metteharrison (metteharrison) wrote,

No One Can Fix Your Book For You

I think that writing groups and workshops are very useful. Teachers, editors, first readers, etc—invaluable. You need them. You really do. But you’re making a mistake if you think that anyone else can tell you what is wrong with your book or how it needs to be fixed. Feedback is useful, but mostly because of the times it chimes with your internal sense of what is right and wrong with your work. And thinking that all you have to do is take notes and just correct the “mistakes” that others point out is the wrong way to go about the long and difficult revision process—a lot more of which is thinking than it is changing words on the page.

One of the reasons beginners make the mistake of trusting too completely on others’ comments is that they imagine that other people have a better idea of how to write “the ideal book” (Platonic ideal of book, I wish you existed). They don’t. That is, they might know a little bit how to write their own books (but honestly, are probably reinventing this as well). But that doesn’t mean that they know how to write your book. No one does. That’s why it’s so hard.

After all, you’re not writing a book that is meant to follow certain “rules” of writing. Such a book would be of no interest to anyone to read, I think. As someone who comes from academia, I’m well aware that the writers who are read generation after generation are the ones who invent new ways of telling stories (though not necessarily new stories to tell).

I had a writer friend who once said that writing groups are only of value for a couple of years. After that, everyone starts saying the same thing over and over again, because the patterns have been in place and people can’t get out of them. So you need to get new people and make new patterns to help shake you out of your assumptions about what is good writing and what isn’t.

I’m not saying no one can give you useful advice about writing. But mostly that happens when you find someone whose path for the moment matches yours. And their advice will be less useful once you veer away from that path, which it should. You will always be outgrowing other writers as a reader and a writer because you’re headed in different directions. This is a good thing, I think.

Ultimately, I think that you don’t need a specific teacher to help you. If you imagine that your writing would be a lot better if you went to this workshop or that one, or if only you could afford to go to a conference, you’re probably wrong. While other people can spark new thoughts, they don’t fix your writing for you. You fix your writing because you’re learned something.

Mostly, the best thing other people can do is give you the courage to start throwing things out and do new things, to realize that your old ways of working aren’t appropriate for this story. But be careful not to get too much advice or to keep reworking a piece over and over again. The biggest problem I see in good writers is the inability to move on and try something else. The problem with books you’ve worked on too long is often that you’ve heard too many voices and incorporated all of them. A book needs a single, clear vision. It needs your vision.

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