Dont Let Anyone Tell You How to Write

Don’t Let Anybody Tell You How to Write (or 8 Tips for Learning Responsibly)

Don't Let Anyone Tell You How to WriteMy mom tells me I’m going to put myself out of business with that title.

But, seriously, I mean it. Don’t let anybody tell you how to write. Not me. Not Stephen King. Not Writer’s Digest. Not Aristotle.

This is actually a huge problem among writers. I know because I’ve spent my own fair share of time walking that dusty, crowded path marked with prominent neon billboards that flash assurances of The Right Way. It adjoins Shortcut to Success and is littered with historical tourist hot spots promising you’re about to walk in the very footsteps of such idols as Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, Zora Neale Hurston, Madeleine L’Engle, Dean Koontz, Margaret Atwood, and G.R.R. Martin.

If only you’ll just follow this one path, doing it exactly the way everybody else did it before you, then you’re sure to reach the pot of gold at the end of the journey.

And if you deviate? If you feel the call of your own creativity, your own individuality and originality? If you go wandering off-road?

Well, God help you. Everybody knows you’re doomed, because everybody knows you can’t write a good story and be a real writer unless you do it that one very specific right way. 

And the only way to to find the “right” way is to kneel at the feet of the greats (and sometimes not-so-greats) and let them tell you exactly how to do it.

Strangely enough, I find myself in the weird position where people actually look at me like I know what I’m doing and ask me to tell them how to do it.

So if you’re going to listen to anything I tell you about how to be an author, then listen to this one thing: don’t listen to me.

In Which I Take Back Everything I’ve Ever Said (Including That Last Sentence)

Okay, okay, so a little facetious fun aside, let’s talk seriously here.

What I’m really saying is this: There’s a huge difference between learning responsibly from other writers and letting them tell you (directly or indirectly) how to write.

We writers are a funny bunch. Actually, here’s a joke I just made up: If you take a human being, with all his or her crazy dichotomous conundrums and contradictions, and put him or her under a microscope, what do you a get?

A writer, of course.

(Ba-dump ching!)

(And, yeah, okay, so I won’t go out for stand-up anytime soon.)

Perhaps one of the greatest dichotomies of being a writer is that we start out as inherently freewheeling creative individuals. You have a story that beats in your breast. You have words in your mouth. You are an inventor, a philosopher, a lover, and a fighter—all rolled into one pulsing, passionately imaginative need to express yourself.

And yet, ironically, as we foray deeper and deeper into the actual craft of being a writer, most of us feel compelled to become conformists.

This is so for a couple of reasons:

1. Writing Is Complicated and Difficult

In the writing wilderness, it’s easy to get lost, scared, and overwhelmed. I venture that almost all writers—even outright geniuses—feel at some point that suffocating burden of not knowing how to say what they want to say. Scratch that, sometimes we don’t even know what it is we want to say.

Perhaps that’s the greatest irony of being a writer right there: our purpose on this earth is to express ourselves and yet—we can’t. Never entirely anyway.

We want someone to help us. We want to learn from the accrued wisdom of those who have gone before us. And this is relatively easy because…

2. Writing and Storytelling Follow Logical Patterns

For all that writing often feels like this mystical, muse-touched experience, it is actually an extremely sensible discipline. The untrained eye might look at an excellent story and believe it just happened—it just popped from the writer’s brain, fully formed and Athena-like. But the more you study the many techniques that come together to create a story—and indeed the patterns found across the spectrum of all successful stories—the more you realize writing well is something that can be learned.

What this means at its most basic level is that other successful writers or observant critics can tell you how to write. Others can tell you how to create story structure, character arcs, themes, beautiful prose, strong voices, and gripping suspense.

And if they know secrets you do not—secrets that are otherwise keeping you from writing better stories with less stress—then why in heaven’s name would you not let them tell you how to write?

Indeed, as far as I’m concerned, that’s all to the good. What’s not good is when we move from the admirable open-mindedness of gleaning information from other writers to the scared and stunted mindset of believing we must do what we are told—or else.

