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August 29, 2013

Writing Rule #1: There Is No “One Right Way”

Sunset silhouette of a direction sign with text: Looking for Writing Success? "One Right Way" Doesn't Exist

Every once in a while, I come across a blog post or a workshop description that makes me want to warn newbie writers away. The problem usually lies with the author/presenter’s insistence that their way is the best way, or in some cases, the only way.

The truth is that we all have to find what works best for us. We each have a unique brain (er, mine is possibly unique-slash-insane *smile*), and just because someone’s method works for them doesn’t guarantee it’ll work for us. There is no one right way.

Those of us who have been writing for a while usually know this truth already. But new writers don’t.

The Danger for New Writers

New writers are often desperate for advice that will guide them through the learning curve. I know I was. That makes them vulnerable to those who insist that there is a One Right Way—their way.

I’ve seen multi-published authors who plot their story insist that pantsing (writing by the seat of our pants) is asking for a mess of a story that will have to be deleted. In fact, one of my favorite writing books (Story Engineering by Larry Brooks) takes this attitude.

I’m experienced enough to ignore those sections as “you don’t know what the heck you’re talking about” blather, and I love Larry’s advice about story structure enough that I’m willing to overlook those sections. But when I recommend the book, I often include a caution about his anti-pantsing bias.

Bias Is Not Fact

New writers don’t know what’s a fact and what’s a bias. I fell into that trap myself. When I first became serious about writing, I thought I had to plot because that’s what all the advice said. Plotting was what Serious Writers did. Period.

So even though I’d successfully pantsed my Harry Potter fan fiction story, I plotted and completed my first original novel. Great! But it had no voice, emotions, motivations, etc. The story was a puppet to my outline. My experiment didn’t fail in a fireball of burning words, but the story wasn’t what it could have been either.

Then my muse took over and I successfully pantsed the next story. This one had a glorious voice and worked in all respects. Ta-da! Now I knew that pantsing works for me and was not a guarantee of failure.

In other words, Larry’s attitude toward pantsing is a bias—not a fact. Will pantsing work for everyone? No. Just as much as plotting won’t work for everyone. But will pantsing work for some? Absolutely.

(I’m sorry for picking on plotters about this, but I can’t think of a single time I’ve seen a pantser take this “my way or the highway” attitude. However, I’ve seen it from plotters  more times than I can count. Maybe the offenses from the “other side” just stand out to me more? *grin*)

What Should New Writers Do?

New writers (or heck, experienced writers—what works for us on one story might not work on another) should experiment. We won’t know what methods will work for us until we try.

Then, once we know something works for us, we shouldn’t doubt our methods just because someone says theirs is “better” or the “right way.” Sometimes ignoring our self-doubt is easier said than done, but maybe reminding ourselves that there is no one right way will help.

Just looking at the pantser-plotter continuum, there are several methods we can adjust from story to story. Other writing endeavors like editing, synopsis writing, query writing, marketing, social media, etc. will all have multiple approaches as well.

To give you an idea of the variety of methods we should feel allowed to experiment with, I can think of the following elements we might know at the start of a first draft along the pantser-plotter continuum and still successfully complete a story:

  • Only a first line (not even a premise)
  • A hook
  • A brief character description and a mannerism or quirk
  • A character’s backstory
  • In-depth character descriptions (with or without a plot)
  • An opening scene/situation
  • A theme
  • A core conflict
  • The “point of no return”
  • The Climax (related to premise)
  • Character arc
  • A back-cover blurb
  • The big four plot turning points (story arc)
  • All the main plot/character turning points (beat sheet)
  • A brief (2-5 page) synopsis
  • A chapter outline
  • A scene-by-scene outline
  • A detailed (20+ pages) synopsis
  • Scene cards with a summary, information about setting, POV, scene arc, goal, motivation, etc.

That doesn’t even count the methods for how to write:

  • in the morning
  • in the evening
  • use NaNo, #1K1hr, and support from other writers
  • while waiting between errands vs. only in big chunks
  • x number of pages/words/hours a day
  • linearly vs. non-linearly, etc.

I hope new writers reading this get the idea that there’s too much variety—with too much evidence of success all around (I’ve used about half of the first list and tried everything on the second)—to accept that one way is better than the rest. One way might be better for us, but not better for every writer and every story.

What Can Experienced Writers Do?

Those of us with experience can watch our messaging. We can make sure we’re not advocating a “this way is better” attitude. We can share our varied experiences to add to the advice available. We can suggest “if this way doesn’t work for you, feel free to try x too” when we see new writers listening to others with that attitude.

