I’ve heard the following writing advice way too often, from way too many people, including teachers, writers, and non-writers alike. Sadly, these are all things that I bought into as well at some point.
And it’s all bad. The worst. Just plain wrong.
Without further ado, here are five of the worst pieces of common writing advice:
1. Start at the beginning.
The beginning of a story, essay, blog post, article, novel, whatever, is not the same as beginning to write.
Start writing with whatever you have in mind, then write another thing, and keep filling it out from there. Rearrange later. Edit extensively. No one will see what you don’t show them.
2. Have a well formed idea before you start writing.
You need to have some idea to start writing, but it doesn’t have to be a lot, or good, or anything close to what your final product may end up being.
Write something and then let it percolate in the back of your mind while you do other things, and come back to it and add to it or change it and go away again. Keep repeating this cycle.
The mind will work on an idea even when you’re not actively writing it, but the mind cannot revise a blank screen or page. You have to have something for it to work on.
3. Try to use beautiful language, right from the first draft.
Do you know how ugly most of my first drafts are? Sure, there are a few nice lines, but most of it is pretty bad. But that doesn’t matter. Most of it—including those few nice lines—will get deleted or changed or revised drastically in later versions. That’s what the later versions are for.
The first versions are for getting an idea out. So don’t put too much pressure on those early drafts to both say something and say it well.
4. A story is about plot. It’s about what happens to your characters.
I still fall into this trap sometimes. But I’m learning that a story is really about characters. We care about people. The circumstances only become interesting when they matter to people we care about.
So get us to care about your characters, whether fictional or real, and then we will care about what happens to them.
5. Great writing comes from talented writers.
Screw talent. Okay, sure, talent is real, but it’s really only a predisposition to doing something. You can have a ton of talent, never develop it, and so never accomplish anything.
Also, whether or not you have any talent whatsoever, if you show up repeatedly and work hard at something over a long period of time, you are going to get better at it. Seriously. Anything you practice with dedication and effort you will improve at.
Plenty of people without that predisposition have gotten better than people with it, simply because they worked more to develop the skills necessary (for whatever activity) than people who trusted in their talent to take them all the way.
Does this mean that anyone can achieve anything they set out to do? No. But in the long run, high achievement is more about acquiring skill over time and with effort, whether the person started with talent or not.
Stop praising talent. Start praising skill.