Good morning, Internet!
I almost let the whole week get away from me, and I almost didn’t have anything to post today… After a busy weekend, I spent most of Monday trying to catch up on all the things I ignored for the last many, many days.
But once the house was basically under control again, I managed to come up with another installment of my loosely conceived posts about what I’ve learned about writing. (You can find the first two posts here and here.)
Don’t Take Writing Advice from Non-Writers
What is it about writing that makes everyone think they can do it? Is it because in a highly literate society, we all know the basics, so everyone thinks it’s easy to put words to paper? Is it partly the easily accessed platforms where everyone can give voice to every whisper of id that wants to be shared? Is it because anyone can generate several thousand random words (now with the help of AI), format them, and upload them to Amazon as a book?
The point is… Not everyone is a writer.
And taking writing advice from non-writers is rarely wise.
There are exceptions. Some people who are not writers may be very good readers who can offer intelligent, helpful feedback. You may know non-writers who are very good at time management or marketing strategy or medicine or astrophysics who can give advice or factual information when you need it, but these people will probably not have strong opinions about adverbs. And if they do, they probably won’t feel compelled to share them with you.
There are a lot of people who are not writers, but cannot admit that they aren’t writers. And these non-writers often have a lot of strong opinions about how you should write your stories–which tropes are okay and which ones aren’t, how you should navigate deeply held beliefs or nuanced political or social issues, even whether you should use an Oxford comma (you should).
Those are the non-writers you don’t need to listen to. When those people come at you with advice about the “right” way to write, you can just nod and smile (or not) and say thank you for the tip and walk away.
Then you can promptly ignore their advice.
Think of it this way: Would you give advice to Tom Brady about how to quarterback or Billy Joel about how to write an award-winning song or Serena Williams about how to win at tennis? Probably not. I know I wouldn’t. Likewise, you don’t need to worry about taking writing advice from non-writers.
Edit Like a Miner
Four years ago, after The Man and I dropped our oldest daughter off at college in Montana, we took a few extra days to do some sightseeing around the state with our two youngest kids (both in high school at that point). We stumbled onto a little tourist attraction that advertised the opportunity to mine for your own gems, and Kid #3 was all over that. (He’s currently majoring in geology–is this any surprise to anyone?)
The process of finding our own gems involved driving up a hillside to these huge deposits of dirt. We shoveled this dirt/sand into five-gallon buckets and then drove back down the hill, where we had to painstakingly sift through what we’d collected. Sifting involved dumping small amounts of the dirt we’d collected into mesh screens, dunking the screens into water to eliminate bits of sand and dirt too fine to keep, and then gently and carefully examining the pebbles that remained to see if any could be gems.
This is what you are doing when you edit a messy first draft.
Assume there are dozens and dozens of rare and beautiful gems in your big, messy first draft, and aim to find them. Yes, you have to sift a lot of dirt. Yes, you may have to shovel more dirt into the draft to find more gems. Yes, it’s possible that you’ll believe that an ordinary rock is something valuable until someone else points it out.
But do you know what you will find?
And diamonds, and rubies, and possibly more.
After we shoveled dirt into buckets on an exposed plateau with no shade on a ridiculously hot day, then stood next to old bathtubs full of dirty water to sift through all of our dirt, we did have some luck. Kid #3 found a small, but very pretty, sapphire. Kid #4 found a couple of small gems as well.
All this to say–your writing may look like a big pile of dirt or an old bathtub full of filthy water, but there are gems within. Your job is to find them, carve them into something that sparkles, and then craft a unique setting to display them.
All the Words Count
Here’s the thing. A lot of us don’t want to write the crappy words. We just want to write the good ones.
But writing doesn’t work that way. You have to write the crappy words.
Musicians have to play for thousands of hours and make millions of mistakes before they can execute a piece flawlessly in a performance–and even then, it may not be a flawless performance.
Athletes have to practice endlessly, enduring injuries and setbacks, to have a shot at Olympic glory or professional recruitment. And even then, they will still have errors and injuries–sometimes in front of millions of people.
Writing is no different. Sure, if you have raw talent, it may not take you a million words to get to mastery. But also? If you don’t have raw talent, and you struggle through a million or two million words, you will be a pretty good writer at that point.
And then? Then you keep going.
If the first million words are crap, you still have to write them to get to the second million. And then a bunch of the second million will also be crap. So will the third million.
The hope is that for every million words, you get to keep a few more than you kept of the last million. But you still have to write all of them.
This is one reason I like writing for commercial clients. The words I’m churning out for businesses may not be fiction, but they’re still words. They still count toward the current million.
Because professional musicians and athletes don’t just stop practicing when they reach a certain level. They still practice, still get advice from coaches, still watch or listen to their performances and figure out how to do better.
So write. Write everything you can. Write for businesses or friends or non-profits that can’t pay you. Write long letters or flash fiction or six-word stories or poems. You will hate a lot of what you write, but you will also stumble onto things you love. And when you do, you’ll write more things like those.
Just keep writing. Eventually, there will be more good words than crappy words, and that’s honestly the best a writer can hope for.
Until next week, friends.