When we’re experienced enough to know what works for us, it’s easy to overlook or ignore advice that we know doesn’t apply to us. It’s even easy to be a bit too strident with the advice we give. (I’m sure I’ve made this mistake myself, so I’m not looking to place blame, but rather I’m reminding us all of the power we have to influence others.)

I try to embrace the nuances in situations. My stories often explore the gray areas between good and evil. My editing and beta reading comments try to focus on information and suggestions rather than rules. My “Lost Your Pants?” workshop is built to work with many of those drafting methods above and is filled with “only do this step if it helps you” disclaimers.

It’s easy to think in black-and-white, good-and-bad, or pantser-and-plotter terms. Reality is more often somewhere in the middle. Let’s help new writers realize that this truth applies to writing too. *smile*

Registration is currently open for my workshop on how to do just enough story development to write faster, while not giving our pantsing muse hives. Interested? Sign up for “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.” (Blog readers: Use Promo Code “savethepants” to save $15 on registration.)

Have you seen blog posts or workshops with advice you know to be misleading? Have you ever been led astray by bad advice? Have you experimented with different writing methods? How did you figure out what worked for you? Do you have other suggestions for how we can overcome “this is the best way” messages?

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What do you think?

37 Comments on "Writing Rule #1: There Is No “One Right Way”"

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Melissa Maygrove

Agreed. Very good (non)advice. 🙂

I wonder if successful pansters aren’t simply natural plotters. They just don’t need to map it out on paper. Their innate talent maps it out as they go.

When I finally read Snyder’s Save the Cat and put my story to outline and scene cards, it matched his beat sheet surprisingly well.
http://melissamaygrove.blogspot.com/2012/09/the-plot-thickens.html

Fwiw, I’m a hybrid. 🙂

Carradee

When I […] put my story to outline and scene cards, it matched [Blake Snyder’s] beat sheet surprisingly well.

Me, too! *grin* Also a hybrid.

Carradee

This is something I sometimes find myself having to stress to some of my clients, because they’ll be attempting to apply techniques…that are intended for something other than what they’re writing.

A natural too-thin writer trying to trim-trim-trim because that’s what the advice she reads says to do—advice written by a natural TMI writer. A pantser trying to force herself to plot. A omniscient POV technique applied to “close” third person limited (which is actually oddly common but I have yet to see it actually work).

But how’s the writer to know that the advice doesn’t apply to their situation if the advice’s author doesn’t tell them wherein the advice applies, or at least acknowledges that it doesn’t always apply?

NicoleW

Bad advice? Oh yes. This reminded me of the creative writing teacher in high school who told us that we should avoid using the word “said” in dialogue. Even as a teenager I thought that seemed silly (it was easy enough to go to the library, grab a book by a Great Writer, and see the pages festooned with “He said” and “She said”), but I still see that one popping up on various writing forums.

There’s a kernel of good advice in there — I do think it’s good to occasionally replace “said” with other kinds of dialogue tags such as actions — but to suggest that people never use it? Really? Too often I think that leads to characters exploding and roaring and howling and doing other things that are far more jarring than a simple “She said” would have been.

As for pantsing vs. plotting, NaNoWriMo is going to be interesting for me this year. I pantsed my last two novels, but because the new one I’m going to write is the last one of the trilogy, I’ve actually done a bit of planning for it this time. I haven’t written out a whole synopsis or anything, but I’ve been sketching out a vague outline all year as various ideas come to me. I’ll be curious to see how this works out in November.

Leslie Miller

Great post Jami! I’m working on the third draft of my first novel (which I pantsed, starting with a first line as my inspiration) and I’ve almost been brainwashed that it would have been better if I had plotted it. But I love the way the story unfolds in its own time, as much a surprise to me as anyone else by pantsing. I have considered a wee bit of plotting for book two, but I have no idea of the plot, lol. So I suspect you, me and Stephen King will just keep merrily pantsing along.

But you do bring up a great point. After I started the novel, I was immediately aware of what I don’t know about novel writing, and the more I read, the less free I felt to just throw out that first draft. I became afraid of doing it “wrong.”

I’m actually delighted with how it’s turning out and am about to pitch to two agents at a writing conference next month. Thanks for all your terrific articles!

Kathryn Goldman

Jimi Hendrix couldn’t read music and played his guitar upside down. He was almost certainly a pantser musician. You know he experimented because nobody had ever done what he did with a guitar. The analogy may not be apt because music, if not recorded, is gone once it’s played and the written word remains until it is edited away. But the point that there is no right way and the advice to experiment using the guidance of those more experienced should help set the muse free.

