If you’ve hung around the writing community at all, you’ve probably seen a lot of advice. Some advice out there is great and helps us with just the trouble we’re having with our writing or our publishing career. Other advice that gets passed around is misleading, impossible to follow, or just plain wrong.
Unfortunately, that bad advice can be shared just as much as the good advice. We’ve talked here before about watching out for bad advice, but sometimes it’s hard to recognize what’s good or bad—especially when the advice might be helpful to some extent, but not to the “rule” level that most assume.
Luckily, Jeff Lyons is here for another visit to help clear up the confusion. Today, he brings us Part One of his list of the most common writing myths, and he’ll be giving us the scoop on what’s true, false, or misleading for these frequently passed around “writing tips.”
Please welcome Jeff Lyons! *smile*
Bust the Top Ten Creative Writing Myths to Become a Better Writer: Part 1
by Jeff Lyons
We live in the age of click bait, sound bites, and viral memes. On any given day, hour, minute, or second on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, you can find any number of cat videos or fortune-cookie platitudes meant to bolster one or another emotional cliché or bubble-gum metaphysical insipidity.
Some writing advice “truisms” are clichés of the creative process. Click To TweetThey reflect our moods and emotional states, reinforce happy thoughts, or confirm our darkest vulnerabilities. We read them, consume them, have a laugh or a wistful shrug of self-reflection, and move on to the next one, invariably saying to ourselves, “Oh, I’ll have to remember that one,” but we never do—it’s always in one ear, out the other.
But, sometimes these little fortune cookies linger and gnaw at us, and ultimately solidify into calcified truisms. These insipid notions, memes, and banalities take on a substance they were never meant to have, and as a result find a level of acceptance and “truth” that endures and endures.
This phenomenon is everywhere, in all endeavors of creative life, but is most easily seen in the world of creative writing where, for many, clichés have become the lifeblood of creative process.
What’s Wrong with Writing Myths?
“So what?” comes the obvious reaction. Who cares?
Buying into the big myths and clichés of creative writing hasn’t done any real harm; people keep writing, books and screenplays are still being published and produced, more creative writing is happening now than at any time in human history—so what’s the big deal?
The big deal is that lots of harm follows these myths and clichés:
- wasted time
- pointless writing
- lost money
- unnecessary struggle
- missed opportunities
- just-plain-bad writing
- the list goes on…
Abandoning the myths of creative writing is essential to maturing your creative and practical writing processes. When you buy into the myths, you go on creative autopilot and shut down the greatest gifts you have as a creative person:
- your ability to discern,
- your ability to assess, and
- your ability to make informed creative decisions.
Reviving and relying on those abilities are at the heart of being a conscious writer: i.e., a writer who knows what he-she is writing, why he-she is writing, and how he-she is writing. Being a conscious writer honors our true creative process and is the only path to achieve deep, authentic, and meaningful connection with readers.
I have written a great deal about what conscious writing is all about, and how to become a conscious writer, but busting the biggest myths of creative writing has to rank as one of the most important first steps onto the road to becoming a conscious writer. So, let’s take that first step here and now and bust the top ten myths of creative writing.
Top Ten Myths in Creative Writing:
(in reverse order of destructiveness: #10–#6)
#10: Show Don’t Tell
If you are not writing visual scenes, or giving the reader a visual experience, then you are failing.
It’s not either-or, it’s both. You have to tell and show.
Telling is called exposition. Showing is giving a visual expression to character behavior. The implied sub-lie here is that exposition is not your friend, so you should avoid it as much as possible. Not true.
Exposition is a tool and you have to learn how to wield it effectively. Showing is not always the best solution.
Take a simple example:
A teenage geek is put under the tutelage of the grizzled martial arts master, whose job it is to turn the geek into a ninja killer—and he has 15 years to do the task.
The 15 years that pass cannot be shown to the reader in detail—it would take an entire book to show how the boy or girl goes from geek to killer. You have to tell it in exposition and cut it down to a manageable amount of prose.
Showing in this case would be pacing-death to any story. No, you use telling exposition to economically reduce the 15 years down to a few paragraphs, or maybe a few pages, and then you move on to the mainline story with minimal digression.
