You should take writing advice from actual writers

Over these writing-focused few weeks (check out the whole series here), I’ve been thinking about writing advice. I’m always torn about reading and writing it.

On the one hand, writing advice has made me better. I went to school for writing. Some books about writing have changed my life (you can read about this in my newsletter).

But writing advice is definitely a timesuck. You can fall down an Internet rabbit hole of writing advice and find all your writing time suddenly, magically gone.

And nine times out of ten, after reading a bunch of advice on writing online, I don’t feel any better. I haven’t gotten anything done, and I haven’t found that silver bullet that will make me a shiny, successful writer. I’ve just wasted a bit more time that I could have spent writing.

I’ve been pondering why writing advice is such a double-edged sword–there have been times when reading a writing book has literally made me write. I used Tara Swiger’s automated e-course on making an automated e-course to write How to Be a Writer in…about a day. That was pretty fast. I read Stephen King’s On Writing and made myself get in the habit of writing 1000 words a day–that made me finish a novel. Those are tangible results.

Mid-run the other day, I realized there is a simple filter you can apply to the Internet to get good writing advice. It’s not fool-proof, but it helps.

Get your writing advice from other writers.

If you want to be a novelist, get writing advice from people who have actually written novels. If you want to be a magazine writer, look for magazine writers’ advice on pitching, researching and writing. If you want to finish a big project, talk to a writer who has completed a long manuscript.

It’s not rocket science. You wouldn’t ask for career advice from someone who’s not in the career of your choice, right?

But often, writing coaches are just writing coaches. I’m not trying to put them down: successful writing coaches are good at writing blog posts that go viral and drawing in a loyal crowd. These are good skills to have, and maybe you want them. But if what you really want is to see your name in non-writing-related publications, then you have to look for people who have written for them.

There are plenty of people who have been published widely who offer great writing advice. Here are a few:

  • My friend Craig sent me this article about pitching by a freelance travel writer and contributor to Paste. Priceless.
  • Lots of web magazines have an article or post by the editor that gives you insight into what she/he wants. This one on The Billfold is more ethereal than you might expect from a publication that is all about money, but I felt like I could pitch Mike Dang after reading it.
  • The e-course by Tara Swiger I mentioned looks like it’s no longer for sale, but her other guides are useful. Tara writes e-courses for a living, and you can tell.

And of course, the best writing advice is good writing.

  • I devour every literary personal essay Kate Bolick writes, most recently this one. How does she make having an affair into a gorgeous, thoughtful thing? Because she writes so damn beautifully!
  • Longform is where I go to find out how to write long nonfiction: how writers organize epic essays, what types of experts to talk to, nailing that killer quote.
  • Also, I really like the variety of The Archipelago. I’m a bit biased, having been published there, but I love the voices that get shared: a wide variety of mostly women.

What writers do you know that give useful writing advice? Share a link in the comments!

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2 Comments

  1. I’m happy to be following you, Alicia. i look forward to the information you will share here. I tried to download your Pitch Spreadsheet that the Write Life recommended, but I was unable to do so. Don’t know why that happened, but I would like to get it. Any suggestions?

    1. Hi Ronn!
      Were you able to open the spreadsheet in Google Docs? Once there, if you click on “File” you have the option to “Make a copy” for yourself (and keep it as a Google Doc) or “Download” it to your computer.
      I just checked and it worked for me — let me know if you have any more trouble!
      –Alicia

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