When I first started writing, I devoured just about every “how to” book and article I could get my hands on. (This was before blogs really came of age, or I’m sure I would have devoured my share of those, too.) Many were excellent, some were good, and some (I now know) were just bad. Most of the ones that fell into the “bad” category touted “One Way to Be a Writer,” or some such nonsense. The gist of these books and pieces is that you must follow this one piece of advice or one writer’s process if you want to be successful.
As I’ve spent more time among writers who write and publish in every field, genre, and form of writing, the one thing I’ve learned is that every writer has their own process. No two writers are the same, yet we seem to expect that there should be some commonality, some overarching thing that all successful writers share. There isn’t. (Other than we all put words on the page, that is.)
Writing isn’t like assembling a car. Tab A does not always fit into Slot B and there is no rule that you have to have assembled the beginning before you can assemble the end. The parts don’t come down the conveyor belt in order and wait for you to stick them on the page.
Yet aspiring writers seem to want an exact formula. To some extent, I can understand this desire. It would be great if you could boil success down to a formula that everyone can follow. Publishing is often a harsh and unforgiving place and a road map that could guide you around all the pitfalls and looming disasters sure would be nice.
At the same time, however, having such a formula would take all the fun out of writing and would turn it into the aforementioned assembly line. It would remove the personal from writing and the personal is what makes each writer, story, article, and publication unique. And even if you could achieve such a thing, why would you want to? I think that it’s exactly the lack of rules, the idea that any person, no matter how odd or quirky, can succeed that makes writing so appealing.
Beware of anyone who tells you that there is one way to do anything, or that something “always” works. (Note that this is sound advice for many pursuits, not just writing. Unless there is a safety or legal concern involved, in which case you’re probably better off sticking with always.) Nothing is ever 100%. What works for one writer rarely works for others.
Yes, there are industry conventions that you need to follow, such as sending proper query letters and submission packages, but how the actual work gets done is totally up to you. Some people start at the end and work backward. Some start in the middle. Some write every day. Some write once a month. Some start in the morning, others work late into the night. Some pursue advanced degrees and MFA’s, others get their GED. Whatever you do needs to work for you, not for some random person. So what if Author X writes every morning and is a bestseller? If you can’t get out of bed before noon and be happy, this advice is never going to work for you.
If there were one way to writing success, someone would have found it by now. That it hasn’t been found tells you all you need to know.
Ignoring the one way applies to publishing as well as writing. Many people will swear that traditional publishing is better than self-publishing and vice versa. At this point in time with the opportunities that are available in self-publishing, it really comes down to a matter of personal preference. Or you can go the hybrid route and self-publish some of your work and traditionally publish the rest. You can go with a small house or a big house. What matters is how much you enjoy what you’re doing and how much effort you’re willing to put in. You can succeed or fail spectacularly in either case, so choose the path you prefer and that works for your goals, not the one that someone touts as “perfect.”
You can also apply this advice to marketing. Some people will swear that there are certain things you have to do to get your work out there. Maybe, maybe not. What worked for that person might not work for you. You might not enjoy it, or it might not apply to your type of work. Figure out how to reach your intended audience and then pair that with things that interest and excite you. So what if it’s not the “one way?” Enthusiasm and quirkiness tends to lead to more success than does following a rote formula that people have seen a thousand times before.
There’s nothing wrong with taking in all kinds of advice, just don’t get locked in to the idea that one way is the surefire path to success. Take the advice that works for you and either discard the rest, or modify it to suit your purposes. Combine several “one ways” into a new method that works for you. Be like the chef who breaks apart several recipes and recombines them into something great. Or be the chef who doesn’t follow a recipe at all, instead experimenting until he creates something unique. The truth is, if there were one way to writing success, someone would have found it by now. That it hasn’t been found tells you all you need to know.
(Photos courtesy of DodgertonSkillhause, geralt)
Great advice Jennifer. I too tend to read every advice book that I can get my hands on. I’ve been blogging for over a year, and have just now figured out a routine. I have to balance all the advice with having a full-time job and trying to write on the side.
Every day I thank the stars that I’m older than the internet. Had it been around when I was just starting out to write, I’m sure I’d never have gotten anything done because I’d have spent so much time reading and surfing all the advice out there. It can be paralyzing! Fortunately, I mastered my routines and processes in a quieter age and now I only have to make sure that the internet noise doesn’t interfere too much.
Right, and spot-on, Jennifer. Formula How-to make for formulaic writing, also. By definition we have too much of that already.