Structures Aren’t the Destination, But Rather the Vehicle

I talk a lot about the balance of logic and creativity in artistic pursuits. A couple weeks ago, I posted “6 Steps for Thinking Clearly” as a writer. I love logic. I love linearity. I love systems and structure. They just make everything so much easier. They clear the clutter, emphasize the meaning and patterns within what might otherwise be a chaotic dump of information, and streamline the hardest parts of life.

In short, logic in all its forms is that shortcut we talked about earlier. When we understand what’s going on—what road we’re on and where it’s headed—it often gives us enough of an overview to avoid unnecessary roadblocks, inconvenient detours, and pointlessly meandering scenic routes. We can immediately identify the best route to our end goal and get there in the fewest number of steps with the least amount of hassle.

This is why story theory—specifically that of structure—is so endlessly valuable to writers. It removes the guesswork about where we’re going or what’s blocking us, and allows us to surge ahead with confidence and support. This is also true when it comes to narrative principles such as show vs. tell, genre guidelines, and even marketing trends.

It’s just super-nice to have someone come along, take us by the hand, and show us the path that worked for them and for others.

That’s all great.

The problem is this: logical constructs only work as a means, not an end.

We impose rules and limits on creative ideas to help us better understand them, to better define their edges. Stories are so much more than their structures, just as the writing life is so much more than its “rules.”

What this means is that however many tools your fellow writers may be able to lend you, they cannot and should not dictate what you build or how you build it.

8 Ways to Learn Responsibly

Learning responsibly how to write is not the same as being told how to write. The former is dynamic, evolving, and life-affirming; the latter is, bluntly, brainwashing. The former enables curious artists who push their own boundaries as well as those of the art form; the latter churns out automatons who lack the motivation and courage to pursue either individuality or originality.

As intuitive as this all may be, it still gets confusing. “Follow the rules, but don’t follow the rules!” It’s enough to make a writer dizzy.

I’ve realized lately that even more than becoming a good writer, I want to become a good student. The one, I believe, leads inevitably to the other.

Whereas the emphasis on being a good writer (or good whatever) sometimes indicates definitive ideas of success or failure, the emphasis on being a good student is different. When you focus on being a student, you accept the inherent realization that there is no specified destination. There is no “making it.” There is only the journey. And that means you have space in which to harmonize the dance between “the way to do it” and an infinite number of alternatives.

Here are some guidelines:

1. Learn the “Rules”

Whenever a writer goes off on a diatribe about non-conformism (like this one), it’s hard to avoid sounding a little anti-establishment. But as I’ve said before, this isn’t a total sum game. This isn’t a question of being for or against the principles of the craft. Writing is a craft. It is a discipline. It follows established patterns and principles. Accomplished authors understand, accept, and love the patterns of story.

2. Respect the Art (More Than the Artist)

Ever noticed how many writers—especially the super-successful ones—often offer conflicting bits of advice?

In many instances, this is because writers themselves don’t fully and consciously understand their craft. Sometimes, this is especially true when it comes to their own stories or processes.

Does this mean you shouldn’t listen to them? Not at all. But it does mean that sometimes the greater truths will come not from the authors’ mouths but from their pens. Instead of looking to other authors for the “secret” to great storytelling, look to the great stories to see if you can figure out the secret.

3. Take Nothing for Granted

By all means listen to what other writers are saying. Piggybacking on the understanding and experience of other people is one of the most exciting blessings of life. But (and this is may be the most important but in the whole article) don’t ever take anything for granted. Just because Stephen King says it doesn’t automatically mean it’s true. Taking the words and ideas of other writers as gospel is a sure sign you’re shutting down your own ability to think, not just logically, but creatively.

4. All Information is Good, No Information is Final

Information is information. It always tell us something. Even when a piece of information is categorically wrong, it’s still telling us something. The mark of a student is an open mind. And the essence of an open mind is the ability to hold information loosely—forming opinions on it but being willing to adjust those opinions as new information filters into the picture.

5. Hone Your Powers of Observation

We often think of learning responsibly as sitting with a book and ingesting facts. This is true, of course. But this is perhaps the more stagnant half of learning, since in these instances, we are essentially being told what to think.

