25 Things You Should Know About Writing Advice

It’s NaNoWriMo time.

That means you’re going to be absorbing what might be a metric fuck-dumpster full of writing advice into your daily writing regimen — at least, I assume so, given the way my looky-loos here spike through the roof and launch high up into the night-time sky.

Writing advice and writing chatter is — well, it’s a good thing, from my perspective, but only to a point. And so it seems proper to jump into the month with a look at 25 things you should know (i.e. these are the things that I think) about writing advice. Please to enjoy, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on writing advice, too. Where you go to get it, what you think of it, what kinds of advice you seek, whether you think it’s all bullshit, etc. The comments section awaits your tickling touch.

1. It’s Just Advice

Let’s say you’re trying to get to Big Dan Don’s Dildo Emporium in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I might give you directions and say, “You want to take I-81, but if you’re going around noon, that’s when Big Dan Don holds his Mega Noon-Time Dildo Sale, and traffic gets backed up, so you might want to take the Old Fuzzknuckle Road.” And you might say, “Thanks,” and do that thing, or you might say, “Thanks,” and do something entirely different. That’s the deal with writing advice. Someone is offering you advice. That’s it. Nobody’s handing you a book of laws. Nobody’s beating you about the head and neck with gospel (though they may think that’s what they’re doing). Writing advice proffered is just advice on one way to go with your writing.

2. Put Differently, It Ain’t Math, Motherfuckers

Writing advice is not the product of an equation. “If you do X, then Y will occur” is false in this instance. “If you name a character John Q. Hymenbreaker, your book will be an instant bestseller” is crazy-talk. Writing advice is not about providing certifiable answers. It is about making suggestions.

3. Tools In A Toolbox

Put differently a third time, I like to use the metaphor (mis-typed as “meataphor”) of tools in a toolbox. Every contractor job requires a different tool-set. Today you need a hammer. Tomorrow you need a pipe wrench. The day after you’ll need a high-powered drill-dildo (“drilldo”) from Big Dan Don’s. You’ve got to pick up each tool — i.e. each piece of advice — and weigh it in your hand. Debate its merits. See if it’s going to help you do the job or just get in the way and club you in the nuts.

4. The Only Inviolable Precept

In my mind, only one inviolable precept exists in terms of being a successful writer: you have to write. The unspoken sub-laws of that one precept are: to write, you must start writing and then finish writing. And then, most likely, start writing all over again because this writing “thing” is one long and endless ride on a really weird (but pretty awesome) carousel. Cue the calliope music.

5. The Almost-Inviolables

I should say it upfront: I find the word “inviolable” fun to say. It makes my mouth have fun! Hee hee hee, ha ha ha! Ahem. Right. Some other rules are perhaps worth putting in the “usually true but not necessarily” camp: writers read, writers write every day, read your work out loud, writers should draw on their own lives, if you don’t have caffeine and/or alcohol in your life you will explode and die, etc. But even these aren’t universally proven.

6. Question The Chestnuts

Chestnuts: the new name for boobs? No. No. Why would you even say that? Get your mind out of the gutter. No, by “chestnuts” I mean, “those old pieces of writing advice that you hear as common refrain.” Write what you know. Adverbs give Baby Jesus hemorrhoids. If you write a prologue, an orphan loses his sight. All the “old saws” need to be put on the chopping block.

7. Fuck It, Challenge All Advice

What I’m trying to say is, don’t assume any one piece of writing advice is etched in stone with the whetted bones of your ancestors. Challenge all advice. Try it out. See what flies and what dies.

8. No Such Thing As “Bad” Writing Advice

Okay, fine, some writing advice might be bad (“Staple your manuscript to a starving pony and drop it from a helicopter onto any potential literary agents”), but for the most part, writing advice falls into two categories: “Writing advice I can use,” and “Writing advice that doesn’t work for me.” That’s it.

