A reaction to some writing advice.

51, writing advice

The photographs I choose to illustrate my posts are usually vaguely linked to the topic, even if only in my mind. This isn’t. It’s just the tree at the end of our garden in the current weather.

I have been musing about various pieces of advice I have seen, from authors who feel sufficiently confident about their own status to tell other writers what to do. I am quite sure they mean well and equally sure that the advice works for them. However, everybody writes differently, not only in terms of their style etc. but also in respect of the entire process of writing.

One frequent admonition is to cut your first draft drastically. One author went so far as to say to a friend of mine that if you didn’t cut a third of your first draft you couldn’t be editing properly.

I know at least two writers (one of them with many publications to his name, and very popular) who write first drafts that have gaping holes in them. There are fragile links that have scribbled notes such as ‘insert dialogue here’ or ‘maybe a sex scene’ or even ‘do some research’.  I can totally understand how this comes about. The writer wants, indeed needs, to get to the end of the basic story, and doesn’t want to stop to flesh out some scenes until that end has at least been reached a first time. It is then possible to go back and fill in the gaps, calmly, and bearing the ultimate ending in mind. But what would happen if these writers cut their first drafts by a third? Chaos, I should think.

I don’t leave gaps in my first draft, or only the occasional one where I need to research something like the correct spelling of a foreign place name. The story, which has usually been simmering in my head for some time, simply flows out onto the page or screen until I reach the ending, or an ending. (The ending might change.) On the way, I edit details. When starting a new chapter I always re-read the previous chapter; that puts my mind back into the flow of the story, and usually prevents plot or name errors. It also gives me the chance to spot minor problems such as overuse of a particular word, or some clumsy dialogue. So those get corrected at that stage. Then I hand everything over to a beta reader.

My beta readers (and I have used several) have one thing in common. They all, without fail, ask me to expand what I have written. They used to tell me to add more dialogue but I’ve got into better habits recently, and now the main complaint is that I need to include more explanation because readers aren’t psychic. If I cut that first draft by a third my betas would presumably be incoherent with rage!

I’m sure there are writers who ‘overwrite’ at first; they put in anything and everything that occurs to them and are particularly prone to inserting purple prose that pleases them but no-one else. Certainly for them the advice is good. But there are many of us who ‘underwrite’ and the advice is bewildering. I can almost guarantee that my initial draft will eventually be expanded by about a third…

Another piece of advice is to write what you know. This is so widespread as to be almost trite. It also bears some closer investigation. Obviously it can’t mean that you should always stick with your own surroundings, gender, experiences. If it did, we would have no genre fiction whatsoever. And yet one of my friends was told, on a writing course, that she should not attempt to write outside her own experience – as she was at the time writing a murder mystery, both she and I were somewhat shocked by the advice.

Surely the advice simply means that you should do adequate research and that you should try to build on your own experienced emotions when developing your characters. We can all write villains, and can ‘know’ them, too, by extrapolating from the fleeting thoughts we have had and taking them to extremes. I am, of course, talking about villains with some semblance of reality and not melodramatic stereotypes. And of course we should always make sure that we know what we are writing about, which is not the same as only writing what we know from our own experience.

Perhaps it’s because much of my writing is fantasy that I distrust the ‘write what you know’ adage. And perhaps those who give the advice confine their reading to modern novels set in modern surroundings?

Some of you are writers. How do you approach your first draft? What do you think of the advice I have treated with such contempt?  What advice have you come across that is truly worth following? Let me know!

17 thoughts on “A reaction to some writing advice.

    • I think quite a lot of us do that! I do cut things as I read through the last bit I wrote – but I don’t count that as editing the first draft. It’s more part of the initial writing process.

      I wonder if the people giving the advice to cut, cut, cut have very little contact with other authors? It’s the sort of advice I’d occasionally have given to pupils in school because some of them tend to write reams of stuff that really needs to be edited, but again, that isn’t everyone and sometimes a teacher has to encourage a budding writer to expand their work.