Balance this ingestion of information against your own powers of observation. Stand back and look at the big picture.

  • Look at the patterns you see in the books you’ve read.
  • Look for the things that ring true over and over in the advice you read, versus the things that ring false.
  • Look for the places where the advice of your favorite authors is exemplified in their own writing—and where it is contradicted.

When someone tells you the sky is blue, make sure you go outside and look.

6. Cultivate Self-Awareness and Self-Honesty

While logic may not come as naturally as creativity, it is actually much easier to learn, thanks to its linear nature. Creativity, on the other hand, is easy to take for granted.

An idea pops into your head and—pow! you’re creative! Nothing more to it.

But that’s not entirely true.

Disciplined creativity is not random and is often not first-blush. Rather, it is a by-product of perhaps the greatest discipline of all—the ability to be aware of one’s self and what one finds there. Ask yourself:

  • What is it you want to create?
  • What is it you want to discover?
  • What is it you believe about the world?
  • What is it you believe about stories?
  • What is it you don’t believe?

The answers to all these questions, and more, are the driving force behind true originality.

7. Don’t Be Afraid of Having Your Own Opinions, But Don’t Be Afraid of Letting Them Go

The “rules” of writing are long-established and well-respected—to the point they can often seem too intimidating to question.

But never be afraid of having your own opinions. You think story structure is garbage? Good for you!

But never take your opinions (or, more specifically, your own understanding of your opinions) for gospel, anymore than you do another writer’s opinions. It’s hard to master anything if your ego keeps getting in the way—whether through self-negation or self-glorification.

Hold yourself most loosely of all.

8. View the Mastery of Writing (and Life) as Long-Term Projects

Fierce on the Page Sage CohenThere are many practical reasons why you shouldn’t let others tell you how to write. Perhaps the greatest of all is this: writing is a ultimately a discovery of one’s self. And nobody can tell you how to do that. As Sage Cohen writes in Fierce on the Page:

Writing and life are long-term projects. The destinations can be ambiguous and hard to reach.

She also says:

We don’t live in our lives but in the stories we tell about our lives.

Learn to tell your stories with honesty, integrity, and a never-ending sense of creativity and curiosity. There are no greater gifts a writer brings to the world than these.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think is the most challenging part of learning responsibly? The most rewarding part? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Siegmar says:

    I second that.

    In my opinion you should let the rules of the craft tell you WHAT to do in order to write a good novel.
    HOW you do this, is your or will evolve to be your individual style.
    Whereas I don’t know whether that journey will ever end.
    Maybe it shouldn’t.

  2. Where is the like button for when you don’t have anything helpful to say but still really loved the post? 😛

  3. Dr. Lyn Alexander says:

    One little detail I miss in this excellent post – and this is advice I offer my three writers.
    Imagine that you’re watching a movie. Then just write your story down the way you would tell it to a friend over a lo-o-ong cup of coffee.
    Almost guaranteed to write in YOUR voice, and nobody else’s.

  4. Good article…Stories are linear in nature…but are best told by an abstract person.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Which is, I think, why so many intuitive types are attracted to storytelling.

  5. Michael Saltar says:

    That’s rich. Really good stuff! Thank you, Katie!

  6. So, um, does this mean good-bye? … My abandonment issues are flaring up!

  7. Josh Liam says:

    Loved this article so much!

    I’ve been taking in so much writing advice lately that when advice from different people conflicts I’m not sure what to do, it can become stifling. However, after reading this I feel more empowered to take some from each person rather than letting anyone’s advice dominate my process.

    I also really liked the idea of being a student and focusing on the journey rather than the destination. Thank you for posting this and I’m glad I discovered your insights!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, we can learn a little something from everyone–but never everything from just one someone.

      • Sheila LyonHall says:

        Katie, I appreciate you making the point above. It really set me straight. I recently joined Jerry Jenkins’ Writers Guild and am delighted to learn and be challenged as a writer by him. When I saw his two video interviews with you, I immediately wanted to sprint over to your site, get on your email list, and learn from you as well. A part of me secretly wondered if I was being disloyal to Jerry or behaving like a “greedy girl” looking for more candy to stuff in her already bulging pockets. Turns out, I’m neither of these. I’m simply eager to learn from the Best!

