How Can I Set Aside the Cacophany of Writing Advice and Just Write?

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From Jane Friedman:


I attend webinars and online conferences, to learn the craft of writing, though I was a poet in another life back when getting my BA. I was raising a child so hedged my bets by double majoring in developmental psychology and creative writing. Hedging my bets gave me less craft lessons.

Now, an empty nester with a lot of time on my hands, I’ve carefully added authors and writing coaches I follow. I used to follow anyone whom I thought could give me the best answers on writing/memoir. Now, though, my inbox is filled with newsletter advice I can’t possibly find time to read. I want to stick with the two and I know and trust: Lisa Cooper-Ellison and Jane Friedman.

Searching for the one author whose advice is the “key” is fruitless. Yet after a conference I still tend to follow a few speakers and their newsletters. Any advice on how to keep to a couple authors and editors I trust and stop the bouncing around between editor to editor and and settle into a chair and write?

—Elizabeth Undiluted

Dear Elizabeth Undiluted,

The great news here is that you already recognize what you need to do: Sit down and write. So why can’t you?

The answer lies in whatever underlying needs, fears/anxieties, and/or feelings of responsibility have been driving you to bounce around. And I must admit, as a long-time advice giver (who has no shortage of qualms about my position as one), I can be at fault in this predicament, along with my colleagues, at making people feel they need to stick around for my guidance.

Let’s cut to the chase: You can get by fine without it. Nothing bad will happen if you stop. Maybe you’ll take a little longer to figure out specific craft challenges. Or perhaps you won’t be as sharp on some business issues. On the other hand, you’re likely to have dramatically less anxiety that you’re doing things wrong, or that conditions in the market aren’t favorable for your work, or that you’re inadequate to the task of marketing and promoting. (A lot of inadequacy that writers feel is driven, IMHO, by advice givers.)

That’s the short answer, but here’s the longer one that explores specific reasons you might be avoiding the writing chair.

You have fear of missing out.

Speaking personally, I keep logging onto social media platforms I don’t care about and subscribing to countless newsletters because I feel like I’m going to miss out or become uninformed. That said, it’s literally my job to be informed about what everyone’s talking about in the writing and publishing community. But is it your job? Probably not.

It’s highly unlikely you’re going to miss out on a piece of valuable information or knowledge that would dramatically change your writing fortunes, which you seem to realize. It’s more likely, in fact, you’re going to come across harmful information from people who have no business giving you advice. Most important, a lot of the lessons to be learned about writing come from doing it, from the practice, from showing up. So that’s priority number-one. Everything else is secondary to supporting that effort.

That said, I think your strategy to focus on one or two people you trust is excellent. This gives you some reassurance that if there is something you probably ought to know about, one of these people is likely to bring it to your attention. Or you could ask them to point you in the right direction if a specific need or question arises. (I swear I would say this even if you hadn’t mentioned my name as one of your preferred sources! And thank you for that trust.)

The other thing I’d suggest is that the best advice and guidance still tends to come in either book form or class/workshop form, brought to you by experts you know and trust (or that have been recommended by the experts). This is not to discount the many wonderful newsletters, blogs (like this one!), social media accounts, podcasts, and so on that offer advice. But let’s be honest: Most of it is disposable. If it’s not bringing you joy, if it’s not something you actively look forward to (and especially if it’s something that feels anxiety producing or a burden), it’s time to let go of it.

You need more knowledge to tackle your writing challenges.

You mention that hedging your bets gave you less craft lessons, which implies you don’t feel as schooled or as advanced as you would like at this point in your writing life. I would dig deeper into this feeling, if it’s there. Is there something about your current writing project that you’re feeling ill-prepared to tackle? Are you feeling deficient in some area? Is there a weakness you wish you could eliminate?

One of the reasons writers avoid writing is that we don’t know next steps on a writing project. Maybe we’ve written ourselves into a corner or we don’t know where the story is headed and can’t figure out the answer. So when you sit down at your desk, you have no clue where to begin. Or you simply procrastinate to avoid the unpleasant feeling of being stuck.

If you can pinpoint what the writing problem is, then I’d look for books that might help you with a breakthrough. Or, if you have the resources, you could consider hiring a professional editor or coach to help you through the impasse. Alternatively, a class or workshop can help for less cost if you’re surrounded by both a great instructor and sharp students.

There are some writers I meet who simply fear messing up and try to gather as much advice as possible before they even begin. Unfortunately, the writing process is more or less defined by messing up and starting over. Writing is revising. Good writing advice can help you avoid the serious pitfalls, or bring clarity to a confusing process, but creative work of any kind is going to involve countless bad ideas. It’s important to work through the bad stuff to get to the good stuff. (And hopefully you’ve gained enough self-awareness to know when you’ve moved past the bad into the good.)

You want to be a good literary citizen—you owe it to these people.

Maybe you’re appreciative of the speakers, teacher, editors, and coaches you’ve learned from. You want to support them, so you subscribe to their newsletters and follow them on social and try to engage. It’s a way to be a good literary citizen, to see and be seen—all good things when you’re trying to make your way in the literary community.

But at some point, your writing has to come first. And you’ll outgrow some of the people you used to learn from. A lot of writing advice, by necessity, is for beginners. It tends to get less useful over time as you become more experienced. The people who give advice know this. No one will get offended if you silently drop away. (And if they do, I humbly suggest they have a lot to learn about the business of helping writers!)

Not writing is more enjoyable than writing.

Writing is hard work. I mean, yes, it can be enjoyable, but it’s the joy we take in doing challenging work. It requires mental focus. For memoirists, there’s often the additional challenge of emotional drain.

So it’s natural to look for other things to do instead, especially activities that are writing adjacent, like reading writing advice or gathering with other writers to talk shop or joke around.

We all need a break and we can’t be writing all the time. But if you develop a habit of avoiding the work, especially by reading writing advice or attending conferences and classes, ask yourself why. Then read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, if you haven’t already, to delve deeply into the psychological challenge of producing art, to recognize how we all pretty much do anything to avoid such work.

You’re trying to prepare now for future problems you don’t have.

Don’t focus on problems that exist downstream. Focus on the problem that you face now. The experts will be there when you need them.

Imagine that you haven’t read a piece of writing advice for five years. You haven’t subscribed to any newsletters. You have no clue what you’ve missed. But you wish you had their insight on some new challenge or the next step in your journey. Go to Google and search for your favorite expert’s name, plus keywords related to the problem you’re facing. Presto.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman