The Pressure Cooker of Advice Lists

Happy Monday world!

Does anyone else ever feel pressured as a writer? You know what I mean: you have to do x, y and z to develop your voice. You have to use this story structure. You need a theme. You need a strong female character, but don’t push a feminist ideal; more speech tags but you should only ever use ‘said’; more diversity, more action, more intrigue, more adverbs, less adverbs

It can’t be just me.

Everywhere we turn, someone is telling us how to write. Some might argue that’s just an extrapolation of all the other things that the world and its nosy people feel free to tell us how to do. But what I want to really know is: what if all of these things that people are shouting from their blogs and all these lists of what you should and shouldn’t do… What if they’re turning people away from writing?

I’ve been writing for years. I wrote when I was in school because it enchanted me, I wrote following my deployment from Afghanistan because it purged and healed me, I write now because it is so deeply a part of who I am, I’m not sure I could ever stop. It thrills me. I’m getting more confident with my writing. I am more sure of myself and what fits, and what doesn’t, both in the form and the content of what I create. I am a firm and obnoxious advocate for artistic arrogance (which will be the topic of Wednesday’s post), but listening to my university lecturer talk about our travel-writing story earlier this trimester overwhelmed me. I was worried and nervous and wigged out, because it was just a painful litany of have this and this and this and this and don’t do this and this and this and… It was exhausting. At the end of it, I thought: if I feel put off by this, how does it affect people who are new to writing? As a writing community, are we intimidating people out of creation by dictating how they should create?

Let’s be honest. We are all going to write some crappy stuff to start with.

The characters will be shallow, the dialogue will be awkward, the adverbs will flow far too freely. Or our plots will be a rehash of something else, our cliches will grate on sensitive nerves and our scenery will be dull. That’s life. But I still don’t believe any art form can be distilled into a list. If art – whether it is music, painting, sculpture, writing, drawing or poetry – was as simple as ticking items off down a list to create a masterpiece, what would be the point? Wouldn’t everyone be doing it? If you think of something beautiful you’ve experienced, regardless of what it was, the likelihood is that it was something that called to you on a level beyond the easily explicable, something that was more than just ticking through a column of dos and don’ts. What has happened, somewhere in there, is a sliver of the creator’s inspiration has reached out and touched you, resonated with you. That’s the magic.

As we read and write and learn from others, our writing improves, but first and foremost, the path to improvement is to write. The more we write and the more we read, learning from great and favourite authors what works and what doesn’t, the more our own skills improve. But if we’re always trying to achieve the realistically unachievable task of ticking our writing off against a ‘list for success’, we become mired down in that. We might become frustrated, disenchanted or put off by the seemingly insurmountable challenge of fulfilling the numerous criteria someone has put together for us to abide by.

Yes, if you want to succeed, you will, at some point, need to continually hone your craft and develop skill.

But first, you just need to create. And you need to love it. Isn’t that the beauty of writing? It’s the joy you feel tingling inside your fingers when your character grins and runs away with you, or they pick up a sword they should never have had the courage to touch, or they shout from the rooftops when before they were scared to be seen.

Writing is about courage.

In giving our characters a sword, or an adventure that forces them to transform, or even something as seemingly innocuous as a voice we too are being brave. We too are becoming transformed by what we are doing. We are using our writing to have a voice and to share it with the world. Don’t let someone else’s criteria for what’s good and what isn’t stop you from creating. You’ll grow in confidence and skill as you do it more and more, but getting worried about lists of things that you should or shouldn’t be doing is a fool’s game.

Just let go. Be free. Read, write and create.

— Ana.


  1. In most of the creative endeavours I’ve pursued over the years I’ve been blissfully ignorant of rules. It has stressed me out in the past (I have a recurring nightmare that I will write a hugely successful novel and get asked all sorts of technical questions to which I have no answer) but the longer I’ve been writing the more I’ve concentrated on having fun and trying to be natural. When I played in bands in years gone by I was the guy who could write a song but needed the bass player to explain what key it was in and what the basic chord structure was – stuff just sounded good or it didn’t. Writing is the same for me – it sounds good (when I read it out loud) or it doesn’t. It isn’t that I have no interest in constructs and theory – far from it – but I refuse to let it become a barrier to creativity.

    Lovely post – writing is indeed about courage. And occasionally it’s magic…

    Oh…and Happy Monday to you also (mine is now fairly close to Tuesday I’m pleased to report!)

  2. Completely agree: it’s one of those aspects of creativity that can just cripple you if you’re not careful! Theory is definitely important, and when you’re working to hone a creative skill, you need to understand it and when to apply particular techniques… But not to the detriment of the creative process itself! And I think that’s where the challenge can lie.

    Thank you! I hope the start of your week has been easy 😀

Leave a Reply