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The Only Writing Advice You'll Ever Need | The Story Of My Writing So Far

In my attempt at a parody for an April Fool's post, I drafted up a list of ultimately unhelpful writing tips inspired by tips I've seen floating around the internet.

At the end of it, I promised I would be back with some advice that was actually helpful.

That brings us to today's post: the only writing advice you'll actually need.

Between countless books on the matter, blogs like this one, YouTube channels, podcasts, and social media, writing advice is only ever a click or two away, and it can be easy to get lost in the vast sea that is the internet.

I'll be the first to admit that the title of this post is a little clickbait-ish. In all honesty, there is plenty of good advice to be discovered out there. But there's also a fair bit of advice that isn't so great.

So how do you determine what advice to take and what to ignore? It's not always a straightforward answer.

That's the whole heart of this post. The key to assessing advice and finding yourself as a writer? Do what works best for you.

Sounds simple, right?

Believe it or not, this is something I've struggled with quite a bit in the past. I've only taken it to heart more recently. Why is that?

It's, in part, the result of feeling a need to get it "right" without allowing myself permission to figure out how to write my own stories my way. My writing journey has not only been one of learning but one of unlearning. In today's post, I wanted to take some time to look back on the lessons I had to let go of to find my true self as a writer and figure out what works best for me.

The Early Years, or Juvenilia

I've been writing novels since my freshman year of high school, when I was about thirteen years old. My school didn't offer any creative writing classes as electives or extracurriculars. The only fiction writing assignments I can recall are rewriting the ending of Of Mice and Men and writing a journal entry from the POV of a soldier in the trenches of WWII. It didn't seem like any of my peers were into writing and there weren't any creative writing clubs in my area that I knew of.

As a result, I was sort of floundering around in those first years, scribbling down my attempt at a novel on loose-leaf paper in a gradually-falling-apart binder without much of a clue as to what I was doing. Needless to say, that "manuscript" was a hot mess.

I started looking for a sense of direction after a few months. Several family members had given me books on writing your first novel and found a few websites with how-to guides for any question I could think of asking. I did my best to follow every bit of advice because, as far as I was concerned, these were the experts. Even if it was just a Tumblr post or something I found on Pinterest. Not exactly in the sense of the old saying that if it's on the internet, it must be true, but because these writers had more experience than this teenager balancing her first stab at writing a novel with homework and after-school choir practice.

My earliest drafts were also more academic in tone. Ever since the persuasive essay was introduced in third or fourth grade, we were told we needed to take ourselves out of our writing. To withhold our opinions and refrain from "I think" statements, instead only using cited and credible facts to prove our point. Because of all the rubrics and how often this was drilled into our heads through late elementary all the way through middle and high school, I understood this absence of self as the hallmark of good writing, and that carried over when I started to dabble in writing fiction in my free time.

As a narrator, I was more like a reporter standing on the sidelines relaying information to the reader about what my characters. It was flat. Stodgy. But because it lacked personality, as I was led to believe was "good" if not "exceptional" writing, I believed myself to be on the right track.

College Workshops And First Critiques

I didn't have the chance to take any fiction writing classes until college. I was going on year four of that very first first draft and still thought I had everything under control.

It wasn't long before I got a feel for how wrong I was.

College was the first time I was willing to let anyone read my writing, by way of workshops. In most cases, you'd email your short story assignment to the group or distribute printed copies the class before, and your peers would give their feedback during the next class.

As you might expect, the critiquing process wasn't the most fun for me. Going off of the internet's advice, I was holding off from getting any other eyes on my WIP because it wasn't ready. Most if not all of the conversation I saw was around beta readers who, as it was often suggested, were only brought in once you'd taken a story as far as you could on your own. Critique partners, who are more often than not writers themselves, were something I hadn't heard of at that time; in retrospect, had I been aware of CPs being a thing, I'm not sure how readily I would have enlisted one because A) the internet advised to not share your work until it was absolutely ready and B) I didn't have any close writing friends at the time. This second point may lead you to wonder why I didn't actively seek out writing friends online, like in forums or on Facebook. Truth be told, I grew up in the early days of the internet when D.A.R.E. scared us out of engaging with anyone online unless we knew the person directly IRL and to this day I struggle with engaging in comment sections on social media and putting my writing out there.

D.A.R.E. is also why I was petrified by even the notion of touching a computer mouse if I so much as heard thunder because they showed my class a video of a girl getting electrocuted (presumably to death) because she was using her family's computer when a powerline got struck by lightning. Just a fun lil tidbit I couldn't not throw in here...

For the most part, the feedback I received during these class workshops was positiveor was at least delivered kindly. My peers generally agreed that my dialogue was great and that I handled foreshadowing well. I was feeling good about that.