  8. Sarah J. says:

    I’ve heard other authors talk about how they aren’t so much writing ‘rules’ but writing ‘tools’. You use different tools at different times and they should be used to fix a creative work that isn’t jiving, rather than a checklist to be followed. I really like that perspective. 🙂 But I’m far more of a discovery writer and find the bunny trails inspiring and moments of learning, even if they get cut. Thanks for the reminder to take all advice with a grain of salt.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Most advice is at least rooted in some truth. What’s important isn’t so much taking it with a grain of salt as it is realizing that the way the advisor is conveying that truth may not be entirely correct in itself.

  9. Thank you. I have spent several years trying to hone my craft, and you just blew my mind with this article. I now feel that I can finally start writing. I just need to make the first step, and that’s stop researching how to write and just write.

  10. I loved this posting. It contradicts and confirms others in which you’ve given advice. But it does hit the nail on the head by letting me know that all advice regarding what successful writer/author/teacher it comes from is not the Bible of writing. I have read your books on structure, outlining, etc. I’ve enjoyed and learned from all. However, I do admit there are times when many of your advices have been counterproductive and made me think negatively about how and what I’m writing–a novel I’ve been working on for five years and which frequently tends to lean toward reading more like a memoir than I wish it to because it is inspired by personal experiences and true events: Something a famous author said never to consider doing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Something I’ve been realizing lately is that my process is highly optimized for *my* personality type. It’s not a process that is right for all authors. I’m mulling on doing a series about the different Myers-Briggs types and how the writing process can be optimized differently for each.

      • Patrick Macy says:

        That sounds like a very interesting idea.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Thanks! It’ll take some research. I’d like to interview a writer of every type.

      • Cliff Farris says:

        Personality is a major part as well as accumulated life experiences that bear on personality. I am a new fiction writer after a lifetime of non-fiction engineering around the world with hugely diverse people, cultures, times, prejudices, and just plain people.

        The problem is too much material and molding a few pieces into a story. It is not a documentary, but that tendency is difficult to fight. I am working on it.

        Your melding with Meyers-Briggs would being tremendous understanding. I will watch for it, first to understand myself better.

        On another topic, what are your suggestions on the design, use, and effectiveness of a web site?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          It’s important for writers to have websites, preferably active ones with blogs. As for design, there are many, many options. I hired a professional team, but it’s relatively easy to find good free templates you can DIY.

  11. Chris Bailey says:

    This post is so encouraging! I’m in the middle (or maybe just beginning) a more-complex-than-expected revision. The hardest part has been *listening.* “Let the character speak for himself!” stage whispers some part of my brain. “But I already wrote it that way, and it’s not bad writing. All it needs is a little tightening,” I argue. “You’re not supposed to be in charge. The character is.” We go round and round like that, my brains and I, and before we turn to ghee, we hope to find the true story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Maybe this is one of those bits of advice you’d be better of ignoring :p , but I have to say I’ve never found the idea of “the character is in charge” to be helpful. What that really means is that your subconscious is in charge–and that’s good–but putting the emphasis there means you have the opportunity to raise your subconscious creativity into a consciousness you can better control. Either way, there is no “character.” There is only you: your conscious and your subconscious, your logic and your creativity. You *are* in control of your story.

  12. I love this post so much! 🙂 #6 is especially relevant to me in my work with other writers. The more we can truly understand our own personal story, the easier it is to powerfully connect with our readers. I’ll be passing this along to my peeps. Thanks so much for all you do, K.M.

  13. While some of Katie’s advice may not work for you, it is all solid and spot on. She gives us for free much of what you get in the University of Oklahoma professional writing program. If you want a bachelor’s level education in pro writing, just study all of her stuff.

