This article, by Richard Skinner, seems to me so exhaustively wrong – and so representative in its wrongness of the kind of bullshit that gets offered all the time as “writing advice” – that I thought it was worth doing a brief point-by-point refutation, to wit:
“Writing is about claiming ownership of yourself in order to become the person you know you can be.”
Nope. Writing is a set of technical skills that it takes a very long time to master. We do not ask of people learning to play the piano that they “claim ownership of themselves.” We just tell them to practice until they get good.
“A novel is making your mark on the world. It is your cri de coeur.”
No it bloody well isn’t. A novel is a made object designed to evoke certain responses in the people who read it. If it does not evoke the responses you intended it to evoke, your novel is, I would suggest, a bad novel. To the extent that your novel is a cri de coeur, it is, I would suggest, of use only to you.
“Good writing isn’t about describing the world around you, it’s about creating something out of nothing.”
Or: good writing is almost entirely about describing the world around you, as in the works of, say, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Joyce, Wharton, Faulkner, Bellow, Nabokov, and all other good writing ever written by anyone. You create something out of nothing every time you write your name on a cheque, for Christ’s sake.
“[W]riting your first novel is a very precious process.”
No again. Writing is a job. If you need your special fluffy pillow and absolute peace and quiet to write, you are being unprofessional. Don’t be precious. They’re just words.
“Try to write from your stomach, not your head or heart.”
This means: write from your feelings. This is exactly backwards. Your job, as a writer, is to think about the precise technical moves that will evoke the desired emotional or intellectual responses in your readers. Writing is about technique, not getting your emotions all over the page. Writers who shove their own emotions in your face are not artists but manipulators, and should be scorned.
“Your task isn’t to learn many techniques, but to learn the simplest techniques perfectly.”
Jesus. The body of existing literature – with which you should spend your entire life becoming familiar – is a repository of technique. You should learn as many aspects of fictional technique as you can, from the simplest to the most complex. I.e. you should know where to put a comma, and you should know how to create an unreliable narrator. Imagine saying to a pianist: “Your task isn’t to learn how to play Chopin, but to get really good at “Chopsticks.””
“I believe that all the novels you want to write are already written. They already exist inside you in a preverbal, rhythmic, motor place in your body. The trick is to find a way of tapping into them.”
This “trick” exists and is called technique.
The prevalence of articles like this one has to do, I think, with the popularisation of Romantic ideas about writing, cf. Keats’s “Poetry should come as naturally as leaves to a tree or it had better not come at all,” or Kerouac’s philistine “First thought, best thought.” We seem to have decided that writing is about self-knowledge or self-expression. But these are very minor and ancillary benefits of writing. Of course, this is the age of the self-as-project – the age of “wellness” and workouts, of TED talks and snake-oil detoxes. It’s probably inevitable that writing – which looks, after all, like the sort of thing that anyone can do – should be taken up by the self-improvement industry. It tells you everything you need to know that Skinner’s article appears under the Health & Fitness tab of the Guardian website, and is labelled “Self and wellbeing.” Writing shouldn’t be about either. But here we are.