to each other (when they aren’t f**king on my wisteria arbor), it’s hilarious.

    Most days I have an assortment of house sparrows, house finches, and doves. Occasionally something flashier or more exotic shows up – like a small group of red-headed finches; they must have escaped from a cage somewhere because they sure didn’t fly to L.A. from their native land. All any of these tiny feathered people do is visit my feeders, hop around the yard, and occasionally take a bath. It’s a great reminder that life goes on even when my fictional characters have nothing to say.

  16. Yes, yes, yes, to everything you said, and I agree about all the writing stuff- but-

    Your kid is NINE? Geez. And my oldest grandson became an official teenager this month. gods, I am now actually OLD.

  17. Wonderful breath of fresh non-harshness. Thanks. The same can also be said for publishing advice, and any other advice out there. Just because something works for the person spewing the advice does not mean it will work for the listener. Some of it makes me want to gnaw off my left paw, wait, their left paw because why would I gnaw off my own?

  18. I’ve had the exact same reaction to “harsh writing advice”. While many people producing it like to call it “tough love”, it feels like a thin veneer on cruelty. Especially when it’s been forced on people who didn’t ask for it. Nice post!

  19. This is so fucking eloquent and on the mark. You really touched a deep chord with this about the whole advice thing. Seems like everyone is writing now and looking for advice, on how to survive as a writer, how to do it right, how to find an audience, how to just fucking survive, period. I know you come from a place of honesty and actual compassion. I hate to say that’s rare, but it’s certainly not common enough. Thanks Chuck!

  20. Thank you so much. For a moment I was going to say “fuck it” and chug it. Having written two books that have sank in the abyss of millions. But your words have given me much encouragement.

    Maybe, when I’m no longer the starving writer, or rather, word artist, I’ll be dead from starvation then my books will miraculously swim to the top of the abyss and readers would realize how funny and smart and relevant they are…like so many starving artist whose work of art are selling millions and they’re not here to enjoy it. Such a shame.

  21. Thank you Chuck, that was great. I’m a screenwriter working on my first novel because I often find the world of screenwriting tooooooo prescriptive.

  22. Thank you for the gentle advice… Life really has been hard recently and everyone seems to rude and brutal. That was a breath of fresh air.

  23. Thanks, Chuck. Sometimes these word mines get dark and lonely. It’s nice to have someone there to help with shining a flashlight to see things more clearly.

  24. I follow a guy who’s a proponent of structure and he’s very harsh on pantsers. I’m a pantser, tried the plan/structure route and ended up with a finished product. That being said, when I actually try to read his advice, he takes FOREVER to get to the point, and not in an entertaining way. So, in my mind, writing advice reminds me of the song from the Music Man: Pick a little, talk a little, pick a little, talk a little…I take a little from here, a little from there…

    I’m glad you mentioned the last 4 years. The last thing I produced was in August 2015. Maybe part of me felt, “well, I’m done” but the freaking political circus of the last 5 or so years took its toll on my psyche.

  25. Chuck Wendig is a guy that I wanna meet one day. Once I realize it’s him: I’ll just be so damned thrilled by it all, that I’ll drag him by the hand to the secret-submarine-speakeasy run by goblin-kind. After plying him with a plethora of warrior-nun brewed whiskeys, and unable to stop maniacally grinning at him, I’ll just gush about how much I simply appreciate his gentle encouragement.

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