  1. My first drafts are the gaping hole type, usually even in separate documents. I work on each section, editing and changing until I’m happy with the result and only when I’m more or less satisfied with each section do I put it together for my own review and review by a beta. I suppose that final one document could technically be considered my ‘first’ draft, not sure. But as I’ve already done my initial editing I can’t see taking a third of it away would work – there probably wouldn’t be a lot left that made sense! Writing is too much a personal thing to make hard and fast rules but advice is always good and should be available to accept and try if you think it will help or reject if you know it’s just not going to work for you personally.

    I think the ‘write what you know’ has become overused and misinterpreted. A writer would automatically write from their own emotional and life experiences – translating that to their characters and situations. But I doubt it could ever have been meant in a literal sense. Or if it did whoever suggests it lives in their own fantasy land!

    • I think it’s the arrogance of some of these authors who assume they can advise everyone else that gets to me. I’m delighted to read advice from someone who tells me what works for them, and leaves me to decide whether I might benefit from it. To be told that if you aren’t cutting a third of your wordcount you aren’t editing properly is rather strange, I think! It also makes me wonder what on earth their first drafts are like!

      I also think that if, like you, me and others here, you have worked in a group, letting people see your first, second and final versions, you learn not to include some things in your first draft. Or to include others (like my experience with dialogue). I suspect the authors who tell other authors to cut have spent less time in writing groups or using intelligent betas.

  2. Wonderful post!

    I love discussions and guides about technicalities of writing, and one can see that opinions and advices often differ and even are contrary. I think every writer works out own methods, and what works for one, may but not has to work for other. It reminds me one article by a professional writer. It was just about this – tips and methods deemed universal. He concluded that in fact there’s no ready recipes, and the worst what can be is clinging to a wrong method.

    I see your way is similar to mine – writing in one flow from-the-start-to-the-end (though it happens sometimes that I write down a scene when it comes and insistently ‘plays’ in my head, though its place is far ahead in the general plan); re-reading of the previous parts; gaps mostly for things needing research. When I get stuck in some place, I can’t go on, I need to solve the problem first. Writing takes me much time, but when it’s done at last, I change little, mostly small details, even though I do many re-readings. My beta-readers almost never advise me big changes (plot and such), and anyway I think I would most probably refuse such advice. I tend to be very certain and determined about what I want to write, and the only field of discussion and the matter in which I want help from betas is how to do it, how to find the best way to show the images I intend. Maybe it can change in future, I can’t know it, but for now I’d rather discuss “what’s the best word for this or that”, not “what should happen now” or “what this character should be like”.

    ‘Cut a third’ wouldn’t work for me. Admittedly in re-reading I cut more than add, but a third would be too much, gaps would ruin the whole shape, especially that I like to write very precise constructions where every next sentence and paragraph stems from the previous. In general I should rather add something. Most probably descriptions of characters and places, I tend to not care for them. Funny, cause overdosing them is a very popular fault of beginning writers… I happen sometimes to make it too, and write a somewhat redundant description-monster, but it’s rare.

    Maybe it’s a silly thought, but if cutting is such fine method, then books of the given author should get thinner and thinner as he/she picks up the mastery and experience. In fact, one can see it’s quite the contrary – authors usually tend to write thicker books with time.

    • I’m quite sure there are no universal recipes for success – it just amazes me that some authors think there might be!

      It sounds as if we write in a very similar way. And yes, scenes ‘play’ in my head! My betas have never asked me to cut out whole scenes or characters – only to add information that was only apparent to me and my ‘cast’ and hadn’t been shared with the reader!! One of the things they invariably ask me to expand is any kind of fight scene. I am hopeless at fights. I find the ‘choreography’ really difficult.

      I like your comment about the ‘shape’ of the writing. Cutting would often lead to jerkiness and would spoil the flow. An analogy would be if someone made a garment, a lot of details might need to be altered after the first fitting but to cut out a third would prevent the thing from fitting at all! It would not even be the same garment. I certainly always set out with a basic shape in mind, although I don’t always have a really detailed outline.

      Your idea about the works getting thinner as the writers gained experience made me laugh.

