Sunday, 4 December 2016

Advice for writers: hidden gems or crazy counsel

A variety of people are asked to give advice on writing. Many are successful writers themselves, so we should listen to what they say in the almost certain knowledge that they’re right. Right?

Wrong! Don’t ever fall into the trap of assuming someone is going to be right. Especially not if you’re a writer. As a writer research and checking should be embedded in your psyche.

Many sayings and words of wisdom become entrenched in the accepted canon of wise words for writers. Some are gems that deserve their place. Some are utter bilge. And many, maybe most, comprise a mix of good sense and dodgy advice. Just look what happens when you unpack that old chestnut, “show don’t tell”.

It all got me to wondering about this professional guidance. What is more likely to stick in the collective consciousness – great advice or soundbite without substance?

Consider that scary phrase ‘no smoke without fire’. People have lost friends, jobs, even their lives because of that one. Yet surely everyone, even if they’ve never struggled to start a fire with damp timber, knows that smoke can billow in huge dense clouds without the glimmer of a flame. How many times has a malicious accusation been made and an innocent party automatically labelled guilty without thought, evidence or due process because ‘there’s no smoke without fire’?

No smoke without fire is the refuge of the lazy thinker.  And writers shouldn’t be lazy thinkers. Why record the words at all if you can’t be bothered to think them through. I don’t want writers to be the sorts of people who gawp glazed-eyed, blank-brained and declare that ‘It must be true cos it said so on the telly’.

No smoke without fire does not come under the general banner of advice for writers. I’m using it to make a point, but I want to pick a few of the sayings that are doled out as good writing guidance and take a closer look as I unpack them, looking at what they really mean and whether they constitute good advice or not.

Will I find cleverly constructed phrases that roll beautifully off the tongue then crumble to inane idiom, or will I find genuine gems of insightful instruction?

Who knows? I don’t.

If I work for long enough I expect to unearth both those extremes and everything in between. But I won’t know until I have a heap of unpacked maxims exposed for what they really are.

Watch this space, and if you know of a saying that particularly chimes for you, for good or bad, then please let me know.


  1. My hackles rise every time I hear (or read) anything along the lines of; 'Work hard and you'll succeed.' It's the biggest lie we present to children and society in general. I've yet to come across anyone who's become 'successful' (i.e.well off) as a result of working long hard hours as a nurse, a miner (other than for gold, of course), a refuse collector, an office cleaner or any one of a hundred essential but poorly paid employments.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Stuart. Interestingly, they were talking about this on R4 Thinking Aloud today. An episode called Success and Luck in which Robert Frank (an economics professor) was making the point on the back of a body of research that although successful people work hard, it doesn't work the other way round i.e. hard work does not guarantee success. There is a large element of luck. He suggested that if successful people were better able to face up to this and understand the reality of it, they would be more likely to stop grabbing such a huge slice of the cake as though entitled. As he said, would you rather drive a Ferrari on a road riddled with huge potholes or drive a Porche on smooth asphalt. This is the link:

    1. It's always gratifying when 'common sense' is backed-up by academic research and thought!