I think the key to your post, Jami, is that a writer has to be able to recognize when something is working and when something isn’t. New writers look for road maps because they tend to lack a sense of direction. The caution is that even a GPS can take you the wrong way.

Melanie Marttila

Great post, Jami. I so agree with you about Mr. Brooks. I have read Story Engineering, too, and I follow his blog, but I have to make an effort not to be offended by what his experience has taught him to be true.
Maybe pantsers are too laid back.
The only right way is the way the individual writer chooses, regardless of what that might be. Only time and experience can teach the writer what that write, er right, way is.
It’s all part of the process.

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[…] I don’t know about you, but when I write I enlist a variety of methods to get my thoughts on the proverbial paper. I found this article in my in-box which rather clearly outlines why *ahem* outlines are integral parts of the writing process (bad pun, I know). I also read this nice piece this morning, so I’ve had outlines on the brain pretty much all day. http://jamigold.com/2013/08/writing-rule-1-there-is-no-one-right-way/ […]

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Interesting that from your experience, people have been saying that plotting is better than pantsing. From what I’ve heard, people have always been insisting that PANTSING is superior to plotting. XDD I don’t know what kind of social circle I come from, lol! Thankfully, pantsing does work for me. Though at times I do “plot” a bit. Basically, I pants until I can’t pants anymore and then I plot. I plot until I can’t plot anymore and then I pants again, lol. Yes, as I’ve told you, this was one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in writing, that you should never completely trust any one piece of “advice” (except for this one, lol!) I read a lot of story writing tip books when I was young and as a result collected a whole bunch of “rules”. Then as I grew older and read more books, I found MANY, MANY exceptions to their rules, where books could break those rules yet still be very enjoyable to read, or still very effective in conveying what they wanted to convey. So I learned not to trust any one rule. Some “rules” that I’ve seen (some I’ve shared with you already in the past): 1) The main character(s) must be 3D, complex, and developed. –>There are plenty of stories with pretty 2D and simple characters that I still enjoyed very much–AND I still managed to like and sympathize with these characters. (Flat characters are great for comic relief and satire, for instance.) 2)… Read more »
chemistken

Couldn’t agree more. The more I learn about writing, the more I realize that many of these rules are just personal preferences by other writers. And I’ve discovered that most of these rules, even the ones I agree with, are usually only noticed by other writers. Non-writer readers, which comprise the vast majority of our intended audience, generally don’t notice these things at all.

I liked Larry Brooks’ books, but I do have to take some of his pronouncements with a grain of salt.

BTW, I loved Serena’s list.

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Linda Maye Adams
Have you seen blog posts or workshops with advice you know to be misleading? Yes, many, many times. Most of them, in fact. It got to the point where I started looking at what the writer’s background is. If they’ve published as a career writer and won prestigious awards, then I start paying more attention. Have you ever been led astray by bad advice? Have you experimented with different writing methods? How did you figure out what worked for you? Do you have other suggestions for how we can overcome “this is the best way” messages? Yes, I have been led astray. There are so many writers’ processes that are masquerading as technique. Technique tends to be very simple and easy. Process tends to complex and sometimes even gimmicky. I can only tell you what I did. Most people won’t want to do it because rules are comforting. People feel like if they stay inside the rules, they’ll have a chance of being successful, even if the rules are made up. 1. I threw out the rules. All of them. I’m working at trusting that the creativity will know what to do. 2. I’ve walked away from all the myths that the writing advice is full of. That’s harder than it sounds. There are are lot of myths. They usually start with “You can’t do X …” 3. I dropped off most of the writing blogs and stopped looking for tips. Tips tend to be more of the same problem.… Read more »
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ReeceCity
ReeceCity
Hi, Jami, thanks for recommending this post to me, just finished reading it. I think I’ve mentioned in my last post to you that I’ve been studying writing for years, and my research is never done. A writer can always learn new things about their craft. Just yesterday, I’ve come across quite a few writing biases from the only the best in the writing profession: Stephen King, On Writing—“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Ernest Hemingway on prose— “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.” Khaled Hosseini—“About clichés. Avoid them like the plague.” William Faulkner on favoritism in writing—“In writing, you must kill all your darlings. Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press.” Writing biases are looked at and should be looked at by anyone who wants to understand how people see writing, and how people see mistakes in writing. A professional’s bias in writing should be a key thing to consider. There is no one way to write, but you must listen to other writer’s methods to learn how to write to begin with. I’ve done that. Now I just have to listen to myself.
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