The best writing advice ever

When people ask me about writing – what they should do and how – I often find myself sharing the advice others have given me.

I’ve been fortunate to attend writing workshops led by amazing writers and writing mentors. In the ways of the universe, each of these leaders has given me the perfect bit of guidance I needed at just the moment I needed it. I received most of this advice as I was writing memoirs, so their advice was given in the memoir context, but I find that it applies equally well now that I’m writing fiction.

In homage to all of these amazing writing spirit guides, here’s their advice.

  1. Give yourself permission to write. New to the memoir writing experience, I found myself agonizing about what shape my final manuscript would take. The sequence of chapters. The number of chapters. Marc Niesen, told me there was a time to worry about that but not while I wrote my first draft. He said, “Put your editor hat in the closet and put on your writer hat. For six months, just give yourself permission to write.”  I did. I even put a sticky note with this directive on my computer, “Today I’m writing about growing up on the farm.” Six months later I had my book.
  2. Tell the truth. If you don’t, the reader will know. Mary Kay Shanley explained that memoir writers may be afraid to go deep into the facts, situations, emotions of what happened to them. When the writer skims over the truth, readers can sense it and the writer loses credibility. It was amazing to me that time and again as my writing buddies read my drafts, they invariably zeroed in the places where I’d hoped not to have to go. Mary Kay also said that a writer may not be ready to go deep and that’s okay, but that means it may not be time to write that book.
  3. When something needs to be written, it will be. Just keep writing. I’ve heard this from many of my guides, but I’ll credit it to Mary Nilsen who led a personal essay workshop. I’d come to her workshop with ideas in mind about what I wanted to write. I wound up writing about something far different, something I’d kept to myself for more than 30 years. Obviously this needed to be written. That’s the only way I can explain writing a 14-page essay overnight.
  4. Write the shitty first draft. One of the biggest barriers to writing is perfection. So in one way or another every workshop leader advises giving yourself permission to write the bad first draft. Get it all down and then worry later about adding polish. NANOWRIMO is one of the best experiences for pushing on. Write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days? Sure! Just write 1,666 new words a day, every day, and never look back.
  5. Apply butt glue. I don’t remember the writer who shared this bit of advice at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, but I remembered it because it was funny and I use it because it works. American editor and novelist Peter DeVries spoke to the same concept when he said, “I only write when I’m inspired and I make sure I’m inspired every morning at 9 a.m.” If I sit down to write, and commit to staying there until I do, I will write. No writer’s block allowed.

These are bits of wisdom I live my writing life by. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Comments

  1. Great advice! Especially #4 — my stumbling block is perfection and having worked at proofreading and editing. I also need to work on #5! Thanks for a terrific post.

  2. All wonderful advice 🙂

  3. A.D.Trosper says:

    Wonderful advice! My only problem is number five. With three kids, it is hard to apply butt glue.

  4. Good ones!

  5. My best piece of advice: read the kind of books you’d like to write. And read the best. 🙂

    • I agree there is much to learn from reading others who write in your genre. And also from reading the best writers. A sports analogy comes to mind. If you want to play better at a sport, play against competitors better than you. You’ll play up to their level. A computer programming analogy also rings true: garbage in, garbage out. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Carol.

  6. I had three mentoring angels who each showed up at just the right time during my writing career when I was working on my memoir. The first one said: “Don’t you dare not write that story.” The second one said: “Tell the whole story and nothing but the whole story; then you can revise it and decide what to leave out.” The third one said: “It’s all there – now you just have to structure it in the most compelling way possible.” Bless their hearts!

    • We are blessed by these angels, aren’t we Belinda? One of them always seems to show up at just the right moment to say just the right thing. Yours gave you very good advice, too. Thanks for commenting.

  7. Hi Carol B,

    Thank you so much for this information. I have had a few people ask me how I wrote my book and I have told them the same as your point 4 above. I have told them to just sit and write, get it all out and not worry about the ‘structuring’ or ‘where to start’ – just sit and write.

    I also agree with Carol Ervin – although I did this backwards 🙂 The readers report for the first draft of my book said my writing was not dissimilar to that of Kate Holden’s ‘In My Skin’, so I read ‘In My Skin’ to understand what they meant. It gave me an immense feeling of joy and further inspiration, in knowing that my writing was compared to someone who has already ‘made it’ in what I call the ‘Writing World’.

    Kind Regards,
    Christina.
    http://authorchristinataylor.blogspot.com.au/

    • Carol Bodensteiner says:

      What a boost to be compared to someone who’s published. I trust you liked “In My Skin”! Thanks for commenting, Christina.

  8. I love the last one. I’d like to make a big print out of that and tape it in front of my writing space for motivation to sit there and get stuff done. Great advice all around.

  9. Thank you for sharing such great advice. My best advice so far is not so much an advice as it is a fact:
    ‘People who get published are those who actually sit down and do the writing’.

    I know so many people who WANT to write, but only a small fraction of them get around to doing it.

  10. You are so right, Inger. One of the things I have enjoyed so much about the Iowa Summer Writing Festival is being around people who think about writing, talk about writing, and ACTUALLY WRITE. If we don’t make the effort to get words on paper, we’re no where. Thanks for commenting!

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