You’re on your own

This post first appeared on the Huffington Post and at Delightful Book Reviews.

I hate giving tips for writers. I really do. Not because I don’t want to help other people with their writing, but because there really are no rules for writing. But, as a writer, you frequently get asked to compile lists of tips, or even just a top three, and to be honest, I cringe every time I do it.

But here are three (non) tips. I’m not saying there aren’t some things that it might be helpful to think about. It’s just that they are probably different for everyone – one of the key joys about being a writer is that everyone seems to do it slightly differently. Not only that, but becoming a writer is to set out on a life-long journey of learning – anyone who thinks ‘that’s it, I’m a writer now and I know what I’m doing’ is a) probably fooling themselves, and b) probably a very bad writer. It’s much more common to feel out of your depth, unsure of yourself at times (if not all the time), and wonder why you ever started to try to write in the first place.

But this is normal, so there’s my first (non) tip; get used to not knowing what you’re doing. Writing is hard enough without adding to your woes by worrying incessantly about it. And yes, of course you’re going to worry about it; that’s normal. Just don’t worry about worrying about it. That’s not going to help.

Here’s my second (non) tip – be very suspicious of anyone writing lists of tips (including these ‘non’ tips). I teach on creative writing courses from time to time, so you might say, ‘well, what do you tell your students then?’ and what I tell them is that I’m going to mention lots of ideas and concepts and suggestions as to how to write, but that it’s up to each of them to take away the things that mean something to them, that resonate, that might work in their own writing practice. Writing is unusual in that it’s one of the very few jobs in the world that you teach yourself to do.

Even if you do go on a creative writing course, I believe it’s up to you to navigate your way through the ocean of (frequently conflicting) ideas that you will come across. Should you plan your book, or not? Should you know how it ends before you start, or not? Should you write every day, or not? Should you set times to write, or word counts, or leave it all free? All of that is up to you.

What I can say though, is to read as much as you can. If you (seriously) want to be a writer, you probably read a lot anyway. You can add to that reading everything I’m telling you to ignore – all the ‘how tos’ and ‘top tips’ and essays and books and blogs on writing. But remain suspicious. If you think (as I do) that writing a book by writing a part in the middle and then a bit near the start and then the end and then a bit three quarters of the way through sounds like a ridiculously complicated way of making a hard job harder (and you’d be right, of course 😉 ) then don’t do it. Just because your favourite author imports especially sticky post-it notes from Germany (yes, I do know someone who does that) in order to plan their novels, doesn’t mean you have to.

My final (non) tip is this: get used to paradoxes. Writing is full of things that don’t make sense. It is often a question of having to do contradictory things; I believe you need to ignore the question of who you’re writing ‘for’, and yet, at the same time, you cannot help but think about how ‘your reader’ is going to interpret something. You want to be original and new and yet you have to be familiar at the same time. You have to forget that every story has already been told a thousand times, and then show us how you can do something new with that story.

Writing is full of contradictions. It is hard and it is challenging, and yet, when you succeed in achieving a small part of what you set out to achieve, the feeling of contentment is deep and powerful. That’s the drug that keeps us all going, and like anything in life that’s worthwhile, the journey to achieve can be a hard one. But that’s normal, so don’t be afraid.

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