How 2 Writ Gud: On Why Writing Guides and Tips are Bullshit

Lately, I’ve been looking at some of the articles dedicated to writing here on Medium and I can’t help but wonder: who are these even for? Most of the “tips” that these articles proffer are so generic that they cannot be of any use to anyone, let alone beginning writers. But instead of telling you what I think of writing guides, let me show you instead. Here are some of the more ubiquitous tips that I’ve come across:

“Write everyday.” Okay, I get it! Stop telling me to write everyday! I don’t need a billion articles telling me the same shit over and over as if this particular tip was the one, true ticket to greatness. Shit, Stephen King writes ten books a day and I doubt many people would call him one of the greats.

“Write for yourself.” God, I hate this “tip.” The reason why the internet is aflood with so many trite poems is because all people ever do is “write for themselves” instead of for others or for higher things. Writing isn’t just about me, me, me. And no, I don’t mean you should cater to the reader’s desires and emotions; you should, however, not insult the writer or pretend that art isn’t about communication. What are you communicating to me that hasn’t been said before when you’re writing a screed against your boss in prose broken-up into lines? Expressing yourself is fine, but if you want to be a serious writer you’re going to have to do more. You need to communicate ideas, and you need to do so well.

“Read and write.” No shit.

“Write in the morning.” Not terrible advice as you’re usually without distraction and your mind is, at least, somewhat alert, but it’s not as if this piece of advice guarantees anything. Besides, Wallace Stevens wrote his poetry at night and on weekends. So, how about just write whenever you can? Who gives a shit?

“Write clearly.” This is obvious, of course, but what they really mean by this is that one should avoid long sentences and complexity. This is good advice for hacks who are trying to emulate David Foster Wallace, but imagine someone telling this to Herman Melville, or James Joyce, or Hermann Hesse. Simplicity is good, sometimes, but so is intricacy and ambition.

“Show, don’t tell.” This advice is just dumb. If the author wants to get through information quickly then there’s nothing wrong with merely telling. Not every little detail or movement needs to be tossed at the reader’s face.

“Avoid passive voice.” Yes, your writing should be active and dynamic! Or else you will bore the poor monkey-brains that are trying to finish your novel! Look, there is nothing inherently wrong with passive voice. It’s just another tool that may or may not result in good writing.

“Avoid using cliches.” Yes, cliches like “write everyday” and “write for yourself.”

“Write original characters.” Well, duh. The problem lies in how one should go about this. “Wait, how about giving your character a flaw! What about a special quirk! Make your character wear a funny hat or have a passion for rainbow sherbet! Have you tried giving your character three arms? After all, this is something no one has ever done before!”

“And, most importantly, just do it!” Do what? Go outside? Call your parents? Stick your head in the oven? What? Why are you speaking in riddles?!

Okay, enough of this horse-hockey, I haven’t even gotten to the underlying problem with writing guides: not only are they condescending, but they push an idea that suggests that good writing is something that can be taught. What should be realized is that the best writers came into their own. The greats all have unique voices, disparate not just from one another, but from mediocrities. And this is because a writer, in order to be successful artistically, must take onto his own path. This means that a writer cannot simply read and absorb some advice for writing is a continual process that is most likely going to lead to failure; this is something that writing guides tend to avoid saying, but it’s the truth. Yes, there are some good tips out there, like “read and learn from the masters,” but I never needed to be told that. I’m a talentless hack and I already knew that that was something I should be doing. Humans, whenever they attempt something, always look to others as examples; it’s just a natural part of our collective behavior. What matters is how one absorbs the masters and utilizes what he has gained, but such an ability isn’t taught, nor is it given.

