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Writing and Publishing

Writing Advice that May Not Be True

There’s lots of advice floating around about writing, being a writer, and finding success. Though well-intentioned, some of this advice is bad information or oversimplified counsel. Here are some tips I’ve heard, many of which I’ve also said.

Check out these common pieces of advice and discover the truth about them. Though we’ve already touched on some of them, I repeat them here, so they’ll appear in one place.

Show Don’t Tell: Using words to paint a picture (showing) is more powerful than to state what happened (telling). In general, this tip is good advice, but it’s sometimes better to just tell readers what happened. For example, it would be boring to spend several pages showing readers about a four-hour car ride where nothing significant occurs. Instead just say, “Four hours later they arrived at their destination.” That’s telling, and in this case, it’s the right approach.

Write Every Day: Yup, I said this maxim before, and I share this tip every chance I get. But I don’t mean it literally. I mean it figuratively. What I mean is to write regularly. Although for you it might mean every day, it could be every weekday or only on the weekend. The point is to have a writing schedule and commit to it.

Although this guideline makes sense to me, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, some writers chafe at the thought of writing every day. Instead, they only write when they’re inspired or have a deadline. If this idea works for you, embrace it. Ignore the advice to write every day, but not until you’ve tried it first.

Write in the Morning: This tip is another one of my favorite adages. Many people even claim scientific confirmation that the morning is the best time to write (or do anything important), with maximum productivity and optimum results. My morning production is far better than in the afternoon. Writing in the morning works for me and works well. The early hours are when the good stuff happens.

Some people claim the morning isn’t right for them, that other times of the day work better. If that’s you, and you’ve tried mornings only to find them lacking, ignore those of us who insist you write in the morning. Pick the time of the day that works best for you.

Write What You Know: There’s an element of truth to this recommendation. What we know best, we can write most effectively. 

When it comes to nonfiction, writing what I know flows with greater clarity and speed. But that doesn’t mean I can’t research something I don’t know and write an effective piece. I’ve done it many times.

When it comes to fiction, if I only wrote what I knew, it would be a boring piece about a middle-aged white guy living an uneventful, routine life. Who’d want to read that? Therefore, in my fiction, I write about what I don’t know. More specifically, I write what I can imagine. Then I live vicariously through my characters and their experiences that I make up. 

You Must Have A Platform: An agent once rejected my submission, not because of the quality of my work or relevance of my idea, but because I didn’t have a platform. He didn’t say I had a small platform. He said I had no platform. Ouch! I doubled down and began working on building my platform in earnest. I hated it. It sapped the life from me. I almost quit writing because platform building distressed me so much. Seriously.

Yes, having a platform to sell our books is important, regardless of whether we want to indie publish or hope to be traditionally published. A platform will help us be successful faster, but it isn’t a requirement.

You Must Be Active on Social Media: This statement often finds itself coupled with building an author platform. I’m on several social media sites, but I don’t get them—not really. And although social media is at times enjoyable, it can be a huge time suck. I’m better off spending that time writing.

Someone who enjoys social media and understands how to use it to connect with people can realize great benefits. But I’m not one of those people—at least not yet. I connect best with people through my newsletter, on my blog, and via email.

You Must Have a Website: I agree that an author website is essential. It doesn’t have to be fancy or extensive, but it must exist and be inviting. 

And for writers who think social media is an acceptable alternative to a website, I vehemently disagree. A social media platform can change its rules at any time for any reason, can shut down your account without warning, or not allow your followers to see your content. These actions happen all the time. 

But a website is something we control. That’s why it’s essential. Even so, some authors claim to get along fine without one.

You Must Have an Email List: Email isn’t a sexy, new technology, but it is a proven method of reaching people. As authors, having an email list remains our most effective way of selling books. If you don’t have an email list, start one today. Every name you ethically and legally add to your list is a prequalified buyer for your books. Sure, you may get by without an email list, but why is a risk not using the most effective book marketing tool available?

Always Use an Outline: When I write, I always have a plan to guide me. It may be an outline, bullet points, or a destination to write toward. This approach is the most effective way to write quickly, not waste words, and avoid unnecessary amounts of cutting. Using an outline is the most efficient way to write, and as a career author seeking to drive income through my words, greater efficiency means increased revenue potential.

There’s nothing wrong with being a discovery writer (pantser)—and many authors prefer this method, claiming that having a plan stifles their creativity. But this approach isn’t the fastest and most efficient way to write. You decide what works best for you.

Use Microsoft Word: I’ve been using Microsoft Word longer than I can remember. Although I used other word processing programs before it, they’re now ancient. Microsoft Word is the standard throughout the publishing industry. Although alternatives exist and each one has its merits, you’ll never go wrong using what the rest of the industry uses. (See “Word Processing Alternatives.”)

You Must Use an Editor: Although this tip is wise advice, it isn’t absolute. No one forces you to use an editor before you publish your work. But if you want to avoid harsh criticism and one-star reviews, use an editor. And if you say you can’t afford to use one, I say you can’t afford to. Your writing career and your reputation as an author is at stake. (See the chapter on “Editing.”)

I used two editors for this book, as I do with most of my books. I can guarantee you they didn’t catch everything—no book is error-free—but they did make this work a whole lot better than I could have ever done on my own.

Don’t Design Your Own Book Cover: Again, no one makes you hire a cover designer for your book. You can do it yourself. But unless you have experience as a graphic artist and have produced successful book covers for other authors, don’t attempt to make your own. 

Your cover is the single biggest means to sell your book, so you need the best cover possible. And you aren’t the one to do it.

Learn more about writing and publishing in Peter’s new book: The Successful Author: Discover the Art of Writing and Business of PublishingGet your copy today.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is an author, blogger, and publisher with over 30 years of writing and publishing experience. Check out his book The Successful Author for insider tips and insights.

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