The Best Writing Advice I Was Never Given

As an apology for being an absent blogger (cause I know you all missed me ) I thought I would pass on the best writing advice I was never given. (Yeah I went for the obvious in the title.. )

To explain – I was given this advice and very useful it was too, but not about writing. I was given it by an art teacher. She may not have put it quite so bluntly. It was a long time ago I was last in art class but that’s how I remember it. It helped at the time – despite not turning me into Picasso –  but then I had no ambitions nor even the remotest belief that I could be an artist and as such never really thought about it again. Until recently when I was dealing with my ever recurring case of avoidance and procrastination and it suddenly popped into my head – neon bright and flashing.



I guess something about it must have resonated with me .

It probably sounds like the exact opposite of what you should be trying to do. You’ve probably spent most of your life – as long as you can remember anyway – believing that anything worth doing required control, precision and a whole bunch of other things, none of which amounted to anything like making a mess. If you were a good kid, a smart kid, you learnt to colour inside the lines. It was about learning the rules and practising applying them until you were colouring inside the lines even when the lines weren’t visible, even when the lines weren’t there.

Which is great if you plan on being a paint by numbers artist.

Not so great if you plan on creating something new.

I’m not a neat person in the obvious ways. I don’t like housework. I don’t make people take their shoes off when they come in the house. I leave the dishes half the night (week) before forcing myself to do them. But I do struggle with this idea. And always have. Maybe why it stuck. I’m still slightly traumatized by the tank chase in Golden Eye. I break out in a cold sweat at the thought of all that wanton destruction. Those beautiful buildings. Might explain why I never did like Brosnan as Bond.

I never even went through that destructive phase that we’re all supposed to experience as toddlers.. You know..

destroy so cute..

Everyone who ever babysat me remembers me as the ‘quiet one’, ‘the neat one’, so destruction of any nature sits very uncomfortably with me. But it is an intrinsic part of creation. And if we don’t learn how to use it, we limit ourselves –  more we might not actually be artists at all. No more than the record player is a musician.

It isn’t simply a matter of wanton destruction. In fact when my teacher gave me that advice it was to stop me throwing away my work. I had drawn – barely a few lines – but they looked wrong, not what I imagined they should be. My instinct was to rip of that piece of paper and begin again. Instead she told me to stick with it. Add to it, work round it, go over each line, rub at the bits I wanted gone, scribble over the bits that just didn’t seem quite right, and do this again and again and again. On the same line. And over the line. And around the line.  The point being not that I would end up with a perfect picture – there wasn’t a chance in hell of that – but that I would learn what my own fingers were capable of.

There are two mistakes every writer – okay I’m guessing, but every one I know – makes. The first is that they treat their work like it was as precious as a child. First born. After numerous IVF attempts. And a hard labour. Like 5 year hard.. Maybe everyone has only one truly great work within them. But the chance of it being your first? And if it is – then think how much greater your tenth could be. Some think that they can get over this with writing groups. There the general admonishment is grow a thick skin, be prepared to have your baby torn to shreds. The reality is your baby ends up with slightly better grammar.

But you should be prepared to shed. To change up the character dynamics – you thought he was a hero but he keeps heading down dark paths –  switch the pov, or tense. Rip out an entire sub plot or keep one subplot and get shot of everything and everyone else. The presumption with editing is that it is a literary polish,  a finesse. Finessing is neat. Finessing is what you do after the mess. And the messy bit can take you to the very last rewrite. The very last *edit*.  This isn’t simply a matter of ‘don’t worry about the first draft being perfect’ because the presumption is always that the story is fine by the end of the first draft, the characters and plot and theme, and then you can ‘tidy up.’ When in reality you haven’t even begun to get messy.  You’re still lining up the paint pots, dripping water on the serenely spinning potter’s wheel, hands clean as a whistle.


Ideally it should come from within. You can debate amongst yourselves the merits of outside input, but at this stage it isn’t about the finished product. If you are worrying about presentation, how it looks, you’re not going to roll up your sleeves and start digging in are you? And more importantly it isn’t about someone else’s approval – then we’re just colouring inside the lines again. It’s about fully exploring our own abilities and learning to trust them. That’s how we learn to draw in a few simple lines.

And that is the second mistake that most writers I know make. And I would say when I say writers I know, I know none better than myself. We – I – judge ourselves on those first few lines. Do you think the first chips into the marble that Michelangelo made revealed David? Do you think every one was a clean cleave direct to the finished line? We give ourselves no room to chip, to cogitate. To let the marble talk to us, we’re so busy judging our entire worth by a few lines.

The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say ~ Mark Twain

We judge ourselves on those first few lines by comparing them to Hemingway. Not Joe Hemingway with his leather patched elbows resting on the Starbuck’s table next to ours as he too bemoans his first few lines. But the dead guy who wrote aeons ago and has not only the accumulated  weight of decades of admiration behind him  but has finished. As in he wrote, he edited, he submitted, he edited again and then again and again.. By his own words he bled.  Give yourself a chance to finish before you declare yourself rubbish. Give yourself a chance to try. Give yourself every chance there is. Until its sitting on a bookshelf its no more precious or finished than a lump of clay and you should approach it with  the same attitude, what  might I find within?

Sometimes you have to go through the entire dictionary to find that the right word wasn’t in it. Doesn’t mean you can’t find it. Like that old picture you know is in the drawer somewhere. You neatly picked through it but couldn’t find it, not until you pulled it out and tipped it upside down all over the floor.

What we imagine in our heads and what we create on paper are rarely the same. I suspect if the two were to meet we’d end up disappointed.  Art lies somewhere between vision and act. One always shaping the other but neither subsumed. Thoughts are half realised bastard of feeling and image and word. Out here they don’t survive long, like rainbows in morning mist. Birth is messy.

But its worth it.





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