Writing is something virtually all of us can get better at. Part of this improvement comes from our becoming more experienced—to put it simply, writing more makes us better. However, another part comes from others’ experience: We learn from the advice of those who’ve written more than we have.
The internet is a fantastic source of writing advice, containing seemingly endless resources and wisdom. And yet, there’s a certain problem with this abundance of knowledge: Not all of it is good for you.
On the one hand you can find excellent, in-depth articles written by people who really want to help you; on the other, catchy one-liners that sound important and wise, but can actually be unproductive, if not outright harmful. The problem is that such short and wise-sounding tips propagate virally and persist. For obvious reasons, we tend to be attracted to simple, one-size-fits-all solutions.
Sadly, these so-called easy solutions are often wrong or, at the very least, misleading or incomplete.
In this post I will visit three of the most persistent such claims about writing. We’ll see which one is somewhat true, which one is wrong, and which one is … not even wrong. The goal is not to offer you ready solutions—that would only perpetuate the “trust me, I’m a writer” problem. Rather, with this post I want to help you see how to gauge such writing claims for yourself.
Claim 1: “Practice Makes Perfect”
As I mentioned right at the beginning of this post, writing is something virtually all of us can get better at, and this indeed comes with practice. However, not all of us can be masters. There’s nothing wrong with that. Being a master in something is a complex result of many variables such as practice, circumstances, and perhaps our genes. We can still have a wonderful career, being excellent without being “perfect.”
Now, you might think all this is linguistic trickery; that I’m deconstructing the “practice makes perfect” idiom just for fun. No, the truth is that I’ve witnessed too many people becoming disenchanted with their “lack of perfection” and give up.
Don’t let that happen to you.
The truth is, the better we become, the more we reach a certain threshold where practice doesn’t yield the same improvement as before.
Moreover, not all practice is unequivocally good. Here’s an example, to help you see it for yourself: Imagine a “boot camp” scenario, where you write five hours every day for five days. Now compare it to writing as much as you feel like, on days you feel like, until you accumulate 25 hours. In both cases you practiced the same number of hours. Have you gotten the same benefit? Why not?
Here’s the answer: Because it’s experience that makes us better writers, and practice is only the means to it. If you practice mechanically, as if you were ticking checkboxes, you might as well not practice at all. Practice is important and efficient only when it’s accompanied by an organic increase in experience, which is a sum of practical writing practice, life experiences, and overall outlook.
And so, “Practice Makes Perfect” is true, with caution. It’s only a metaphor, meant to show you that writing requires putting in some work. Mastery and “perfection” (both notoriously difficult terms to define) are a result of more complex factors. Be wary and critical of practice for practice’s sake.
Claim 2: “Quality Writing Always Rises to the Top”
Generally speaking, words such as “always,” “everyone,” or “never” make me nervous. But even if we replaced “always” with “often,” I’d say this writing claim is dubious at best. The reason this claim exists is, I believe, twofold.
First of all, it is comforting to believe that quality is the primary reason for success, as that allows most of us to ignore advantages we might not have, such as huge resources, extensive networks, and so on. In a way, there’s an “American-Dream” aspect here, not unlike the one found in the previous claim: Work hard, be great, and the world will be yours.
The second reason behind the persistence of this claim is that we conflate necessity and sufficiency. Generally speaking, books or articles that sell, draw positive attention, and are overall popular, are also of good quality. But being of good quality does not guarantee they will become popular.
This connection between popularity and quality is crucial to understand and accept, because—as with the previous claim—a writer might become disillusioned and give up. For better or for worse, we live in a complex world, where results depend not merely on quality but on a variety of factors such as the huge resources and extensive networks I mentioned above, or even pure luck.
Moreover, you should always have a clear idea of what “success” means to you. For some writers it’s about sales or exposure in general, whereas for others it’s about the evolution of their writing skills. Having a clear view of your objective will help you reach it.
“Quality Writing Always Rises to the Top” is, sadly, false. Reflect on your circumstances, ponder on your own priorities, and set your personal goals. Define what “success” means to you—because it means different things to different people—and try to approach your writing from a more subjective perspective. What works for others isn’t necessarily what you want.
Claim 3: “You Should Listen to What [Famous Author] Advises About Writing”
Ah, this is my favorite; not as advice, but as a great example of what I would refer to as “not even wrong.”
The origin of the delightful phrase “not even wrong” takes us to physics and the theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli. It is said that when Pauli saw the low-value paper of a young physicist, he exclaimed “not only is this not right, it’s not even wrong!”
The reason any advice given by famous authors counts in my book (no pun intended) as “not even wrong” is that the circumstances are wildly different.
Fair enough, we can say that Stephen King or J.K. Rowling—two random examples—also had humble beginnings and could purportedly relate to the woes of an emerging author, but even so: Why would a British author who wrote a popular fantasy series necessarily be a good source of advice for all authors, of all genres, located all around the world?
Indeed, one piece of advice often associated with J.K. Rowling is the fact she received dozens of rejections and didn’t give up. It’s often offered as evidence that one should keep going, no matter what, the implication being that those who don’t give up and work hard—claims one and two creep in, if you noticed—will necessarily have the same result.
Ultimately, “You Should Listen to What [Famous Author] Advises About Writing” is not even wrong, because the whole premise is moot. Besides a rather weak appeal to authority, there is little comparable between a famous author and your needs and circumstances. Be open-minded, read whatever the famous author has to say, but always be skeptical about one-fits-all solutions. What worked for them won’t necessarily be what you need.
There Are no Easy Answers, but There Are Useful Questions
The internet is full of advice and claims about everything. But just because something is repeated often, it isn’t necessarily true. These three claims about writing, together with other similar ones, can be true in certain circumstances, for certain writers, at least partially.
We do get better when we practice. But terms such as “mastery,” “perfection,” and even “success” can mean different things to different authors. Similarly, although much of the writing we see online is indeed of high quality, the reverse is not necessarily the case in our flawed world: Truly stunning texts often remain in obscurity. As for famous authors’ advice, some of it can help you, some of it won’t. Some of it is meant for you, some isn’t.
In the end, most one-liner claims about writing offer easy answers and one-fits-all solutions, which rarely are all that helpful. Think about it: If following a one-liner tip about writing were that effective, everyone would be a great writer—or popular, or successful; you get the idea.
The truth is, there are no easy answers. But there are useful questions nestled in these pieces of writing advice. When you pick the one-liners apart, you might find key questions you can ask yourself, first and foremost, to establish your priorities, give your own definitions, and set your own goals.