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Where Bad Writing Advice Comes From

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The biggest obstacle confronting writers who already possess the talent, sensibility, and discipline required to do good work is the eternal battle against self-doubt. Quality writing depends on the ability to oscillate between creative and critical thinking. Creative to get the material on the page in the first place, critical to shape and improve it during rewrites. Yet all too often the critical overwhelms the creative, leading to the rabbit hole of obsessive, non-improving revision. Or worse, the dread paralysis we know as writer’s block. One way to allow self-appraisal to curdle into self-laceration is to privilege outside pronouncements over your own judgment.

A goodly chunk of writing advice unwittingly falls into that category. What is often couched as sharply etched tough love can screw with your judgment, especially when your brain is currently casting about for ways to undermine you.

Writing advice can adopt a harshly declarative or unnecessarily categorical tone for a couple of reasons. Most obviously, there’s a big audience for writing advice, which is more entertaining to read when it’s punchy and unequivocal.

Another less apparent reason is that it’s often written out of frustration with willfully clueless would-be writers who don’t have the above-mentioned qualities and are unlikely to ever acquire them. The clumsily confrontational cover letters and howler-strewn prose of the strictly aspirational writer provide perfect bad examples for a “don’t do this” list.

The extreme cases are memorable, but they’re at best unready for real help. Notes warning you to avoid insulting your prospective publisher or submitting unproofed first drafts don’t reach the people who stand to benefit from them.

When deciding whether to let a piece of advice to take up residence in your personal rule book, look for practical tips that make good work better. Distrust flagellations and exhortations. Even when they make good points, the emotional charge behind them may do more to mystify the process and overfeed your voice of doubt than to spur you to a new breakthrough.

Be sure, above all, that the advice you’re taking on board isn’t a case of the writer spreading his or her self-doubt to others. That stuff’s contagious, man.

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