Debunking myths about writing


Debunking ten common myths about writers and writing.

#1. Writing can be done any old time and happens in the gaps between other more important commitments.

This is a myth most usually believed by family and close friends. Sometimes the belief spills over and affects the writer themselves. It is by no means true. Writing, and particularly editing or drafting a second version, requires concentration. It’s perfectly possible to write short sections in ten minute bursts, and then string them together. But the mere act of stringing them together satisfactorily takes a lot more than ten minutes, and ten minute writing sessions are not very satisfying to the average writer. I know I need aat least an hour to get into a story or chapter. This is at odds with the other demands on my tattention. I’m responsible for various household needs such as shopping and cooking; these not only take time but are at the mercy of other people’s agendas such as when the shops are open and when the family want or need to eat. The same constraints would apply to any other household necessities that members of any family commit to supplying. Even a solitary writer has to eat, sleep and supply the needs of themselves and perhaps their pets.

Besides the actual act of typing or writing the words, there is thinking time. This is essential. Some writers plot in advance and other simply see where the characters want to take them, but whichever kind of writer you are there is a necessity to think either of the way your story is going, or the way it has gone, if only to check mentally for inconsistencies and plotholes. Some people produce a story in a linear fashion, going from A to Z via the other letters in the right order; others write sections as they occur to them then fit them together and write linking material to fill the gaps. Both methods are valid and both require time and thought.

Thinking can take place alongside other activities – for example, in the shower, in bed before falling asleep, or whilst doing some mind-numbing task such as ironing. It doesn’t go well with anything that needs concentration like stirring a risotto or supervising a child’s homework. So writing and its handmaid, thinking, need time, quality time, and it’s all to easy to let this be squeezed out. I suppose if you’re JKR or James Patterson, you can plead that you’re working, but most writers don’t earn so much that they feel able to make this plea. However, they should not allow other people to encroach on their writing time, even if the writing is mainly for their own pleasure. Nor should they go along with the myth and allow their writing time to be elbowed out of the day.

#2. Writing is not work, just a hobby that sometimes results in payment.

Whether it’s for private enjoyment or close friends or a wide audience, and whether or not it’s to be published for payment, writing is hard work. (So are some hobbies but that does not invalidate the general argument.)

Some writers find that plots come easily. Others have characters spring up fully formed in their heads. Yet others find that language flows, provided they have more than ten minutes (see #1 above) to devote to it. But all of them will need to edit what they write, to check it for style, for whether it says what they intended, to make sure the characters have the correct names (especially minor ones who appear chapters apart) and are wearing consistent clothing. It’s no good having character A in a shirt that matches his eyes and then throwing his soiled white shirt in the laundry basket at the end of the day. Similarly, it’s not helpful to have characters go upstairs if you’ve located them in a bungalow in Chapter 1. Reading through what you’ve written is important to help avoid repetitive vocabulary. Readers get irritated if A looks soulfully at B more than once. (Actually I get irritated the first time but that’s just personal preference.) And even if all these things are sorted, the writer still has to physically get the words down on screen or paper. Fingers can get tired, too, and backs can suffer. So can eyes. Nobody suggests that a secretary doesn’t work, so a writer works at least as hard just getting their words down.

Once the initial draft is written there’s editing. Yes, you can employ an editor, or your publishers might wish one on you. Whichever, they’d really prefer it if you’d done a bit of editing yourself before offering up your draft. Before seeking another pair of eyes it’s as well to make sure your story flows, and that there aren’t too many typos. If you’re self publishing you need to know something about formatting, whether you do it yourself or pay someone else. You need to know about copyright, about marketing (at a minimum, how to tag your work, write a blurb, etc), about taxation (if you ever get royalties), about the royalty system, about the way publishing in general works, whichever route you take. If you were talking about any other craft, the same kinds of things would apply. The person who knits for a hobby only needs to buy wool, needles and patterns; the person who hopes to sell their knitted garments needs to know all about wool and its attributes, current prices, sizing, labelling, etc. and has to know how to package, present and market their work. Children who kick a ball around are hobby footballers, and remain so even when they grow up and just join in a friendly neighbourhood game; professional players have a whole host of other things to learn and worry about. It’s the same with writing so for anyone who wants to publish, writing is not a hobby even if it started that way.

#3. Writing could be done by anyone who wanted to give the time to it.

