Writing Advice I Like or Dislike
I'm always on the lookout for new things to try to improve my writing skills and my process. I follow blogs by other writers or editors who like to share advice on these topics, and I have to admit, they're usually a hit or miss for me. Some worked well, others were frustrating to implement from the start. I want to share some of my experiences, and why some advice worked for me while others did not.
(These are my personal experiences, and I don't mean to dismiss an advice outright if somehow I had trouble with it. I definitely think the best way to approach suggestions about writing is to try them out yourself, and see which ones complement your style and process.)
Advice I Like
Make an outline
I know the writing world is divded into pantsers, those who write "by the seat of their pants," and plotters, those who like to plan out their story before writing. (These days, I notice that more authors say they are a mix of both, which makes sense. It's difficult to completely pigeonhole yourself into a category.) I would say that I am much more a plotter than a pantser, and the more detailed I can make my outline, the better I feel about starting a draft.
I wasn't always this way though. I used to be the ultimate pantser. As soon as I thought of an alluring premise, I started my story with very little thought to the plot and overall structure. At that time, writing was just a hobby I did to relax from my school work so there wasn't a lot of pressure on me to write a well-executed story, but I also honestly thought that was just how authors write in general. I never heard of plot points or story structure, or the different methods of outlining, drafting, or even editing your work.
For the most part, I never really got to the rewrites and the major edits. Unfortunately "winging" my novels caused me to write myself into a corner after falling into terrible plotholes. Unable to work myself out of the corner, I lose interest in the story. Since I'm not the type to run out of ideas, I merely jumped onto the next shiny premise, and repeated the cycle all over again.
I'm not saying that all pantsers have this same experience, of course. I'm sure there are many thoughtful writers out there who carefully avoid plotholes even as they lay down their tracks. Or master editors who are able to creatively patch up a plothole in the next rewrite. I'm only saying that for the type of writer I am, pantsing just wasn't a productive method for me.
After not being able to finish a single story in a decade, I finally decided to research a bit on novel structures and outlining your plot points. Once I learned about these, not only did I manage to finish more stories, but the new stories I wrote were better executed. Another advantage was that I had motivation to keep writing the parts that I wasn't so fond of, because I knew about upcoming scenes that I was excited to write.
One of the most common protests I hear from people who don't want to outline is that it takes away the artistry or the freedom from writing. I don't think that's true. I think the artistry and the freedom occur at different stages for pantsers and plotters. One of the best parts of outlining, for me, is the early brainstorming stage, where I can simply take out my notebook and go wild with ideas. This stage is incredibly creative and freeing. I can brainstorm about out-of-field ideas and not have to worry about how I'm going to type it out on the page, or worry about consistency with what I've already written before. Since I am not tied down to anything, I can explore my ideas as far as I want. And I love the instancy of it too, how quickly I travel through the feedback loop. So I would heartily disagree with those who say that outlining is not creative; the creative part just happens early, and I can focus on other things when I'm actually drafting.
For some people, it may not be such a big issue to try and work out the intricacies of their story while they're drafting. But because I have a full-time job, I don't actually get a lot of dedicated time to write. It's just much more convenient for me to already know what I'm going to write beforehand, to efficiently use the time I set aside for writing.
Don't edit as you draft
This is another advice that depends on your writing process. This advice says that if there are changes in your manuscript (ie. a character's backstory doesn't work, or you need a new feature in your setting, etc.), don't go back and edit what you've written right away; instead, continue writing your manuscript as if those changes have already been implemented.
To be honest, this was a very difficult one for me to try. I'm a very linear writer, and I get a lot of momentum from the parts I've already written. It's hard to move forward when I don't know what I'm moving forward from. But as difficult as it may be, I found that avoiding editing previous parts made me more productive.
There will always be things to edit as long as you're still in the midst of a draft. Many of the edits you might be tempted to make might not even be relevant anymore by the time you finish, so the time you spend making those changes might just be wasted.