Then came the critique aspect of the workshop. Discission of flaws and weaker points.

I don't think I went into my session expecting that everyone would be praising every word on the page, but I wasn't expecting that much criticism.

The things pointed out were honestly worth mentioning. They were the weaker areas of this first draft and could be improved with one or two changes. And out of my desire to write the perfect story that would appeal to every reader out there, I made those changes.

I'll be the first to admit I'm a people-pleaser. It's the perfectionism melded with anxiety among other things, and that bled into my writing—especially in a time when my writing goals were geared towards appeasing academic rubrics for the sake of my GPA.

My objective, in hindsight, was not to write a good book, but a book that would be well-liked by everyone. Because as far as I understood it then, that was the definition of success as a writer.

I did basically everything within my power to incorporate every suggestion or critique into the short stories written for class not just because I wanted to keep my grades up but because I was desperate for my work to be liked by my peers.

This latter point was especially true when I joined a writing group with some friends to get feedback on the novel I was writing at the time. Again, there were oversights on my part and improvements to be made, but I was treating the critiques as non-negotiable instructions, not suggestions.

Launching The Blog

I started this blog in December of 2018, a few months after graduation.

Primarily, I wanted to begin establishing my online presence as an author because that's what I was told I'd need to do in order to be successful (but it also sounded like fun and something I'd be far more comfortable doing in comparison to a YouTube channel or a podcast).

If you go back to my earliest posts—which I honestly cringe at and recommend you avoid—you'll find the same stodginess I referenced earlier.

Noticing a theme here?

I was more or less writing mini-essays because that's what I had been led to perceive as good writing, not understanding that blogging is a totally different realm than writing fiction or academic assignments. My earlier posts were rigid and dense. Even though it was my blog in my corner of the internet where I could in theory write about any topic I wanted to, I was still keeping myself out of it. Everything lacked personality.

It lacked me.

Bound to the Heart's Beta Readers

Sometime during the pandemic, while I was furloughed from the day job, I decided to turn my attention to getting Bound to the Heart published and sought beta reader feedback.

I went into this new phase with more confidence than I should have. As you might expect based on this post, the draft I sent out was stiff and clunky, somewhere between a lifeless report from the sidelines and a textbook cramming in every piece of Regency Era knowledge I had.

So, as it was in college workshop sessions, the feedback I got was helpful but also a hard, bitter pill to swallow.

Thankfully, one of my betas put it into perspective for me: make your work shine.

In other words, put more of yourself in it.

And that's when it all clicked: I had forgotten how to tell a story as a narrator. But, worse yet, I had forgotten how to write for myself.

After over a decade of writing in an academic setting and to the relevant standards of rubrics and professors, I had never been able to develop a deeper understanding of how to write fiction. How to be a storyteller.

In order to grow and become a good writer, I had to forget nearly everything I had come to know as good writing.

Where I'm At Today

I timidly started to discard those seemingly non-negotiable rules of good writing. I played around with my narrative voice (something I'm still working on), giving myself to be sarcastic at times because that's how I typically speak in real-life conversations. I didn't worry about every sentence needing to include what my fourth-grade teacher called "million-dollar words" in every sentence; having a large vocabulary doesn't matter as much if your reader can't make sense of what you're trying to say! I've allowed myself to use the occasional adverb if it helped make things clearer. Fragmented sentences get thrown in from time to time.

Even though I'm perpetually resisting the urge to slap myself on the wrist every time I use "said" as a dialogue tag, I've come to accept that it's not actually dead. It can be helpful sometimes, just as "shouted" or "whispered" are, provided it along with its more, shall we say, flamboyant and flowery cousins are used in moderation.

Overall, my relationship with the "rules" of writing has changed. I'm learning to loosen up and find my way of doing things. My voice.

I don't write every day. It's burned me out in the past, to the point I took an entire summer off from blogging or working on any of my ongoing fiction projects in order to recharge. My outlines aren't as strict. When I did NaNoWriMo for the first time last November, I had a rigid, chapter-by-chapter breakdown that was rendered obsolete by the third day of the challenge because so much had already changed.

But above all else, I'm relearning how to write for myself first. Writing in a way that feels the most authentic.

While I'm no longer stressing over needing to fit my writing into the confines of a rubric or risk points being deducted from my grade if I break one of these writing rules, I must still consider my audience. I still have to take future readers' perceptions into account when writing and feel like I should be at least aware of the trends even if I'm not intentionally trying to fit within them.

However, it that's more or less secondary now. These days, I'm writing the kind of stories I'd want to read. Exploring the themes that draw me to them and just writing to write.

And doing so in the way that works best for me.



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