But telling doesn’t mean you are only giving information, delivering facts, or filling in story gaps between visual moments. Telling can also be setting mood; establishing emotional context; and building the inner life of a character through emotions, thoughts, and ideas. This is all exposition/telling, and often this is the preferred form of prose tool for the job at hand.
Is “showing” always better than “telling”? Not if telling works better. Click To TweetIn the movie world, the tool for doing this is called the montage. Screenwriters splice together a series of shots showing the passing of time (usually just a few) to demonstrate the passing of time and the evolution of the change taking place, then jump back into the mainline story after the montage. Prose writers can do the same thing with well-written exposition, i.e., telling.
Writers tell all the time, in fact we have to tell a lot, sometimes more than we show. The key is knowing when to do one vs. the other.
This is where the abilities mentioned above come in. You have to discern the context, assess the purpose of the scene, and make an informed decision which best serves your purposes as a writer. If you are on autopilot you will blindly follow the myth and miss the opportunity of writing the best scene possible.
#9: The Blank Page Is the Enemy
When you sit in front of the blank page (or screen) you are in for pain and anxiety and angst. The blank page will resist any attempts to fill it, and it is your biggest obstacle.
It’s just a piece of paper. It’s just a blank word processing document. Get a grip. The “obstacle” is not the blank whatever, the obstacle is your head—or more correctly, what’s inside your head.
Is a blank page intimidating? Clear your mind and order your thoughts. Click To TweetThis myth actually ties into the #5 myth about writer’s block, because this and #5 have to do with having so much going on in your head that you can’t prioritize and order your creative process enough to be productive. You are so jumbled and crowded with ideas that you can’t break the logjam.
The danger of this myth is that it conditions you to give your power away to some inanimate object (piece of paper or blank screen) and hold that “other” responsible for your inability to be productive. It doesn’t have the power, you do.
Clear the mind, clear the logjam, order your creative thought process and the ideas will flow, because they are there—you just have to get out of their way. More on how to do this in #5 next week.
#8: Write What You Know
If you can only write what you know, then you will be limited and constricted in what you can write. Writing what you know is restricted by your own life experience, and if you only know your life then how boring will your writing be?
This is actually a very good piece of writing advice, but people get the purpose of it all wrong. Writing what you know isn’t about writing about things that happened (necessarily), it is about the emotional content of what happened in your life.
If you felt abused, write what you know about that. If you felt loved, write about that. If you felt afraid, write about that.
“Write what you know” isn't about limits but about our emotional experiences. Click To TweetThe actual events might be part of that, but it’s what’s under the emotional hood that will grab readers—and only you can write about that from your own emotional experience. This is what makes your writing relatable to readers, because those that felt abused, or loved, or afraid growing up will relate accordingly.
The other truth here is that you can’t write about stuff you don’t know. In other words, you are forced by circumstance (i.e., life itself) to only write what you know, because you don’t know what you don’t know.
Even if you make everything up in a story, it can only be sourced from what you know—as a writer you have no other experience other than your own. So, writing what you know is unavoidable, but it is also important to be reminded of the truth of the sentiment.
The danger of the myth is that misinterpreting the meaning of the advice can artificially restrict or constrict your ability to write, whereas the real function of the advice is to do just the opposite.
#7: Real Writers Write Every Day
The best way to be productive and accomplish success is to always exercise the “writing muscle,” so that means never losing momentum—write every day.
No, writers don’t write every day.
This myth ties into the #1 myth of “just do it.” Just keep writing, because that’s what writers do. It also feeds into the next myth about storytelling vs. writing (you can see how all these myths actually reinforce one another and can thus derail you as they gang up on your creative process).
The truth here is you don’t have to write every day. I’m not sure who made this rule up, but it is total bunk. Other than eating, sleeping, and going to the bathroom, there are few things we have to do every day. Writing is certainly not in that list.
Don't worry about “writing every day.” Thinking about your story? That counts! Click To TweetThe fact is, most writers are not writing every day, and because they buy into this dumb myth, they beat themselves up and feel guilty because they’re not writing. But they are doing something else (probably every day): they are thinking about writing and thinking about story.
