Writing Advice, Rules, and Guidelines

Posted by Derek Chamberlain on Monday, June 10, 2013 Under: Writing

Any writer with any interest in the craft of writing eventually winds up with a veritable library of writing guides, style manuals, and how-to books along with a media-player full of podcasts and an RSS reader full of articles by writers. These sources offer advice on any and every aspect of writing; from story development to marketing and everything in between. We wind up with thousands of books, articles, and multimedia discussions on pretty much every topic related at all tangentially to the writing craft or the publication process. I’m no exception. 

There are two main problems with this plethora of sources. The first problem is that none of the ‘advice’ is actually advice, as such, at least, not the sort of advice that a lawyer or an accountant will give. And the reason for that is because, unlike law and accounting, which have fairly clear rules about what works and what doesn’t, the act of creative writing doesn’t appear to have any rules at all. 

The second problem is that, few of the people giving the advice agree on anything except the broadest generalisations, due, of course, to the nature of the first problem. Another aspect of this is that so much of this ‘advice’ is referred to in confusing and inaccurate terms. You have ‘writing advice’ that isn’t advice but ‘this is how I did it’ memoir. You have ‘submission guidelines’ that aren’t guidelines at all, but are very strictly enforced publisher or agency submission rules. And you have ‘rules of fiction writing’ that aren’t rules, but are more like advice. 

I think what we need is a new nomenclature.

We have been told for years that there are rules — rules for good grammar, rules for submissions to publishers, rules of structure, characterisation, plotting — and we have seen, or heard of, any number of works that appear to do everything from gently bending to violently shattering those rules. 

If you listen to the podcasts of professional writers, you’ll hear them edging around the whole idea of rules by declaring that, well, really, there are no rules, just guidelines. This is in stark contrast to the old days where you followed a railway-line to publication. It was rigidly controlled, there were a number of stations along the route, and there was no other path but the one laid out.

Nowadays all that has changed. The path to publication is a whole lot more like stumbling across a game-trail through thick woods and hoping it leads you to where you want to go, or, well, anywhere other than around and around in circles. 

The major problem with advice about writing, is that there are just too many variables. What sort of writing do you do? Are you a genre writer, or a mainstream writer? (And those two, of themselves, are kind of useless as categorisations because, really, all writing is genre, mainstream itself, is a genre with many sub-genres.) 

Who are you? Where are you from? What is your background? What sort of personality do you have? What are your current circumstances? (Are you employed full time, part time, no time? Are you a student? Are you retired? Are you independently wealthy?) 

What are your work habits like? Are you a morning person? A lunch-time writer? A night owl? Does it take you a little time to get into the flow so that you need a long block of time for your writing? Or are you the sort of person who can whip out 250 words during that ten-minute coffee break between meetings? 

Why are you writing? To be published? To make money? To become famous? To get your story out there? To see your name in print? To justify all the time you spend away from family and friends in a dark closet, your face lit by the ghostly glow of your laptop’s monitor as you tap out the warped tales of your fevered imaginings? To prove that your writing is not just a hobby, dammit!? 

All of this is going to change the relevance of whatever advice you hear. The fact is that, really, because we are all unique individuals, no one person’s advice is going to be applicable to us. This is why we get so many books, and listen to so many blogs, and still find ourselves having to hack our own path through the jungle of literary creation. Sometimes the advice we get will enable us to pick up a better machete. Sometimes it will let us sharpen our tools. 

Sometimes though, the advice, if we take it too seriously, can actually hinder our efforts, like changing that machete for a pen-knife, or for a chainsaw. You might think that a chainsaw would work better, but, chances are, if you’re stopping to cut down every tree that’s in your way, it’s going to take you an awful long time to make any progress at all, despite the trail of destruction you leave in your wake. 

So, what’s this post all about? Well, I’m giving you some writing advice. Something that has stood me in good stead. Read all the books, listen to all the podcasts, talk to any writer who will give you more than the time of day, and then go away and look objectively at everything you’ve heard, look hard, and think carefully about who you are and what you want, and then make up your own tool-kit from those pieces of advice that make sense to you. There are no rules, just guidelines. Be prepared to experiment, and to have experiments fail. It took humanity an awful long time to invent powered flight, but everyone who tried added a draft to the plans that finally made powered flight possible. You can do the same.

In : Writing 

Tags: "writing advice" 
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Meet the scribbler

I'm a writer, editor, indie publisher, and dedicated Magic Spreadsheet user. Originally from Adelaide, Australia, I've been living in Japan since 1995. I've had a life-long interest in writing and in speculative fiction. My first book was published in mid-2014.
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