The Only Advice A Writer Needs

I am a sucker for advice. I like tips, I like tricks, I like cheats. I’m part of why Lifehacker is so popular, and why self-help books sell so well. I want people to tell me how to do things better, faster, and more “effectively.” Maybe you can relate.

There are a few reasons why I feel safe offering you this writing advice. First, it has been popping up in my field of view with increasing frequency, leading me to believe that it’s an idea more and more people are trying to force onto the public’s collective conscious, intentionally or otherwise. Perhaps it’s subjective or just a function of the types of people I follow on Twitter and Tumblr, or the types of articles I read, but it seems like this idea is surfacing with increasing regularity, so I thought I’d boost the signal a little further. Additionally, personal experience has started proving truth of this advice. I am not a particularly experienced writer—I’ve only just had my first graphic novel published. But I’ve begun writing a second, using what I’ve learned from the first, as well as other projects in-between, and I’ve been paying more diligent attention to what works and what doesn’t. Each time I apply this advice and find it working for me, I feel as though I’ve discovered a brand new epiphany, and that this advice is the only advice I need to keep myself producing work. But you don’t have to take my word for it. I have heard the same advice from many people I admire and many people of whom I’ve never heard, and in each case it is well-expressed and feels true.

It is this:

Start now. Keep working.

Yes, yes, I know, I know. Boring. Maybe you’ve heard that a few times before. If you’re like me, you haven’t paid much attention to it, because besides being insultingly, blazingly obvious, there doesn’t seem to be much to it. If you’re like me, maybe you think, “yes, that’s all well and good, but that’s not what I was looking for. I was looking for some Writing Advice, not whatever-this-is.” It doesn’t have the satisfying, forehead-slapping, “why didn’t I think of that?” quality that some fun life-hacks have. Storing your bagels on an unused CD spindle, now that’s a hot tip. This old garbage is the same thing you’ve been hearing from teachers and parents and bosses your whole life. Worst of all, it doesn’t sing the siren song of saving you time and effort. Just the opposite; it’s all about putting in more time and more effort. How cruel.

But people seem to agree that it works. The tipping point that lead me to writing this article was this eloquently foul-mouthed post by Tumblr user TheAngryViolinist (heads-up: cuss-words). Besides mentioning the not-insignificant point that this advice applies to all creative endeavours, it touches on discipline and being disciplined, which is related to the advice above; basically, “make yourself do the work.” Why wait for some sort of external force such as “motivation” or “inspiration” to compel you to write when you could just take some initiative and pick up a pencil. Your motivation for wanting to write is that you want to write. So if you’re not motivated to write, then you must not want to write, so why not go and do something you are motivated to do? Don’t wait for inspiration to come—you’ll never get any writing done. Just go write. One day, you may very well look back on something you wrote and you’ll think, “that’s inspired!”

I see this advice pop up a lot on writer/artist Austin Kleon’s wonderful Tumblr. He shares a helpful attitude towards overcoming “creative blocks” and moving forward with work, including this quote from artist Chuck Close: “Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.” The full, more inspiration-hostile quote can be read in another of Kleon’s posts. Regardless of your opinion of Close, this is solid advice. If you prefer, Kleon’s “we’re all amateurs, let’s just sit down and play” suggestion carries the same spirit, but in a more lighthearted package.

Perhaps you will notice a popular theme among this advice from Erskine Caldwell, Robert Fuoss, Francois Sagan, and Rod Serling, among others. Roger Ebert agrees. I don’t know Jeff Goins’ work, but I share his eagerness to express this advice. Maybe it seemed too obvious to Ernest Hemmingway to state explicitly, but you can feel it underscoring these insights gleaned from his writing. Harlan Ellison would have agreed.

W.G. Sebald said, “don’t listen to anyone. Not us [authors], either. It’s fatal.” After all, writing is a highly personal process, and everyone does it differently, so this makes sense… as long as we’re talking about individual working habits or personal approaches to doing the work. Keeping a dictionary close at hand may be good, specific advice for one writer, but may not apply to another, for whom it could be a distraction. We can safely assume, though, that even Sebald would agree that putting in the work is good advice. If you don’t do the work, nothing will get made, so you’re almost logically bound to accept this “do the work” advice over and above any notions of finding a personal method that doesn’t involve as many pencil-miles. How you put in the work is your own business, but you still have to do it.

Yes, some days you will feel it’s easier to write than on other days. You’ll feel more “motivated.” When you’re not, you may feel like you’re missing a technique that other writers must have to help them avoid these days of lowered motivation. That’s when this tip comes in handy. On those days when I’m not feeling in a particularly writery/drawery mood, I’ll want to do almost anything except sit down with the pencil/paper or keyboard. Only experience will teach you that once you get going and do something, you’ll forget how little you wanted to get started. When it came time to make a second pass at this very blog post, I dithered for an hour, actively avoiding the task by making lunch and doing other small nonsense-things. Two sentences in, I felt as though doing anything except working on this post was a great waste of my time.

Would you like to prove this principle to yourself quickly? Sign up for NaNoWriMo—National Novel-Writing Month—and stick to the program, which takes place over the month of November. It’s the writerly equivalent of Boot Camp. Your goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in a month. The quality of your novel is not important. My novel was abysmal. That’s all right, though, because I discovered that having written a novel is not the most important takeaway from NaNoWriMo. The personal habits and the modified attitude toward writing are the real treasures. You’ll get used to having to write a certain amount of words every day, you’ll get used to having to make time for it, and you’ll get used to making horrible garbage nonsense writing. You may even begin to feel comfortable making horrible garbage, and this is a good feeling. You will have little choice but to become comfortable with disciplining yourself into writing, and that feels good, too.

So go out and prove the truth of this frustratingly banal advice for yourself, and come to the same epiphany I came to. Whatever you need to do to make yourself do the work, embrace it. It won’t take too many projects to discover the details of how you work best, at which point the idea of putting in the hours won’t seem like such a frustrating obstacle, and you’ll come to accept it as a necessary part of the process. Initially, it won’t make anything easier, but the practise and the exercise will gradually strengthen your writer’s muscles and you’ll begin to feel more confidence in your craft. Eventually, someone might ask you how you got to the point you’re at. There may be tips and tricks you can offer that might work, but the one idea you’ll realize you can safely pass on, knowing it’s reliable, is that you have to do the work, and you might as well start doing it now.


Tony Cliff is a contributor to the Flight series of anthologies, has been nominated for Shuster and Harvey awards, and has three times been nominated for an Eisner award. Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant is his first published graphic novel.

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