Monday, 9 May 2011

Why writing advice is utterly meaningless

Are all those writing rules killing your creativity? Are you looking at that mountain of 'how-to' books you've invested in, all those saved blog posts and tweets, and thinking you'll be dead before you ever get a chance to read – never mind learn – all that?

And what about that schmuck who hits on a bestseller with the first thing they write?

Maybe it's time to forget the rules?

You don't worry about how something works when it's working. Who cares what the car, boiler or washing machine do as long as they keep doing it? And likewise with your writing - you don't need to know what you're doing as long as what you're doing keeps working.

So why are there rules?

The way to understand something complex is to break it down into smaller more digestible chunks – something that's clear and comprehensible – and this is what writing advice does. All those little adages – show don't tell, front-story not back-story, plot don't pants – all make perfect sense on their own, but in the grand scheme of things, when awash with all the other elements of a novel, they are utterly meaningless. In fact, within the context of your story, the complete reverse of those pieces of advice could be true.

So how can I avoid the rules?

The truth is, there's truth in those rules, and good writing will indeed exhibit some of the effects detailed in them. But good writing came before advice on how to do it – Aristotle didn't tell Homer and Sophocles how to write, they showed him.

If you have fully-formed characters reacting convincingly to dramatic story-events, thereby revealing character and creating action and consequently driving the plot to a natural and satisfying conclusion – then you don't need any rules. You don't need any rules at all.

Will I ever need them?

Maybe through talent and luck you can produce a masterpiece on your first attempt. Maybe you continue to do it on your second. Maybe it just keeps on working.

But there will come a day when it won't. And that's the day when you'll need to know what you're doing. Then the rules will set you free.


  1. I'm with you, James. No rules once you know them. Tricky concept!

  2. I wrote a paper about Moby-Dick in college and met with my professor shortly after to chat. Contrasting Melville's early work to everything after Moby-Dick he said, "think about Joyce too. He had to write Dubliners before he could write Ulysses."

    A similar point to yours, I think. You have to figure out what most people do, before you can knock 'em out.

    But also: how saddled were they with writing rules, the specter of the book market, agent hunting etc? Perhaps they had more time to muck about with the rules?

    Thanks for the interesting post! (Nice headline too)

  3. I completely agree. I often feel bogged down with all the craft posts. At some point those tips need to become automatic, something barely perceived as we contemplate story and characters instead. All these craft posts make me feel like I'm watching my pedals as I ride a bike. I want to lift my head up and see where I'm going!

  4. Well. If they only want to learn and follow rules let them be a bureaucrat.

    As for where I stand: One should always be aware of the rules one is breaking. Doesn't mean you shouldn't break it though.

  5. @Misty - that's right, Misty - learn them, subsume them, forget them!

    @Paulo - I always think of Picasso, we think of him just doing his own thing but boy could he draw - technique comes before artistry

    @Marsha - yeah, all the craft stuff can be overwhelming - love your bike image - describes it perfectly, the mechanics have to become second nature before you can really go anywhere.

    @Casi - exactly, you can't break the rules if you don't even know what they are.