  14. Thanks for a very timely post. I was feeling the things you mention all this week. I’m using a sophisticated online program to analyze my writing. I felt if I took the advice too much to heart I’d become the author that wrote the rules the program uses. I’ve resolved to ignore it’s advice when there’s a good reason. I read something that keeps coming back to me:

    Teacher: “That’s done poorly.”
    Student: “Ernest Hemingway doesn’t do it that way.”
    Teacher: “You’re not Ernest Hemingway.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Think maybe Hemingway had a dialogue with a teacher that went like this?

      Teacher: “That’s done poorly.”
      Hemingway: “Marcel Proust doesn’t do it that way.”
      Teacher: “You’re not Marcel Proust.”

      :p

  15. Dominique Blessing says:

    Love this. We get so caught up in the, “shoulds” that we lose sight of the “coulds”. True Story. I was in high school when word processors became available to the public (yes, I’m that old). I expressed my longing for one, and a peer (which explains her level of experience) imperiously declared that those encouraged ‘sloppy writing’. For 30 years I let that stupid comment guide me into obsessing over every word and punctuation mark. Good thing I’ve evolved .🙃

  16. Melissa Fallo says:

    Thanks for this post! I am writing my first novel, so I availed myself of lots of writing advice via books and the internet. Most of the advice is helpful, but lots of it is contradictory, or techniques that don’t feel like they will work for me. I am officially giving myself permission to choose. 🙂

  17. It’s starting to sink in, I think what you are saying is “learn to ride a bike, then do the wild trick stuff later” Close?

  18. An excellent reminder for all writers!

    My grandfather used to tell me to respectfully listen to the advice and opinions of others, but don’t make any decisions based on advice offered by someone who doesn’t have to live with the result.

    I think this applies to many aspects of writing as well. Advice can be wonderful, but it can be equally stifling and discouraging and with so many blogs/articles/guides out there, it is hard to know what to use and what to discard. In the end, I think of my story first and try to find advice that makes sense to what I’m trying to do instead of gathering the advice and then trying to build a story using it all.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Someone else recently told me something along those lines: “Don’t accept advice from anyone whose life you wouldn’t want”–or, in this particular, someone whose writing you wouldn’t want to call your own.

  19. The problem with examining how successful writers work is a thing called selection bias. You hear the stories of those who succeed, but not how many fail. The successful writer tells you what kind of coffee he drinks, what kind of pen nibs to use, and what he does to write his masterpieces. No one tells the stories of those who do the exact same things, but never succeed. Thus there’s nothing other than common sense to tell you which of Mr. Success’ practices might be useful. It’s possible he’s successful in spite of his practices, not because of them.

  20. Thanks for the advice.

    Like in the Pirates of the Carribean when Captain Barbossa of the Black Pearl said, “the code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

    I think you need to read 50 to 100 books on writing and then decide what works for you. The moment you say, this is the way to write a book, then you have stopped learning. Five years from now you’ll look at what you wrote and say, “who wrote this rubbish,” because you’ll know more and have practiced the craft more.

    Suggestion, practice the craft, get feedback, then practice some more and repeat. If you like what someone tells you about writing then practice and see how it feels to you. When I’m in my writing group we do a fifteen minute warm-up each session and I like to practice a new technique I’ve learned and see what the other members think. Does it get the result I’m looking for? Practice with no danger of judgment.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally. There was a point in my writing education where I began looking around and thinking, “This is it. I’ve totally figured it out.” A few months later, boom, I started figuring out the theory of character arcs, perhaps the biggest breakthrough I’ve had to date.

  21. Marilyn Carvin says:

    The most challenging part of learning responsibility? Fear of being wrong and not knowing how to return to that original creative push if it does’t work.
    Most rewarding? Seeing that what I’ve produced is what I wanted — something wonderful, whether I’ve followed advice or not. If I can use a “rule” to change something boring to something exciting, or “break a rule” to do it, following what I know to be true in that instance, knowing that I’ve learned how to produce the desired effect, that’s most rewarding.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ego aside, one of the hardest parts of “being wrong” for me is the cost of “wasted” time and energy. This is actually one of the reasons I’m so committed to an in-depth outlining process. It gives me a playground in which to experiment and be wildly creative–while still protecting me from wasting energy and time on dead-end streets when it comes to the actual first draft.