      • One of the things they invariably ask me to expand is any kind of fight scene. I am hopeless at fights. I find the ‘choreography’ really difficult.
        Sounds familiar! Not only I find writing fights difficult, but also many fights scenes I read seems wonky to me. I mean, most often they feel awkward. Though much depends on the sort – some struggling or punching or shooting is relatively OK, but fencing is almost always pretentious and overloaded with terminology. Typical Fencing Scene is like Typical Sex Scene, both full of trite phrases, ‘deadly dance’ and such. Not to mention other similarities, like necessity to remember where’s every arm and leg at the given moment… *g* The difficulty is all the worse that such scenes are packed with action which needs much description and at the same time it must give the ‘quick’ impression. My method of writing fight scenes is avoiding them. Alas, it’s not always possible, and just some time ago I wrote one. I solved it by using more tension than actual action, but it still needs polishing…

      • I agree about the similarity between writing fight scenes and sex scenes! I have discussed this with other writers and we all find the same problem you raise. Everything has to happen quite fast, and yet it can take the author a long time to work out where people (and their arms and legs) are in relation to each other. Much longer than to describe a building or a meeting or a meal! I think you are right to suggest writing the tension rather than the actions – or, with sex, the emotions rather than the actions – and I dislike reading very formal or formulaic accounts. One problem I have is that because so many written descriptions bore me, or don’t convince me, I skim them, and then of course I have no basis on which to write my own scenes.I should of course say that I am not in the habit of fighting – or even fencing! I have to ‘see’ the action in my head and it can take me a long time to sort it out; even if I am only going to write about the feelings, the whole thing has to make some kind of sense.

        I find battles equally difficult and yet in so many stories there have to be group actions… I tend to sketch in the scene and rely on my betas to ask questions so that I can flesh it out and sort out what could and could not have happened. I think one problem is that even if you watch a battle onscreen, it goes so quickly and in such a blur. It is hard to describe it using language – film and art are much better mediums! I once went to watch a reconstruction of a seventeenth century battle – brilliantly done and very interesting but very very hard to describe.

  3. It is hard to describe it using language – film and art are much better mediums!
    This, yes, I thought over writing fight scenes some time ago, and I concluded the same. Even a poorly choreographed fight scene is still better on screen – or at least more believable and easier to follow – than even relatively well written fight scene in text only.

    As for battle scenes, it reminds me what I have written recently on Cornwell in my ‘readings’. I admire his way of handling such scenes. He’s good at least in it.

    • I remember your comments about Cornwell’s battle scenes. I am in awe of people who can write them well! They have a three dimensional aspect that is hard to convey in text. And I thought the fight scenes in The Hobbit were easier to understand in the 3D version so that tends to support the theory! Somehow, any fantasy, sci-fi or muder mystery I try writing, whether original or fanfic, ends up needing fights and battles. I should try my hand at straighforward romance….

  4. Frankly, I think the write what you know thing is ludicrous. Does that mean no one would ever write fantasy?

    Did you get my review of your novellas by the way? I loved Lord of Shalott!

    • I find the ‘write what you know’ idea ludicrous, too, though if you take it in the sense that you should always research your topic (even fantasy needs research) then it starts to make sense.

      I think I might have seen in one of your posts that someone was telling you to cut, cut, cut, though I have seen the advice elsewhere, frequently, and friends have been told that on writing courses. It isn’t ludicrous because some writing styles need to be cut, but it isn’t universal, because first drafts can be very very different.

      I think my friend’s writing course was less than ideal – her tutor had a lot of ‘absolute’ advice to offer which really wasn’t applicable to my friend’s writing.

      Yes, I saw your reviews yesterday. Thank you for taking the time to read and analyse! I’m so glad you liked Shalott – I got the impression you liked the writing and not the story.

      • Yes- I see what you mean there. If it is about writing from a place of reality than yeah I get that.

        I also agree re the cutting but I also think that for emerging writers like me who really have no idea of what they are doing experience wise, it is probably best to listen to the professional if they tell you to cut.

        What kind of absolute advice did they receive out of interest?

        No I liked the story of Lord of Shalott but I enjoyed the first half more than the second half story wise because I found that part more fleshed out and unexpected. That may just be me though 🙂 I should probably add as well re ratings that a 3.5 from me is a really good ranking because it is out of 5 with 5 being incredibly amazing in every possible way. I mean, Isobelle Carmody’s The Sending only got 3!

