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Cynical Writing Advice (or, I’ve got no time for it)

I am not a published novelist, I am not an academic, I am not an established literary critic. But I am a reader, I write, and have the good foresight to spot bad advice being given. This discussion should not be framed as ‘who is more qualified to give advice’ but ‘what will help others and myself become stronger writers?’ If the critical advice you are giving to writers doesn’t attempt to help them, then something is wrong.

Today, I will be talking about the following gems of wisdom that I’ve heard:

  • None of your ideas are original, creativity is dead
  • You aren’t allowed to write about this sensitive topic due to a lack of experience
  • Some people aren’t skilled or talented enough to be writers

Wow, grim much? It’s as if writers are almost being set up as failures from the very start. I will deconstruct these three pieces of advice, and try to create a more optimistic look at creative writing and the literary process. My aim in writing this article is to instill confidence within all the writers reading this. Because I believe that good, well-written literature has the power to influence, to make people think and act, to cause reflection and to change things for the better.

Let’s begin!

Argument One: None of your ideas are original, creativity is dead and the story you want to write isn’t that compelling

This argument is sprouted on YouTube and by famous authors. While there is a shread of merit to this way of thinking- writers must accept their own limitations and influences. However, they are not doomed by them. By writers being told that there ideas are unoriginal, that there stories aren’t that interesting and that creativity is not worth striving towards- you are essentially giving the modern writer no reason to improve. A writer should strive towards producing original work that’s creative and compelling. They can do that, whilst accepting their own individual limitations and that what they produce isn’t 100% authentic to themselves.

What’s also toxic about this mindset is the opinion that literature is fundamentally meaningless. If literature can’t be original, compelling, creative, emotionally stirring or insightful- then what purpose does it serve? Why preserve it? Because it’s not meaningless.

Instead, teach aspiring novelists and poets that language possesses great power, and that words are far from meaningless. An understanding of language’s power and potential influence seperates the Orwells from the mediocre. Be a better wordsmith and take time when you construct sentences, paragraphs and chapters. Take care and pride in your writing, and be excited to share it with others. We need literature that is confident, assertive and well-written. I see no reason why that can’t be you.

Argument Two: To write about sensitive topics, you need to be qualified

Absolutely not. First, freedom of speech is a marvelous thing. If you want to write about drug cartels or sexual violence… go ahead. Of course, be mindful of the audience you are writing for but never censor yourself. Be brave and bold, and you’ll reap the benefits. You don’t need to be Jewish to write about the Holocaust, you don’t need to be a rape survivor to write about sexual assault, you don’t need to be LGBT+ to write about sexuality. All you need is a computer (or a notepad!) and a damn good idea for a story.

Writing is all about empathy, and a great author is not restrained by their own identity or experiences. They have the tools to put themselves in the minds of their characters, and that usually requires research. Under no circumstances, under none at all, should we tell writers that they are not allowed to write about anything. It’s writing, and one of the wonderful things about art is that you don’t need permission, even if they are acting morally superior over you.

I think it’s possible for writers to create prose that depicts experiences alien to the writer. Because I believe in the power of empathy and research. Again, this ties into a long theme of writers receiving advice that assumes eventual failure. We need to stop that. Artistic expression, creativity and empathy are far more vital than worrying about hurting someones feelings.

Write what you want, and do it well.

Argument Three: Some people aren’t meant to be writers. Not everyone has the talent or skills to be writers.

Now, I think there is a time where a writer has to be honest about their abilities. And of course, some writers are just more skilled than others. There are writers who realize they are better suited to other styles or genres. However, this advice is absolutely useless. There is no logical way we can determine a novice writer with great potential to someone who just plain sucks. Instead, measure how well the writer works with feedback, what there level of discipline is and how seriously they take the art of writing. Yes, you’ll cringe when you reread your first draft- but please, have faith that you’ll improve if you take the necessary steps.

What has assisted me with my writing are workshops and beta groups. From that, my writing has flourished and improved. But if I didn’t listen to others, if I lacked discipline, if I didn’t take it seriously- my writing would have remained rotten and mediocre. You can improve- but you need the courage to admit that.

Once I put aside my own insecurities about talent, I dedicated more time to the writing and mastering my use of the English language. Talent is nearly impossible to measure or to quantify, and wondering about how talented you are is rather pointless. Instead, let’s use a more productive framework. Think about what you can bring to the table. Don’t think about who you are, thing about what you will do. Talent does not equate to a bestseller or a prize-winning book. If talent does exist, it’s only a small part of the equation. The rest is pure hard work. Be prepared, be sharp but never be afraid to put in effort for the things you want to bring to the world.

I want bookshelves full of brave and defiant literature. Words are powerful tools, as is grammar and style. To a good author, they are merely used. To a great author, they are weapons and tactics used in an almost literary battlefield.

I hope that in this piece- I have deconstructed bad writing advice I hear. Let’s not set future writers up for fail. We need an optimistic outlook about the writing process- because as writers need to be realistic, they should also be confident in their ability to produce meaningful art.

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