  22. I pantsed my first draft of my first novel with very little knowledge of the craft. I took a break and read and signed up for various writing blogs, including this one. I followed the advice I understood and did my second and subsequent drafts.
    With each draft I better understand the advice and implement it, if I think it’s applicable.
    When my betas and critique partner don’t like something I google why it’s a problem. In my humble opinion obtaining timely advice is the key otherwise all the advice is confusing and overwhelming.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally. I was doing things and making changes in early books that I only really began to understand and integrate in later years.

  23. Thank you for this. #2 rings very true for me. I was reading how-to books and becoming completely disillusioned, out of touch with my own story and creative process. My first chapter had all the elements on everyone’s checklist. Yet it did not feel quite right to me. So now I am going through a stack of my favorite writers’ books, reading first chapters. I’m already starting to get ideas, nudges in new directions. I think I needed permission!

  24. Jim Porter, Sr says:

    I cut my writing teeth in that era before anyone knew anything about story structure. (I mean it. I took an entire course in screenwriting from a guy who was a first-tier Hollywood television and screenwriter and a best-selling novelist. I–we–learned absolutely nothing about story structure from him. Somehow, I learned from my professor, that those earlier Hollywood writers had learned their craft without really knowing there were consistent things in story structure and story-telling. About four years after I took his class, Syd Field came out with his book, Screenplay. In that book is the sentence that stands out. I don’t remember it word-for-word, but what he says is, “I was writing and learning out in the Hollywood bungalows of a major Hollywood studio, and the guy I was learning from told me, ‘something happens about page sixty’.” That was when he first discovered the midpoint. The major Hollywood talent who was teaching him didn’t even know what we call it today. After that, all the other infinite supply of novel and screenplay writing books, courses, and classes have come forth in torrent. We benefit from that–but it sure was tough before that.

    The other thing I struggled with for years was a concept foisted on us in our college writing classes. “Learn to write the short story, and the novel will follow naturally.” That’s a lot like telling someone, “Learn to drive the Volkswagens and flying the 747s will follow naturally.” Not true. You’ve got to be taught, and/or you’ve got to learn the novel structure. There are some similarities between the structures of both types of story, but there’s a world-class difference between the two.

    It is why I am grateful for those who dedicate their time and their lives to help us learn to be better writers.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Something I’m frequently asked is whether or not short stories are a good entry point for writing novels. The prose techniques are largely the same, so shorts are good practice for that. But the actual bones of the art forms are so completely different.

  25. Megan Brummer says:

    I love this! I like to think the craft of writing is similar to the discipline of music. An accomplished musician studies classical “rules” for years until she masters them. During hours and hours of practice, she’ll refer to music theory manuals and chord charts and sheet music until she understands what all of it means. Then when it comes time to compose her own music, she can set all of that aside and compose music. It may follow the rules to a T and be a breath-taking work of classical genius, or she could break almost all the rules–understanding WHY the rules need to be broken to create a certain effect–and create the next avant-garde jazz movement.

    Story theory and structure are so important, and writers should learn the principles, how they work, and why. They should practice, practice, practice until they’ve mastered the concepts. And then they should set all of that aside, trust their practiced instincts, and CREATE!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m not a musician, but I’ve always thought this analogy made a ton of sense.

  26. LeVar Holmes says:

    Thank you so much for writing this and the post before this (the one on how being judgemental can stifle creativity). I’ve been struggling so much with wanting to write all my life. There is so much advice out there from authors and critics and people who just want to see the stories they want. Because of that I always get a massive case of self doubt, curl up into a ball, and stifle that creative instinct out of a belief that no one wants what I have to offer.

    But I’m now beginning to understand that I need to reevaluate and filter which advice I take personally. I need to learn to trust myself more and find the advice that allows me to still be creative and tell my own story. Your article has me off to a good start, so thanks again.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I was just thinking earlier today, not in any connection to this post, that it’s incredibly sad when people feel like they can’t trust themselves. We’ve been given the guidance systems of logic and feeling. We have to learn to hone and use them well. But we must use them if we’re to achieve our full potential.