If you're a linear writer like me, you might feel like you're losing momentum by charging forward without establishing the changes first. I try to maintain momentum by internalizing and visualizing those changes. It helps to go back to my plot outline to see how a hypothetical edit will affect the rest of the story going forward. I also like to go back to my characters' goals and motivations to see if these will be affected significantly by the changes I need to make.
It's true that because I don't edit as I go, the next draft is more time consuming to write. But there are usually many changes I need to make for the next draft anyway. In the long run, it's faster to apply all these changes at once, instead of making multiple passes.
Advice I Dislike
If there is an advice I dislike more than "write everyday," I have yet to hear about it.
I don't deny that there are clear advantages of writing everyday. Any kind of activity that requires practice can benefit from consistency. But consistency does not equal daily, and I don't appreciate the insinuation that you're not serious enough about your craft if somehow you can't find the time to do it everyday.
I have a software engineering career. I develop software for a living. Do you know what advice people in this field get about honing our skills? Code everyday. Even in your free time. Contribute to open-source projects. Start your own personal assignments. Do it on top of your full-time job!
I also like to dabble in digital painting and illustration. I'm a visual person, and I enjoy making fanarts or artwork of my original stories. Do you know what advice people give to artists? Yeah, draw everyday.
I get it. Practice makes perfect. But if I were to code, write, and draw everyday, on top of everything else I have to do to live, I'd be dead! And sure, maybe I don't plan to make a living drawing, so it's all right if that slides off my schedule; but even if we just focus on my breadwinning activity, it's still a tall order to ask me to code even on the weekends.
Some people might say, "even just 5-10 minutes will benefit you." All right, but only if you're the type of person who only takes seconds to focus after context-switching. It usually takes me 20 - 30 minutes to get into a state of flow doing one activity. If I were to divide the free hour I have every weeknight into the three activities above, I'd get very little done, and worse, I won't actually learn anything.
Instead I use a process I learned as a software engineer: sprints! Sprints, in the software development cycle, is a dedicated length of time in which you will finish all the tasks you've set for yourself. Normally, these would be about 1 to 2 weeks. For my hobbies, I tend to do anywhere between 2-week to 8-week sprints. Each sprint consists of one type of activitiy, either writing, or drawing, or a coding project. I might assign myself a draft to finish, or a set of drawing exercises, or a milestone on my website. Once I finish that sprint, the next sprint will be dedicated to one of the other activities.
Working in week-based sprints is much more suitable for me. I get the consistency needed to practice my craft, without the pressure of trying to do it everyday. Also, since I'm not juggling multiple activities at the same time, I actually learn and improve more efficiently.
Show, Don't Tell
I used to be a lot more irate with this advice than I am now, but only because I have finally found expert craft books that explain what this advice actually means and how to effectively use it.
When people casually toss this suggestion around, it sounds something like this: "Don't tell us that the person is sad. Describe their sadness. Show it through action."
And this advice used to confuse me a lot, because I saw examples of well-written texts where the author flat-out describes a character's emotions, and it was still effective. Sometimes the simplicity of just telling us what the character felt was more effective than what paragraphs could convey. Furthermore, we can't really show everything, can we? So what do people mean when they give this advice?
Fortunately, I came across a couple of craft books that elaborated on how "Show, Don't Tell" works. I was pretty relieved to find out that they don't recommend you show everything all the time. Whew! In fact, in Understanding Show, Don't Tell, Hardy admits that sometimes telling is what you want to go for instead. The trick is to understand when to show and when to tell.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and Understanding Show, Don't Tell helped me learn how to effectively use different types of showing and telling. I highly suggest other writers check these books out, or at least, dig deeper into this common advice. Because the more I learned about it, the more I feel like this advice is mislabeled. I think it really should be, "When to show, and when to tell," or even better, "How to effectively show or tell."
What common advice have you tried? Which ones worked out for you and which ones didn't?