Why Good Writers Sometimes Give Bad Advice

by Lisa Cron

Older man with book, thinkingThey say that good judgment comes from experience. The catch is that experience tends to come from bad judgment. In other words, we learn from our mistakes. Which is why often the best (not to mention safest) experience to learn from is someone else’s. After all, they’ve been there, and provided they survived, they’ve probably figured out how to navigate the pitfalls that we, the uninitiated, might otherwise stumble into headfirst.

For writers, that often means learning at the feet of very accomplished authors, whose advice we eagerly scribble on stickies and paste all over the house. Thus it’s become something of a tradition for these generous authors to jot down helpful lists of hard-won wisdom. Much of their advice is indeed golden.

Like Elmore Leonard’s Rule #10: Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip. Or Kurt Vonnegut’s Rule #4: Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action. Or Janet Fitch’s brutally beautiful Rule #10: Torture your protagonist.

But here’s the thing: some of this advice has more to do with how that particular writer’s brain is wired than with how to write a compelling story, which means that following such advice can do more to undermine your work than all their good advice combined.

Some of this advice has more to do with how that particular writer’s brain is wired than with how to write a compelling story, which means that following such advice can do more to undermine your work than all their good advice combined.

The three most harmful rules frequently found on these lists go something like this:

  • Don’t know the ending, or even where you’re going, when you begin writing.
  • When you write your first draft, do it fast – let it pour out – and whatever you do, don’t stop or revise until you get to the end.
  • To learn how to write, it’s essential to read lots of good books.

They sound like such benign, useful pieces of advice, don’t they? If only.

So let’s go through them one by one to see where the danger lies, and why, if they’re so damaging, so many accomplished authors wholeheartedly believe they’re essential to writing a good novel, and finally, what you should do instead.

1. Don’t know the ending, or even where you’re going, when you begin writing.

Why It’s Bad Advice

This is, hands down, the worst advice ever given to writers, because it completely undermines the very thing writers need to focus on to craft a story that grabs readers: making sure everything in the story builds toward the ending – thereby earning it.

What draws readers into a story is one thing: curiosity – that is, the mounting desire to find out how a very specific problem will resolve. As important, they want to know what the protagonist will have to overcome, internally, to resolve it and get what she wants. That means that everything in a story, beginning on page one, must be written specifically to force the protagonist to confront the demons that are holding her back. If you don’t know what those demons are, and what she must therefore learn in the end to solve the problem, how can you construct a plot that will force her to confront them and learn it? The answer’s simple: you can’t.

As John Irving so famously said, “Whenever possible tell the entire story of the novel in the first sentence.” And to quote literary agent Laurie Abkemeier, “It’s imperative that the author knows what story he or she wants to tell. Readers sense confidence from page one.”

Writing, after all, is not self-expression. It’s communication. If you don’t know what it is you’re trying to communicate from the get-go – that is, what point you’re making – chances are the only audience you’ll be writing for is yourself.

Why, then, do writers as august as Robert Frost say such things as, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader”? Why does Carl Hiaasen say he “endorses the Elmore Leonard philosophy: If you already know how the story is going to end, why would you write it in the first place”? Let’s find out.

Why Very Accomplished Authors Give This Advice

These writers tend to have an innate sense of story the same way some people are born with perfect pitch. And as it turns out, we’re much better at teaching something that experience has taught us than we are at teaching things we innately know. Why? Two reasons:

First, when we innately know how to do something, we tacitly assume that everyone else does, too. For instance, we all know how to walk, so it would never occur to us that someone else might need to be taught from scratch.

Second, when something comes to us naturally, we never have to think about how to do it. Imagine trying to tell someone who’s never taken a step how to walk. You might start by saying, “It’s easy, just put one foot in front of the other.” To which they’d reply, “Yeah, I can see that, but how?” Could you answer that? I couldn’t. It’s probably why they say that the best athletes make the worst coaches.

When something comes to us naturally, we never have to think about how to do it. Imagine trying to tell someone who’s never taken a step how to walk.

The point is, great writers tend to write great stories without having any real idea how, exactly, they’ve done it. They have such a natural sense of story that they can allow the story to simply unfold as they write, delightfully surprising themselves at every turn. In other words, story is in their DNA and they can trust their cognitive unconscious to offer up prose that can easily be shaped into a story.

This explains E.L. Doctorow’s famous assertion that, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Sure—he can make the whole trip that way and end up writing Ragtime. But when the rest of us follow suit our stories almost always end up taking a meandering, disjointed, episodic trip that ultimately leads nowhere.

What You Can Do About It

Before you start to write, think about what you want to say. What is your point? Your purpose? What will your character learn at the end? Imagine that the end of your story is a target, and from sentence one, you’re aiming straight for it. You don’t necessarily need to know every last detail about how your characters get there, but you sure need to know where they’re going, and better yet, why.

2. When you write your first draft, do it fast – let it pour out – and whatever you do, don’t stop or revise until you get to the end.

Why It’s Bad Advice

Few would argue with Ernest Hemingway’s infamous no-nonsense pronouncement, “All first drafts are shit.” Anne Lamott is among the many writers who’ve built on that sentiment. “For me and most of the other writers I know,” she says, “writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”

No argument there. The problem, however, is with the definition of a shitty first draft. Poorly written? Perhaps. Sloppy prose? Sure. Rotten punctuation, questionable tenses? Why not. But never, as Lamott goes on to say, should the first draft be “the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.”

