Most writing advice is actually revision advice.
The internet is fuller than ever with advice for writers, from YouTube to blogs to podcasts and MasterClasses. It’s a great time to be a writer, whether you’re just starting out or trying to improve your craft.
But as an editor, I can’t help but spot one major problem with most of the advice for writers that floats around the internet: It’s revision advice, not writing advice.
Yep, most of the advice you read about writing online (I’m estimating about 75% of it) is better to ignore until you reach the revision stage. It’s not going to help you much with your first draft at all.
Let’s break this down a bit, shall we?
Common writing advice that’s actually revision advice.
● Study writing craft/story structure.
You don’t need to read any writing craft books or memorize any story structures or story beats to start writing a novel. As a human, you probably already have an innate basic understanding of how stories work—humanity has been telling stories since the dawn of the species, after all. Story theory can definitely help you pinpoint what’s gone wrong in a story you’ve already written, but studying up before you begin is only going to make you second-guess your natural story instincts.
● Show, don’t tell.
This piece of advice in particular is bandied about without a lot of nuance, but leaving that aside, it’s also not something to think about while writing a first draft. Lots of authors spend the whole first draft telling, then go back to rewrite the scenes that need to be shown in a later draft. While the distinction between showing and telling is something that you eventually need to learn as a writer, focusing on it too much during a first draft will only slow you down.
● Eliminate passive voice, weak verbs, adverbs, etc.
Save the focus on your prose for closer to the end of your revision process. Your first drafts are about getting the story down (as I outline in my free draft-by-draft novel revision guide—download it here), and the later drafts are where you polish the language. Focusing on language in the first draft is a lot like sweeping the floor in the house you’re about to remodel—sure, the floor gets clean, but you’re about to get it dirty again anyway.
● Hook your reader right away, or you’ll lose them.
You don’t need to be hooking anybody when you’re the only one who’s reading the story for now. You’re already hooked—you’re writing the thing! The only person you need to hook in the first draft is yourself, and if you’ve done that, then save hooking others for later drafts.
● Use beta readers.
Beta readers are so, so important, and we love beta readers around these parts. But beta readers have nothing to do with your first draft. Their feedback is meant to come in at a later step in the process, one that lets you test out how readers might react to your book so that you can make last-minute changes before actually publishing it. Now, you may want to use an alpha reader (who’s carefully chosen and proven to be trustworthy!) to cheerlead you on as you write the first draft, but first drafts are vulnerable to feedback, and you don’t want to risk getting discouraged when you’re just starting out!
● X word count is too long/short for your genre/age category.
Are you tired of me saying this yet? This is a worry for revisions! Your first draft can be as long or as short as it needs to be for you to finish the story. If you’re an underwriter, you’ll probably have to add more words in the next draft. If you’re an overwriter, you’ll probably remove a lot of words. Good news, though: Word counts are much easier to change than many other aspects of your story, so it’s okay to save that for later!
Common writing advice that actually works for first drafts.
● Write what you want to read.
I’ve given some version of this advice in various places (but here’s an author mindset blog post about it), and I’ll always believe in it. A lot of times, the only thing that can get you through the drafting stage is pure enthusiasm for the story you’re trying to tell. If you start out with a story you’re not that interested in in the first place, you’re basically placing a stumbling block in front of your writing. It can be done, but it’s going to be a lot harder than writing a story you’re already in love with!
● You can’t edit a blank page.
I’m sure you guessed this advice would be here, me being an editor and all. But it’s true, and it’s the perfect thing to tell yourself when you’re struggling to get through that first draft. You can always fix it later, but you can’t fix nothing!
So how do you know if the advice you’re reading online is good for a first draft or good for later drafts?
My handy dandy revision guide can help you! (Missed the download link? Here it is again!) Whenever you find a piece of advice you’re not sure about online, you can compare it to the guide and decide which revision stage it belongs in. If it doesn’t belong in any of them, then it’s probably okay to take it on as first-draft advice!
Another quick guideline: Notice that the revision advice above is either focused on reader experience or on the craft of writing itself. On the other hand, notice that the first draft advice is focused more on you as the author or on the actual process of writing. This can help you weed out which advice is for the first draft and which advice is best to ignore until later.
Once you start to look around, you’ll notice that there’s not a whole lot of actual writing advice out there. That’s because writing is so individual—it’s nigh impossible to come up with even one universal aspect of the writing process. The best we can do is find out how other people write and try those methods for ourselves to see if they work for us. If you’re struggling with your writing process, that’s what I recommend you do, rather than searching the internet yet again for writing advice that may or may not apply to your current writing stage.
I hope this post was illuminating, and if you know you’re past the first draft and about to start on the next (or beyond), then get your free revision guide here. It’ll lead you through the revision process step by step, so you can create a revision plan that works for you and your novel.
Happy writing and revising!