9. Writing Is A Craft And Craft Can Be Taught

It’s way too easy to say that “all you need to do to learn writing is write and read.” Sure, at the deepest molten core of the thing, that’s totally rock solid. But it also sells this writing thing way short and makes it sound like it’s as easy as fucking Skee-Ball. “Just throw the ball enough times and you’ll learn how to get the big tickets!” Writing has endless fiddly bits and is an ever-evolving practice — it’s a craft, by golly, and it uses language to tell story. That means there’s a lot to know and an unforgiving dumpsterload of questions potential authors have. That’s why writing advice is valuable to some people.

10. What Do You Think Teachers Teach, Anyway?

English teachers? Communication and journalism teachers? Writing teachers? What the heck do you think these people teach? Surfing? Trigonometry? How to properly apply chapstick? They teach writing advice. (And, by the way, therein lies a subtle notion that what they teach is valuable, but by calling it advice, I’m also suggesting it’s not inviolable. You dig?)

11. We’re All Sucking At The Teat

Every writer has partaken of the sweet teat-meats of writing advice. If they tell you different, they’re a lying-faced liar whose pants are totally on fire — whether they take a note from an agent, an editor, a friend, a fellow writer, whatever, they’ve utilized the essence of writerly advice.

12. The DNA Of Writing Advice Hides On The Bedsheets Of Every Story

Here’s another way we’ve all supped at the soup-bowl of writing advice: if you’ve ever read a story and then you took a lesson from that story and applied it to your own, you took writing advice. Because encoded in every story are the lessons that storyteller has learned. Each story is a memetic blueprint for how that author tells the tale. For good or ill, for better or worse. Take something — anything! — from that and that’s a lesson learned, folks.

13. My Work Is The Product Of Reading Writing Advice

My writing — which, for all I know, you think is a smoldering shitwagon of inelegant word-rape — comes to you because of (and in some cases, in spite of) writing advice. I’ve a small shelf of writing advice that I hold dear and I also look back and look upon many writing teachers, mentors and acquaintances who have taught me colon-loads of critical information. And, frankly, who continue to teach me. I’m humbled by that and it’s why I don’t think the practice of providing or reading writing advice is bullshit.

14. Can Be Both Pragmatic And Philosophical

For me, writing advice takes on two faces: first, pragmatic. Pragmatic advice is the day-to-day inkmonkey shit, the “digging trenches” stuff. Here’s how a query letter looks, here’s an exercise to shatter the skull of writer’s block, here’s the problem with your addictive misuse of commas, and so forth. Philosophical writing advice talks about larger issues and questions and talks as much about being a writer as it does about writing itself.

15. A Third Axis: The Professional

A perpendicular in-road to this is that some advice is about writing, and other snidbits are about professional writing — professional writing tends to follow a course detailing how to get published, how to get paid. Here it tends to get a little more strict (the crack of the bullwhip stinging against your tender pink buttocks!) because here certain things remain truer than others. How you deal with agents, how you format a manuscript, what kinds of caffeinated bacon-and-chocolate products will soothe a deranged editor.

16. The Fourth “P”

No, not “golden showers.” Zip it up, piss-boy. I’m talking about “Personal.” Nearly all bits of writing advice are personal. That’s what I do here. It’s me yelling at me first and foremost, espousing my own lessons, exposing my own fears, ripping the scales of my eyes before yours. Advice like this should be personal — it should be the writer saying, “I took this path, maybe you want to, as well. Then again, maybe you don’t, and that’s fine, no skin off my back, I’ll just wander the desert alone, drinking my own lonesome tears to survive YOU MONSTER.”

17. We Need To Talk About What We Do Or We’ll Go Nuts

Writers are goofy-headed moon-units. Total fuckbrains, each and every one of us. Many writers are quite nice. But most are crazy, at least in their own special ways. As such, we’re driven to talk about what we do because — well, it’s what we do. Writers sit by themselves all day, sobbing and drinking vodka and pounding out imaginary bullshit for hours heaped on hours, and so sometimes we like to emerge from our foul-smelling caves and join the communal penmonkey water cooler and talk about what we do. Some don’t like to talk about it, and that’s all good. But many do. And many must.

