The Dirty Secret Behind Writing Advice

Cathaoir Synge
Synge's Chair (where Irish writer Synge would retreat & write, on Inis Meain)

I’ll start by saying that I have always advised writers in good faith. I would never suggest a writer undertake something harmful, obstructive, or a waste of time.

But lately I’ve started idly imagining how my favorite author, Alain de Botton, would react if he read advice on my professional blog. (Go follow Alain de Botton on Twitter.)

de Botton writes insightful books about big topics: love, work, travel, architecture, status. He expresses all the things that you’ve felt to be true but could never put into words.

When I imagined him reading my blog, I felt the criticism sharp and quick. Prescriptive, step-by-step advice delivers cheap comfort—that you can reach success systematically—and promotes Panglossian dreams. Such advice, especially when simplified, bulleted, and listed, pushes aside the complexity, difficulty and dilemma of what it means to undertake a writing life.

On the other hand, having read more annals of writing advice than anyone else on the planet, I’m intimate with all the repeated, universal mistakes and destructive attitudes. If you, too, internalized all the (sometimes conflicting) advice from Writer’s Digest, you would be a better writer for it, if only because you’d sooner recognize and maybe avoid the downfalls of every writer.

But the writing itself never gets any easier no matter how much you know or publish. The dilemmas never go away.

There are some technical things every writer should learn to do correctly. Formatting and submitting your manuscript is one thing. Queries might be another. There are lots of bad queries out there, but somehow the talented writers manage to break all the rules and charm agents anyway. That’s what a very talented writer does. But I can’t say that when I’m teaching how to write a great query. I can’t teach the exceptions or pleasing eccentricities (or what can boil down to a matter of confidence or nuance). I teach the rules, even though there aren’t any.

The Writing Advice Book That Would Never Sell
The book I really want to write would encompass the following dilemmas and contradictions:

• Talent vs. Practice (or Discipline). Some people are born to be writers. Others seem to be blessed with the discipline to get better. Can you succeed without any talent? Which quality is more important? And how do you know if you have any talent to begin with? Certainly those with talent need to practice, too—or not?

• Luck vs. Persistence. I’ve seen so many lucky writers—people who were at the right place at the right time. Yet the cliche is that luck favors the prepared. That feels true, though I’ve met a lot of prepared people who never seem to catch a break.

• Confidence/Ego vs. Doubt. I’ve never met a writer who didn’t have self-doubt, though not all will admit to it. We’re always waiting to be revealed as complete phonies. Yet without some measure of outrageous ego—a belief that you have something to say to the world—there’s no way you could justify writing. Writing is not for the weak. The weak ones give up easily, sometimes with the first rejection.

• Professionalism vs. Eccentricity. The writers who are business-savvy and have a flair for marketing & promotion almost always do well. Yet the writers we tend to fall in love with, and the ones we remember, can be the craziest, the most rude, or the most outrageous. Strong personalities sell, too.

• Extroversion vs. Introversion. Extroverts network better and find more people to help them. Introverts are naturally suited to writing and often notice all those wonderful details that extroverts miss. Horrible stereotyping here, but still.

No one really wants to read a heady book on these issues. People want the secrets to success and a positive spin. But the longer I’m in the business, the more slippery it all looks. I know what works for some, but it never works for all. Sometimes I wish I could sit down with each writer personally, and put together a specific plan of attack based on that writer’s talents and strengths.

But you know what? When I do that for some people, they ignore the advice anyway and do their own thing. Our innate (and learned) tendencies, inclinations, habits, and attitudes reign supreme.

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