While working on my MFA, I read something like a half-dozen different full-length books on writing from the perspective of highly successful authors (King, Lamott, Mailer, and McPhee stand out), and the program included more snippets, lectures, interviews, and round-tables on writing.
One challenge that I had to overcome immediately was figuring out how to sort and filter information.
People have a limited ability for information intake and storage, and a limited ability to convert stored information into practice.
So, what’s the best way to look at writing advice?
The first thing is not to sink into dogma. From a cognitive level, assuming that something that you know is written in stone short-circuits the information-to-practice pipeline.
The second is to reject things appropriately.
This requires a balance. The familiar should be re-examined, and the new should not be accepted at face value.
Writers will have unique dispositions based on their personalities and circumstances. My writing output dropped precipitously at almost the exact moment I left my stressful teaching job to do freelancing and my MFA. One reason for this was that I was doing more writing by a script, which removed some of my own incentives to do experimental and practice writing, but the other is that I felt a much greater pressure to produce work of the highest quality.
I did, however, definitely achieve some writing milestones just by breaking the rut. While I had been churning out a thousand words a day for blogging, game design, and freelancing (and that excludes my work output as a teacher, which could vary from day to day as I worked on materials and curriculum), each day’s writing only accomplished the bare minimum for that day’s writing.
Even when I put a lot of effort into games, each piece of writing for them was independent—a cog in the machine, if you will permit the tired metaphor—so I wasn’t getting any exercise writing longer pieces.
The shift from teaching with writing on the side to doing a MFA with writing as the central part of my life shattered my orthodoxy (“hit high output goals”) and made me rethink much of my process and method. My new proposition (“hit perfect quality levels”) was not valid either; my freelancing suffered for it because I was writing less and getting sloppy.
The astute reader will quickly notice a problem: I could describe my method in a single sentence.
I was familiar with King’s idea of professional writers hitting a word-per-day threshold, and I would quickly return to Lamott’s defense of the low-quality first draft that just puts words on paper.
However, because I had no nuance, and I had not picked up and tried more ideas, I was so focused on a particular form of writing that I did not have room for other approaches to writing.
So what’s the right way to take writing advice?
When you’re looking at a book or abstract writing advice, I’d suggest just taking one or two big points from the entire text. From King I’ve taken his writer’s toolkit, though I use it differently than he does in practice. From Lamott I take not worrying about the first draft’s quality and only worrying about the first draft’s existence. From McPhee I took some insights to story structure and showing perspective (he works primarily in non-fiction, but there is a strong association in practice).
Put these things into practice one at a time and then return if you remember other elements that looked promising. That way you can assess each of the changes’ effects on your writing, but it makes the information-to-practice process more fruitful; there’s limited cognitive capacity and doing too much at once lessens the effectiveness of converting abstract information into solid practice.
For practical advice and reference books, like Renne Browne and Dave King’s excellent Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, I suggest a different approach. While you still want to test each point, these books focus on practice already. What makes Browne and King’s work effective is that each chapter follows a particular point that you can follow and includes exercises. I cite their book because I find it more or less to be without fault within the context of my writing, strengthening my good points and improving my weak points.
If you find something from these books unhelpful because you have sufficiently mastered the exercise or because it doesn’t click with your style, you can exclude it. However, putting it into practice a couple times (using the outcome of exercises like five-minute writes as a basis for editing or writing in the laid-out style) can be beneficial even if you ultimately reject the advice as unhelpful because you will get a feel for why or how it is unhelpful to you.
Last but not least is practical and targeted feedback to your work.
This is always a touchy point; feedback can hurt, especially if the person providing it is not good at giving feedback. Feedback is often a shot in the dark, an attempt to identify a solution by looking at a problem, and should always be taken with a grain of salt. Sometimes it’s just a matter of taste, and you can ignore the feedback in practice while noting it as a potential issue.
However, targeted feedback from a workshop, beta reader, or critic is one of the best ways to identify shortcomings in your work. Even when the person giving feedback is limited in sophistication, they can be effective at identifying pain points for readers.
- Synthesize just the key points of abstract works on writing.
- Put practical advice to use and test it experimentally in your writing.
- You don’t have to bow to feedback, but you should consider it.
Making conscious decisions provides writers with a way to improve our methods, but this requires us to understand our limitations. Making radical changes is sometimes necessary to become the best writers we can be, but it is necessary to understand the limits of change. Improvement is a gradual process.