As someone who wanted to write for as long as I can remember, I’ve seen a lot of advice out there. I’ve even tried giving some myself. Most of it is common sense. Much of it is vague. Some of it works for those giving advice, but won’t work for writers with different work styles. A few pieces of advice are pretty specific and useful.
One example of the latter comes from John W. Campbell, via Isaac Asimov’s autobiography. The advice Campbell gave to Asimov was when the young writer was struggling with the opening of a story: “If you are having trouble getting started,” Campbell said, “you are almost certainly starting the story too early. Pick a point later in the story and start there.” That advice has worked for me on a number of occasions.
But the single best piece of writing advice that has actually worked for me consistently comes from Stephen King and his book On Writing.
Write with the door closed.
King is speaking of first drafts here, and what he means is that during this phase of writing, you are writing for yourself, and not letting anyone else in. He argues that by talking about what you are writing with others, you dilute the work for yourself. He argues further that by allowing people to see your work and comment on it when it is in first draft, you are apt to make changes and second guess yourself before ever finishing.
I used to talk about my writing, even in first draft, but after reading On Writing for the second time and thinking hard about this particular piece of advice, I stopped. Mostly. I’ve slipped on one or two occasions and always regretted it afterward. When I am working on a story in first draft now, I do it with the door completely closed. I’ve found it to be freeing. I write what I want without worrying about what people with think, if something is silly or hard to swallow. And the story stays fresh for me because I am not telling it again and again to people.
The most difficult part of writing with the door closed is the desire to get some feedback other than your own gut instinct. Writers crave feedback. This is why form letter rejections can be so annoying. This is why writers critique groups are so popular. Several times over the last few months, I’ve been tempted to submit part of my story for critique in my writers group. It couldn’t hurt to get some feedback on the opening, right?
Then I remember Stephen King’s advice. It’s almost like I hear him whispering it in my ear. “You may be tempted to show your work to someone before you are finished. Resist this temptation.”
I’ve still got quite a way to go in my first draft, and so we’ll see how well I can continue to resist the temptation, but I’ve found the concept of writing with the door closed to be the most useful piece of writing advice I’ve received that actually works for me.
What about you? What is the most useful piece of writing advice you’ve received that actually worked for you?