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Why Writers Should Trust Their Story Instinct

story instinctHave you ever found yourself wishing for a writing mentor—someone with the savvy, experience, generosity, and overall story instinct to reach down and guide you in your own writing journey? Well, today’s your lucky day! I’m about to introduce you to the wisest writing mentor you’re ever likely to meet.


Yep, you read right. It’s you!

Your Story Instinct Is Powerful (and Probably Accurate)

Now, stop right there with the sputtered protestations that you don’t know enough, that you haven’t finished enough stories, that you don’t have enough experience to know good writing from bad. These disclaimers may be true, or they may not be. But they’re all beside the point.

The point is that every writer is his or her own best judge. Only you know what you’re trying to accomplish with a story. Only you know what your gut is telling you about a certain phrase or scene. Only you know what your artistic vision encompasses.

The advice of more experienced authors is wonderful because you can use it to polish our stories, but, in the end, the single most important thing you’ll ever gain from someone else’s advice is the ability to refine your own perceptions.

In an interview with Writer’s Digest (March/April 2010), novelist Elizabeth Berg said:

We are in such need of fresh voices, and I worry sometimes that emerging writers pay a little too much attention to what other people say. If I could say anything to aspiring writers, it’s to keep your own counsel, first and foremost. There’s nothing wrong with listening to what other people have to say…. [but] nothing matches the feeling you have when you get it right on the page, when you please yourself in that very intimate way—that’s always the best thing, no matter what happens.

Don’t Forget to Hone Your Story Instinct

What if your own advice stinks? What if your gut feeling is wrong?

Sometimes it will be wrong, no doubt about it. But your gut is smart. It’s right far more often than not. Because storytelling is an innate form of human communication, most people (even non-writers) have an instinctive sense of story. We just know what works and what doesn’t.

As a responsible writer, it’s your duty to bring your conscious brain up to speed with your unconscious by studying other writers (both their fiction and their writing how-to) to discover what jibes with your own creative vision and what doesn’t. In another Writer’s Digest interview (January 2011), thriller author Harlen Coben doesn’t mince words:

[I]f you don’t know if your stuff is working, really you’re in trouble, and nobody else is going to be able to help you. Yes, there are certain stages that you want to give it to a trusted friend and have them give you feedback, but not all the time. I am always my harshest critic. And I think you have to have that ability to see what you’re good at and what you’re bad at as a writer. Writing is one of the few activities where quantity will inevitably make quality. The more you write, the better you’re going to get at it.

Balance is always key. Embrace your unique artistic vision and forge ahead boldly. Listen to your gut, and trust your own advice. But keep a good-sized dose of humility in your back pocket, and always stay open to learning how to refine that inner mentor of yours.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you trust your story instinct? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Yes, I trust my own advice. I’ve had enough bad advice, mostly not sharing my vision or not the right aspect to work on today, that I learned I have to.

    Fortunately, I’m still in my million words of garbage stage. Sometimes my advice is, “Enjoy making this bit as good as it can be, even though it’s not the right scene (pacing or mood) for this part of the story.”

  2. It depends on the day. Usually I feel pretty good about my writing and my ability to judge it. Then there are days where events cast into doubt my ability to be objective about my writing – whether it’s a rejection or feedback from my CPs I don’t agree with, whatever. Need a few days to recalibrate, then I’m ok.

  3. @Cricket: Actually, that million words of garbage stage is one of the most fun parts of the writing journey. You’re free to experiment and just enjoy the ride!

    @Bluestocking: There’s a lot of truth to what you say. Sometimes life (or PMS!) can get in the way and cloud our judgment. Sometimes we need a little time to rock back into objectivity and un-cloud the purity of our gut feelings.

  4. You are so right. It’s the same as a lot of things in life. Anybody can advise an overweight person how to lose weight, anybody can advise someone with a drink problem or a relationship problem etc. But do we follow our own advice?

    If we did, more of us would lead perfect lives. I think we all know most of the answers to most of our own questions most of the time. But some need the affirmation of others to follow their own advice. Maybe it’s a self confidence thing.

  5. We must be the final judge of our own artistic creativity.

    That said, we must keep studying the Craft of storytelling such as structure, characterization, etc., (which are the What things you do to make a story acceptable).

