I firmly believe that all good writing advice is generalized to the point of uselessness by its third retelling.
You know the sort of advice I’m talking about. It takes the form of the tired maxims your critique group can’t stop themselves from repeating, the literary platitudes from a once-great author whose work began to flag about the time they started handing out literary platitudes, and the pithy dictums around which entire advice books are written—advice books which spend most of their length trying to backfill their pithy dictums with common sense.
Why don’t rules and maxims produce better writing? The answer can be found at the heart of every romcom and uplifting Disney movie you’ve ever seen: you are one of a kind. Except, this time it’s actually true! Your writing is a unique and special thing, even if it’s terrible. That may sound mean-spirited, but I’m serious. Your crappy writing is still one of a kind, which is why it won’t get noticeably better after you take out every other adverb, apply some paint-by-numbers plot structure to your trite story concepts, or force the inane thoughts of your paper-thin characters into a rigidly limited point of view. (Okay, that last one really was mean-spirited, but don’t expect an apology.)
Simply put, no writing advice is universal. The deeper secret hiding behind every “secret of writing” is knowing when to apply that secret. If you don’t, no pithy dictum can improve your work, because you’re just painting over rotten wood.
So how do we know when to apply generalized advice to the special snowflake that is our own writing? I’m sorry to inform you that the only solution is deliberate, critical analysis and honest self-reflection. Yeah, I know; that’s the sort of garbage you were trying to get away from when you started writing, but you’ll just have to endure it a little longer.
You can take the first step by reading constantly. Read broadly in genre but selectively in quality. Read something from every nook and cranny of the literary universe, as long as it isn’t crap. Over time, you’ll develop an almost instinctual sense for what works and what doesn’t.
With this reservoir of common sense to draw on, you’re ready to start thinking about how both general writing advice and individual critiques apply to your own writing. This is the time to join a writing group, if you haven’t already. You’ll find personalized critiques infinitely more valuable than entire volumes full of advice books.
Or you will, if you take the time to analyze the root of those critiques. This is the most important and perhaps the most commonly botched step in becoming a better writer. Many budding wordsmiths examine a critique of their writing, correctly recognize that the reader has found a flaw, and make the critical mistake of taking their advice on how to fix it. Do not fall into this trap. Unless your critique partner knows your voice inside and out, their advice is probably too generalized to be of use to you. Instead, you’ll thank your wonderful critique partner, who has done you such a service in giving you an opportunity to improve yourself, and then ignore them. At least, you’ll ignore their proposed solution. Instead, you’ll go off, think about the root of the problem, and find a solution that works for you—a solution that fits your voice and style.
If this seems like a lot of work to fix one little flaw in one little story, or if you’re casting longing glances at that shelf full of advice books and their promise of easy solutions, remember that you’re in this for the long haul. You’re not just correcting flaws in a story, but flaws in a writer, and there’s no secret shortcut for that. You simply have to build up the writer within that mortal shell, piece by piece, year by year, until your unique voice comes through.
Robyn Bennis is an author and scientist living in Mountain View, California, where she consults in biotech but dreams of airships. The Guns Above is her debut novel.