On Writing Advice or Why I Keep a Saltshaker by my Computer

It’s that time of year, when writers everywhere make resolutions and goals for the new year, which means a bumper crop of articles and blog posts giving all kinds of essential writing advice. One thing I’ve already noticed this year is that there have been more than a few articles admonishing writers that they should NEVER [eat squid on Tuesday/use No. 3 pencils/juggle monkeys] or that they MUST [eat anchovies on Thursday/use purple glitter ink/juggle lemurs] if they want to be successful. Quite frankly, these types of articles are starting to irritate me.

Don’t get me wrong. There are tons of great resources out there for a writer who wants to improve his or her craft, but these types of “Thou Shalt/Thou Shalt Not” articles are unhelpful at best and harmful at worst. Writers are by nature insecure, especially new writers, and it can be very discouraging to read an article in which the author tells you that you’re writing the wrong way or that you have to do something you know doesn’t work for you.

In truth, there’s only one thing a writer has to do, and that is write.

If you have a method that works for you to get the writing accomplished, great. Soldier on. If you don’t, then experiment until you find one that does work for you. The operative words here are for you.

I am what would be called a “pantser,” meaning I write by the seat of my pants, figuring out the story as I go along. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a handle on the story I want to tell. When I start, I know the beginning and the end and three or four plot points along the way. It’s how I get from point to point that I figure out as I write. I rarely write a story in order. Sometimes I start at the end, sometimes in the middle. If I get stuck, I often skip to a different part of the story and write until I can get myself unstuck. Then I go back. Sometimes I do that within a scene or even a paragraph. Sometimes I write out all the dialogue in a scene and fill in the action, the descriptions, the “he saids,” and so forth later. If I come up with a killer idea for the plot in the middle of writing, I don’t go back and redo scenes I’ve already written. I just make a note and keep writing as if I’d had the idea all along. When the whole first draft is done, I do a story edit to sand down the joints and smooth out the wrinkles before I pay attention to the writing itself.

I know I’ve just caused some people to have cardiac events, and I know others of you are making plans to exorcise the Demon of Chaos, Discord, and Inefficient Workflow that is obviously possessing my body. Yes, it can be a messy process, but it’s a system that works for me.

I have to admit that when writers who are extreme outliners talk about their hundred-item character sheets, their color-coded note cards, and the whiteboards where they create minds maps of their chapters, I peer at them over the rim of my glasses as if they’re speaking Old High Martian. Then my eyes glaze over, and I start to wonder if I really want leftover pizza for dinner. What I don’t do is tell them they’re wrong, because they all have systems that work for them.

The thing I love about writers is that they are always willing to share. If you find that you need writing advice, which we all do from time to time, then by all means seek it out. Talk to other writers. Read articles, books, and blog posts.

But don’t take any one source as the Gospel Truth. If a piece of advice doesn’t ring true, take it with a grain of salt. Always keep in mind what works for you and what doesn’t, and don’t let someone discourage you just because you don’t write the way they tell you you’re “supposed” to.

One thought on “On Writing Advice or Why I Keep a Saltshaker by my Computer

  1. Jamila Smith January 14, 2017 / 6:46 am

    I highly relate to this post. It’s brilliant. I’ve always found that those how-to articles you mentioned were unhelpful for me and actually quite discouraging. They’ve made me feel like I was doing things wrong; I actually remember reading one while I was working on a book, realising that the article wasn’t for me, and vowing to myself that from then onwards I would be seletive in the advice I retained and not follow ‘rules’. I can imagine those articles really freaking out some people! Especially, like you said, newer writers.

    I’m like you in that I can’t work with all those charts and maps. Really. Can’t. Except I find it almost impossible to organise all my scenes in the end! I might write out a scene with completely different characters to the ones I end up having in it, or write a scene just to explore certain characters and then totally ditch that scene. Like you, I skip around a lot too. I love your idea of filling in all the action, the descriptions and the “he saids” later.

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