    Criticism of the What (if informed) is usually at least looking at. Criticism (by others) of the How you do it (artistic creativity) should be ignored.

  6. “if you don’t know if your stuff is working, really you’re in trouble, and nobody else is going to be able to help you”

    This is true.

    Practice, read – trust your own voice, instincts.

    I trust my instincts. If I’m bored with a scene/chapter, then I know my readers will be doubly bored. If something doens’t feel/sound right, I no longer think “Oh, it’ll be okay” -out it goes. I’m not afraid to delete thousands of words – I trust and go with it and put my heart it in and above all I just write from truth and honesty and love, I guess.

  7. @Christopher: I think it’s definitely a self-confidence thing. Say you’ve only been writing for a year. You know you’re still a newb, and your common sense tells you that there’s no way your advice is more worth following than, say, Stephen King’s. But the truth is we *always* know, deep down, what’s best for our stories. Certainly, we know better than King who’s never read them!

    @Bruce: Agreed. Our guts are good for the big things (story arc, theme, etc.), but not always the little things. And, in fact, we can and should solidify our understanding of the big things by bringing our conscious and unconscious understandings into alignment.

    @Kathryn: Trusting ourselves is often a learning experience. Just as we learn to trust others after we’ve spent time with them and gained confidence in them, so we also have to learn that we’re *worth* trusting.

  8. I trust my own advice, but only when it’s bad it seems. In fact, I often give my work to friends when I’m the most burnt out so that they will tell me something good about it so I can make myself keep going.

  9. I’m learning to trust my own advice, but had I always done so, I’d still be thinking Stand in the Sun (my #3 novel) was great literature, and wondering why I still wasn’t published.

  10. @Anne: Learning to recognize what’s good in our writing is just as important as being able to recognize what needs work. Listen to your body. The way it reacts will almost always let you know when you’re onto something good.

    @Lorna: A large part of learning to trust our own advice is training ourselves to become experts in the craft. The more experience we have under our belts, the more likely we are to give ourselves the right advice.

  11. An interesting post. I didn’t trust myself when I first started writing my novel (three years ago), these past few months I realised I had listened to so many people I began to lose my voice.
    I stripped it down to the bare bones again, and gradually put ‘me’ back.

    I trust my beta readers, but stick to my guns now, if I feel something must stay true to my story.

  12. Trusting your own advice doesn’t mean you can’t also trust the advice of others. Indeed, sometimes others will have better advice. Trusting your own advice means not allowing what others think to strip your own personal vision for your writing.

  13. I definitely listen to my gut and go with what it tells me as I write, but I’m very open to constructive criticism. Allowing others to read my work at a writing class was daunting but so helpful because they helped me see my work from other perspectives.

  14. Writers *must* find that balance between unshakable confidence in their own artistic vision and a willingness to remain receptive to the informed and objective opinions of others.

  15. Great post. You really do have to trust your own instincts. I do in everything else, so why shouldn’t I with my writing. Thanks for the reminder. I’m still in the learning stage it feels like. I was just thinking I needed a mentor to help me do better or give me advice. I keep forgetting I have many unofficial mentors in the writers I meet in the blogosphere. Thanks for the post. Just what I needed to hear.

  16. Great point. No matter what field we pursue in a career or hobby, we’re ultimately responsible for the course we take. We can seek the advice of others, but in the end, *we* are the ones who have to make the final decisions. It’s a fact in all of life.

  17. I do trust my own advice. Mostly.

  18. Atta girl. And I’ve seen enough of your blog to know you’ve got some pretty mean instincts when it comes to writing.

  19. This is great advice, thanks for the reminder! When I hit the SUBMIT button I usually know that it may not have been the very best I could do, but I got rushed or lost my zeal for it. We know what is real and pure. It’s a good reminder to listen to ourselves first.

  20. It’s tempting to hit Submit before a project is truly ready. We’ve worked on it for a long time and, truth be told, we’re probably sick of it. But the objectivity of some time away from a project can revitalize our interest in it, help us see the flaws, and allow us to polish it *before* we send it off to an editor.

