We love hearing about other people’s writing processes. And we adore hearing advice from big-name authors, holding onto their every word in the hope that if we just do things the same way they do – down to the number of coffees per day and their designated hours of writing – we’ll somehow follow that same path to success.
However, it can be silently frustrating when you find that the common writing advice you’ve been given just doesn’t seem to work for you.
I wrote this piece to try and show you that this is okay. Your writing process is still as valid as anyone else’s even if it doesn’t fit what you’ve been told is right.
Here are some pieces of advice flipped on their head, and the reasons why they don’t always work for everyone.
1. You Don’t Have to Write Every Day
Whenever I’ve grumbled about not being able to write, resounding advice has always been to just “write every day”.
But does it work?
I’ll go as far as to say that forcing myself to write on days where I don’t feel like it has often felt like a waste of time. If you’ve ever felt too that it’s an infuriating, uninspiring waste of your time forcing out words you simply aren’t connecting with, it’s because it probably is.
There are plenty of writers for whom writing every day – even if that’s a diary entry, quick character sketch or even a shopping list – can help them keep the writing muscle primed. Others find that the process of showing up to the writing desk every day helps them to more easily shift their minds into writing gear at certain times of the day. (However, if it’s that nagging voice of self-doubt that keeps stopping you in your tracks, you’re not alone. Here’s a workshop I’ve set up to help you squash it.)
However, our creative processes are as unique to us as our DNA. What works for one writer may not necessarily work for another.
I once used a week off work purely to write for eight hours a day. I wanted to see just how much of a novel I could write if I showed up at nine every morning and pushed through with writing until five every day. It didn’t work. I became infuriated; every word forced onto the page and the end result being a word document that has never reemerged from the archive folder. You can just tell I wasn’t connecting. And if the writer isn’t connecting with the words, then your writers certainly won’t either.
Sometimes if your brain is telling you to step away from the writing desk, it’s because there’s living and reading and resting to do. Respect that. You’ll thank yourself for it later when the words are flowing naturally.
2. Writing Competitions Can Be Worth It
You have to be in it to win it. I hear a lot of arguments against the high entry fees, which do of course add up, but in my view if you’re serious about writing you can put aside a little bit of money every now and then to use for the competitions of your choice. If you’re serious about running, then you’ll buy race entries and trainers. If you’re into fishing, then you’ll spend the money on bait and fishing equipment.
And if you’re into writing, allow yourself a competition entry now and then; a win or a shortlisting may come with monetary prizes. And if it doesn’t, it’ll go a long way on your cover letter to publishers.
Some competitions offer discounted entries for low-income writers or those from underrepresented backgrounds, and this is a much-needed step in challenging the lingering problem of elitism in poetry. Perhaps someone could pay for an entry somewhere for you instead of another multipack of reindeer socks for Christmas.
It’s pointless using ‘I’ve got more chance of winning the lottery’ as an example. Mostly because it isn’t true.
Enter what you can afford, and keep note of every longlisting, shortlisting and win you have. It all strengthens your writing profile when it comes to publication.
3. If It Gets Rejected, Don’t Send It Straight Back Out
This is a big one. And you heard it right.
Think of those common tweets you see, often with over 1,000 likes and retweets:
“I’ve sent this same piece of work out over and over for the past five years. Today, on the 408th attempt, it got accepted! #NeverGiveUp”.
While this does often ring true in the case of writing submissions – after all, writing is subjective and it is very likely that what feels like a polished piece of work to you could have just reached the wrong editor or the wrong judge at the wrong time – it runs the risk of making us lax when it comes to editing, improving and developing.
To see what I mean, dig out an old set of notes from when you started writing and were only just learning the ropes. There may be ideas there you thought were genius at the time, that you thought nobody could possibly reject, but which make you cringe now. I know I’ve done it. Only the other day I came across a notebook full of poems I drafted when I was just starting writing my debut poetry collection. At the time, I thought these were stuffed full of raw emotion and intriguing imagery but in reality, looking back, they could have been written by a sulking teenager whose mum just told them they couldn’t go to an MCR concert.
And one day I’ll probably look into my current notebooks and find problems I’m not able to see until I develop even further as a writer.
It’s only when you start looking back and comparing it to now that you start to see that development has taken place. What is it that’s shaped that development? Most likely, it’s a combination of feedback, failure, goal-setting, editing, reworking and continuously questioning and learning from others you admire. It comes from research, personal experience and taking constructive criticism on board.
Whenever you receive a rejection, go back to that rejected piece. Don’t just submit again everywhere and put it down to luck: was the work really the best it could be? Without building upon feedback or probing deeper, you’ll make it incredibly difficult for yourself to grow.
Don’t tell yourself you’re a bad writer because of a disappointing rejection. We all deal with rejection. Even the biggest writers will be turned away at times, something which I often forget when I’m beating myself up over the second “no” of the week.
Sometimes, yes, it’s that the time or the place or the editor wasn’t right. But don’t start using this as your excuse. If it’s being rejected over and over, find a group of writing friends you can trust and seek feedback.
It can make all the difference between moping over another disappointing email and bouncing around the living room after an acceptance to a dream journal.
4. Try Not Thinking About Publication
Some of my poems will never be worthy of publication but have provided immense relief when writing. I am learning along the way not to be frustrated with those pieces but to ask myself: “Did the process serve me?”
If the creative process itself is healing, enlightening, soothing or just gives you joy, then it isn’t a waste. It ensures you have more days where you want to get to your writing desk and can get into the flow of writing with greater ease, until that day where, finally, you’ve produced something worth polishing for publication. Note that this isn’t about forcing yourself. This is just about responding to the call to write without burdening yourself with the expectation of perfection.
I’ve got an impressive record of terrible artwork, all now bounced off into the eternal pit of the wastepaper basket. I’ve stabbed my way through some truly botched attempts at cross-stitch and completely slaughtered well-known guitar riffs. My car singing, I’m not ashamed to admit, is strictly done with the windows rolled up and definitely not accommodating of the high notes.
But you know what? I enjoyed the process. And the process drove me to want to improve.
When learning to speak as children, we mispronounced words as our mouths tried to master and mimic the things our parents tried to teach us. We flipped porridge onto the kitchen tiles and got spaghetti hoops in our hair as our hands clumsily tried to grip the cutlery and manoeuvre it into our messy mouths. We learned. We adapted.
We immersed ourselves in the process until the end goal – feeding ourselves – was finally mastered.
We just got a bit messy in the process (as you can see in my delightful photo below. Note that I try not to do this on dates).
Even if you choose to ignore the common advice you’ve been given. You might find that the advice you’ve been given does resonate with you – and that’s perfectly okay too. Remember, we’re all wonderfully different. Writing, and the creative process, is unique, messy, and does not sit well within a rigid definition.
Find what works for you. If you’ve been given writing advice that works, write it down and remember it. Fill a notebook. Keep a diary of insights that you discover yourself while going through the writing process.
Our journeys were never meant to all look the same. Be open to continuously learning and being constantly surprised.
It’s all part of the joy of writing.
Nagging voice of self-doubt getting in the way of your story or poem? Sign up for my workshop, ‘Overcoming Self-Doubt in Writing‘ and learn how to turn the volume down so you can continue writing. If it’s 1:1 feedback you’d like to get those poems right before sending them out into the world, I’d love to help. Find out more here.