The Dirty Secret Behind Writing Advice

Cathaoir Synge

Synge's Chair (where Irish writer Synge would retreat & write, on Inis Meain)

I’ll start by saying that I have always advised writers in good faith. I would never suggest a writer undertake something harmful, obstructive, or a waste of time.

But lately I’ve started idly imagining how my favorite author, Alain de Botton, would react if he read advice on my professional blog. (Go follow Alain de Botton on Twitter.)

de Botton writes insightful books about big topics: love, work, travel, architecture, status. He expresses all the things that you’ve felt to be true but could never put into words.

When I imagined him reading my blog, I felt the criticism sharp and quick. Prescriptive, step-by-step advice delivers cheap comfort—that you can reach success systematically—and promotes Panglossian dreams. Such advice, especially when simplified, bulleted, and listed, pushes aside the complexity, difficulty and dilemma of what it means to undertake a writing life.

On the other hand, having read more annals of writing advice than anyone else on the planet, I’m intimate with all the repeated, universal mistakes and destructive attitudes. If you, too, internalized all the (sometimes conflicting) advice from Writer’s Digest, you would be a better writer for it, if only because you’d sooner recognize and maybe avoid the downfalls of every writer.

But the writing itself never gets any easier no matter how much you know or publish. The dilemmas never go away.

There are some technical things every writer should learn to do correctly. Formatting and submitting your manuscript is one thing. Queries might be another. There are lots of bad queries out there, but somehow the talented writers manage to break all the rules and charm agents anyway. That’s what a very talented writer does. But I can’t say that when I’m teaching how to write a great query. I can’t teach the exceptions or pleasing eccentricities (or what can boil down to a matter of confidence or nuance). I teach the rules, even though there aren’t any.

The Writing Advice Book That Would Never Sell
The book I really want to write would encompass the following dilemmas and contradictions:

• Talent vs. Practice (or Discipline). Some people are born to be writers. Others seem to be blessed with the discipline to get better. Can you succeed without any talent? Which quality is more important? And how do you know if you have any talent to begin with? Certainly those with talent need to practice, too—or not?

• Luck vs. Persistence. I’ve seen so many lucky writers—people who were at the right place at the right time. Yet the cliche is that luck favors the prepared. That feels true, though I’ve met a lot of prepared people who never seem to catch a break.

• Confidence/Ego vs. Doubt. I’ve never met a writer who didn’t have self-doubt, though not all will admit to it. We’re always waiting to be revealed as complete phonies. Yet without some measure of outrageous ego—a belief that you have something to say to the world—there’s no way you could justify writing. Writing is not for the weak. The weak ones give up easily, sometimes with the first rejection.

• Professionalism vs. Eccentricity. The writers who are business-savvy and have a flair for marketing & promotion almost always do well. Yet the writers we tend to fall in love with, and the ones we remember, can be the craziest, the most rude, or the most outrageous. Strong personalities sell, too.

• Extroversion vs. Introversion. Extroverts network better and find more people to help them. Introverts are naturally suited to writing and often notice all those wonderful details that extroverts miss. Horrible stereotyping here, but still.

No one really wants to read a heady book on these issues. People want the secrets to success and a positive spin. But the longer I’m in the business, the more slippery it all looks. I know what works for some, but it never works for all. Sometimes I wish I could sit down with each writer personally, and put together a specific plan of attack based on that writer’s talents and strengths.

But you know what? When I do that for some people, they ignore the advice anyway and do their own thing. Our innate (and learned) tendencies, inclinations, habits, and attitudes reign supreme.


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Posted in Writing Advice.
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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90 Comments on "The Dirty Secret Behind Writing Advice"

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jeff yeager

Jane – Honestly, this is the first truly insightful thing I've read about writing in quite some time. You should write that book. I'd buy it … and you know that's saying something.
-Jeff Yeager, AKA The Ultimate Cheapskate

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Lynne Spreen

I'm sensing existentialist leanings here. (You live alone, you die alone, and a lot of times, in the middle, you just have to go it alone.) I especially liked your observ. about sitting down with one writer and him/her ignoring your guidance anyway. I used to see that in my old job as personnel director (HR). Now I see it when I offer gentle suggestions in critique group. People ultimately have to find their own way. You can't get distracted from your OWN mission while trying to help.

Hallie Ephron

I want to buy that book when you write it. SO interesting, every question you pose…but the only one you don't give a clue to which way you lean is the first one. Can a writer succeed without talent? And how can you tell (if that someone has no talent)?

Canonbridge
Perhaps you could approach a publisher who doesn't take submissions from agents and doesn't have a slush pile. We would publish it in a heartbeat, and I know it would be well-received. To Hallie Ephron below: Yes, writers can succeed without talent. James Rollins is a prime example. I'm halfway through The Judas Strain. I cannot imagine where his editor or his two agents were hiding when that one went to press. It is an interesting plot that required a great deal of research, only to become complete cack through overdoses of passive voice and sentence fragments.
melodyjones

Thanks for this! I love the statements that the dilemmas never go away and that everyone has self-doubt. They provide a certain comfort for me as a writer just now coming into her own, perhaps dulling that ever-present self doubt just a bit.

christygail

I loved this piece Jane! I feel better knowing that some of the oddities that I have noticed in the industry aren't just in my imagination. I agree with pp- I would read that book!

Jan Rider Newman

I nodded after every sentence. You've expressed things I long felt but never heard anyone else say out loud.

