Ten Things Writers Shouldn’t Do


Sherwood Smith mentioned this conversation she heard while attending Fourth Street. It interested me, because I’ve always thought there were a thousand ways a writer could fail. Make a list of ten? What could be easier!

But to make a list of ten things that most people wouldn’t? Something beyond “Follow the guidelines,” “Don’t play video games when you should be writing,” and “Don’t respond to reviews”? Something beyond the usual? I don’t know. Let’s see:

1) Don’t try to be a brand.

Companies are “brands.” Brands get slapped on products. But writers? They’re people, and what they create is more than a “product.” They’re works of art. Yes, the art is sold as a product, and maybe it’s bad art, or low art, or pop art, but it’s still art.

Brands guarantee a consistency of product, like frozen pizza, and you don’t want people to think your books are the same things every time, maybe with some minor variations in features or flavorings. I always catch shit when I say this, but novels are art. You may want to think of them as mere entertainment or whatever, but they are always art as well.

What writers have instead of a “brand” is a “reputation.” Have a reputation for being interesting, fun, sane, and humane. Have a reputation for writing great characters and surprising stories. Instead of putting out the same old work every time (that matches your “brand”) be amazing.

2) Don’t blame other people.

It’s hard to be rejected, to have your queries bounced, to get bad reviews, to have poor sales. What’s more, it’s tempting to put the fault on external forces. Your publisher didn’t market you enough, that agent doesn’t know good writing, blah blah blah.

But here’s the deal: The person who takes the blame is the person who takes the credit–because that’s the person who has the power. Do you want to break into publishing (or a bestseller list) or do you want to be discovered? Do you want to be an active or passive participant in your career.

I say: If you can’t reach your goals, blame yourself. Even if it’s not true. Behave as though the power to reach your goals is yours. You might as well, right?

3) Don’t have contempt for the market.

Crap Plus One. It’s death and failure all wrapped up in one. Don’t look at the bad books and try to do a little bit better, and don’t tell yourself, “My work may not be great, but it’s better than [published/successful book]!” Aim high instead.

4) Don’t have writing rituals.

I used to have writing rituals. I used to need a certain arrangement on my desk, a certain type of music, etc etc. What happened? My life conspired to strip those rituals from me one by one. I had to learn to be creative without them.

Don’t make cigarettes part of your process, because someday you may want to quit and you’ll find that you’ve quit writing, too. Don’t be precious about the kind of paper or the color of the ink in your pen. Sure, it’s fine to have favorites–to indulge yourself a little-but you really don’t want to fetishize the process. Just get the words from your brain into the world.

5) Don’t come to the page cold.

Writing time shouldn’t be just while you’re writing. Spend a little of your day thinking and planning what comes next. It makes the work easier than if you just turn up at the keyboard and think “What now?”

6) Don’t shit-mouth yourself.

This different from blaming yourself. When you blame yourself for a failure, you’re taking control of it and resolving to do better next time. When you talk crap about yourself–what you can’t do, what you can’t write–you diminish yourself.

And it must seem funny coming from me, since I’m the king of self-recrimination. But the truth is that shit-mouthing myself has hurt me. It’s limited me. I’ve convinced myself I could only do X words a day when I should have been pushing myself to do X+1 and as a result I’m still a slow writer. It’s held me back.

Which means I get to bad mouth myself about bad mouthing myself. That’s pretty much a dream come true.

7) Don’t write sitting down.

This is a hard one and I can’t do it all the time, especially since I do so much of my writing at the library or a coffee shop. But sitting for hours and hours is really awful for your body. I use my little standing desk whenever I can. You should try to do the same.

8 ) Don’t make other people’s mistakes.

It’s easy to let other people guide your choices. Sometimes they do it overtly by giving notes or criticism. Sometimes they do it second hand by creating something compelling you want to emulate.

Don’t be guided by other people’s ideas. Their responses? Sure. That’s useful feedback and you never stop learning from useful feedback. But if you’re going to make mistakes and fail, do it with your own work.

9) Don’t be impressed by “talent.”

Talent is a really nebulous concept, and personally I think it’s pernicious. We slap the “talented” label on people as an honorific, because their work is original, subtle, and most of all, accurate.

But the truth is that the text on the page is the end result of many influences, with “study” and “careful practice” at the top of the list. “Talent”–as it’s normally thought of–isn’t something you can control, and it will never, ever be enough. The best thing a writer can have is a willingness to practice intelligently and the ability to learn without preconceptions. If you have talent (whatever it is) great; if not, no big. Keep practicing and trying new things.

10) Don’t sweat anything but the writing.

