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Lots of writers give writing advice -- but why do they so often contradict each other?

For example, some say that "good writing is rewriting", while others (like Dean Wesley Smith) say that rewriting is bad.

How can a novice writer learn in the face of contradictory advise?

closed as primarily opinion-based by Cyn, JP Chapleau, Jason Bassford, Ken Mohnkern, Josh Nov 16 '18 at 16:13

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    OP, your edit substantially changes the question -- from the much more general "why do different writers give conflicting advice" to the much more specific case of opinions on re-writing. I'm going to propose an edit that focuses on your original question. – Standback Nov 14 '18 at 8:26
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Edit: this question was initially about a lack of consensus on writing advice, and has more recently focused on the pros and cons of rewriting. I'm adding this paragraph at the top to address that issue, but keeping the rest of the answer as is for now. I looked up what Dean Wesley Smith actually said, and it confirmed my suspicions. On the one hand, every novel that was ever published probably got heavily edited beforehand; on the other hand, your first novel won't be publishable no matter what you do to it, so Smith recommends getting several under your belt until you're at a worth-rewriting point. In other words, what you should really re-jig at first is your style, not one particular manuscript. I definitely know from my experience that both "hands" in this comparison contain a certain amount of truth. Actually, this gets to a general point that fits the previous answer draft in the paragraphs below: you often get conflicting advice that's aimed at different people, e.g. are you brand new to writing or "almost there"?

When you get a writer's advice, they mix two things: what they in turn have learned from others, and what they themselves do. For example, maybe there's a specific way they get enough words done in a day, or a way they plan their plot or characters before they start drafting, or a way they timetable their revisions. They don't really know how much those things would help you; they just know what works for them.

As for advice from others, bear in mind it almost never traces all the way back to the original source. Arguably it shouldn't, because we may be better informed by now, partly due to new ideas, partly due to modern readers feeling different. But there are times when repeatedly copying ideas causes just enough nuance to be lost that people debate certain versions and have views on them and suggest something else. You'll see this in action whenever writers discuss adverbs, showing, dialogue tags, darling-killing etc. So while it might help to skim a few guides to inculcate "write this way, not that one" rules into your style, there's no substitute for reading whatever kind of writing you're being guided on. For example, Ben Blatt found that it's -ly adverbs, not adverbs per se, that are underused in successful and acclaimed writers, including Stephen "I advised people to use fewer adverbs, without Blatt's nuance" King.

Finally, you should want different kinds of advice from different writers to an extent. For example, if you want to write fantasy, those who've done it before will help you through the world-building challenge it brings, which, say, real-world romance doesn't have to do. But it will mean a very different style. And if you're looking beyond your debut book to that 300,000-word epic you'll write later, even though it's still fantasy you need different advice again. And let's not even get started on MG vs YA vs NA etc. It's just that people often say "do X" instead of "do X if you want to write story type 14-B, which is what I did".

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    I completely agree, for example: very often, advice is exaggerated when it's directed to novice writers. While it's good advice to say 'use fewer adverbs', the truth is that it more often than not takes the form of 'every adverb is bad - get rid of them'. This type of exaggeration, I feel, is because a novice writer might take the 'fewer' as cut a few out, where they may need to cut many more. Unfortunately, some writers who started out with it may keep holding it as gospel truth later on. – Sara Costa Nov 14 '18 at 11:21
  • @SaraCosta Very true. The exaggeration is probably necessary early on for the reason you gave. I'm sure that accords with some principle of the classic Made to Stick. I'd better re-read it. – J.G. Nov 14 '18 at 19:16
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Because writing is subjective.

Some people might say that 'bestsellers' are often trashy and terrible writing and that highbrow 'literary' work is better.

But why is the opinion of a few necessarily more valid than the opinion of the masses?

Perhaps it is, if they have studied a subject and are experts. But if reading is about pleasure, then isn't everyone an expert in their own right?

The point I'm trying to make is that there is no objective right or wrong in writing, so it shouldn't be surprising that people will give different opinions.

However, to address your second point, which is, how to proceed in the face of such conflicting advice...

The answer is that you have to learn the craft yourself from your own experience and self- education. So, when faced with two different pieces of advice, try them both, and see what works for you.