Well, no. You only have to glance at the stuff school students produce to know that some people are creative and others just aren’t. I’m not talking about ability with words, grammar, etc, but the ability to bring characters alive, to make locations seem real, to get readers to suspend disbelief at the inevitable artificiality of plot or the way an event is recounted (because real life just doesn’t behave like story but we forget that both when we’re reading, and when we’re living). Writers have a gift of being able to share their worlds, fictional or non-fictional, with their readers. Not everyone can do this, and for those who can, there’s a long apprenticeship that starts in early childhood. Most writers, in almost any genre you care to name, including non-fiction, will have spent most of their lives reading and researching – not always formally but in some depth. They will be fired by enthusiasm for their chosen subject matter to the extent that they actually feel a need to write, to impart the stuff in their heads to other people. Never mind merely wanting to give time to it – they will feel impelled. Some writing courses (and online sites) purport to help wannabe writers generate plots. Most writers I know have so many plot bunnies the problem is finding time to feed them all. Of course, there’s always the age-old maxim that there only so many basic plots (usually presented as seven, nine or eleven – magic numbers) and everything else is just variation on a theme. You can deconstruct any story to prove this theory, but it’s the variation that counts in the end, and the ability to think up that variation and build it into a satisfying novel, poem, thesis, etc. that matters. I don’t think ‘anyone’ could do this any more than I think ‘anyone’ could be a chef or a violinist, a nurse or a teacher. We all have special skills, talents and passions. Those of a writer include an ability with narrative that is outside the grasp of just ‘anyone’. This applies to the writing of anything from a recipe to a novel.

#4. Writers are always in the market for materials or, “I’ve got an interesting story for you. You’ll like this one. You could write it.”

No thank you. Sometimes we write starting from prompts, which are not usually detailed. They could be the outline suggested by a magazine competition, the idea put forward within a writing group, or perhaps a headline seen in the news. All these can send the mind off in unforeseen directions. This is just writers grabbing materials from the environment, much as they might grab their observations of a place to help them describe a fictional location.

Most writers do not want to write someone else’s story. They don’t feel the same passion for it, you see, because it isn’t theirs. Obviously some journalists and documentary writers will develop their work from stories they have been told by others, but they will have given them their own spin and unique viewpoint. There are a few writers who ‘ghost write’ for the famous, either by producing so-called autobiographies or by putting e.g. well known recipes into print or even writing sequels that come under an umbrella series by a well known author. Often, their contribution is not acknowledged. They may be paid well, but fame escapes them. They’re probably the only writers who might respond favourably to the offer that headed this section, and even then, they’d want to know what the rate of pay was going to be.

#5. Writers should write what they know, and many readers believe writers know, from personal experience, what they write.

The idea of only writing what you know is so silly it doesn’t really deserve any rebuttal. If people only wrote from their own experience we would have no historical novels, no sci fi, no fantasy, nothing from an animal’s pov, no crime stories except those written by police or criminals, no women in books by men or men in books by women. However, the advice works if it is interpreted as ‘do your research’. All reasonably good writers do indeed do their research and this takes time, hard work and a basic knowledge of where to find the needed information.

Sometimes writers choose to present things in first person, using the voice of the character to get an idea across. In any case, characters are going to articulate their beliefs at some point or they will remain unreal and two-dimensional. You know those warnings you get on some TV programmes or DVDs where the channel or film company disclaims responsibility for the opinions expressed? This should, perhaps, be stated at the front of every book, as clearly as the copyright claim. Then readers could be shown how ridiculous it is to accuse writers of the very things their characters are intended to get across as undesirable. If I want, for example, to write a novel that discusses racism, I am going to have to have characters who make racist comments. It should be obvious that I don’t agree with them. But some readers ignore the obvious.

#6. Since word processors you don’t even have to know grammar to get published – just look at all those badly edited self published books.

Simply untrue, or rather, untrue if you want to write and sell more than one book. Spelling and grammar checkers don’t always know what they’re doing. It’s a bit like calculators. Unless you’ve been taught basic arithmetic, you won’t be able to tell when the machine is not working properly or when you’ve failed to ask it the right questions. So, as with calculations, to write you do need a basic grasp of grammar and a reasonably wide vocabulary (and the ability to use a dictionary and a thesaurus). It’s no good relying on an editor. They might disagree with you, especially if you are writing in e.g. Brit English and they are American (or vice versa). They might fail to spot less obvious errors. (You’ll almost certainly fail, because you read what you think you wrote.) Your editor might well read what they expected you to have written and even professional proof readers can fall foul of the cultural differences I just mentioned. The computer spelling and grammar checker is less likely to make these mistakes (though it won’t always spot things like the misuse of homonyms) but it will sometimes misunderstand your intended meaning and you need to have the confidence to ignore it. It will sometimes give you choices and you need to know which to accept. There are definitely self-published books with poor grammar. There are also mainstream published books with typos, plotholes and inconsistencies in e.g. names. One thing is common to both – with the advent of the word processor, all editing has been left more and more in the hands of the writer, who has an absolute need and duty to know something about grammar.