Stroppy author
It's true – there is a good deal of luck involved, but you need to recognise the opportunities and grasp them. And you need talent. And – this is one people often come up with – it is useful to have contacts. I have contacts. But I have earned them through publishing books people like. So now I can break all the rules and still get published – but you can't fast forward to that position. We've all done the work along the way. And whether you are introvert or extrovert, whether you abide by rules or break them, whether… Read more »
eeleenlee

Everything in its place: you may be talented but you maybe lazy at the same time, you may have connections but fail to use them, you may have no connections

People who do their own thing can create their opportunities they seek

Margo Kelly

Thank you. I found comfort in your words.

Karen Rowe

Jane, have you had a chance to read Malcolm Gladwell’s essay, “Late Bloomers?”
It talks specifically about Talent vs. Practice. A fascinating look at genius vs. creativity.

http://www.gladwell.com/2008/2008_10_20_a_lateb

cherley

I'm wondering if I have my 10000 hours in. I feel like it.

cherylbush

I think there's nothing abhorrent about having a Panglossian worldview–sometimes, that is the only thing that keeps me from going out of my mind, depressed about the world. Optimism is how any published writer got published–she maintained an optimistic outlook, even after 55,000 rejections.
My (tragically innate) Panglossian dreams kept me going throughout the home-buying process, the writing-a-book process, the my-son-is-sick-please-hospital-fix-him process, a divorce, and now it's helping me overcome the I-don't-have-a-job-and-I-might-lose-my-house panic.
In my opinion, Panglossian dreams + practical advice = life without crippling fear. 😉

Thanks for listening!

Cynthia Schuerr

I would love a book with all of this real and honest information. With something as important to me as my writing, I don't want to be sweet talked or spinned. I want honesty, so I can proceed with true advice that is going to move me along in my writing career, not hold me back.
Please, write that book:-)

James Killick
Wonderfully perceptive post – I too digest a huge amount of books on writing, my hope is, as you suggest, that I'll subsume all the lessons learned by other writers, until eventually I'll be fluent enough to be free of them and start to push my own boundaries, but there is a sneaking fear that I'm losing my own unique voice amongst it all – still, I'm starting to find myself being very critical/sceptical of some writing books – so hopefully not. I think you draw the lines between talent/learning wonderfully well – I think it's seductive to believe that… Read more »
Jevon Bolden

This is so good, Jane! I see these contradictions on a regular basis dealing with authors and potential authors who submit their work to us. It's really hard to communicate these contradictions to an aspiring author or writer without feeling like you're crushing their hopes. But it is what it is. I mostly just tell them not to give up and to be flexible with their expectations. Thank you for putting this into words.

cherylbush

Wow. He broke out the dictionary of $10 words to disparage Writer's Digest, which is a little sad.
I subscribe to Writer's Digest, and I love it. I have found it to be helpful without over-inflating my expectations. Anyone with a lick of sense understands that getting published is hard. Figuring out how to write well is hard. Not everyone can be a great writer, but many can be very good writers. They deserve to be able to find inspiration and encouragement.

Sarah Aiglen

Maybe it's just me, but I'd welcome a book like the one you are proposing – one that serves up your thoughtful observations straight. It would be – I think the right word is – “bracing.” You are right, however – I fear the market might be small. “Pump me up” books about this difficult profession are probably the preferred variety.

Daniel Lynch
I would love a book about the deeper issues and aspects of the writing life. (But I'm not saying there's an untapped market.) I loved everything here but the defeatest note at the end. The thing about giving advice is that you don't often get to see it take affect (or if it does). It may be years before the person on the other end can see how a piece of wisdom applies to their particular work. All you can do is make the offering in good faith. I guess giving advice can be a lot like casting stones in… Read more »
David_N_Wilson
The truth as it has always seemed to me is that, in the end, you can write, or you can't. Those who can write read writing advice, trim out things that they recognize, or that they see something in that they can use to better their style or their craft. Those who can't write, even those who make it to some level of competency, but never beyond that, read writing advice looking for some holy grail that – if it exists – exists within the writer… I'd read that book, of course…though I suspect I'd find too much of myself… Read more »
David_N_Wilson
Oh, absolutely. I have a good friend who proves that early development comment … he seemed interested only in very juvenile writing and wasn't showing much progress. Still, I worked with him (as did my wife). He began to edit an online magazine, and I have to say…about four years later I read one of his stories and it was a different person. He is extremely creative and talented…just needed to grow up. Over time, what I find to be the biggest problem is that an over-abundance of too-positive feedback gives a false sense of having “arrived” and people quit… Read more »
jeannevb
Fantastic post, Jane. Like many others, I would absolutely love a book that was real, raw and honest. Here's something else you should add: a fiction writer should be required to go to therapy. I swear by it. If one can't discover (and face) their own flaws, wounds, insecurities and explore the path to overcoming them (which usually involves facing deep-rooted fears), they will never be able to do the same for their characters. If the writer won't grow, the character can't grow. Period. Yes, I've been in therapy for years… hence, character development is my favorite part of writing.… Read more »
jeannevb

woohoo! Twitter counts as therapy too 🙂

Benjamin

Jane, I can confirm all your points for the book you'd like to write but can't. All are so freaking true! You need equal parts talent and persistance, yet you also need luck, but for that luck you must be prepared, but introverted people (like me) won't make their own luck because they aren't extroverted, yet those introverts are confident and eccentric. whew.

Keith Snyder

I got here from your comment on Richard Bausch's Atlantic article.

Nice.

SHerdegen

You had me at Alain de Botton.

I'm glad I kept reading. Some good advice but better yet, good to know that professional writers and people in the publishing industry have the same uncertainties I do.

I've always felt there must be more there that people aren't sharing. They're giving me the blow-off answer and keeping the real good stuff in the back. I finally have the feeling I've gotten all there is to get.

Thanks for a peek behind the curtain.

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