Personally, my first draft is always extremely ropey, and I don't expect to keep a single word of it by the time I've finished. Others take more care with their first drafts and require less rewriting. Neither of us is wrong.

Likewise, Stephen King said thesauruses are for losers (I'm paraphrasing) but I strongly disagree with that. Sure if you use a thesaurus to increase the complexity of your writing, and use words you don't really understand that you find there, then that's problematic. But I use the thesaurus to find a word that's already on the tip of my tongue, and it serves me well.

Another common piece of advice given to beginners is 'show don't tell'. This is a great piece of advice, but that doesn't mean you have to be completely dogamtic about it. The point is to know exactly why you are using telling when you are, rather than doing it without realising.

Finally, the same for adverbs, the other dirty word in newbies' advice. Of course you can use adverbs, but if you use them badly (!) your writing will stand out as amateur.

In summary - see what works for you and don't be dogmatic about it.

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It's all based on opinion. What works for one author doesn't for another. Creative writing is not at all a science, it's an art.

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No two people, professional or otherwise, have the exact same writing style or process. Since people give advice from their own personal experiences with writing it's natural that no two people agree on any given aspect of the process. I would suggest that you take any advice offered from authors you like to read and/or want to emulate and let the rest lie.

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Different writers give different advice depending on what bit them the hardest when THEY were learning to write.

Every beginner has different strengths and weaknesses, the same goes for beginning writers. So they tend to give advice on what they found difficult when starting out, and tend to have less advice on the tasks they found came easily. If they are a natural at dialogue, they probably don't have much advice on that, because naturals are often going by feel or sound and haven't formulated any good rules for making dialogue sound natural: To them, it just does, or it doesn't and they fix it.

The same thing goes for plotting, poetic description, turns of phrases, and so on. The same thing goes for whether they feel they need to rewrite many times, or if when they re-read it all sounds perfectly fine to them.

I am a discovery writer, so I don't plot, I don't do "character interviews" or even figure out what my characters LOOK like exactly. I have no checklist of character traits to assign up front, I figure it all out as I go along. I throw a lot out, I rewrite a LOT, I probably write at least twice as much as I publish.

But my approach is not for everyone.

Most advice you will get is idiosyncratic to the author. It may or may not apply to you; figure out what problem the advice would solve, and assume the author had that problem and this was the solution she found that worked for her, but presented as a universal truth (which it often is not).

Advice is like a jacket or pants, you have to try it on and see if it fits. And always remember, just because somebody is wildly successful does not mean they know how they got there. Sometimes they were just lucky, and sometimes they are just naturals working by subconscious rules they cannot explain; their only true lesson may be, "When my writing sounds right to me, then it sells." In other words, what they know (or just are) is not always transferable knowledge.

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If you would get specific, about a specific point, the writers here can tell you the pros and cons of specific stuff. If you're specifically talking about Dean Wesley Smith, --his advice on daring to be bad, on not rewriting, is likely best applied to mainly to FIRST DRAFTS only--as in his advice is to get it on the dang page. It also applies to never letting go of your writing because you fear it's not good enough--some writers have a problem with that.

Early in his career he just started sending things as soon as the typos were taken care of, just to get things out there.

That's a process-based thing, but no writer I have ever known personally does NO rewrites at all during the process. Even the very dude you're quoting admits to rewriting. Every writer ends up rewriting something, even if they call it an "edit" after the first draft is through. Those who do outlines might not have to cut or rewrite specific plot-points, but nearly everyone, rewrites. Doesn't mean it will work for you.

As to why some writers are into rewriting while they are doing their first draft and others are not--that's all about what works for you.

If you need guidance, choose a formula or method and try it out. Then find out if it works for you. That's a bit maddening, because you might think there's something universal in writing, but...there often isn't. Some writers outline, others don't, some rewrite as they go, others leave it for later, some don't rewrite at all.

