Last week, I wrote a post on the five(ish) writing books that have resonated with me most as a creative writer in the course of my investigation into creative research. As I said in that post, most writing books are basically the same in terms of the advice they have to give. The differences are more in the author’s style and their approach to sharing that advice.
If you’re someone who only picks up a book about writing now and then, this is good news because it means you can never really go wrong with your choice. But if you’re someone like me who’s going to read more than 50 of these things as part of your research study, reading the same thing over and over again gets a little old after a while.
Below are some of the pieces of advice I encountered over and over…and over and over again. These mostly pertain to fiction writing but there are a few that also came up in books on other genres as well.
Taking down “write what you know”: Apparently, if you’re going to write a book about writing, there is some requirement that you address the old advice to “write what you know.” Every writer will tell you that at some point you have probably received this advice and every writer will then give their own take on why this advice is wrong or lacking or what it misses about how writing actually works. It’s not that these takedowns aren’t useful. But…does anybody actually get told to only write what they know anymore? If they do, do they really take it so literally? What really bugs me about this is that these takedowns are often missing a crucial element. If you’re not going to write what you know, then it’s ostensibly a good idea to, like, do some research but no one ever seems to talk about that aspect of things. (The one exception being Benjamim Percy who, in his book Thrill Me, flips the “write what you know” advice to “know what you write,” which I did think was pretty clever.)
Carrying a notebook with you everywhere: According to most writing books, you should always be ready to record an idea or jot down a piece of interesting dialogue that you overhear while standing in line at the coffee shop or grocery store. (There is a lot of advice in these books which tells you to constantly be eavesdropping on strangers and recording what they say, which seems…creepy.) As someone who has forgotten more ideas than I’ve ever pursued, I get that. But I feel like there’s a weird fetishization of the need to capture fleeting ideas. Like you must carry a notebook because you are a Special Kind of Person who has Special Kinds of Ideas and you need to be seen writing those ideas down. Preferably in an actual notebook because if you’re doing it on your phone, the people who witness your Sudden Inspiration will think you’re just texting or something and not realize what a genius you actually are. Okay, they don’t go quite that far but there’s still a performative aspect implied to all of this as well as the assumption that every idea you have must be written down and/or remembered, no matter how inane. Some ideas are meant to be forgotten.
Commercial novels, especially romance novels, are trash: I’ve written about this before but there are a surprising number of writing books out there that go out of their way to trash popular genres, especially romance novels. I’ve read multiple books where the writer advises their reader to read a romance novel specifically as a way to teach themselves what not to do in their own writing. And it is almost always romance novels that get singled out for this treatment. I would have less of a problem with this if I was convinced that any of the authors who make a point of doing this actually read any romance novels but it’s clear none of them have, except maybe to cherry pick some poorly written passages to use as examples of their overall poor quality, as if this is representative of the entire genre. As a woman and a fan of romance novels, it’s deeply annoying that the one genre that is written primarily for and by female audiences is so often targeted for this kind of sneering and snickering.
It’s only real writing if you’re trying to achieve literary immortality: This one goes hand in hand with the one about commercial fiction above. In writing books in general but academic writing books specifically, there seems to be a deep disdain for anyone who wants to make money from their writing. Or to write for fun or self-expression. The only legitimate goal for one’s writing, according to these books, is to want to write timeless prose and, in doing so, achieve literary immortality. If you’re not writing in the hopes of one day joining the canon of Great Writers, many of whom are either white and male or writing in white male-approved genres, then you’re wasting everyone’s time, including your own. I think a lot of this attitude/framing of things comes from the way academic creative writing programs have historically been treated as extensions of academic literary programs but it’s still a pretty arrogant assumption to make that probably discourages more people than it encourages. (Which, I imagine, is the point.)
Write every day, no matter what: Not every book I’ve read is strict about this point, but most will still tell you that in order to get anywhere with your writing you need to have at least some “butt in chair” time most days. It’s not that I don’t think this is true—I’ve noticed that I have an easier time getting into the groove of things when I’m writing on a daily basis than if there are large gaps of time between writing sessions. Also, it just makes sense that the more time you spend on your writing, the more you get done. What I find objectionable about this advice is that it most often comes from people who have been successful enough with their writing that it’s what they do for a living. Like Stephen King. As much as I love Stephen King and his books, I find it pretty galling that, in his book On Writing, one of the wealthiest writers in the world shares his own writing routine as a sort of template that he expects other writers to be able to follow. A routine that’s basically: write 2000 words in the morning, answer letters in the afternoon. What?!? I mean, clearly this routine works well for King (or did at the time On Writing was written). He’s a very productive author. But most people have jobs. Most people have to fit their writing into the cracks of their day, around other obligations. There’s nothing wrong with having to do that and, it seems to me, there’s nothing wrong with having priorities that change from day to day. Is having a regular writing routine the ideal? Yes. Is spending the entire morning every day writing realistic for most people? No. (Neither is getting up at the ass crack of dawn just to write. Sleep is important too, you know.)
In conclusion, I’m not saying that any of this advice is bad, necessarily. I’m sure many writers find it useful. And the many, many books that these ideas appear in aren’t necessarily bad either. They’re just repeating things that have already been said before and often in ways that are not sufficiently new or interesting. You don’t have to read 50 writing books for it to start to get old after a while.