  21. I like this post so much – it reinforces the position I’ve come to over the last couple years.

    I’ve worked hard to improve my craft, analysed and changed the structure, and now I’m in final revisions for a novel I have worked on for four years. I’m getting a lot of joy from polishing it to a shine, and whatever response it gets from the big wide world, I am happy with my work.

    That said, I’m still hopeful that others will be, too!

  22. That’s definitely the right attitude, in my opinion. We need to find satisfaction in our work, first and foremost for ourselves. What the world thinks of it may determine whether or not it’s a bestseller, but it doesn’t need to affect what it means to us.

  23. I think our guts do tell us the truth. sometimes we just don’t see it first. When another writer points it out, and we go, ah, yeah he/she’s right, it just confirms our gut sense. If we don’t agree, we probably should get another opinon.

  24. Bringing our conscious brains into sync with our unconscious brains (gut feelings) is where it gets tricky, because, often, these two sides of our brains don’t even speak the same language. But the more we write, and the more we come to understand the reasons behind our gut feelings, the more seamlessly the two parts of our brain work together.

  25. Sometimes I hear conflicting advice, and that’s when I realize it’s really up to me to decide what’s best. I know my own advice isn’t always good, but I guess that’s true with any walk in life.

  26. We all have to make our own decisions, good or bad. And, personally, I would rather make a wrong decision than no decision at all.

  27. Sandy Westendorf says

    I agree with Bluestocking, I usually trust my own judgement but occasionally my “spoiler” as Nancy Lamb defines it; rears it’s ugly head. It shows up uninvited when I am fatigued. As well, when my editor sends my work back full of red ink LOL. So glad I found your site Kathryn – you’re such an inspiration and an excellent teacher.

  28. I’m glad you found me too! 🙂 Finding, understanding, and acknowledging our objectivity is an important of discovering how to give ourselves good advice. In the case of red-inked manuscripts from our editors, we’re usually not objective until we’ve had time to blow off some steam and regain a realistic mindset!

  29. another side of this is in the revision process and getting feedback. Often it’s good and questions are raised that need answers. But then sometimes I’ll get a critique I have to dismiss. It’s important to trust our instincts for our stories, too~

    Thanks, KM! :o) <3

  30. In striving to find the balance between trusting my instincts and remaining open to the objective input of others, my rule of thumb is that two people have to agree on a suggested change. One of those people, obviously, can be me. But even when I’m originally inclined to reject a suggestion, I’ll reconsider it if I hear the same thing from a second objective source.

  31. I’d just like to say that I think you’re 100% right. No-one can ever learn anything if they keep recycling the plethora of bad advice that has been handed down to every new wave of writers since before the Internet made it even easier to do so. I for one would like to see a lot more welcoming of new ways of thinking about writing.

  32. Maybe you’ll be the one to invent those new ways of thinking about it!

  33. I totally agree with this…I think your best critic is you because your nagging thoughts and uncertaintities are usually valid. Good stuff!

  34. Sometimes the trick is just translating what that nagging voice is trying to tell us.

  35. I like your spin on stuff! And I especially like this post as you made me feel so much smarter and a better writer, Thanks!

  36. ‘Cuz you *are* a smarter, better writer than you probably even realize! Thanks for stopping by, Terri.

  37. I’m learning to trust myself. Sometimes my inner critic has such a loud mouth that it’s tough. I’m learning though. Blogging has been a huge help. I’m able to get feedback (other than from family and friends). It’s helped to build my confidence.

  38. Just read a great quote about mastering the internal editor:

    “The most debilitating thing about writing is that the voice inside us, the voice we trust more than others, says, ‘You’re not good enough, you’re not smart enough, what you wrote yesterday really stinks.’ What aspiring writers should keep in mind is that we all hear that voice, and sometimes that voice lies to us.” – Randy Wayne White

  39. Wow. I sure needed to hear this.

    Thank you.

  40. Jessica Salmonson says

    I try hard to. Yesterday was good I had trouble with a paragraph and was trying to get the description right for the the foreshadowing, it took a few tries but I felt pleased when it was done. 🙂 It’s hard fighting the thoughts of “this is utter crap!” So it’s nice when something sets right.

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