  • I'll see if i can change the title so as to make the question more specific. – user394536 Nov 14 '18 at 6:35
  • "his advice on daring to be bad, on not rewriting, applies mainly to FIRST DRAFTS only" That's not correct. He repeatedly says that writers should just write once, make necessary typo corrections, and then "just send the work straightaway". He advises against doing multiple drafts - his basic message is that there should be ONLY ONE draft: the first draft. – user394536 Nov 14 '18 at 7:00
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This is true not just of writing but of any but the simplest of tasks a person might do. I'm a software developer by profession, and I've read lots of conflicting advice about how to write software over the years. I've read conflicting opinions about everything from what sort of trade policy the government should enforce to how often to change the oil in your car.

I read a statement by an old farmer once who said that in the old days, a farmer just planted seed in the ground and prayed for rain, but today he must carefully study advice from government agencies and university agronomy experts and corporate research departments, carefully evaluate all of them, and choose that for his own use which will do him the least harm.

How do you decide what to make of conflicting advice? Consider it logically. Does it make sense to you? Does it apply to your situation? Try it out. There's an old saying among scientists: An ounce of experiment is worth a pound of theory. Does it work when you try it? For something like writing, what works for someone else may not work for you. You may have different skills, different style, etc.

Just for example, some writers work well with an outline: first put together a basic structure, what comes first, what comes second, etc. The fill in text to expand the outline. Others work better if they throw a lot of text at the paper, get all their ideas out, and then try to clean it up and organize it. I don't think it would be accurate to say that one method is "right" and the other is "wrong", or that one is better or worse than the other. They're just different styles. See what works for you.

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Why do expert fiction writers often give conflicting and contradictory > advice to novice writers?

Specific Details Fail

Because advising writers often focus on specific details. They focus on things like : what kind of writing instrument should you use? when should you write?

When they should be concentrating on showing writers common usages that work and why.

Common Usages

  • Show, Don't Tell
  • Avoid Adverbs, Use Strong Verbs
  • Use Active Language Over Passive

These are a few. They are not rules. They are guides. It takes more work to describe these things also and most advising authors dont want to take that time.

less good / tell:

He felt sad that he had been rejected by the beautiful woman.

The author has told you how he felt. He has not allowed the character to act it out before you to expose the story to you.

better / show:

Stanley looked up at the beautiful red-head standing in front of him.

"Would...would...would you like to go out for a drink, Margaret?"

Margaret wrinkled her nose as if she smelled something bad. "Uh, you're just not my type, Stanley." She scurried over to the office printer and fumbled with its buttons.

Stanley let his shoulders fall and he slouched over as he scuffled back to his desk. He sat down in his chair and dropped his head to his desk and sniffed as a tear formed in his eye.

Examples Are Not Always Great

Additionally, examples are not always great (due to time constraints) so learners may not consider the better example good and may think the whole thing is bunk anyways.

Passive v. Active

Passive - The man was punched in the nose.

Active - Bart punched Albert in the nose.

You can tell who was punched. Now the scene is happening to someone.

Even better, have a POV character.

Bart punched Albert in the nose. Albert fell back into the chair behind him and clutched his face. Did Bart know about Lisa? Albert looked up at Bart. "Why'd you go and do that?"

It takes a lot of work to actually describe these foundational things which are basics of storytelling. And, even then people get caught up on them. But, there are some things that can get a person writing better stories faster.

I learned these from the books of writer Gary Provost. Read the excerpt from Make Every Word Count and I'm sure you'll agree there are some things that can be taught. Gary was a master at teaching those things.

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It's [not] a Conspiracy

There are no simple, black-and-white rules to writing a perfect story; there is no secret. Writing is a complex endeavor, which different people approach in different ways, yielding radically different results.

You have to use your own judgment

If a particular piece of writing advice helps you produce more and/or better writing, then that advice is good for you (but might not be helpful to someone else).

What does better writing look like, though? That's another place you will have to use judgment.

  • There's a good point behind this answer, but I find that the sarcasm overwhelms it. The OP asked this question in good faith; could you try to improve the tone of this answer? Thank you. – Monica Cellio Nov 16 '18 at 3:11
  • Yeah, it's easy to forget that sarcasm can come off much more harshly when delivered to a stranger in print. – Jedediah Nov 16 '18 at 13:37
  • Thanks for the edit -- much better! Tone is hard to convey in text alone and people here come from a wide range of backgrounds with different norms around interaction styles, so it's best to assume that people won't always read it the way you intended. – Monica Cellio Nov 16 '18 at 14:37

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