18. Beware Its Hypnotic Swirl

Writing advice can very well be just another distraction. It can be a waste of time that feels productive — after all, you’re learning! You’re exploring! You’re thinking heavy thoughts critically. Blah blah blah, snargh, poop noise. Whatever helps you sleep at night, slugabed. Truth is, writing advice can be just another slurping time suck stopping you from doing that thing you’re supposed to be doing. What was it, again? OH YEAH WRITING.

19. The Time For Testing Is Complete

Here’s how you make hay from writing advice: you put it into play. Take a thing you just learned, and go use it. Try it out! Write your next thing and see if this tip, trick or technique holds any weight at all. And if it doesn’t? Chuck it into the garbage disposal and listen to it scream as the blades crush its tiny pinbones. Writing advice is fucking worthless unless it actually helps you write better or write more.

20. As Always, Beware Zealots, Fundies, Cult Leaders, And Fevered Egos

The Internet is positively cancerous with the self-righteous, and I have at times counted myself woefully among them — but here, come close, let me whisper this in your ear (ignore my tongue planting my little Wendigo Egg-Babies into your brain) so it’s clear: nobody has answers. They just have suggestions. Guidance. Possibilities. Nobody has a hard and firm answer. Like I said: this ain’t math, son. Those who tell you that it’s their way or the highway are usually selling something. And while I am, admittedly, sometimes selling something, I don’t know any more about writing than countless other writers. I just have thoughts, ideas, and opinions, and you should always be free to take them into your mouth, swirl them around, then choose whether or not to spit or swallow.

21. Why I Do It

I first started talking about writing because, like I said: we have to. It’s like I got a head full of hornets jacked up on trucker meth and they need to get out somehow. It was me talking to me — or, as I’ve said in the past, me talking to my stupid dick-brained 18-year-old self who thought he could get away with a hundred bad habits and be successful (he couldn’t). It has since evolved, though, this thing I do here, because over time I started getting emails or tweets. I get a few a week, sometimes several in a day, and it’s someone telling me that I helped them — maybe to get back into writing, maybe to solve a problem they were having with a story, maybe even to get published. And it’s like — oh. Ohhh. That’s awesome. I’m not so self-important to say they couldn’t have done it without me — please. They could’ve, totally, and probably would’ve. Just the same, I’m honored and happy and positively tumescent to have many contributed in some small way to the ways of other penmonkeys.

22. Evolution From Pen-Monkey To Pen-Neanderthal

Writing advice is allowed to change because writers are allowed to change. Once you absorb a piece of advice, it’s not like you’re growing a tail or a new dick — it’s just an idea. Ideas can change. Don’t be afraid to evolve.

23. On Publishing Advice

Publishing advice is, as noted, its very own sub-species of writing advice. It’s not bad to read it and you’ll find lots of variant opinions on the subject. Just know that Tobias Buckell said it best, and I’m going to paraphrase him here: you can control your writing, but you can’t control the publishing industry, so control what you can control and leave the rest to fate. Stop obsessing about it. I’ll take it one step further to say, you can control your publishing strategy, and that’s it. All advice in this regard is about you figuring out your angle — not the angle of others, not the Prognosticated Fate Of All Publishing Ever. Though, just in case, here: sift through these bird guts, see if you can divine some answers.

24. Life Provides Its Own Kind Of Advice

Yes, you need to write a lot. And sure, you need to read a lot. But those things are regurgitative: it’s just you puking from one mouth to another and back again. Digesting pop or literary culture and then throwing it back up does little for your work — what will elevate your work and make it your own is to live life. Learn from your existence and borrow things from your day to day. Have adventures. Take risks. Put yourself into your fiction. Because life offers a kind of writing advice you just can’t read about — it’s something only you can experience. Like dropping acid and fighting your totem animal for control over the little man that pilots you.

25. Every Monkey Constructs His Own Pen

The story goes that every Jedi constructs his own lightsaber, and every penmonkey constructs his own pen. Meaning, we all find our own way through this crazy tangle of possibility. This isn’t an art, a craft, a career, or an obsession that comes with easy answers and isn’t given over to bullshit dichotomies. We do what we do in the way we do it and hope it’s right. Read advice. Weigh it in your hand and determine its value. But at the end of the day — and at the start of it — what you should be doing is writing. Because thinking about writing and talking about writing just plain isn’t writing.

