Some Really Bad Writing Advice

I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve read this sentence:

Swimming lesson. Not.The best way to learn writing is to write.

It comes mostly from pantsers who don’t want to learn story structure, who think it’s a straightjacket for producing formulaic pablum and they want no part of it.

When my middle daughter graduated from high school she wanted to write songs. We got her a small keyboard and I offered to give her lessons.

“No, that’s okay. I know what I’m doing.”

She was echoing what I’ve heard dozens of songwriters say: “Learning music theory will destroy my spontaneous creativity.”

Really? So you’re saying that me and Mozart and Dylan and Donald Fagen are drudges? I’m not the genius those three are, but I write better songs because I learned music theory, not in spite of it. Listen to Donald Fagen talk about composing the Steely Dan song Peg:

It’s not possible to craft brilliant music without a deep understanding of, well, music.

My daughter eventually came back to me, sheepishly admitted her teenage hubris, and after a few basics, went off to become one of my favorite songwriters.

How many musicians are still playing rudimentary licks because they’ve never spent a few minutes learning the makeup of chords, a few chord patterns, and a bit about rhythm? I can take a willing neophyte through a year of self-struggle-learning in about one hour. Because I know, and can teach, the structure.

We Were Talking About Writing

Becoming a great writer, even a good one, takes practice.

Practicing to get better requires learning new things.

Quick, name three important things which people learn without being taught. After infancy, I mean.

Driving? I hope not. Swimming? Great googlymooglies stop right there.

Cooking? Maybe, though, again, better if you at least have a cookbook handy to provide structure in the form of instructions (oh, you hadn’t thought of it that way, had you?) Playing a musical instrument? Woodworking? Gardening?

I don’t care what human endeavor you undertake, a little training and a little research will make you better at it.

Practice, yes. Practice practice practice.

But practice what you’re learning, not what you already know.

One Place to Learn

I mentioned above that I can give a year’s worth of self-study in about an hour to a willing learner.

It applies to writing, not just music. Give my novel-in-12-sentences process a look, and if you’re interested in the ebook version when it comes out, sign up for my newsletter and be the first to hear. (Last week, folks on the newsletter got a chance to preview it free. That’s the kind of stuff my people get.)

4 thoughts on “Some Really Bad Writing Advice

  1. Those googlymooglies are surely destined to take the place of the mudshark in your mythology. Love the music theory analogy, but also couldn’t pass up recognizing your nod to a great American composer.

  2. Hi Joel. Great post. Loved your music analogy. Our family, a very musically talented one, is such, because of our dad’s advise. “Take music theory!” I was told to just write, and in doing so, I would become a great writer. Yeah, right. I had to learn the fundamentals of this very difficult medium, but I have come a long ways. Spot on as usual. Blessings.

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