Because if you do that, chances are there will be nothing to shape. Instead, you’ll have a collection of random events that don’t add up to anything. There will be no driving story question, no escalating cause-and-effect trajectory, and no satisfying payoff, when the protagonist overcomes her inner issue, sees the world with new eyes, and solves the problem the plot has forced her to face. Instead, your novel will just be a bunch of things that happen.

The fledgling draft should be a rudimentary version of the story you’re telling, not a draft with no center and no focus.

Crafting a story that seamlessly escalates to a well-earned payoff is not child’s play. That’s why most first drafts are shitty: the writer is working out the layers, the nuances, and discovering which plot twists will best force the protagonist to confront her demons. The fledgling draft should be a rudimentary version of the story you’re telling, not a draft with no center and no focus. Because Lamott is wrong: someone will see that draft. You. And if it’s just a sprawling, aimless romp? Then what, exactly, is the point of that first draft, anyway? After all, the last thing a writer wants is the “surprise” of discovering that what they’ve written isn’t just shitty, it’s dull and lifeless to boot.

Why Very Accomplished Authors Believe This is True

Because, given their innate sense of story, when they wing it, the elements of a story do appear. So it’s easy for them to believe that it’s simply the nature of the beast, rather than something unique to their DNA.

What You Can Do About It

Consider revising what you’re writing as you’re writing it, continually rethinking what you’ve got and where it’s going. Not polishing it, not cleaning up the language, but refining the story itself. Make sure you understand what your protagonist wants, why, and what’s holding her back. The more you know about it when you begin writing, the better. And the more you reevaluate it as you write, the more likely it is that the story will gel. Does that mean you might do some rewriting before you finish your shitty first draft? Yep. But it also means that by the time you’re done with your first draft, it might not be that shitty.

The good news is that with practice, you can develop a strong sense of story. Nobel laureate Herbert Simon estimates that it takes about a decade to really master a subject. By then you’ve gathered upward of fifty thousand “chunks” of knowledge, which the brain has deftly indexed so your cognitive unconscious can access it whenever necessary. Simon explains that this is “why experts can . . . respond to many situations ‘intuitively’—that is, very rapidly, and often without being able to specify the process they have used to reach their answers. Intuition is no longer a mystery.”

And turning to unsolved mysteries, we’ve arrived at the most counterintuitive piece of bad advice writers are fond of giving:

3. To learn how to write, it’s essential to read lots of good books.

Why It’s Bad Advice

Before you tell me that I’m nuts, let me say first that I am not suggesting you stop reading lots of good books. What I am saying is that reading them won’t teach you how to write a story. Sure, they may teach you how to write a beautiful sentence, but that’s not the same thing.

Why is this true? Because the first job of a good story is to anesthetize the part of the brain that knows it’s reading a story. We’re hardwired to surrender to story, because stories are what allow us to envision the future, and so plan for the unexpected – it’s biological; our love of story is, first and foremost, a survival mechanism. Think of story as the world’s first virtual reality. In fact, MRI studies reveal that when we’re lost in a good story, the same areas of our brain light up as when we do what the protagonist is doing. Thus the last thing we’re focused on is how the writer is creating that sense of reality. But the one thing we can see is the words. And so it’s very easy to mistake the writer’s great sentences, beautiful metaphors, and lush language for what’s captivated us, when it’s actually the story they’re giving voice to that has us hooked.

We’re hardwired to surrender to story, because stories are what allow us to envision the future, and so plan for the unexpected…

Why Very Accomplished Authors Believe This is True

The answer stems from what we’ve been talking about all along. Since story comes naturally to them, they don’t realize that the actual mechanics of story are all but invisible on the page. They tend to believe that writing well is what gives birth to story, rather than the other way around.

What You Can Do About It

Be aware that when you’re reading those fabulous novels, it’s not the language, the voice, or the great writing that your brain is hungry for, but rather for the story beneath. And remember that the better the novel, the more difficult it is to see how, exactly, the writer has created that delicious sense of reality you’re lost in.

Ah, but if you can resist the novel’s siren song – and it’s not easy, because stories are by definition seductive — take notice of how the writer is lacing the protagonist’s thoughts, emotions and internal reactions into the action so deftly that, if you weren’t consciously looking for it, it would remain a brilliant sleight of hand. Yet it couldn’t be more important, because it’s what allows the reader to slip into the protagonist’s skin, and experience what she’s feeling, and how she’s making sense of what’s happening. Here’s the secret: that is where the real story lies.

It’s something I learned courtesy of the greatest teacher of all. Experience.

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About Lisa Cron

Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers From the Very First Sentence (Ten Speed Press); her video tutorial Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story can be found at Lynda.com. She spent a decade in publishing as a publicist and editor, has been a literary agent, a television producer and a story analyst for Warner Brothers, the William Morris Agency and others. She currently teaches in UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, and is a story coach, helping writers wrangle the story they’re telling onto the page. She can be reached at wiredforstory.com.

Lisa Cron

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