Best practice epic fail

How’s that for a sensational headline? 😛

Until Gabriela’s book comes out, I’ve decided to tackle her question of the week on Saturdays, and do the Ad Astra reportage on Sundays. We’ll see how things go. I just find that I can’t manage two posts in a day and combining them doesn’t do justice to either topic.

Here was this week’s question:

QOTW 6: What’s one “Best Practice” that didn’t work for you?

“There are a lot of people spouting “best practices” about writing. Write X number of words per day. Write every day. Don’t reread what you write. Don’t share your work until you’ve perfected it. And so forth. Have you ever tried one of these “best practices”? How did it go? Write about that experience.”

I had to think about this for a while.

It was a lot harder than I thought it would be.


This was the interesting part for me, so I’ll dig in a bit here.

Before I really committed to the writing life, in 2006 or so, I was creatively damaged. Wounded even.

Before that time, I took every piece of writing advice or critique I was given as literary law. I couldn’t differentiate between opinion, advice, personal experience or preference, and what would actually work for me as a writer.

I’ve always been a keener. I like to learn. I also like to be praised for learning well, being a do-bee. I used to feel that any teacher put before me would somehow magically be able to intuit what I needed to know, and give me the tools I needed to achieve my goals.

Yes. I was naive.

During my MA years, I took the opinions of my fellow students, and those of my advisor, a well-respected author of literary fiction and eighteenth century scholar, to heart. My chosen genre (a crime in itself in a literary environment) was crap; my writing was crap; ergo, I was crap.

It’s the progression that many inexperienced writers make.

When, following a few workshops by some award-winning, bestselling authors (Canadian and American, literary and genre), I committed to writing something, every day (I set my sights low at first, aimed for one page and didn’t castigate myself if I only managed a few sentences), I began to examine my process.

I also started to read a lot of writing craft books, follow authors online. I joined social media with an eye to developing my “platform.” I started to take control of my learning.

In my day job, it’s called informal learning.

Formal learning is like a classroom, or a workshop. There are good classes. There are excellent workshops. In these, the instructor offers their knowledge and experience in context and with the caveat that what works for one writer may not work for every writer.

At their worst, though, the teacher—the expert—is the talking head, mama bird, and the students are the baby birds, waiting for ‘dinner’ to be stuffed down their throats. It’s all about trying to consume, or memorize, every bit of wisdom that comes out of the instructor’s mouth.

In informal learning, the learner enters into the learning contract on their own terms and in their own time, having identified what they want to accomplish in the learning experience. Everything is filtered through that goal, and the learner takes or leaves knowledge as they see fit.

It may involve experimentation. What sounds good on the page (or webpage) may not work in practice.

Since my entry into the realm of regular writing practice, I’ve been an informal learner. I never take anything at face value, no matter the source, without examining it critically. If I think it will improve my process, or my writing, I’ll try it out. That’s the acid test. If it works, or I derive some value from the technique, I keep it. If not, I discard it, with all thanks to the teacher for the learning opportunity.

In that light, there hasn’t been much in the way of best practices or writing advice that, if it made it through my filter and I tried it out, didn’t work for me. There are a few things on which my internal jury is still out on, but I haven’t completely discarded the possibility that they could work. Some things take time.

Now, back to the QotW.

The piece of writing advice that I can say that I have considered and discarded, because I knew it wouldn’t work for me, was to dress for success. I’ve written about this before, and the post is still one of my most popular.

The idea was that being a part of the “pyjama patrol” was not showing respect for your art and craft. The writer not only has to show up, but has to “report to work” as a professional writer.

I can see the perspective of the workshop facilitator, an author whom I like and respect, but she writes full time. If I didn’t have a day job, I’d probably feel differently, but since I spend my most productive hours working for someone else, I need to make a clear demarcation between that work and my calling.

When I get home, the business casual clothes I wear to the day job come off and the flannels go on. My husband calls it becoming comfort woman. I want to come to the page having created an environment for myself that says, “this is my time.” I want to be comfortable, cozy even.

In my own way, I do dress for success, but not in the way the workshop facilitator intended 😉

Tomorrow: I’ll be looking at the relationship between self-publishers and editors.

Next week: I’ll be debunking creative myths 🙂