The best writers listen, learn, and take advice from others. Whether it comes from a seasoned author or your Aunt Betsy who knows little about writing, the same pieces of writerly wisdom pop up repeatedly. This advice can be well-meaning, but what do these common adages really mean?
Write What You Know
This is perhaps one of the most common and also vaguest pieces of advice in the writing world. At face value, “write what you know” seems to imply your characters need to be like you, need to hold your same profession, or need to be in a similar location to where you live. But writing what you know has very little to do with your actual knowledge.
When you hear this advice, what you should really think is “write what you feel.” Crafting a believable and engaging story means connecting your characters to the humanity of your readers, and this happens through emotion.
Love, loss, terror, excitement — every emotion you have known in your life can be translated onto the page to fulfill this advice.
Write Every Day
Yes, we all know Stephen King gets up every morning and writes 1,000 words or more before breakfast. When someone tells us to write every day, we take this literally and then berate ourselves if we can’t achieve our goal. To skip a day? Blasphemy! But for some, writing every day just isn’t realistic.
Instead, change this advice into “form a writing habit.” Make writing something you do regularly, even if it isn’t every day. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t floss every single day. But I have made it enough of a habit to get a clean bill of health when I visit my dentist. The important thing is to set up a plan that works for you and stick to it.
Even if you aren’t putting words on the page, there are other ways to incorporate writing into your daily life. Check in with Facebook writing groups or read a book for inspiration. Go to a writers’ meeting or make voice memos to plan out your goals for your next writing day. You can still be a successful writer even if you don’t write every day.
Show, Don’t Tell
We call it telling a story, not showing a story, so why do we need to “show, don’t tell” in our writing, and what does this even mean?
Think of a story like a video game. All video games have moments of exposition, places where a narrator or another character explains a part of the story or lays out an objective. But during most of the game, players are experiencing the action and become one with their character.
In the case of a story, the author is creating the action, but the goal is the same — let the reader experience the story as if they were there. Exposition is an important part of writing but add too much and it will quickly take the reader out of the action. Too little and they might not know where they’re going. The trick is finding a balance between the two.
Hook Them With the First Line
If a story isn’t interesting from the very beginning, it’s unlikely that someone will continue reading. Hooking a reader with the first line or chapter doesn’t have to mean daring car chases and explosions to grab their attention. Think about what a hook does; it seizes a fish and drags it along, fighting, until you can reel them in. Many times, the fish escapes the hook despite your best efforts.
Instead, think of your first paragraph or chapter as a carrot — or possibly a cupcake for the vegetable-averse. Your goal is to dangle this treat in front of readers to entice them to come along with your story willingly. You should encourage curiosity to see what’s next.
Instead of creating a hook for the sake of following this advice, capture them with your imagination, capture them with style. Readers will be most likely to finish a book if it doesn’t set up a big beginning and then disappoint from there.
Read Like a Writer
Writers often misinterpret this advice in several ways. First, people think that reading like a writer means consuming any and every bestseller and prize-winning book on the market. I’ll warn you now, there is no way to do this and still find time to write. Second, writers believe it means to read critically, with highlighter in hand and no enjoyment. That’s not quite it either.
Reading like a writer can happen simultaneously with reading for pleasure. It simply means stepping outside your own mind and thinking about how that writer is engaging you. For example, if you find yourself crying, what elements of the story led you to that emotion? Reading like a writer can also apply to watching movies and TV shows. These started as written scripts (and many of them as novels) and they follow the same general principles of storytelling.
There’s certainly something to be said for utilizing these time-tested pieces of writing advice. The next time someone spouts one of these vague proverbs to you, look below the surface of the words to see what it really means and how it might apply to your own unique style of writing.