  27. Thank you for thinking of this. Thank you for taking the time to write it. Thank for sharing the idea with the world 🙂

  28. Bruce P. says:

    Thanks for this wonderful article. I’ve been reading constantly over the past year to increase my understanding of the craft of writing, but starting to feel overwhelmed. This article has helped clear away the cobwebs in my mind!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Something I’ve been realizing about myself is that I’m an information hog. I suck it in all the time. But… I don’t always do something with it. The cycle needs to complete itself. Information always needs to bear fruit, otherwise it’s not only useless but begins to create stagnation problems.

  29. Hey! You’re not the boss of me! ;->

    Another enjoyable, affirming and insightful article, KM!
    Thank you for taking the time to spell that out!

    KC

  30. M.L. Bull says:

    Great post! I think the most challenging part of learning as a writer is being able to balance out one’s own writing style and techniques with that suggested by other writers. There are so many writing tips and references books out there, and sometimes an individual writer can become too lenient on them rather than just figuring out one’s own method that works for him or her. Like you said, we writers would like to be successful, and can feel like we have do to things a certain way to succeed.

    Many new aspiring writers are prone to attempt to “follow the dotted line” of other writers. During my earlier times of writing, I had looked for an easier way to plot out my style of stories, and nothing I tried seemed to work. So what I’ve done was take bits and pieces of things I’ve learned through my own research and applied some of my own organization tactics, and it has helped a lot rather copying the methods of other writers exactly the way they do.

    The most rewarding part, I’d say is being able to analyze other writers’ stories and see the different creative ways in which they describe and tell them.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, once you get to the point where you can read a story and understand what the author did to make it work–that’s awesome!

  31. Ian Kerby says:

    Hi 🙂 Two things. Number one I’m struggling with the feeling that everything I write has been done before. Advice? Number two I teach EFL kids in a school in Guangzhou, China. Can I use your articles in class to help them overcome their fear of writing in another language? (Full credit to you given to them of course!)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There’s nothing new under the sun. Every idea is bound to have something in common with an already existing story. In all honesty, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. If you love your story, write it the way you love it.

      My fantasy Dreamlander is based on the idea of a parallel dream world–not a new idea at all. But it’s my version of the idea that makes it unique. Right now, I’m about to publish a superhero story. Hardly anything hasn’t been done in that genre, but there’s always room for an author’s personal (and therefore unique) spin. If you’re passionate about your idea, that’s the first and most important ingredient.

      You might find this post helpful: The 4 Tweaks to Writing Truly Original Stories and Characters.

      And, yes, please feel free to share with your students!

  32. Don King says:

    “Look to the great stories…” While I understood ALL of this podcast/writers’ advice, these five words rang so true. Therein lies the evidence these writers follow or bend the rules with a purpose, not just to rock the literary boat. For instance, if a successful writer tells you to NEVER write in two different verb tenses, yet several of their most famous novels/stories had that structure, a writer may want to try it. There are exceptions to ALL the writing rules, but a writer needs to know WHY he or she is breaking them. Writing is NOT math. “But Mr. So-and So, I didn’t do the problem YOUR way but got the same answer.” Student smiles. “That’s great. Now show me you can do it using the method I showed you.” Sometimes writers have to stay “inside the box” before “outside the box” will be accepted. I think of Yancey’s The 5th Wave series that breaks many of the trusted rules in each book, yet he’s earned the right to do so. Outside the box worked for him because he’s written inside the box and been successful first.
    Thanks for a unique take on this topic…putting your trusted writers’ help website on the line in the process. Glad you’re not going anywhere! You always make me think! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I found the book Nabokov’s Favorite Color Is Mauve, which analyzes word statistics and trends in major books, to be extremely interesting and insightful. One of the things it looked at was whether or not famous authors follow their own advice. For the most, it seems they do. However, one thing that was particularly interesting to me was that Elmore Leonard, of the famous “10 Rules for Good Writing,” did *not* follow his own rules in earlier books, but only developed the rules and started applying them as his career progressed.

