The Most Common Writing Advice is the Worst

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“If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping one eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself. You don’t even know yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms.”
- Ray Bradbury
 
Many writers give awful advice to aspiring writers. One of the most common – “Write what you know.”

Terrible advice. Let’s face it, there wouldn’t be any science fiction or fantasy books in the world if we only wrote what we know. All those overweight housewives self-publishing their horrible trashy romance novels about strapping oxen pool boys certainly aren’t writing what they know. What a shame to deprive their depraved readership of slash fan fiction.

“Write what you know” is a very shitty way of saying, “Don’t try to sound like an expert on something when you’re completely fucking clueless. Do some research.”

Like when you’re 15 years old, you can put a grandfather in your story, but don’t try to write a 300 page novel from the point of view of a 70 year old man or you’re just going to sound like an idiot. The opposite holds true too. If you’re 75 years old, you can put a teenager in your story, or reflect upon what your own childhood was like, but don’t try to write a story from the point of view of a teen today or you’ll botch all the slang and end up looking like a clueless fool.

Take myself. In real life, I’m not remotely into team sports. I don’t care about baseball, football, basketball, hockey or soccer. Basically, any sport involving a ball or a team, is of no interest to me. Athletically, I’m into skateboarding, hang gliding, snowboarding, BMX, mountain biking and sports like that. So, I might put a skateboarder in one of my novels, but I’m not going to put a professional baseball player in a book. Why? Because I need to write what I know and I know a hell of a lot about skateboarding and I don’t know shit about baseball.

I’m also 100% straightedge. Clean and sober since the day I was born. Always have been. All my life. Never drank alcohol. Never taken a single drag from a cigarette or a hit off a joint. Never done any illicit drugs. Not once. Not ever. So I can’t write a story about those kind of experiences, because I don’t have any idea what being drunk even feels like. Once again, I’d sound clueless if I tried.

Writing imaginative literature is about dreaming and exploring the fantastical and unknown. In that sense, forget the advice of “write what you know” because it’s bullshit. Just don’t try to sound like you’re informed about something when you’re not.

Prime example, in his wonderful story “The Deathbird” there’s a scene where author Harlan Ellison talks about a character going down through many layers of the earth. He describes mile after mile of the strata in detail and I remember thinking as I read it, “Harlan is a smart guy, but there’s no way he knows all of this!”

Sure enough, I get to the end of the story and he gives thanks to a geologist who helped with the tale.

I was right. Harlan didn’t know that much about geology. So, he educated himself, then he could write what he knew. “Don’t try to sound like an expert on something when you’re completely fucking clueless.”

The other bit of terrible advice to writers? “Read more than you write.”

What?

That’s ridiculous!

Reading is certainly vital to understand the craft of writing, and reading also provides great sources of inspiration, to see what other amazing authors have composed.

But to read more than you write?

You don’t tell an athlete to watch sports more than they train.

You don’t tell dancers to watch dance recitals more than they step into the studio.

Should musicians listen to more music than they compose? Really? Should they listen to music 5 hours a day and write for only 3 hours?

Reading more than you write?

That will make you a great reader, not a great writer.

Improving your writing is only done… by writing! Duh! What kind of idiot thinks reading makes you a better author? Watching movies doesn’t mean you can direct them. Want to direct movies, then direct one. Attending a bodybuilding contest doesn’t improve your physique. Want to be a bodybuilder, then lift weights. Telling authors to read under the assumption it will make them better writers is like the stupid kids I see at the skatepark who play skateboarding videogames and they think they’ll be able to skate the pool. Then they see me drop in the 11′ deep end and they crap their pants. Fatass, snot-nosed little shits who play Tony Hawk videogames all day aren’t learning how to skate by sitting in front of their computer monitors. You aren’t learning how to write by reading a book.

Don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not telling authors they shouldn’t read. Of course not! I’m a writer! Why the hell would I encourage illiteracy? That would be as senseless as a general claiming to be a pacifist. No. I want you to read. I want everyone to read. I want people to read all the time. I want you to constantly have a book on your nightstand. I write books. I love books. I love reading with a passion. Reading is glorious. But I don’t read in order to write better. My motive for reading is that I love to read. Period. And yes, obviously, I’m often inspired by things I read. I get excited when I read something that’s phrased with sheer elegance. When an author wields the foil of language with the prowess to compose phrases which ring with poignant verisimilitude. When an author has the ability to articulate a shared aspect of the human condition I never heard anyone express before; That’s always the most exciting, and rare, spark for me to encounter in reading. Those are the moments I savor. For me, that’s what reading and writing are all about. Capturing the commonality of those moments. Unifying humanity with the glee of knowing we are not alone and others understand the nuance of our existence. Giving a succinct voice to that heretofore unspoken experience.

Reading, for that reason alone, is a delight. As such, reading should retain a mythic delight. You can’t reverse engineer magic. Even a magician doesn’t ask a magician how he does his tricks.

Read because you love to read. Write if you want to be come a better writer.

You really think you can get better at writing through reading, read the dictionary. Improve your vocabulary. Broaden your pool of words. Educate yourself on that.

You want to be a better writer? Write. You want to be a better reader? Read. You want to be a better boxer? Turn off Rocky and climb in the ring. You want to be a better skateboarder, put away the shitty videogame and go outside.

Skaters skate.

Fighters fight.

Writers write.
 
“It is not merely enough to love literature if one wishes to spend one’s life as a writer. It is a dangerous undertaking on the most primitive level. For, it seems to me, the act of writing with serious intent involves enormous personal risk. It entails the ongoing courage for self-discovery. It means one will walk forever on the tightrope, with each new step presenting the possibility of learning a truth about oneself that is too terrible to bear.”
- Harlan Ellison