Debunking the Basics

I’m now in my tenth year of writing, and I was thinking back today about the advice I’ve heard given to beginner writers, and how it can be misleading. Here are three of them that I feel could do with some clarification.

‘You have to write every day’

The classic example cited here is Stephen King, as his process is widely known through On Writing. When you’re starting out, it can be helpful to write daily, but there are other schools of thought. In 2016, Amy Mason won the Dundee International Book Prize for The Other Ida, and she sees writing as seasonal, with fallow periods in the year.

‘Write what you know’

This advice is often misinterpreted to mean: ‘write what you already know’. Instead, think of it as a reminder to research anything outside of your experience. So whether you need to find out how to write a character with dementia, what happens in a restaurant kitchen, or how a train crash is investigated, it’ll have a little authenticity.

‘Kill your darlings’

William Faulkner is credited with saying, ‘In writing, you must kill all your darlings.’ A ‘darling’ in this instance is what you feel to be a particularly good phrase or sentence.

But don’t take that as a sign to strike out words you like. I’m conjecturing here, but I suspect Faulkner meant to take out any good phrase or sentence if it doesn’t fit or work in the text at hand. Remember you can always save your favourite turns of phrase for another piece.

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.