Rethink Advice to Writers

Guest post
by Steve Smy

We constantly encounter the issue of planning. We also know that some authors do and others don’t. It seems that we’re encouraged to use planning to design our work, from beginning to end. The trouble is, those who drive home the idea, often forcefully, aren’t recognising the fact that we’re all individuals. Take a look at a bunch of desks in an open plan office. You’ll see the ones which are so neat that you have to wonder whether they belong to somebody with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. There’ll also be those that resemble the local garbage tip, which you might suspect reveal the presence of highly inefficient workers. The majority of the desks will fall somewhere between these extremes. If we now picture every workstation having a ‘to do list’ fixed on a screen beside it, we’ll see that some are crammed with tasks to be done or completed. There’ll also be some that are completely empty of any entries. Now, however, we’ll probably find more that lean towards the latter than the former – because ‘to do lists’ are an unnecessary extra burden of work. They may be begun, and then forgotten, sometimes over and over again.

The human mind operates in a way that suits its own needs. It doesn’t follow a fixed pattern common to all. The frantically creative, be they artists or scientists, authors or mathematicians, will exhibit a stunning degree of chaos in how they work – to the outsider. In truth, the chaos is simply a manifestation without meaning to this type. The order, the structure upon which all that they achieve (and they often achieve huge amounts) is within their minds. They can function in chaos because they think in order. Those who depend upon clarity in their surroundings, in a structure of planning and order, can be as accomplished as any, but they have one fault – and here I’m likely to cause an outcry. Because the frantic type are in a very definite minority, and because the majority of them are too interested in what they’re doing to enter into the field of giving advice, the others are able to constantly pound their doctrine of order. That they are the majority, and order works for them, doesn’t make them right.

In truth, we can, and do, operate in a way that is comfortable and effective for us. If we need order, then we’ll find it – to whatever degree suits us. If we don’t, then we’ll work with whatever amount of external chaos fits our character. Now, I’m not saying that we can’t improve how we work. In truth, there are those who struggle needlessly, because they haven’t, for some reason, found their ‘comfortable working conditions’. In such cases, it’s sensible for them to experiment until they discover the working method that actually fits how their mind needs the external factors to be. That doesn’t mean that they must follow some rigid regime. Any ‘system’ must always be flexible. The individual has the right and the power to take bits from here and parts from there, to build a scheme that works for them.

So, what is all this really about? It’s simple, really. I want to appeal to those who write what amounts to ‘advice columns’ for writers. I’m asking that the concept of certain practices being ‘the right way’ be dropped. Instead, let’s guide gently. Encourage adaptability by all means, but don’t give the impression that there is only one way.


Steve K Smy was born in Ipswich, Suffolk – a picturesque part of England. He has lived virtually his whole life there. He started writing for pleasure when he was 13 years old. He returned to it seriously in February 2012. Since then, he has written and published (in ebook form) several short stories, four novelettes and has been working on a major fantasy novel. Learn more about Steve from his blog and his Amazon author page.

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25 thoughts on “Rethink Advice to Writers”

  1. Excellent post! I was just listening to a talk about introverts – http://www.wimp.com/introvertspower/ – and how the “world” is geared toward extroverts, which often forces introverts to try and be who they are not – to the detriment of all. I agree with you – let every writer find their own pace, their own style, their own organizational processes and their own stories. Thank you!!!!

  2. Yup. One old-guard writer I know who does regular advice columns points this out all the time. “Every writer is different”, he’ll say. Or “This is the way I do X.”

    And there’s so much range! Do we pre-plan stories, or make them up as we go? Do we rewrite ten times, three times, or not at all? Do we hire an editor, or swap novels with another skilled writer? Do we use Scrivener, Word, Open Office, or something else? Do we use Smashwords or Draft2Digital, or neither? Do we self publish this next book, or send it to a publisher? Or self publish THEN send it to a publisher?

    There’s a lot of options out there.

    The best advice seems to me to often consist of: “I did this. These were my results. Your milage may vary.” 😉

  3. Thank you Steve. The majority isn’t always right, and apparent chaos isn’t always as haphazard as it seems. I have known the truth of what say for most of my life but… it’s damn nice to see it written in black and white as well!

  4. Well My desk at work is chaos, but the work gets done and I don’t worry about the rest. Writing-wise I have an overall plan but how A gets to Z is open to negotiation. Sometimes Z even changes its mind about what it is:)

  5. Yep, I’m one of those who have nothing written down, which makes it look like i don’t have any plan. It’s there, though, in my head. Yes, it gets moved around as i go, but it never gets lost, like some slip of paper or post it that falls off the desk into the garbage bin.

    As for advice, my advice (sic) is to read all advice as a new idea to give some thought to and decide if it’s a good fit, or even something to try on for size, then keep or discard depending on the result.

  6. When I was teaching creative writing, I began classes by saying, “There is one unbreakable rule of writing. If you do this, you will succeed. If you don’t do this, you will fail. I’m going to share this with you now. You MUST DO THIS.” And I wrote on the blackboard: WHATEVER WORKS.

  7. Thanks all! I must admit, I was expecting a somewhat different response – or more mixed anyway 😉 It’s fantastic to get so much positive feedback. I like to think that it’s mostly common sense. I’m particularly glad to hear that some of you have given the same or similar advice 🙂

  8. This is music to my ears. I live my life in organised chaos. It is not for everyone. The other thing I cannot do is lists, but in my head I have a list and am very organised. It would appear that the majority reading here are not for organized planning either. Makes you wonder who is really in the majority, the planned or the less planed approach?

  9. Great post. I’ve always been a fan of
    the rules are:
    there are no rules and
    the rules can and will be changed without notice.
    Creativity is like a river flowing. The river has banks, but occasionally a flood will raise the water to the point that it overflows and goes someplace new. Messy, but natural.

    1. Thanks Melissa 🙂 Exactly right 😉 And to follow your river analogy, there are thousands of examples of rivers that have changed course, through some geological change or after millions of years of patiently eating through some obstacle 😉

  10. Excellent post and advice Steve. In my career as a Mechanical/Electrical Building Services Construction Engineer/Project Manager/ Consultant, people used to comment how my projects seemed to speed ahead and things always got done fast and efficiently – was I well organised? – No – I’ve always had such a lousy memory and could loose reminder notes with ease, so instead I just taught myself the art of making decisions quickly, then implementing them or instructing that they be implemented.
    Was this always the best thing to do? – No – but with practice the mistakes got both fewer AND fixed quicker 🙂
    Tidy or untidy desks are no indicator of efficiency, one persons DLFS (deep litter filing system) was another persons nightmare, but it very often worked for the person using it.
    What’s the old saw? Never judge a book by it’s cover? 🙂

  11. Hey Steve!
    Pie and I both advocate that everyone is different. Whenever we are asked what advice we have for new authors, it is pretty much the same. Do what makes you happy and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It is our differences that make us so interesting to each other. Great post and thanks for sharing it.

  12. Excellent advice! I used to have a meager outline before starting a novel, but as I gained more writing experience, I found that my imagination kicked in better if I forged ahead without an outline. To each his own!

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