A lot of people want to give you writing advice. I’ve felt it—trust me, I’ve been there. During my long years trying to break in as a writer, I felt that I never lacked for someone jumping in to tell me how this writing thing had to be done.
I appreciated most of it. Writing is, in most cases, a solitary art. Every bit of advice helps, in its own way, even if all it does is express solidarity. But in most of the sincere suggestions, I also sensed a kind of worried paternalism. The authors offering advice seemed to be saying, “You poor thing. You have no idea what you’re in for.”
Trouble is, neither did they.
You see, every writer’s path is unique. What works every time for one of us will fail brilliantly for another of us. Each bit of writing advice has to be tempered with this terrible knowledge: that for the writer listening, your advice might be the most spectacularly wrong thing that has ever been suggested to them.
For one of us, an outline is a vital tool. For another, it’s a black hole that sucks the life from our story. For one of us, trimming words in revision is the only path to crisp, evocative prose. For another, cutting leads to a sense of empty, white-room syndrome in scenes. Some authors should never stop midstory to do revisions, lest they get lost in an endless cycle of tweaking, and lose all momentum. For others, this process is an essential step in discovering the voice of their characters.
As a writing instructor, this knowledge is daunting. At the same time, it’s intriguing. Each new writer is at the cusp of a grand journey—a journey we have all taken before, yet one where certain tools that worked for me will be useless for you. And at the end, we all arrive at a different place. That’s what makes writing so grand; each of us has something to add, and each of us has something new to discover that no one else could have found.
All of this leads to a question: If the usefulness of writing advice is so unpredictable, then why bother giving (or listening to) it in the first place? Well, unpredictable does not equate to unusable.
Your job as a writer is not to slavishly take every word uttered by a pro as gospel. Instead, you should envision yourself as an explorer. Or, if you will, as a chef.
There are two basic ways to bake a cake. The first, and the one that most of us use, is to follow a set of instructions. I can make a perfectly acceptable cake by doing this, as can most of us. However, I’m not a chef—just a cook, in this metaphor. You see, I don’t know why adding eggs to a cake is important, or what the real difference between baking soda and baking powder is. (I mean, both look like powders to me.)
If you want to make your way from journeyman writer to one creating professional-quality works, you can’t afford to be a cook. You can’t be the person who looks at a list of story ingredients and says, “Huh. Guess I just add these in the order listed.” I read far too many books (and see even more movies) that seem to have been created this way. Take everything that has been successful before, stick them in, bake at 375. Success, right?
That can’t be good enough for you. I want you to think consciously about the choices you make in writing. That’s how you find your way through the journey, and arrive at your unique destination. Just like a good chef knows what happens when you add a specific seasoning at a specific time, I suggest you start analyzing the fiction you love and ask yourself the hard questions.
Many “hero’s journey”-type stories start with an orphan. Why? What does this do to the story? Can you get this effect in a different way?
What really makes people turn the pages in a thriller? What creates this sensation of anxiety in the reader, and why do they enjoy it? What kinds of endings satisfy this emotion, and which ones fall flat for you?
Why do some romances work, while others feel contrived? What ingredients lead to a relationship plot that readers gobble up, and which kinds of relationship plots continue to work after the two characters have gotten together?
Every bit of writing advice you get is a tool that worked for someone. It might work for you. However, chances are that even if it does, it will do something slightly different in your stories than it does in mine. You are the chef, you are the master of your own writing. Don’t just follow a list someone tells you, own the process that you use to create.
At least, that’s the best advice I can give. Unfortunately, it might just be the most spectacularly wrong thing that’s ever been suggested to you.
Try it out and see.
This essay was originally published in Writers of the Future Volume 32.
Brandon Sanderson’s novels include the Mistborn books, Words of Radiance, The Rithmatist, and Steelheart, among others. He completed Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series; the final volume, A Memory of Light, was released in 2013. Brandon also teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University and is a judge for the Writers of the Future Contest.