The #1 Scariest Myth about Writing

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Ever wonder why seasoned writers give out such vague writing advice?

Kids all across the US are gearing up for Halloween. Writers— NaNoWriMo. Here’s why I consider NaNoWriMo a thing of nightmares.  

I participated in the November National Novel Writing Month back in 2005. I got a certificate that stated I completed my “novel”—a 50,000 word document that didn’t need any structure. In fact, my last few lines went something like this: “go, go, go, keep writing, keep going, finish the word count.”

That manuscript landed in a desk drawer and never saw the light of day.

Am I saying don’t participate in NaNoWriMo? Not exactly.

If you’re a newbie writer who has trouble getting words on the page, this experiment could help you free your phalanges. Go. Do it.

However, where NaNoWriMo falls flat is for writers who have moved beyond that introductory phase of writing and want to produce a well-structured story. To “win” the contest at month’s end, you put your story into a word count validator and if you’ve reached 50,000 words (according to their technology) you win. Ding. Ding. Ding.

It’s this focus on a word count that’s bothersome. NaNoWriMo feeds off of the scariest writer’s myth of all time:

Just write!
— random writer giving writing advice

“Just write.”

“The only way to be a good writer is to just write and keep writing.”

“Write three pages in longhand every morning no matter what.”

“After you write and keep writing, patterns will emerge.”

“You’ll catch cooties from kissing boys.”

Okay, so the last ones not a writer’s myth. But have you heard this just write myth in some variation? It’s usually leveled at people asking specific questions about how to get started as a writer. It’s vomit. Why has this one myth landed in our writers’ collective conscious as the only way to become better at the craft of writing? Even best-selling authors, some who I identify as my writing heroes, tout this bullshit.

This word count nonsense won’t get you where you want to be. Why? Because it doesn’t teach you craft.

Every so often you’ll see a well-known writer asked by a fan, “what should I do to start writing?” 

And the author will respond with something like, “Just write. There’s no magic formula. There’s no shortcut. Write and keep writing.”

What in the bee’s knees is happening here?

I think it’s a breakdown in communication.

The author is saying, “you must do the work. No one else will do it for you.” And that I agree with 100%. There’s no easy way around writing. If you want to write, you’ll have to put in the blood, sweat, and tears required.

But wait a minute… is that really what the wannabe writer was asking? I’m not hearing fans asking their beloved authors how they can skirt around hard work. What I hear them asking is, “how do I build a strong writing process like you’ve built?”

That’s a valid question.

It can’t be answered with just write because the just write credo will never teach you to a) figure out story structure b) identify why you’re writing c) participate in a conversation with your audience. You know, all that stuff that’s important to storytelling and not people who just produce word counts.

The myth of just write teaches you to join the Cult of the Word Count. That’s where you become a slave to numbers rather than obsess over words that culminate into strong stories. Writing like this is fine if you only want to produce content for yourself, but the minute you decide to put your work out into the world, you must learn the craft of writing.

Unfortunately, in today’s world of self-publishing, you regularly see writers who’ve gotten the just write myth so embedded into their writer’s brain that they forget their audience, churn out piles of narcissism, self-publish it, and call it a book. And before you weigh in on how harsh I’m being, let me give you some perspective.

I have a friend who hosts one of the largest book clubs in Phoenix. She regularly has authors ask to have their books reviewed by her group, but she usually declines. Why? Because she’s a nice person and says most authors don’t have the backbone to withstand the kinds of criticism her book club dishes out. Her group is a gathering of readers, not writers, who make no bones about ripping apart books if they fail to connect with them— the reading public. There ain’t no word count validator in book clubs.

Sit with that kind of exposure for a bit.

You can’t write solely for yourself and expect to be a wildly successful author. And the just write clan marinate in composing multitudes of words. Not much emphasis is placed on the reader.

So where did this just write concept come from, anyway?

In the 1950s you had the Beat Poets convincing everyone that their writing was as spontaneous as jazz and they revised nothing. Jack Kerouac’s myth of writing On the Road makes this claim: in a creative frenzy he was so inspired that he wrote his novel in three weeks on one big scroll he fed into his typewriter. He never edited a thing. He just wrote. Then he went into his agent’s office and unfurled a scroll of perfect prose.

NPR dispelled this myth back in 2007 when Kerouac scholar Paul Marion described the writer as less of a “spontaneous prose man” and instead a “supreme craftsman devoted to writing and the writing process” who worked through six drafts after facing rejection. The truth vs. the myth should give writers pause. (You can read the entire article here)

When anyone tells you to just write, realize it may be code for “do the work.” That’s advice you can accept!

But more times than not, just write is a myth created to add allure to a difficult and painstaking profession without any craft involved. The good news about dispelling this scary myth is you can learn to hone your craft and become a solid writer. There are clear, actionable steps to take. You just have to seek them out.

So, let’s squash the myth and replace it with this truth:

I gotta learn good craft.  

I gotta learn good craft.

I gotta learn good craft.

Catchy, ain’t it?