Last time I covered some dangerous, misleading writing advice that’s floating around out there, ready to stick a .45 in the face of the would-be writer and demand the keys to the Corvette. In this post, I look at a few more of these bad boys.

Bad Advice #3: Find your voice

I really hate this one. If you’re a beginning writer, it won’t be long before you come across this quiet little killer. I’ve seen way too many writers put themselves under enormous (and unnecessary) pressure because they haven’t found their “voice.” Wrote a piece-of-crap story? It’s probably because you haven’t found your authorial voice, a not-so-helpful writing friend will tell you. This voice thing can become a cure-all, a magical panacea which only really, really special writers can access.

I call bullshit.

What is “voice” anyway? It’s difficult to find an adequate definition of the term that doesn’t sound like the recipe for a +3 potion of total bloody confusion. Sure, in the halls of MFA-qualified writing instructors there’s probably some kind of consensus about “voice.” But for the average roll-up-your-sleeves writer? I think not. Instead, it can stultify your creativity for years.

Presumably, if you work hard enough and know the writing Contra code, your voice will emerge (you’ll also get 30 free writerly lives—nice!). I say: stop sweating blood because you haven’t found your “voice.” Rather, realize that it’s probably your old friend, Mr. Resistance, up to his vile tricks again. You will write as only you can (and will). If that’s your voice, so be it. But don’t let this flimflam set you back. Not even for a second.

Bad Advice #4: Content advice

Here’s what I mean by content advice. You write a piece and submit it to your writing circle / best friend / imaginary dragon living in your garage for feedback.

What you get back is something along the lines of, “I dig it. It like totally flowed and stuff, but that part where your protagonist faces her inner demons and burns down the whole asylum left me wanting more. Why not have her psychiatrist secretly be in love with her, and she takes her away to her mountain retreat-style cabin to have a sordid affair? That would be so cool! And I think the asylum’s head orderly must be in on the whole thing. Maybe have him be an undercover agent for the Dark Cabal that your protagonist is trying to undermine. That would rock!” You get the idea.

Content advice is almost always complete and utter bunk. Why? Because you are the captain of your story ship. Seriously. Don’t give up that wheelhouse for anybody. Only you can tell the story you’ve got to tell. It’s natural for people reading your first draft to come up with their own ideas of where the story should go. That’s a good sign. It means your writing inspires creativity in others. But that’s where the advice should stay. Inside others. Inside their own minds. Don’t let it infect yours.

Here’s story feedback that is important to listen to:

  • Grammatical and spelling errors (e.g. Principle and Principal have different meanings, dude)
  • Errors of fact (e.g. No. The Allies didn’t have space lasers in WWII.)
  • Tone / mood that doesn’t work (e.g. I’m not sure you really nailed the sense of tragedy by using the phrase, “It was a total bummer when Wayne lost his entire family in the fire.”)
  • Story structure errors (e.g. I think that mentioning the fact that the story is set in 13th Century France is important to introduce from Chapter 1 onwards)
  • Stuff in the story that didn’t make any sense (e.g. It confused me when your protagonist suddenly developed the ability to swing from an invisible prehensile tail halfway through your historical romance novel)

Like any counsel, there are exceptions. If you’re lucky enough to have procured the services of a professional editor or writing coach, you should probably give their content advice more credence. They’ve read, professionally, a whole heck of lot of stories in your genre. They have a sense of what works and what doesn’t.

But if it’s content advice from any other source, treat it like you would a nice little disk of Uranium-235 that shows up in the mail. With extreme caution.

Bad Advice #5: Taking on too much advice

As a kid, I thought I wanted to be a professional golfer. Weird, but there you go. So my dad paid for lessons with a great old golf pro called Don Elmore. Don was the closest I’ve ever come to a true Obi Wan Kenobi-style mentor.

At the end of our first lesson, Don casually asked me if I’d been reading any instructional books on golf. I’m a nerd, so of course I said yes. A whole bunch. Don smiled and told me in his languid, syrupy American accent, “Burn them all, kid. Burn them all.”

That came as a bit of a shock. I’d been reading every single book my local library had on golf. I’m talking not only the how-to stuff but books on the frigging history of the game itself. Like I said, primo nerd. Only later in life did I really appreciate (or understand) Don’s advice.

He wasn’t being facetious or arrogant. He wanted total control over my path into the game. He honestly didn’t want to compete with mentors he would never get to meet. His motives were benevolent. Don knew that too many voices clamoring for attention can confuse the heck out of an uninformed mind. I get it now. Don was no dummy.

Back to writing. You’re reading this, so you’re probably a tremendous, grade-A, story nerd. You poor bastard. You’re collecting how-to books like muscle car-drivers collect speeding fines. You’re strung out on the latest “5 steps to authorial kick-assdom” books like an insomniac binge-watching late-night infomercials.

I know your pain. Intimately. I’ve got a rather large (i.e. massive, planetary-sized) bookcase in my study dedicated to my shameful collection of writing self-help. Oh, and that’s not counting about a third of my Kindle’s memory devoted to the same.

I’m Harper and I have a problem. So do you. Time to fire up that barbeque, don’t you think?

Of course, I realize and acknowledge the contradiction of me telling you, dear reader of this advice column, not to take on board too much advice. I might even be tearing a contradiction hole in the space-time continuum right now. Sorry about that.

But it has to be said. Writing advice is not light beer. It should not be gulped down in gallon-sized quantities. Writing advice is more like a bottle of 60-year old cognac. Sip it slow. Real slow. Look for quality, not quantity.

Thanks Don.

See you next time. Now go write.