Don’t worry about awards. Don’t worry about theory. Don’t worry about valuing character over plot. Don’t worry about the “hardness” of your setting. Don’t expect to be liked by everyone. Don’t expect anyone to care what you’re doing. Don’t fret your feelings for Jesus, or Obama, or Dr. Who. Don’t fret over submission guidelines (which are simple to follow). Don’t fret over internet arguments.

Can you write things that people want to read? If so, you’re doing what you need to do. Go you. If not, all the internet squabbling about art and genre or who deserved what award won’t do a damn thing for you.

Bonus 11th thing: Don’t take advice from people like me.

Instead of listening to people’s advice, pay attention to what they do. Examine things for yourself, with an open mind. The things you learn by your own study will be worth more than 100 blog posts and lists.

And… yeah. I wrote about writing again. On my blog. What the hell is wrong with me?

20 thoughts on “Ten Things Writers Shouldn’t Do

  1. Don

    Heh, your blog software converted your number eight to a smiling face icon.

    It’s funny how much of this boils down to the same thing – don’t sweat anything other than doing the work as best you can – the way all the positive stuff boils down to “just write.”

    I hear so many people talking about all the things they want in writing, though for me it’s more revolving around news and journalism. But so many times when I ask what they’re doing they’re not writing anything. What other callings other than maybe running are so free of any requirements other than the drive to do it the way writing is?

  2. There is a check box somewhere in WordPress that would allow me to turn off those smilies but it’s way down my list of things to do. :)

    And yeah, it really does come down to the writing most of all.

  3. The branding thing is interesting to me because there is rising pressure to do this. Going to write in a different genre? You need a new pen-name and a new website…

    I write in at least two genres and I barely have time for the platform building that I manage to do. I’m lucky that my genres overlap a bit (and I just don’t mention the literary part; not sure it’s constructive). So I am doing as you said, and marketing myself as a person who does a few different things.

    You so often see writers who remain in the same genre go stale. They recycle plots, character types–even lines. I like the freedom that being genre-mobile allows; I’m just getting started in publishing though, so we’ll see how that works in the future…

  4. I do see logic behind different pen names for different genres, though. If I were to start a MG series, I’d insist on a pen name of some kind if only to avoid a situation where a kindly aunt decided that, since her little niece loved THE KID WITH THE GOLDEN UNDERPANTS so much, she ought to buy more by the same author… Oh look! “TWENTY PALACES”! ::one-click order::

    Likewise for writers who want to separate their mystery-solving ferret books from their splatterpunk drug addict horror.

    But there’s this attitude out there that writers should interact with the public as though we’re a corporate public relations dept. I hate that.

  5. Don

    I think you can read it either way. We use a lot of shorthand in life and some of it really makes stuff sound douche-y. But what some marketing people call branding you can just as easily call self-promotion, commitment to quality, seeking out new readers, and engaging with people. Ya know, what you’re doing here.

    In my circle there’s been some recent kerfuffle over this. Gene Weingarten wrote a humor column about being asked about ‘branding’ by a journalism student. Gene used his usual style and made fun of the concept and threw out a little “get-off-my-lawn” kinda stuff. I took it as 5% truth and 95% humor.

    Steve Buttry, however, who I had the pleasure to interact with when he was at TBD.com, took it a little more seriously and a lot of dialog came out of the matter.

    I think it’s a great look at how marketing buzzspeak sometimes turns us off of great ideas we’re perfectly cool with if they’re phrased differently. Even Weingarten with his snark about branding embraces it – in today’s web chat on the Washington Post he posted this link to a little PDF note card he wrote. It’s got his name, title, a short URL and his twitter handle on the bottom of it.

    If that’s not “branding” I don’t know what is. It’s also perfectly reasonable and not crappy. It just sounds that way when we use dickish shorthand to talk about it.

  6. he posted this link to a little PDF note card he wrote. It’s got his name, title, a short URL and his twitter handle on the bottom of it.

    If that’s not “branding” I don’t know what is.

    Don, I don’t think of that as “branding.” I know marketing folks have expanded the meaning of the term to cover all the ways a professional interacts with the public, but to me it’s something a corporation has and does. People have reputations. They have ways to contact them or interact with them. “Branding?” No one has burned me with a brand.

  7. But regarding your books, Harry: Aren’t you establishing a brand by using similar cover art and similar titles for your books (as far as the amount of words, their number of syllables, and the “of” that appears between the first and third word)? Or maybe it’s perfectly fine when the books are in the same series?

  8. Damn good advice. I never cared anyway if people didn’t like what I was writing about. I am unique, and so, all writers are. I cannot be branded- I am too crazy to pin down.My book coming out is almost too unique to describe.

  9. I think some writers get caught in being a brand. They write a few books and, for whatever reason, one takes off. Then the agent/publisher just wants more of that one for ever more. That’s fine for the next couple of books, but then I get bored. Unfortunately, as long as people keep buying, the publishers will keep pushing for that brand.

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