Wednesday, September 21, 2011

One Size Doesn't Fit All

There's a lot of writing advice out there. If you add up all of the blogs with tips on writing, editing, querying, ePublishing, and more I'm sure there's enough every day to fill a good-sized book. It can get overwhelming trying to make your way through all of the information. You're wanting to tell your story, and you've got dozens of "Do"s and "Don't"s floating through your head, crowding out your characters, plot, and dialogue. What's more, you can easily find one person touting an approach that worked for them and another suggesting that writers should do the exact opposite.

There's a simple explanation for this. Not every tip is going to work for every writer. In fact, I'd go so far as to say for every writing suggestion, there's at least one writer that it just won't work for.

Take one of my pet techniques -- the Seinfeld Chain. I love it. It's encouraged me to write every day so far this month, even on days when I really would just as soon have skipped it altogether. On the other hand, some people in the comments on my blog post about the Chain said that having a daily word target didn't work for them. At least one person even said that it made them sort of lock up and have trouble writing at all.

It's important to understand that everyone writes differently. If you don't understand this, you can end up feeling like you're doing it wrong when really you're doing it right -- just in your own way.

At the same time, you want to take care to not use this "one size doesn't fit all" fact of life as an excuse. If you find yourself rejecting the vast majority of tips you read then you might want to step back and take a closer look at some of them. Do they really not work for you, or is saying "I just don't write that way" a way of avoiding doing something you find challenging but which could make you a better writer? If you're not sure, maybe you could take one or two ideas which are just a bit outside your comfort zone and see if you can make them work for you. If not, there's no reason you have to stick with them.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the value of any particular technique will depend in part on the goals of the writer. Someone who views his writing as essentially a hobby may benefit from a different set of advice than someone who is hoping to make writing her career.

In the end, you have to write in a way that works for you. If you're making steady progress towards your goals, then you're probably doing the right things for you, even if your practices don't line up exactly with what you've been told you "should" be doing.

What are some tips that haven't worked for you? How do you "break" the "rules"?


  1. When I read books (yes, published books) I see "broken rules" all the time. I think it boils down to "the it factor". Either a story is working or it isn't, and if it's working, no one cares about the rules. Just my two cents. :)

  2. Excellent post Michael and something I've thought long and hard about recently. When I first started I would hoover up any advice I could get; however, not only does advice not always suit everybody’s style, but equally, sticking staunchly to advice can really restrict writing--especially those lines of advice that start with ALWAYS.

    ALWAYS write in the active voice, for instance, an excellent piece of advice for beginners who go through pains to get rid of every passive sentence in their work. And yet passive's can help flow when used correctly, especially when the object of sentence is more important than the subject. Another, is the ALWAYS show don't tell mantra, again excellent advice for beginners, but knowing when to "tell" is essential if you don't want to bore readers with endless and unnecessary description during events that are unimportant to a story.

    I think there is a point in time when all writers need to turn off the internet and just get on with writing; constantly searching for and sticking with advice can be really restrictive.

  3. "Pantsing" never worked for me. I tried it, too. Several forms of outlining didn't work, but I struggled and searched until I found an outlining method that worked for me!

    Great post! This is something I think a lot of writers (including and especially myself) need to remember. :D

  4. I noticed that all those tips might be thrown out by the time it gets to an agent and it might get cut. So I just make sure things sparkle and if it doesn't sparkle enough, well then it wasn't meant to be.

    I'm a pantser a lot because I have yet to find an outline process that works for me. I tried it once and got half way through before I was outlining too much.

  5. Very well said. Like scribblingpencil, I can't outline before I write a book. People tell me how wonderful it is but it just doesn't work for me. I can't figure out where I'm going to go until I'm there.

    One size doesn't fit all. But you should try it just to be sure.

  6. Thanks for the comments, all. Lots of great points here!

    JEFritz, I like that last point you make -- fits well with the whole "don't turn it into an excuse" idea. Nicely said!

  7. Oh darn, there just went the only good excuse I could come up with. "Everybody says it's supposed to be done this way" was my last one.

    Oh well, back to the drawing board...or better yet, back to writing and finding what works best for me.

    So far, I found a deeply fleshed out outline approach doesn't work for me. Doing a skeletal of my beginning, some of the middle and the end (have to have a general idea of where I want to end up) works for me.

  8. Hi, Angela! I don't know WHAT works for me outline-wise yet. I think it might "just depend" for me, from story to story. There have been some where I've made reasonably detailed notes for, and others where I just started with a character, or a situation, or even just an opening sentence in my head and took it from there.

    (See, whatever size fits you sometimes doesn't even have to ALWAYS fit YOU. How about that?)

  9. I agree! I have a couple books on writing and although I don't actually follow all of their advice down to the last letter, I learned a lot from them. I use a lot of what they suggested and it has been super helpful.

    Writing Through College