Debunking Popular Writing Advice

Experienced writers often love to give advice to newbies, whether or not it’s solicited. However, there are some maxims where the original meaning has been lost over the years. Let’s look at three of them.

Write what you know

This is great advice if you already know a subject inside-out; for example, the banking system or nuclear physics. In which case, that knowledge can be used in your writing to add a touch of authenticity.

But the phrase is often misinterpreted to mean ‘write what you already know’. Rather, the intent of the advice is to encourage the writer to carry out research. Does your character want to go skydiving, or visit South Africa, or both? Once you know enough about a given topic, you can write about it with more authority.

Honoré Daumier [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Advice to a Young Artist by Honoré Daumier, c1865-68
Kill your darlings

This phrase has been attributed to many authors. A lot of people take it to mean ‘remove any phrase you especially like’. However, this only applies to phrases that you like but that don’t fit in with the rest of the piece. If you like it and it works, leave it in.

There is further confusion in the 1791 biography of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell, in which Johnson says:

I would say to Robertson what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils: ‘Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’ (Full text)

It is possible the word ‘fine’ had a different meaning in the 18th century. It otherwise seems rather strange advice.

Read On Writing by Stephen King

Many writers have been open about their process or daily routine, but few in as much depth as King. As such, his 2000 book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is sometimes held up as a gospel for aspiring writers.

However, you are free to ignore what he says about how to write, or indeed what any writer says. Someone I know rewrites as she goes along rather than having a definite first draft; I know of only one major author who does this. Similarly, a number of sources recommend keeping a bedside notepad for nocturnal ideas, but I don’t do this because ideas don’t come to me in bed.

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The Art of the Anecdote

On Thursday, I went to see the new Gyles Brandreth show Break a Leg, which is running at the Edinburgh Fringe until Sunday 26 August.

In his career as a writer, broadcaster and former Member of Parliament, he’s become friends with a number of people in the worlds of entertainment and politics. The show talks about his acquaintance with a few of them, from June Whitfield to Frankie Howard.

The show is listed in the Comedy section of the brochure as there are a lot of laughs. Yet it isn’t stand-up, nor is it bragging. Rather, he uses his privileged access to these well-known figures and tells humorous anecdotes about them in his slightly camp fashion.

By User of Waffle TV YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/user/waffIeTvUK/) [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Gyles Brandreth in 2013
As such, his material is strong. The show could run for two hours and there would still be more to tell, and the audience would probably lap it up. But not everyone has such great anecdotes.

In 2007, I went to an event featuring Clive Swift, who played Richard Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances. He specifically didn’t want to discuss his sitcom days. Instead, he was there to tell us about his theatre career and how he’d worked with prominent stage actors such as Peter O’Toole.

It quickly became apparent, however, that he’d worked with these notable thespians only in supporting roles and that he was trying to turn minor episodes into a big deal. He was certainly never friends with them. One anecdote, for example, involved meeting Sir Laurence Olivier by chance in a theatre bathroom and hearing some worldly advice from him.

The only factor that saved Swift’s show from being a total train wreck was his skill on the trombone, accompanied by a pianist called Claire Greenway. Had it been a musical event with those minor stories peppered between songs, it might have worked well.

A review from the Scotsman newspaper very much captures the essence of the performance; scroll down past the review of Pete Firman to read it.

The lesson here is to make sure your material stands up to some scrutiny. Many performers – especially comedians – like to arrange preview shows, often to an audience who have paid a special reduced price for a ticket. This approach is invaluable for ironing out any kinks in the material and a useful guideline for how listeners will react at different parts of the script.

Additionally, there’s a lot to be said for having an honest friend or professional who can listen to your show to tell you what works and which parts need strengthening.

Input vs Output

There won’t be much of an entry this week. I’m still busy chewing over the wonderful shows from Edinburgh last week; at the same time, I’m struggling to commit a couple of poems to paper.

Instead, let’s both go for a walk, albeit in different physical places. That always helps me loosen my mental sawdust, and I hope it does the same for you.

On Roles and Pigeonholes

In 2016, I graduated with an MLitt Writing Practice and Study degree from the University of Dundee. At the time, I was in the mindset that I wanted to write in as many different styles and formats as possible.

This wasn’t a problem until it was time to pull together all my work into what the syllabus described as a ‘unified dissertation’. In other words, the whole document had to flow, but my pieces were too dissimilar to achieve this easily. With the help of two tutors, we eventually solved the problem, but I still didn’t like having to adopt one role or to be pushed into one pigeonhole.

I only began to change my stance earlier this year when a friend posted a video of a TED talk about sugar addiction, which inspired me to start writing a spoken-word show about the struggles I’ve had with my weight. And for the first time, I felt as though I’d found a niche that I enjoyed occupying, and that I had plenty of material to fill.

That said, I’ve lost a lot of weight since starting to write that show. This is an achievement, but I feel as though it’s defeating the point of the narrative.

Notebook in which I log my weight every week
Notebook in which I log my weight every week

On Saturday, I went to my first Edinburgh Fringe shows of the season, all of which reinforced my dedication to sticking with my niche for as long as it takes.

The first two were by people I know, and could only have been written by them. John McCann has a deep understanding of politics in Northern Ireland and has penned a monologue called DUPed, all about the Democratic Unionist Party. Meanwhile, Amy Gilbrook in Nutshells touches upon her experience of not fitting in. And while I don’t know Alan Bissett personally, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else emulating Moira Bell in The Moira Monologues or More Moira Monologues.

These shows are playing on selected dates throughout August.

Despite my promise to stay in a niche for the foreseeable future, I realised this week that some of my favourite novels have one thing in common. I’m attracted to those one-off stories where a sequel is unlikely because the story is so self-contained, such as A Clockwork Orange or The Bell Jar.