#7. If you’re a writer, why aren’t you rich and famous?

Unless you are J.K.Rowling or James Patterson, you probably won’t get rich from writing. Tolkien didn’t. Some people make a good living, usually by writing dozens of books every year and having virtually no life other than writing and its associated activities. Even then, a lot of their profit gets ploughed back into writing, by attending conferences, book signings, etc. and doing research. Even the most prestigious mainstream publishers no longer give writers expenses for that kind of thing – it has to come out of royalties. Royalties are low with mainstream publishers but there again, they do all the things like paying cover artists, formatters, etc. Self publishing royalties are higher and if you do some of the ‘other’ work yourself, you get to keep more of the profit, but sales are by no means guaranteed. Then, either way, there’s tax… I suspect readers think writers for the big mainstream publishing houses live in a lost world of long lazy expense account luncheons, and paid-for holidays in the sun to research their next title. Not nowadays, and for very few even in some glorious past.

They also seem to think anyone claiming to be a writer should be able to achieve this golden state of affairs simply by being good enough. Unfortunately, leaving aside the matter of royalties and and the lack of other financial support, it is not enough to be a good writer. You have to be a lucky writer, too. Someone who worked for one of the big publishers once told me that yes, there has to be a modicum of talent but after that, the manuscript (and note that I’m now talking about the days before emailed submissions, when there were in fact fewer books written altogether) has to land in the right intray when the submissions editor is in the right mood, has an opening for a work of that particular genre, length, etc. and has time to read it. We all know the stories about how books like Watership Down were rejected time and time again – nothing whatsoever to do with their quality.

#8. Everyone has a book in them

I seriously doubt it. There are people whose lives are so dull that we wouldn’t want to read about anything they wrote; people whose only ‘hobby’ is watching sport on TV, who have no family dramas, who are comfortable in their jobs, their finances and their relationships. Some of them might have rich imaginations and then, certainly, they might write a book, but if they haven’t, then they will have nothing to write about. There are other people whose lives are so chaotic that they can barely make sense of them themselves, let alone tell others about their experiences. They might be able to express some of what they know or believe to a writer who can incorporate it into a story, an article or an academic thesis, but that’s not the same thing as having a book in them. Then there are people who are passionate about something, driven and organised. But their way of dealing with their subject matter is in action, political, business, local community, personal, charity, etc. Or in music or art. They do not have ‘a book’ in them; they may have a painting, a sculpture or a symphony or they may have a parliamentary maiden speech.

#9. Genre fiction and non-fiction is not as important or as high quality as literary fiction or academic non-fiction.

This opinion seems to have been firmly embedded in our culture, no doubt given a helping hand by reviewers in the weightier papers and magazines, and by sundry academics. It is pandered to by booksellers, on and offline, who want to put things on tidy shelves and label them often with profit in mind. They want to target the right demographic. This trend entirely loses sight of the fact that many of our classics started as genre fiction.

Dickens, for example, wrote romance and mystery for the serial magazine market. Yes, his, and many other ‘classic’ books are well written with many-layered plots and delightful characters. So are some of today’s ‘genre’ novels which are dismissed out of hand but have so much to offer. Tolkien made it out of the fantasy ghetto, perhaps because of his academic background, but although I adore Lord of the Rings there are other equally good fantasy writers who are still behind the barriers – Tad Williams, to name only one. Alan Hollinghurst’s books escape the m/m romance genre probably because the author is a respected reviewer (and maybe because he doesn’t always have happy endings). Forster escaped, too, possibly by being dead, but Maurice is hardly ever mentioned in discussions of Forster’s work. There are other m/m romance writers who deserve similar attention. It is fashionable to praise Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels whilst still putting them firmly in the crime genre whereas Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone is considered to be the first English detective story but at the same time is regarded as ‘literature’. H.G.Wells and George Orwell crashed through the sci-fi barrier but only, perhaps, by dying. There are too many other examples to list here.

Non-fiction suffers similarly. A really good cookery book is as useful, and as research-based, as a lot of academic papers, but is dismissed as mere ‘lifestyle’ or ‘hobby’ fodder. There are brilliant popular books that analyse history or finance or art, but unless they emanate from university research they are too often ignored.

