Hello readers, and welcome to the third installment of Being a Better Writer’s Summer of Cliche Writing Advice! Where each week this summer we’re taking a different look at some of those oft-heard, easily repeated sayings of writing advice that seem to swarm young writers (and even some veteran ones) wherever they go. The quick, off-the-cuff sayings that just seem to crop up like flies.
Because while they’re numerous and oft-repeated, are they really that useful? Or have they, in being cut down to something that’s bite-sized and easily digestible, lost some of that functionality we’d like them to bring, or even perhaps become harmful, like last week’s “Show, don’t tell?”
Or are they distilled wisdom that, while curt, is really quite useful? Well, that’s what Being a Better Writer is figuring out this summer with this series. Is the saying really that useful? What sort of knowledge or advice can we take out of it? Should we be repeating it? Or is it something we shouldn’t use because it’s likely going to cause more stumbling than smooth sailing for a new writer?
Enough pontificating! This week’s quick quip of choice?
Stop Planning and Start Writing.
You know what, I’ll say this one up front: This bit of advice is pretty good. Actually, scratch that. For the right person, it’s really good.
Let me tell you why. See, I’ve been in scenarios where an author (myself included) has stood up in front of a large group of would-be writers and asked “How many of you in here are writing something?” and seen all the hands go up. Only for that question to be followed with “Now how many of you have a page of your story written?” and watch most of those hands go down.
Wait, what? But no, you read that correctly. Hands would go down. Not all of them … but usually the majority. We’re talking “group of thirty people and only three hands are left” level. Ten percent, maybe.
So why are the rest raising their hands when asked if they’re writing something? Well, because as they see it, they are. They just … haven’t started writing the actual story yet. They’re still brainstorming, or working on planning it, or waiting for the inspiration to strike. They have ideas! They’re writing! It’s all just … planning, you know? Figuring things out so that when they sit down they can pop this story out in a few days! The more they plan, the easier it will be!
By the way, none of the above paragraph was to be read in sarcasm. Those are all real explanations I’ve personally heard. Almost word-for-word. And I’ve heard them a lot. In just about every writing class I’ve ever taken, actually.
Now, as painful as it can be, I do need to go into what gets explained next in every one of those classes, seminars, panels, etc: Writing is writing. Unless you’re actually producing pages on a story, sitting back and brainstorming, storyboarding, etc … isn’t making a story. It’s preparing for a story. Most authors have a name for it that separates it from writing, be that name “building,” “prewriting,” or any other number of terms to show that they’re sitting there working on stuff that will allow them to move ahead with the story ASAP.
That last bit (move ahead ASAP) is the most important part, though, and any successful writer knows this. The goal of all this prewriting is to be able to write! It’s like building a building. Say you’re a construction company now, and you’re going to build this new shop. From the ground up.
Well, prewriting (or whatever you prefer to call the process) is everything that needs to happen so that you can start laying the foundation, down to laying the foundation. We’re talking getting ground surveys done so that we know the ground is stable, and determining where the corners of the structure will be. We’re talking getting materials ready and on site. We’re talking permits! The stuff that would make Hermes Conrad grin with glee and pull out his straight-edge.
But it’s not pouring the foundation. It’s just getting ready. And there’s a point where you’ve got everything you need to start laying that foundation, and if you’re not, you’re just wasting time.
But a lot of new, would-be writers don’t see this. Instead, they sit there, surrounded by diggers and permits and materials and say “Well, see, we can’t start the foundation yet because if we did, we might finish that before the wood for the framing arrives, and then we’d just be twiddling our thumbs, see?” Said, of course, while they’re twiddling their thumbs.
Shifting away from our analogy, what they’re doing is putting off the actual process of writing in favor of brainstorming a little bit more, or figuring out what they’ll do if they got to X chapter and had problem Y, or establishing a character background in their head a bit more clearly, etc etc etc.
But they’re not actually writing. And that’s the harsh truth that every one of these panels, classes, seminars, etc has had to explain to these people. They’re not writing. They’re prepping. Endlessly. And prep work, though it may involve some writing, isn’t writing like we think of when a book results.
Worse, it’s kind of a tempting trap because it provides the new would-be writer with the appearance of getting a lot done while not actually doing too much after a certain point. They become, to go back to our analogy, the contractor that brings all their equipment to the site but then sits atop it, rebuffing questions about when they’ll work with “Oh, I’ll start on it as soon as Dave is done with his thing, and Karen with her thing.” Then, at the end of the day, they go home, bill their time, and watch TV, drink in hand, while saying “Boy, I sure worked hard today!”
Hence, the advice of Stop Planning and Start Writing is good advice. Generally (we’ll get to that in a moment). Most young would-be writers spend way too much time being that contractor sitting on their duff and not being the building actually putting together a story.
But what if you run into a delay? So what? Writing is a learning experience. And guess what, if you never sit down and actually write, you’ll never know about that delay to prepare for it.
Which is part of another point I want to bring up, that of the rationalization being that once all that prep is, someday, done, the story will practically write itself.
Here, have this clip of Tim Curry in Freakzoid laughing:
Yeah, no. No it won’t. That’s like a contractor believing that once all the materials are present for every single step, not only will the building build itself, but with zero additional needed materials or steps.
Yeah … ask a contractor you know about the likelihood of that happening and then watch them do their best Tim Curry impression. Because it doesn’t. And with a new writer’s writing? Won’t.
Look, planning is good. But you can’t plan for everything, especially if you’ve not actually written much before and as a result don’t know what the actual problems or experiences may be. The story is not going to write itself. You’re going to write it. And no matter how much planning you do, there will still be difficulties and missteps along the way.
So again, is Stop Planning and Start Writing good advice? Yes. Honestly, this is one that I use. Would-be writers need to heed the words here. Stop planning. Start writing.
Almost. And that’s the one caveat. Thankfully, it is implied in a way by the original saying … but it’s a little nebulous.
That caveat is that you should plan. At least early on. Eventually you’ll determine if you’re a planner or a pantser. But until then? Do plan!
See the saying can be taken one of two ways. If it’s taken as writing advice as a whole, then yeah, it’s saying to stop planning and just write. Which … isn’t good advice because planning is important, especially to planner writers.
But if we apply that advice to a single project, the context changes. It now means “Stop planning now, and get writing.” Which implies that there has already been planning done.
That’s the caveat. This saying? It’s for projects, not the craft as a whole. And in that context it’s good, solid advice. Stop planning and get to the writing. You can only plan so much, and if you’re new you’ll have no idea what you’re planning for anyway.
Believe me. You don’t. Once you’ve got a few published works under you, you’ll start to get it. Until then? You’re going to need to learn by putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.
But yes, of the cliche writing advice we’ve discussed so far this summer, this one is one of the better ones. Stop Planning and Start Writing is solid advice for any new writer trying their hand at the craft. Put down the plans you keep tweaking and just start writing.
However, we should make sure that they understand that Stop Planning and Start Writing is about their project, not the craft itself. Where the craft itself is concerned, planning is a viable and important part that shouldn’t be skipped unless you’re the kind of writer that pantses things.
It’s good advice … it just needs to be aimed properly. So as long as we’re all doing that, it’s definitely a bit of advice we should keep on giving.
So good luck, and as the saying says, go get writing.
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