So much happens when we writers stop writing and just mull over ideas in our heads. We’re thinking about story all the time (I certainly do).
This is actually more important than writing because it is what gives fuel to the writing process. It’s called story development and this is something writers do almost daily and certainly more often than physical writing.
The danger of this myth is that it might make a writer discount their internal story development process as less valuable than physical writing. Just the opposite is true.
If you write every day, fine, have at it. But, know that doing so doesn’t make you more of a writer, or even make you more productive as a writer. The writer that thinks and ponders more than physically writing is probably going to produce more useful work product than the one that blindly writes every day hoping for real productivity.
#6: Storytelling and Writing Are the Same
Writing is storytelling and storytelling writing. There is no difference and any perceived difference is just semantics.
Storytelling and writing are two different things, and they have nothing to do with one another. Storytelling is about story. Storytelling is about us. Story is what we tell ourselves about what it means to be human.
We’ve been telling ourselves stories for 40-thousand-plus years. We’ve only been writing for 6 or 7 thousand.
Writing is about language/rhetoric, it is about the rhythm and musicality of using language to convey meaning, thoughts, and ideas. There is nothing that intrinsically connects writing to storytelling.
Storytelling preceded writing and a story doesn’t need to be anywhere near the written word in order to be told. Think about it; stories can be: danced, mimed, painted, sculpted, sung, spoken—or written. Stories need storytellers, not writers.
Storytelling is not writing, but story structure and development. Click To TweetThis is a hard one for people to wrap their heads around, especially if they think writing is storytelling. No, writing is just one way to render a story.
In addition, writing and storytelling, because they are different, also represent separate kinds of talent and separate kinds of skill sets. Because you are good at one does not mean you will be good at the other. In fact, most writers are good at the writing function, but bad or poor at the story function.
Storytelling is usually not the strongest skill set with most writers. This is why learning story structure and story development craft is so critically important for creative writers.
The danger of buying into this myth is that writers will assume because they can string two sentences together, and turn a nice phrase, they can tell a story properly. The myth gives them a false sense of security in their own skill sets and talents. Writers have to learn how to do both well, that means learning the craft of story development and the craft of creative writing.
The previous six myths are the least destructive of the ten overall myths, but they are each still capable of derailing your creative process and hampering your productivity.
As you read Part 2 next week, always keep in mind the idea of the conscious writer, and the abilities you have as a conscious writer to bust these myths and thus re-empower your personal writing process:
- the ability to discern,
- the ability to assess, and
- he ability to make informed creative choices.
#5: Writer’s Block Is Real
#4: There Are No Rules When It Comes to Creative Writing
#3: Good Stories and Good Characters Write Themselves
#2: Outlines and Story Structure Kill Creativity
And the granddaddy of them all:
#1: Just Do It; Just Write
Jeff Lyons is a published author and screenwriter with more than 25 years’ experience in the film, television and publishing industries as a writer, story development consultant, and editor. He teaches craft-of-story-development classes through Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio, and guest lectures through UCLA Extension Writers Program, and is a regular presenter as leading entertainment and publishing industry conferences in the U.S. and the U.K.
He has written for leading industry trade magazines such as Script Magazine, Writer’s Digest Magazine, and The Writer Magazine, and Writing Magazine (UK). His book, Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success, is published through Focal Press.
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With many of these, we might have vaguely thought about how they’re not true (or not always true)—of course writing isn’t the same as storytelling!—but we might not have thought about it consciously. And as Jeff said, it’s interesting to see how they all build on each other, keeping us from thinking deeply about what we’re writing.
Whether we want to improve our writing craft (such as using rhythm or rhetorical devices) or our storytelling (such as developing our character’s arc), we need to be—as Jeff said—a conscious writer. Or as I’ve said before, we need to write with purpose. Without purpose, we won’t know if what we intend ends up on the page or if unintentional messages interfere with our story. *smile*
Which of these advice clichés have you seen the most? Did you question any of them before? Are there any that you believed (and if so, does this post help break down that myth in your mind)? Which mythbusting above is your favorite? Do you have any questions for Jeff?Pin It