We’ve shared a lot of writing advice lately, and it’s had me thinking about the nature of the thing.
Just about every writer has “rules” they live by; many have lists, whole books, even, of steps you must follow and things you must avoid at all costs if you hope to be published and successful. However, following someone else’s rules to the letter can sometimes do more harm than good, especially if a rule is internalized as law.
My first book on writing was Robert’s Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello. I was 15 or so and a terrible writer; no amount of brilliant advice was going to save my measly stories. Still, I had hope, and I marked so many pages that my post-it flags became nothing more than useless decorations—finding any particular passage required skimming the entire book again. For all that, I’ve forgotten most of those rules I marked so diligently and reread so many times. But here’s what I do remember: so many of those rules contradicted one another.
The author used these contradictions to illustrate that there are as many ways to be a writer as there are writers, and that today’s ideal solution may be the opposite of yesterday’s. A simpler and more rigid “adverbs are the devil, passive voice is trash, and don’t waste words trying to write too pretty” mandate might have stuck with me for a long time and only succeeded in hobbling my already clumsy prose if followed religiously; this notion of layers and contradictions, context and flexibility may have made the rules a little harder to internalize, but it laid the groundwork for a lifetime of learning to adapt my writing to the task at hand, to search for individual solutions rather than rules and blanket statements.
It was the most important lesson I could have received as a young writer. It taught me never to accept someone’s personal rule as law, and to offer my own without pretense. Writing is a craft, not a science; there is more to it than the tangible and the teachable. What works for one writer will not necessarily work for the next, and it doesn’t mean I’m doing things wrong if a successful writer’s list of rules doesn’t apply to my writing. Happily will I gather Stephen King’s neglected adverbs and Kurt Vonnegut’s maligned semicolons into my arsenal.
This isn’t to say I don’t value the experience of other writers. Far from it. Writing isn’t done in a vacuum. I learn by reading, by mimicking, by listening to criticism with an open mind, and by sharing epiphanies with other writers. I simply don’t trust writing advice that doesn’t acknowledge that it comes from an individual, and that the writers it speaks to are individuals with likely very different needs and perspectives. I especially do not trust writing advice that descends from on high. My writing is stronger today for learning early on that no one knows what my story needs better than I do.