Obviously many readers find these books for themselves, enjoy them, recommend them, etc. And some of the authors may as a result find some fame and fortune. But not, apparently, the accolade of the serious critic. And that’s something that has trickled down to the general public who in turn regard anything other than the ‘classics’ or the latest prize list litfic as ‘mere’ light entertainment.

#10. Writers are either unsociable or full of themselves (sometimes both)

The prevailing images are: the standard stereotype of the starving artist in a garret; the shy writer tucked away in their converted garden shed; the eccentric and absent minded cat owner with a creaking typewriter and few friends.

The reality is people with families of one kind or another, large friendship groups, and a well-developed social life. How else would they observe human nature so closely and find material for characters, locations and plots? And although some might initially scribble their thoughts down in notebooks, transfer to a state of the art computer screen is an inevitable part of the process requiring an electricity supply, internet and a familiarity with technology.

So writers are not unsociable. But are they arrogant or boastful? They do have to ‘blow their own trumpets’ if they are to make any sales at all. Even the big publishing houses offer very little in the way of marketing and advertising. But selling the product of a lot of hard work is no different from the florist’s sign outside the shop or the bakery buying ad time on TV. After all, if they didn’t tell you about their books, how would you know? You’d be left with nothing to read but the classics, and good as they are, these don’t meet our need for new and exciting ways of looking at the world.

10 thoughts on “Debunking myths about writing

  1. This is a great insight into the writer’s world. That’s an interesting point about the rise of word processors and how they’ve directed responsibility for proofreading and editing back to writers themselves.

    I also liked your mention of the fact that great writing co-exists across different categories.The classics have so much to offer, but I’ve also been inspired by the writing of critics and overt social commentators.

    • I’ve noticed the difference in the latest books by really well known authors. I think the mainstream publishers simply don’t employ the same proof readers and copy editors now.

      And yes, my favourite books of the last few years have been non-fiction, not just for the content but for the style and the way the writer has drawn me into quite complex topics really smoothly. And then there’s the genre fiction, the ‘fluff’ and the fantasy, both of which can proudly stand comparison with lit!fic.

  2. I stumbled across this post looking at something else you wrote (the thing about character voices in your head), it was an interesting read.

    I thought:

    #5. Writers should write what they know, and many readers believe writers know, from personal experience, what they write.
    #8. Everyone has a book in them

    were particularly thought provoking.

    I’m a great believer in writing what you know, but clearly not in the literal sense, or I wouldn’t be dabbling with Star Trek or CI5!

    I think it should have experiential truth though, so you might not know what it’s like to be stuck in a turbolift on the Enterprise, but you would know what it’s like to be stuck in an ordinary lift in a tower block.

    I agree research helps (although I’m not a fan of then info-dumping it in your fic – not that you were advocating that!), but I don’t think research alone can give you authenticity. A few rare individuals might have the kind of imagination that would overcome a lack of experience, but for most, it’s the detail that adds the depth to the written experience.

    So understanding that a wet wool coat isn’t just wet, but that it will be heavier, and will smell a certain way and that the fibres will react differently – and once dry, it will bear the signs of having been wet. If you actually have experience of these things, it will enrich your fic

    It’s not that you can’t write that a wool coat got soaked simply from research, but I think the writer who has the sense memory of it will write a more vivid account.

    So maybe my #5 would be writers should only expound on what they know, don’t go into detail of which you don’t have a visceral understanding.

    As for #8, I once read an article which suggested that everyone may have a book in them, but for some people that book will be the Leeds to Bradford railway schedule (or words to that effect), it has stayed with me. As you rightly suggest, having a book in you, even a useful one, and having a book in you which will enthral readers are two different things.

    Personally, I endeavour to keep my fic away from the Leeds to Bradford end of the spectrum. My success is variable…

    • I agree. Most crime writers will not know what it is like to kill (I hope) but they do know what it is like to be angry, to do something they think is forbidden, to feel guilt, to feel a rush of adrenaline, to want to protect, etc. and those things can all be used to ‘inform’ their writing. That’s the reason very few teenage writers produce masterpieces – they haven’t got the experience to draw on. And of course knowing what a wet wool coat is like is important – but it is not possible for us to know what a space helmet of a futuristic design feels like; we have, again, to extrapolate from what we do know, which could be cycling helmets or could be an actual present day space helmet. Research might well involve trying one on… Research can also mean looking at the Leeds to Bradford railway timetable (that another writer has painstakingly produced) to make sure the timings in the story are correct. I might have experienced the railway journey (and the view) but I can’t hold the whole timetable in my head. So yes, agreeing, basically, with what you said!

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