My Top 3 Pieces of Writing Advice
Having just recently released a prequel to my 2010 debut memoir in Amazon’s Kindle Store, I’ve been spending a lot of time reflecting on the writing process and my own style and techniques, which I will warn you are very unconventional.
Over the years, I’ve been given so many different pieces of writing advice going back as far as grade school. Admittedly, reaching the age of twenty-five hardly qualifies me as being seasoned or experienced, especially as a writer.
However, I have managed to make myself write a fair amount over the past seven years or so and at this point in time, I have made several of my own discoveries and managed to arrive at a few of my own conclusions about all the writing advice I’ve received so far.
So today, I’m setting out to share my list of the top three pieces of writing advice I have to offer anyone who writes anything at all. Please keep in mind that these are highly personal tidbits of my own and they are not going to work for everyone out there.
They won’t make sense for everyone and you won’t agree with all of them, or perhaps any of them. None of that matters, so don’t forget that. Trying to correct me here is impossible, as this is all very subjective stuff we’re discussing.
Stories Are Told, Not Shown
I started to keep a journal in 2005, when I was just barely eighteen years old. It was just a personal project and I wasn’t at all disciplined about it. I only wrote when I wanted to, which was oftentimes very infrequently. I kept telling myself it was okay if I didn’t write in it every day, or even every week. Something is better than nothing.
Fast forward five years, and I’m not really adding to he journal anymore. It’s basically gone into a dormant state, left untouched since it was first written.
Then something very unexpected happened that changed my life in many ways. I received an email from a man. He lived in the same state as I do and he claimed to be a published non-fiction author who I’d never heard of.
I looked his name up online and found out that he was legit. But why was he reaching out to contact me?
Well back when I was keeping the journal, I would post the occasional entries on my old blog that no longer exists today. He had stumbled upon the writing I posted there, and he believed I had a collective story that was worth publishing.
He even went as far as offering to help me lead the project and find a publisher for a small percentage of whatever deal we could land.
My first reaction was disbelief. Was this guy crazy? Could he even read?
Several emails later, he did admit to me that the writing needed what he called “a lot of work,” in terms of editing. That was absolutely true, especially if we hoped to find a publisher who might be interested in my story.
But that’s not what ended up happening. I did take his advice and send out a shitload of query letters to various agencies, only to get two requests for a sample and a long list of rejections.
Then, he told me about another possibility. He told me I could self-publish the book on Amazon to sell it for the Kindle device. I knew nothing about this or how it worked. He went on to point me in the right direction of some basic information and I was honestly intrigued.
Personally, I prefer to have full control over my writing and the content. I doubt I’m the type of person who would have taken it well if a publisher or editor wanted to make changes I didn’t agree with. So this Kindle stuff was sounding like a much better idea.
During one of my phone conversations with this author (he wishes to remain anonymous due to the subject matter of my writing) he offered me some writing advice that I have since come to disagree with, as a matter of personal preference.
He recommended that I buy a copy of this book, which he said contained a piece of writing advice that I needed to use in my own writing: “Show, don’t tell.“
Of course at first I figured I had better listen to this guy, as he probably knew much better than I did and had far more experience when it came to writing. I’m certainly not going to say that there is no value in this piece of advice, as I’m sure it has its place and is a rule worth following in many cases.
However, the way I have come to see things…they don’t call it storytelling for no reason. Stories are told, they are not shown.
I realized that my absolute favorite writing was written in a way that told me stuff, rather than trying to show it to me. I realize that there is a marked difference between the use of this in fiction and non-fiction. Maybe my preference is the result of favoring non-fiction and narrative style writing to fantasy or fiction novels.
Here is a great example of writing that I think is fucking awesome. This is one of my all time favorite blog posts from anywhere on the internet, and you’ll see it tells a very entertaining story without showing much (aside from the grotesque image, which you should be warned is NSFW).
There Are Absolutely No Fucking Rules
Lots of writers out there will strongly disagree with me for saying this, but I firmly stand my ground on this one.
What do I mean by this? Don’t there have to be at least some basic rules of writing to end up with something worth reading? In my own experience, no. Not really.
If you can put words together in a sequence that can at least be understood on some level by those who read them, then you can write. Very little else matters.
In my opinion, editing extremists and grammar gurus are way off base. Sure, editing does matter for some stuff like printed magazines or whatever the hell. But the level to which it is stressed to writers is a by-product of the snobbish attitude of many big name publishers.
For example, take this poem by e.e. cummings which is shown on the right.
As you can see, the man refuses to capitalize his I’s, adds dashes where they don’t really belong, uses periods at the ends of some lines but not others, for some inexplicable reason adds spaces on either side of his ellipses, uses commas erratically and perhaps too much and pretty much does whatever the fuck he wants to do here.
Some people are definitely going to argue that this is poetry and therefore, some special set of rules applies. Please! If Mr. Cummings can write poetry however the hell he wants with no regard whatsoever for well established rules of writing, then guess what?
You can write whatever you write however you want to write it. Period.
There is no wrong way to write whatever you’re setting out to write. If anyone tells you there is, don’t listen. Block them out. It’s good to listen to suggestions from others, but never listen when people start trying to tell you the “right” way to write. There simply isn’t one.
Your Writing Has an Audience, No Matter What
I don’t care what anyone says. The subjectivity of certain types of writing, such as poetry, illustrate this point quite well. What one reader sees as beautiful art, another discards and treats like pure garbage.
If I sent you on a mission to find a single author or writer who has no fans at all, you’d be hard pressed to find one. If you don’t believe me, go look for one. Can you find just one writer who no one has ever praised at least once somewhere?
My guess is probably not. The explanation is simple. Regardless of what you write or how you choose to write it, you DO have an audience and they WILL both read and appreciate your work. No exceptions.
If you go hunting for the writer with no fans, you’ll find that even those who were considered the greatest craftsmen of the pen in their time are both loved and hated, often close to equally.
This is getting long, so let’s wrap this up shall we?
I have proof that all of this advice can be true for some people. I have proof that they are true with my own writing. I know that the first item is true because I’m all about telling a story, and rarely do I “show” my readers anything…other than how to TELL a story, which is usually my own story.
I know the second item is true because of a couple horrifying facts that will probably make you faint. First, I have never even gone back to read my own journal in its entirety since I first wrote it. I didn’t have anyone else proofread or edit it either. I published it almost completely as-is.
That’s right – just the way it was written originally. And yes, it IS somewhat of a mess because of that, which I’m perfectly fine with. All I did before publishing it on Amazon was run a simple spell checker.
And finally, I know the third item is true because since I published my “book” or “journal,” or whatever you want to call it, I have been contacted more times than I can count by a reader who found some meaning in those unedited pages and felt compelled to reach out either on Facebook, through email or some other platform.
Some of these people are now close friends of mine, in fact. They have shared their feedback and showed their support for my work, just the way it was written. So go write, people.