      • The friend I was referring to went on a writing course run by a published author. This ‘tutor’ was scathing about my friend’s novel-in-progress because it was a crime story (my friend is not a policeman/criminologist/lawyer) and had a gay protagonist (my friend is not gay) and a theme that explored a chronic illness from which my friend does not suffer. The novel is now published (self-published) and is excellent!! I’m so glad they took no notice of the ‘tutor’!! But most of the absolutes I am talking about appear in one after another blog and article about writing. The main ones are ‘write what you know’, cut cut cut, don’t use adverbs, and keep chapters very short. Also, plan plan plan. None of these should be absolutes – they work well for some people and for some writing styles but that’s all. You only have to analyse a few best sellers to realise that.

        As I said – I’m glad you liked Shalott! I knew your rating was fine, within your usual hierarchy of ratings, but I thought (when I first read it) that it was ‘awarded’ for the writing rather than the story, going by what you said about it. I understand where you’re coming from and you’re more than entitled to your opinion, which is interesting! Thank you again!

  5. Do I leave gaps? Lord, yes! The only things I write straight through are shorter short stories, say 3,000 words or less. Otherwise I jump around and write the sections that a clearest to me. And novels and novels I don’t even start at the beginning. I don’t start planning until I’ve written enough to know where a story is going.

    I often leave a gap where I want to insert a description, almost always for a sex scene, and not infrequently leave for myself notes like “Work X into this somewhere” or a reminder of what I want to happen.

    As for cutting 1/3 — hah! Before I took up creative writing, I had spent years writing scholarly articles, so my style is, to put it mildly, very succinct. My works get longer each revision, my betas ask me to fill in more info, and when they finally reach an editor, they usually grow another 10% or more. The only exceptions were my 1st 2 published works, and those the editors wanted me to add to as well as cut.

    I have read a lot of stuff in dire need of cutting, though. One of my pet peeves is trivial dialogue that doesn’t advance the plot. What it boils down to is that everything should be there for a reason, and that in real life conversations go off on tangents and are full of unnecessary information and formulaic utterances is not a good enough reason. One needs some to make dialogue sound realistic, but keep it to a minimum.

    As for writing only what you know, if everyone did that, I would probably stop reading, since 9 times out of 10 I would know it too.

    There are other pieces of advice that one would do well to overlook, or, rather, not take to literally. “Show, don’t tell” is a good example. Show what’s important; tell what isn’t.

    Yes, there is a writer’s craft, as there is a painters, but it is still more art than craft. Learning the craft may make you a competent writer (or, just as likely, not), but it will not make you a good one. Instinct must trump all rules, and nothing can replace a good ear. I mean for rhythm and sounds, not things like dialect. If you’ve always ready only for a “cool story” and don’t care about the rest, your stories will not rise above mediocre.

    I have read some stories by authors who could use a good writing course, but it won’t make them fine writers. I’ve read others by authors who have obviously taken one or more writing courses and, to the detriment of their work, follow everything they learned there religiously.

    And I sometimes wonder if any writing teacher has ever told students to be precise.

  6. Yes – I tend to leave gaps for both sex scenes and fight scenes. Both need a kind of concentration on choreography that is too distracting whilst in the middle of trying to get a story down! But I’m not sure that the first draft is complete until I’ve filled the gaps. I suppose there will be differences of opinion as to what constitutes a first draft.

    I agree totally about academic writing turning you into a succinct writer who is more likely to have to expand the first draft. Add my legal training and I’m more likely to deliver a summary than a proper draft in my first attempt! Even for flashfics I tend to need to flesh them out rather than cut.

    Some of the other pieces of advice that I find useless are things like not using adverbs or the passive verb form (even worse when some editors take that to mean the past continuous tense….) You only have to look at a few pages of any literary masterpiece to see how stupid this is.

    I suppose it is helpful for aspiring writers to learn the ‘rules’ before breaking them so that at least they have some idea what they are doing. But those rules should be the basics of sentence construction etc. which should be taught in school, not on writing courses!

    And yes, there are some very mediocre writers out there who have no doubt satisfied their writing tutors!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.