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 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. 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.

  2. 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.

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

  4. 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.

  5. 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

  6. 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!

  7. 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!

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. “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.

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

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. I enjoyed reading this, it was helpful.

  18. 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.

  19. I attempted to write months ago and although the mind is active, concentration is
    not good. Bit of a battle.

  20. Robintvale says:

    I could just hug you! <3 I've been frustrated with this for a couple of years now, i sill crave feedback on occasion, but now it's like there's a wall between myself and other writers; with understanding everything they taught me in the beginning (and what I learned in your blog an others.) and knowing that the "you can't do that it's WRONG" is right for the story and how the characters are. If a sentence needs a semicolon, i'm going to use it, if a few incomplete sentences add a punch then them too, if my main pov likes to say blondy then she will.

    I wish they could let go of the supposed rules and see past that to the over all story. It makes me feel alone. :9 That lifted a bit with this blog post.

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