Why it’s best not to always listen to writing advice columns

Editor Jennifer Richards is happy to hold her hands hands up and start this piece by acknowledging the irony in writing an advice column about why you shouldn’t listen to advice columns… Hopefully, by the end, we’ll have figured our way out of that Catch 22*

I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since I was five, when I first wrote a short story about best friends living under a tree (riveting I know). Since then, I’ve trolled through all the articles giving all the best advice in how to make this dream come true. In fact, I read so many of these articles, I managed to scare myself off from writing.

Because I didn’t have the time to write every day, or the energy to get up an hour before school/work to write, or the ability to keep a diary, or even to remember to carry a notepad with me wherever I go… And I thought if I can’t even follow these simple tips writers are giving me, what kind of writer am I? It’s better off not to try.

But advice columns aren’t gospel. You could follow every piece of advice ever given on how to be a successful playwright, and still find yourself no further along in your career. It’s unlikely that someone else’s writing rules are going to be the exact fit for you. Because writing is a creative profession, and there’s no one way, and definitely no right way, to ‘be a writer’.

I became so obsessed with the idea of writing every day so I would ‘be a writer’, I started working on a story in my phone notes every morning on the bus ride to work. Then my phone broke.

And because I had been squeezing in writing when I really wasn’t concentrating on it, I hadn’t had the chance to back up what I had been doodling down on my phone.  So the story was gone.

Though, truth be told, the terrible plot I had been writing about an alien with a pet demon dog probably wasn’t worth saving… I produce much better work when I have creativity strike, rather than forcing it into a bus ride and subsequently inducing travel sickness.

But you might be someone who loves writing a bit every day, or maybe you set aside one day a month that you dedicate completely to writing, or perhaps you only write every couple of months. Whatever you do, and whichever way you go about it, you’re still a writer. You don’t need to jump through hoops, particularly hoops someone else has set up, to prove this.

Don’t get me wrong, learning tips and tricks from writers you admire is a brilliant thing. I’ve learnt so much from playwrights I love and have had the fortune to work with, meet, or read their advice, but it’s about how you apply their advice to your own way of writing, rather than just following their advice blindly.

I so desperately wanted to be the writer who gets each scene perfect before moving onto the next, as that’s what one of my favourite playwrights said they did in an advice piece, but I just don’t work that way. And trying to force myself to write like that meant my productivity levels just stopped.

I work best by writing a terrible first draft without letting myself do any edits before going back through it again and basically creating a whole new script. That certain piece of advice just hadn’t been applicable to the way I write, and that didn’t mean my way, or her way, was wrong. Instead of doing it scene-by-scene as she suggested, I moulded the advice to fit my writing style, and used her tips on polishing scenes once I’d finished my whole first draft.

And, the truth is, you can only read so many advice columns before it stops becoming advice, and is just another form of procrastination scaring you off from writing (though, of course, you should definitely finish reading this one…)

Playwrights sharing tips and tricks are a lovely way of offering support, not something you should use to berate yourself, believing that you must be writing ‘wrong’ just because you don’t write every day or keep a diary. Write how you want. Write when you want. Write once a day. Write once a month. Write once a year. Keep a diary. Don’t. Whatever you do or whichever way you do it, you’ll still a writer. Now, stop reading advice columns and get to it.


*We didn’t (sorry)

2 thoughts on “Why it’s best not to always listen to writing advice columns”

  1. Virginia J Rose

    Yes, very refreshing, thank you. I’ve just been very downcast by a scriptwriter – and very painstaking script editor – friend telling me that she is disappointed that I haven’t made all the changes she suggested in her previous notes on my play – but as you point out, this is my play! And I have to take the advice that fits for me, and bypass the advice that doesn’t. And perhaps if my friend read all the way through to the end, instead of making edit recommendations as she reads section by section, she might revise her opinion. Or maybe not. But I am certain that the best way to check what works and what doesn’t is to have actors read the script aloud – the way it’s intended.

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