The Best Writing Advice I Ever Ignored
Nick DiLallo / WNW Member
I have now read twenty-one books and a combined five thousand-ish pages about how to be a better writer. I’ve studied the daily writing routines of every important American author since Mark Twain. I’ve listened to writing podcasts for seven hundred hours, give or take.
For years, I’ve continuously devoured and internalized every piece of writing advice available. Every tip, trick, tidbit, factoid, and helpful hint. Every “do” and every “don’t.”
None of it has made me a better writer.
Turns out, all that advice getting passed down as gospel is totally unhelpful. It’s fun to read, but it’s wrong. Let’s take a look at some of the greatest hits and I’ll explain what I mean.
“Write what you know.”
I’ll get this one out of the way first. It’s good to have a few areas of expertise, but the best writers can write about anything.
Following this advice is also a terrible long-term career strategy. Instead of self-pigeonholing, take assignments that push you into new territory. Write the onboarding flow for a kombucha delivery service, even if you never drink the stuff. Write a conversational interface for a dog-walking app, even if you’re a cat person. Learn, write, repeat.
“Just start writing and the words will eventually flow.”
If only it worked this way. Type long enough and the masterpiece would simply reveal itself. Unfortunately, banging out a directionless first draft won’t get you very far. Every blank page needs a plan. Step one isn’t writing. It’s thinking.
Before you open up that new Google doc, figure out your target audience, dig into the brand strategy, and check out the competition. Who will be reading this? Why should they pay attention? How will you keep things interesting or memorable or different?
Figure out where you’re headed, then write. The words will flow. And these will be worth keeping.
“Find a perfect writing spot.”
There’s some law in the universe that dictates any perfect writing spot will disappear after a few months. The quiet café will get Instagram-famous. The empty conference room will be booked for endless group brainstorms. Your sunny desk by the window will be given to someone else.
A better approach: learn to write anywhere. It’s a real life superpower, like being able to fall asleep on airplanes. Oh, and splurge on those expensive noise-cancelling headphones you’ve been thinking about. They work.
“Write drunk. Edit sober.”
What worked for a few famous expats is a disaster for everyone else. Stick to coffee.
“Write your first draft with pencil and paper.”
It’s romantic and old-timey for about twelve minutes. Then you need to tab over to an online thesaurus or look up the difference between “disinterested” and “uninterested.”
Don’t start writing like it’s the 19th century, but do get rid of all those digital distractions. Turn off calendar alerts, quit Slack, put your phone on Airplane Mode. Maybe even use one of those minimalist writing apps like Hemingway or iA Writer.
Once freed from notifications and endless buzzing, type away. The modern joys of copy, paste, and spellcheck will make life easier. Besides, you’ll need to type your stuff up eventually. Your boss can’t read your handwriting.
“Find your voice.”
Just as important, know when to ditch it. Writing done for clients shouldn’t sound like your voice. It should sound like theirs. One of the best skills you can develop is the ability to switch up your style as necessary.
If you’re lucky, you’ll get a polished Brand Book to point you in the right direction. Unfortunately, many of them have less than a page or two about writing style. So get good at internalizing a brand voice just by reading what’s available. Be able to figure out which words make the BMW app sound expensive and why those Google error messages feel so Google-y.
“Never show work until it’s finished.”
Maybe don’t show the first draft if it’s a total trainwreck. But don’t wait until the twentieth to get another opinion. Writing is always a work in progress, and getting feedback early helps catch little mistakes before they become giant screw-ups. Besides, another reader will be able to catch stuff you can’t. Something about the brain.
“Write every day.”
Nope. Nothing makes a person hate writing more. It’s important to know when to close the laptop and take time off. Read, travel, exercise. See your family and go to movies and cook.
Taking breaks makes a giant difference in the quality of your craft. You know that writer at the office who works every weekend and doesn’t take his PTO? He doesn’t get better and he doesn’t impress anyone. He just drives himself crazy, burns out, then quits.
So is there any writing advice that’s actually worth paying attention to? Anything that’s true for everyone, all the time? Yes.
Do whatever works for you.
There’s no single creative process, no one perfect chair or breakfast or Chrome extension that’ll make everything fall into place. Some writers are hardcore grammarians; others just go with what feels right. Some do their best work before lunch; others thrive at 3am.
Figure out your own routine and trust your writerly instincts. If the stuff that doesn’t work for me ends up working for you, use it. And when you come across advice that you don’t agree with, do what I do. Ignore it.
Nick DiLallo is a Writing Director at Work & Co in Brooklyn.
Greg Kletsel is an illustrator based in Brooklyn, NY. His clients include The New York Times, ESPN, The New Yorker, Playboy, BuzzFeed and Harvard Business Review.