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32 responses to “25 Things You Should Know About Writing Advice”

  1. So…you can pick the writing advice you choose to follow, and you can pick your nose. But you can’t pick the nose of the person giving you writing advice. I getcha now. Completely.

  2. I’ve noticed I need to beware that “Hypnotic Swirl” because, at times, I feel like I’m hooked on writing advice. I’m constantly checking my “Writers and Writing” feed in my reader to see the latest post from a writer about writing. I’m like an addict, always waiting for my next hit.

    And I’m currently indulging the addiction by being here.

    I can’t win.

    Unless, of course, I use number 7 to negate number 18.

    Then, I win.

  3. Dude, I was just over on publetariat and saw down the bottom that the next post was entitled “No, Seriously, I’m Not F**king Around, You Really Don’t Want To Be A Writer” and I said to myself “If that’s not Chuck Wendig I’ll…I dunno what exactly but I think there was a rabid badger and some tabasco sauce.”

    So I guess what I am trying to say is, “Hey, nice branding.”

  4. I haven’t read the post yet, but I will in a second.

    I just wanted to say first that I read the title and my brain exploded.

    Last night, I was talking with a very passionate 15 year old writer, doing every possible newbie mistake, and i know I was going to be seeing this guy a bunch of times from now on and I was wondering what kind of advice I should give him, if I should give him any at all.

    I was even thinking of emailing you to ask you directly what I should do.

    And here you go. And make a list about freaking writing advice. The very thing I wanted to ask about.

    ….Are you…living in my brain?

    …Just wondering…

  5. I’ve found writing advice to be like alcohol – a little here and there at parties can be helpful and fun, but with too much, you become addicted and lose your focus on your own process. Your writing loses your own heart and soul, and instead becomes a amalgamation of what everyone else thinks should be there.

    There comes a point when you have to tune all of the advice out and find the balls to create your own lightsaber.

  6. Verb Tenses. Mine jump around like Mexican Jumping Beans.

    Years ago, my father found some novelty Mexican Jumping Beans by the counter in a little grocery store in northern Minnesota. He thought they were cute and brought them home. Not content to just warm them with her hand, and feel them wiggle, my mother dropped them on top of the hot wood cook stove (we had wood and electric). They jumped, for about a minute.

    No PETA, she’s long gone, you can’t punish her. She was really smart in some ways and really stupid in other ways (I like adverbs).

    Yeah, verb tenses. I have to watch myself.

  7. The is one golden thread in the middle of writing advice – write every day at the same time in the same place. This works, but when scheduling upheavals occur, resetting your writing habits is like unmaking cheesecake.

    @Chuck. Do you have advice on writing critique groups? I’ve had great experiences with them but I recently dropped out of mine. It started become a “writing committee” which put too many voices in my head, drowning out the only one that matters- my characters.

  8. Writing advice? I spend too much time on the sort, speeding in a convertible of satire at writingallwrong.com (which, @Anthony, recently featured a column on the “right” way to do writing groups). *ok, unplugging plug*

    I find myself closest at home with the toolbox/toolkit of writing. Going a step beyond, I’ll apply some of that advice the way a pragmatic-cum-lazy handyman would take a pair of wire cutters to set about removing nails. “Welp, don’t have the hammer on hand—let’s see how these chops take on Mr. Nails-to-the-wall.”

    Sometimes you’re using dissociative first-third person for narrating dialogue instead of inner monologue. Sometimes you make those scenic descriptions as deft as action sequences. Sometimes you find a way to hammer things back in place with the butt of a power drill instead of a hammer.

  9. @Chuck. I’ve definitely benefited from them. However, one must always keep in mind is that the audience its outside the group. Any conglomerate of people (political parties, chess clubs, orgies) fall victim to groupthink and even strong individualists aren’t immune to it. Also, you risk becoming a compliment junkie or worse, get the kids table treatment. I had to cut myself off because I’m at the intermediate stage of my craft where I know the basics, but I need to work on my one distinct voice. Too many cooks, y’know.

