No Absolutes in Writing #1

There is www.absolutewrite.com which is a great website and definitely exists.

I’ve been troubled recently by how many people I see giving absolute advice* to aspiring, struggling, or neurotic writers (these are not mutually exclusive, as you’ll know if you’ve ever met a writer).

*I’m not entirely sure if advice can be described as absolute. Although absolute is one of those adjective thingies, right? I’m not so good with… what you call ’em… you know, those things… WORDS! That’s it, words. Thank god I don’t need them for my livelihood! 

It’s not only plain stupid to give absolute advice when there is no single right way to write. It’s also damaging and demotivating.

In this series I’ll go over some of the most common absolute advice I see and why it’s MORE WRONG THAN THIS:

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Absolute Advice: You must write every day even when you’d rather make love to a cactus. Often this is given with an arbitrary daily word limit, like “you must write 500 words a day even when you’d rather make love to a cactus.”

The wisdom behind it: Adherents of this absolute advice (alliteration always!) seem to think your writing skills will rust if you have a day off, and/or you’re so undisciplined that if you have a day off you’ll never sit at a keyboard again.

I think others take an often quoted ‘rule’ literally: “the first 1,000,000 words are practice” or “throw away the first 1,000,000 words you write” as if word 1,000,001 will be of such breathtaking beauty that the world will draw a collective breath of admiration and cause an oxygen deficiency that’ll immediately extinguish all aerobic bacteria and plunge us into a short spiral of disease, death and ultimately extinction.

I’m not a sci-fi writer so no need to tell me how wrong the last portion of that outrageously long sentence was.

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Sensible Advice: Some people have to give themselves rigid targets and goals to motivate themselves. That’s fine.

But the evidence suggests that, for most of us, forcing ourselves to work every day is detrimental to productivity, not helpful.

Firstly, let’s debunk that 1,000,000 word ‘rule’. The origins seem to be a 1993 paper by Dr. Anders Ericsson which concluded that most talents (such as sports or playing musical instruments) are the result of at least 10 years of practice. This was expanded by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers where he concluded that to be world class at something, like violin playing, one must put in 10,000 hours of dedicated practice. Somebody somewhere decided that for writers this means writing 1,000,000 words.

I have many issues with this. ISSUES.

  1. The number is so arbitrary it’s ridiculous. Who decided writers produce 100 words an hour? I do 3,000 when there’s no WiFi. 12 if there is.
  2. Gladwell’s ‘rule’ was for people to become WORLD CLASS. The book is called Outliers for a reason, people. Most published authors are not world class and have no need to be.
  3. The key, as both Gladwell and Ericsson have stated, is in the way you practice. 1,000,000 words torn out of a writer’s bleeding, hate-filled hands are not going to advance her writing skills. It takes applied, dedicated practice to master an art. You can’t sit down at a keyboard and bash out asodak soakd oasd koas kdo adka oaos kaodk asoda for thirty minutes a day and expect to write Lolita by 2026. I know because my cat’s been doing that for 15 years and he’s yet to produce a single novel, the lazy bastard.

So can we agree to stop misinterpreting Ericsson’s work and Gladwell’s book? Thanks. (Lads, I’ll send you my bank details for the payment.)

Next argument.

If we look at writing as a job then a whole bunch of studies show we’re making ourselves less productive if we do it every day. Employees are more productive when they take breaks–both shorter breaks throughout the day and longer holidays/vacations.

Capture.PNG TRUTH.

If we look at writing as a hobby, why do you have to force yourself to carry out your hobby?

Hobbies are meant to be fun. That’s the point of them. They should be called funbies.

If it wasn’t fun, why would anybody do it? Let’s face it–fiction writing has a terrible financial return. Pick a book off the shelves of your local Waterstones or Barnes and Noble and the odds are that author still has a day job. S/he is published, in print, in huge bookstores, and  still isn’t making enough to support him/her self.

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We’re probably not going to get rich from writing. Do it because you love it, when you love it. Yes, okay, maybe you need to write through a bad couple of days where you feel funky but you really want to get that chapter finished. But if you’re having to force yourself more days than you’re doing it for fun… why do it to yourself?

Life’s too short. Don’t force yourself to do a funbie that makes you want to reach for the nearest cactus.

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Next in this series will be the bloody infuriating “YOU ARE EITHER A PLANNER OR PANTSTER” mandate.

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15 thoughts on “No Absolutes in Writing #1

  1. Reprobate Typewriter says:

    I love this post! I admit I’m usually aiming for a per-day goal, but writing is such a personal talent/line of work that the trick seems to be finding what works for you, which will, of course change regularly, according to circumstances and mood.

