I recently attended a science fiction conference and, as I often do, I sat in on a lot of writing-focused panel talks. I got a great deal out of some of them and less from others but I’m always interested in seeing how other people use their tools or what techniques they utilize while writing.
And yet I left, again, with the feeling that a lot of these aspiring authors are still seeking the magic One True Way to Writing Success(tm). The myth of a One True Way is common in a lot of fields, but I experience it most frequently while talking to other writers and it typically follows one of these patterns:
- If I follow the technique or use the same tools used by a Big Name Author, I will be sure to have the same success.
- If I use some technique or tool NOT used or actively disliked by a Big Name Author, I must drop the use of it in order to have success.
- If I have not yet been successful, I must try anything deemed “the best”, or “the most pure”, or one of many other superlatives and discard anything that may be working for me in order to have more or faster success.
I understand being lost in a seemingly endless sea of options, but I also believe it’s very important to understand and embrace the truth that there is no one true way to writing success. There just isn’t. Every writer struggles until they find something that works for them and then refines that process as new tools, techniques, and experimentation happens.
I think it’s also easy to lose track of the end goal – your prize. Your prize is a finished written work.
I suffer from near-terminal curiosity and this has a tendency to mean I will merrily skip down along a path of investigation (or procrastination) until I’ve used all my writing time and have zero words to show for it. To counter this, I try to “timebox” (set a hard time limit) on how much time I’m allowed to experiment with something so it doesn’t keep me from my prize. I also only make incremental changes when I feel a process isn’t working for me and study the effects of those changes. I don’t make changes without a good reason for them.
I have only completely changes processes in a single sweep maybe once in years of writing and that was because the change was forced on me at my day job.
I do think it’s important to have exposure to a lot of different tools, techniques, tips and theories but that a writer should not always jump at the next shiny thing they see and adopt it without question or experimentation.
I would advocate the following steps, no matter what kind of writing you are doing:
- Start or continue a project with whatever process you have now.
- If you find yourself struggling at any point in the project, try to determine why you are struggling or what you are being blocked from. Some examples might be:
- Struggling with a tool.
- Can’t figure out what to do next.
- Can’t find research.
- Struggling with a process step.
- Only then look for ways to learn more or tweak that part of the process that is hindering you.
Don’t try to change everything at once and I really recommend not changing just for the sake of trying the One True Way you read about a messageboard. Deliberately change things for an intended effect. Then you can examine whether that change had the intended effect and warrants keeping or you should try another change instead. Only changing one variable at a time allows a much clearer examination of the result.
Keep your eyes on the prize, use what works for you and change what doesn’t, and remember there is No One Write Way.