  10. Thanks Chuck. I tend to get caught up in reading writing advice only and thinking I’m making progress on my short story. It’s like I could read all the motivational books in the world but if I don’t implement or act on any of it, I’ve just wasted my time.

    I signed up for NaNoWriMo btw (NaNoWriMo virgin I am) and my handle is nicodemusatnite, if anybody cares.

  11. I wish I woke up a little earlier today so I could get past #5 before I have to leave for work. But “Adverbs give Baby Jesus hemorrhoids” should get me through my 12 hour shift. I’m still giggling…

  12. Your Kung Fu is strong, Chuck.

    I’m 20,000 words into my WIP and I am using Nanowrimo to whip this bitch into submission and finish what I suspect might be my finest work to date.

    I have been reading inordinate amounts of your posts, but I will now commence to be rude and discourteous by largely ignoring you and your site while I bust out my word counts. (for a few weeks, you understand)

    As a token of my appreciation, I will be buying some of your work (maybe more if it doesn’t suck ass) and I am quite keen on getting a Certified Penmonkey shirt when I am done with my current project, and will do whatever sexual favors and/or bloodletting necessary to acquire one.

  13. A buddy of mine is a very successful historical romance writer. Our genres are insanely far apart–I write middle-grade fiction–but we’re very close. (Through a series of unlikely events, she even hooked me up with my agent.) But I find when we get together, we hardly ever talk about writing.

    Publishing, sure. Publishing we’ll yammer about all through lunch, beyond, over to the bookstore, through coffee, back to the house, standing in the driveway. What’s the market doing, what’s the e-book situation on that, my agent says this, I can’t sell this series idea to save my life, goddamnit, etc. And the first time I got a page of hand-written copyedits back from a publisher, I stood gibbering in her dining room, going “What does that squiggle mean? And that one? And that one?” (Thank god my current publisher uses Word markups…) And sure, I tell her to put more exploding carriages and lepers into her books, and then she threatens to drive into a tree. (Y’know. The usual.)

    But the actual writing, we don’t talk about much. Publishing is knowable, I guess. There is actual quantifiable stuff that you have to know about how the system works. Writing, though…well, after a certain point, it feels like the details are between you and your god.

  14. “Writers are goofy-headed moon-units. Total fuckbrains, each and every one of us. Many writers are quite nice. But most are crazy, at least in their own special ways. As such, we’re driven to talk about what we do because — well, it’s what we do. Writers sit by themselves all day, sobbing and drinking vodka and pounding out imaginary bullshit for hours heaped on hours, and so sometimes we like to emerge from our foul-smelling caves and join the communal penmonkey water cooler and talk about what we do. Some don’t like to talk about it, and that’s all good. But many do. And many must.”

    I <3 this ^.

    So important. (She writes as she readies to go to a NaNo Write-In).

    P.S. HeroProtagonist for those doing NaNo.

  15. I got to admit, I really liked this one. One piece of writing advice I hear all the time is “show, don’t tell”. Well, turns out I use that sometimes. Now, it’s not so terrible that the earth is going to open up and swallow me whole. But I just recognize that sometimes it’s just not a part of my style.

    As for NaNo, started today and there’s no looking back.
    Well, mostly.

  16. So if reading about writing and talking about writing are not writing, what about writing about writing? And since right now I’m writing about writing about writing, am I writing?

  17. Thank you for the kick in the butt to get writing. Of course, I’ve already written for several hours today, but I didn’t want to stop writing today until I finished the chapter I was almost finished with…which I didn’t finish. So back to work I go, I go, it’s off to work I go.

    Have a great day, and happy writing!

  18. […] Or maybe I need a snazzier wagon so I don’t fall out; this one’s looking pretty shabby. I guess that’s what I’m trying to do right now with all this learning: build  myself a better wagon. Because, as Uncle Chuck always says (yeah, I’ve got another foul-mouthed uncle now): “Writing is craft and craft can be taught.” […]

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