    Liked by 1 person

    • annakalingauthor says:

      Precisely! There are periods where I resent having to go to bed because I want to stay up and write until the early hours. There are periods where I need to take a complete break so I can look at a draft with fresh eyes. It’s whatever works for you at that particular moment in time.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Nathanielle Sean Crawford says:

    I’ve come to a point where I take all advice with a grain of salt. Although, in fairness, if I accept “Write every day, even if you don’t want to” from anyone, it’s usually from someone who has made a name for themselves as a writer. And if it’s the only piece of advice they give, then all that means is that they are telling you the basic fundamental rule, but otherwise letting you figure it out yourself.

    Personally, I have to write everyday, or I’m afraid of what else I would do with the thoughts in my head. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • annakalingauthor says:

      If it works for you then it’s great advice! For others, it’d be a death knell. buggybite introduced me to a quote from Ann Rice where she says she often goes months without writing. I’m sure for every bestseller you find who says “you must write every day!” you’ll find one who says “you don’t need to write every day”.

      As you say, it’s figuring out what works for you as a writer. There’s a lot of trial and error for most of us. That’s what first drafts are for, right? 😀

      Like

  3. Nathanielle Sean Crawford says:

    And let me also add that yes, I am totally looking forward to more entries from this series, as it’s been something on my own mind a lot recently. So I will be subscribing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Lillith says:

    Awesome post! Though if we’re trying to be fair, the advice to write every day is more flexible than people think and probably something more aspiring authors should at least try. Often times people balk at scheduling something creative like writing for no other reason than they think the greats didn’t have to make time and they shouldn’t either. Of course, others know this to be false. But the sentiment still persists to the detriment of those writers buying into it.

    A writer should be trying a variety of methods in order to see what actually works best for them instead buying into one philosophy or another.

    My problem with the advice is how it is thrown around, a soundbite. What they probably mean is that if you have only 15 mins a day to write, then get down those words and build the habit of writing. If you only have one day a week, then write and build the habit of writing. If you want to write, particularly to get published, push yourself and work. There are days you’re going to feel like not writing and that’s ok, just don’t make a habit of coming up with excuses to take the day off all the time etc. Remember that writing more often can help with things like “writers block” etc.

    Personally, I definitely can see how it would benefit me to write more often. And I can see how it would better accomodate someone who is a “pantser” and may lose the thread of the story if they go too long between writing sessions while waiting for the writing gods to give them inspiration. But the delivery of what is sound advice when examined closer and in a more neutral fashion certainly leave a lot to be desired.

    Liked by 1 person

    • annakalingauthor says:

      I think the best thing any writer can do is play around with different techniques until they find what works for them. I went through a HUGE learning curve with my first novel and learned a lot about what does and doesn’t work for me. But I know there are writers out there who will stick rigidly to the “rules” established writers give them, get discouraged when it doesn’t work, and give up.

      Like

      • Lillith says:

        Sure. But I don’t think that’s the fault of someone giving the advice provided they’re not giving it in soundbite form. Some people are just literal minded and easily put off. I wasn’t. But I’m also the sort of person that is very much an “Oh, yeah. We’ll see about that type.” I love a challange.

        Like

  5. Caroline Cairn says:

    I have energy and motivation spikes, which means that one day I’ll type furiously on my keyboard, my ideas will be flying and I will marvel at how many words I’ve produced (“woo, look at me, I’ve passed the 17K today!”) and the next, I will open my manuscript file and leave it redundant behind Candy Crush Soda, or a hilarious video of a cat on YouTube, and darn maybe I need to do some laundry and tidying up because the kids’ socks are moving by themselves.
    I have the luxury of being self-published, which means no deadline. So on those productive days, I try and achieve as much as I can. Days I can’t be bothered, I pass another level on Candy Crush. That’s life.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Michelle Athy says:

    Definitely keeping an eye on this. I try to write everyday, but you know, sometimes life happens and I’m tired and I’d rather watch Netflix than try to figure out a problem I’m having in a story.

    By the way, I, too, produce about 12 words if I don’t turn off my WiFi while writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Catherine says:

    I once signed up for one of those ‘write ____ words per day’ websites designed to help you do just that, with prompts and images and whatnot intended to lure the creative gods to your side. All it actually did was annoy me when it popped up in my inbox with it’s ‘cute’ daily reminders. I found myself AVOIDING writing… Not good.

    Then there’s this week…where every single day, without fail, I have begun my workday deciding how little I can get away with accomplishing because I found out that hey! they left Google Docs unblocked on my work comp! I seriously think I’ve written more while surrounded by piles of un-filed, unorganized brickabrack than I ever have with ‘guidelines’ or ‘deadlines’ or ‘writing schedules.’ Nice to see I’m not alone in somehow functioning better in disorganization than in…well, any other set-up, ha!

    Also, hi, just found your blog, love it! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • annakalingauthor says:

      Welcome! I think I have the brain of a six year old that hates being told what to do and will do something else even if it secretly wants to do the thing it was told to do. It also likes clunky overlong sentences. 😀

      Like

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