Writing Advice at the Wrong Time

As I prepare to teach next week at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference, I was asked to think about the worst writing advice I’ve ever been given. My friend Suzanna remembered hers right away: “use semicolons.” What came up for me was a memory of third grade.

Our teacher, Mrs. Cox, told us one day that one of the words we should never use in our writing was “cannot.” My mind immediately flipped to several books I had read that used the word “cannot” in seemingly legitimate ways. My reverie ended right as Mrs. Cox finished her lesson and said, “Raise your hand if you still think you should use ‘cannot.'” I was the only one to raise my hand, and was now mortally embarrassed as well as confused.

The withering gaze of Mrs. Cox was enough to teach me that in her class at least, I would not use “cannot” in a sentence. To this day I have no idea what her reasoning was, but it probably had something to do with training eight-year-olds that “can” and “not” were two different words. For students just beginning to read and write English that was probably passable advice. But I was a precocious reader, and to me the advice was not just nonsensical but demonstrably false.

I think most bad writing advice falls into this category: it’s not necessarily bad advice all the time for everyone, but it is completely unsuited to that person at that moment. For this reason I try to steer clear of giving writing advice at all. Critiquing a piece of writing is one thing, but the odds of saying the wrong thing about someone’s writing process seem nearly insurmountable.

When pressed, however, I will offer one piece of advice to writers. This is the only advice I know of that is appropriate for nearly everyone, almost all the time: “Keep writing.”

Whatever problem you are encountering, it will surely not go away by pondering it for another hour. Press forward in whatever way you can: by stepping around it, backtracking and starting over, writing whatever comes after it, or going in another direction entirely.

Writing well is hard work—a life’s work, in fact. Sometimes a semicolon is called for; more often than not a period will do. But that’s just what ends up on the page. The real process of writing lies in artfully revealing something that emerges from within us. For that there is no teaching. There is only practice, and experience.

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