So, why all the articles on writing? Maybe they offer a myth that is comforting not just to the reader, but to the person writing the article, that good writing can be achieved from easily-applicable tips and not just from talent, which is something beyond our control. Maybe writing guides are just easy to write, but the ease probably comes from the fact that the only advice that one can offer in regards to writing is banal. It’s kind of like how certain artists think that the duty of art is to “speak the truth,” but what is the truth exactly? Instead of trying to dissect such an abstraction it’s easier to just offer things everyone has acknowledged to be the truth or a truth. How many poems or stories have you read that have declaimed the shittiness of war, or how about how awful rape is? With writing guides, we get the regurging of the same crap over and over because that is the crap that everyone thinks is good or that works. So, in order to write an article that will be “useful” you gotta write in banalities, but, as a result, the article turns into a nothingness that washes over the wannabee writer.

There is also the fact that there really isn’t anything aside from banalities that one can offer when it comes to writing, or at least when you’re writing an article that targets everyone. As mentioned before, becoming a writer is a solitary task, or succession of tasks. This means that writing guides and tips aren’t really much use for the individual because the individual is already on his path, trying to find his own way; a tip like “be more clear” will just bounce off of him for he’s attempting to discover how he write himself writes. Not saying that there isn’t advice people can offer, but the advice has to be specific to the writer’s needs in order to matter, it can’t be tripe like “don’t use semicolons!” or “not too many run-ons now!”

Originally posted on Medium.

3 thoughts on “How 2 Writ Gud: On Why Writing Guides and Tips are Bullshit

  1. This has probably been one of my favorite reads of the year. Thank you for writing this as it is a direct reflection of my feelings about regarding the matter – word for word. I wanted to write something similar but you did a fine job and there is no need to rehash so I might just share this.

    I feel like this sort of generalized drivel just applies everywhere, not just writing. Just another common example – look at “be healthy guides tips” that are littered with “Eat healthy”, “Sleep well”, and “work out”. What insight! Though, you can’t help but be amused at how this recycled matter of profundity attracts the the crowd.

    [What should be realized is that the best writers came into their own.

    I agree! This is the same kind of hackneyed crap that was conjured up by our middle school or high school professors when they spoke of “good” “writing” and by extension, “good” “art”. They conflated this mentality of general-ism as a wide brush that painted the right stroke, every.time when in reality we all know that’s not how it pans out. And now, the same mentality has transferred over by the boatload over on the www where writing gurus are shredding their wisdom and telling us things like “write everyday” and “create original characters”. Ok, when do I win my Pulitzer? Nobel? ok, ok I’ll settle for the Booker.

    • I’m not just annoyed by the ubiquity of such hacky bullshit, but also by the suggestion that greatness in art is achieved by such simplistic means. It’s like saying Picasso became Picasso via paint-by-the-numbers. This isn’t to suggest that Picasso didn’t learn things from others, but the thing that people miss is the way he applied what he learned/absorbed from others. The “what” (writing good characters or having original prose, etc.) is pretty obvious, but the “how” is what eludes people and separates the good from the mediocre to bad. A few weeks back I was talking to a friend who said a terrible scene in the film “The Quick and the Dead” was good because it showed the main character’s low-point. It’s as if he read a writing guide or was taught by some professor that a movie needs the character to experience his lowest point so the audience will care/feel sympathetic. I told him that just having a low-point for a character doesn’t automatically make the film any good or the character memorable. Just because a movie follows a certain formula that “works” that doesn’t mean the movie itself is good, if anything it usually means the opposite. I also told him that, by his logic, most films churned out by Hollywood are good, but that’s simply not the case. Just having certain elements doesn’t mean anything, it’s how those elements are placed within the narrative.

      Also, you’re right about meager health guides and tips, but it seems like when brainless generalities are applied to art it’s questioned less. We have this idea that everyone can be a good writer, but it’s not as easy as some of these guides suggest. As a result, we get a lot of people whose time would better be served elsewhere trying to be good at something they’re not. It’s like telling someone that he can be a good a basketball player as Kobe if he knows how to dribble a ball and run around a court. It’s disingenuous and manipulative, at best.

      Anyway, thanks for the comment and the reblog as well.

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