  33. Michael says:

    I think its a question of learning how to apply the advice and principles/tools etc to each of our individual situations/stories. I can read a book on marriage advice but I’ve got to figure out how to apply and adjust the advice to my own unique and individual relationship with my wife.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally. Life is a shared experience, and we can all learn from each other. But hearing good advice from someone else and making it work for our particular situations are two completely different things.

  34. Ralph Lawrence says:

    Unusual but razor sharp concept. My problem stems from my past life writing speeches and press releases for a 10 term Congressperson. I wrote what was purported to be “what the voter wanted to hear.” Now it’s tough transitioning to novel writing — my editor says I cant shake that writing memory (bull—-) that politicians produce. Two novels going nowhere, she says could be miles better if I conform to a plausible structure. I see her point but its like asking my left hand to be as good as my right…

    anyway thanks again for another light at the end of the tunnel.
    regards Ralph

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’d say the two are totally different art forms. We *all* have to learn how to write novels well by shaking our prior bad habits. Definitely learnable–and re-learnable.

  35. Wise words as always. I like to tell people to follow their heart through the first draft and follow their head when editing. Also, the reason I pay close attention to passive voice is that overuse seems to suggest that I lack confidence. When rules undermine a writer’s confidence that often leads to bigger problems than following the rules can fix.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! I like that a lot. It fits right in with the idea of tapping creativity in writing and logic in editing.

  36. “For all that writing often feels like this mystical, muse-touched experience, it is actually an extremely sensible discipline.”

    That’s exactly what Steven Pressfield says in his excellent book “The War Of Art,” so you’re in great company there.

    “The untrained eye might look at an excellent story and believe it just happened—it just popped from the writer’s brain, fully formed and Athena-like.”

    I suppose I have a somewhat trained eye now because I often marvel at how my favorite novelists pulled off their stories, knowing that every detail, twist and fantastic turn of phrase came from *their* mind. When the credits roll on a movie there are hundreds of names, a small army of people who made that film happen, but a book comes entirely from the mind of a single person. That’s an impressive achievement in itself.

    I think all of us have been electrified by a favorite novelist at some point and thought “I want to be THAT writer!” The same way we might hear a band’s vocalist and think “I wish I had that person’s voice!” And if that writer is in the business of dispensing writing tips, it’s tempting to take that advice as gospel.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s important for each of us to remember we are all individuals. We will never be that other person. We can only be the best version of ourselves. That’s what we must learn how to optimize.

  37. Great article! Follow the general rules/guidelines but don’t stiffle your creativity.

  38. I really enjoyed this blog post and all the comments. I tend to spend so much time reading “how to” books about writing that I never get around to writing! At some point I need to just trust myself and finish writing that novel I started years ago.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There you go! 🙂 Sounds like you have a wealth of information to now put to use.

  39. Amen. Amen. Amen. AMEN!!!

    Studying and learning the craft should lead to freedom and individuality, not conformity.

    Little chicks follow their mama, but once they’ve gained their feathers, they shouldn’t still be following mama. They might be learning new tricks of flight, but they should still be flying their own path.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes. I don’t want to write like Stephen King or Margaret Atwood or Charles Dickens. I admire them and want to learn from them, but only so I can write the way *I* want to write.

  40. mike telesca says:

    Thank you! I’ve been trying to open my mind to new ways and have thrown myself into the deep end of of the podcast pool hoping to adopt some of the “secrets” of successful authors In doing so, I’ve re-discovered the lesson I learned long ago in school: Not everybody learns the same way.

    While I’ve picked up a lot of pearls of wisdom in my quest, your advice in this podcast goes a long way in helping me feel more confident in continuing. Thanks!

    fd

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “Not everyone learns the same way” is an incredibly important insight. I’m mulling on a series I’m going to do about the different learning styles and processes.

  41. I enjoyed reading this, it was helpful.

  42. Well said, K.M.!
    Writing is a craft worth learning and practicing.
    A big difference between amateurs and professionals is the professional learn responsibly.
    Amazing!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Learning to learn responsibly is a skill that will always hold us in good stead, in every area of life.

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