The Best Piece of Writing Advice That Actually Works for Me

As someone who wanted to write for as long as I can remember, I’ve seen a lot of advice out there. I’ve even tried giving some myself. Most of it is common sense. Much of it is vague. Some of it works for those giving advice, but won’t work for writers with different work styles. A few pieces of advice are pretty specific and useful.

One example of the latter comes from John W. Campbell, via Isaac Asimov’s autobiography. The advice Campbell gave to Asimov was when the young writer was struggling with the opening of a story: “If you are having trouble getting started,” Campbell said, “you are almost certainly starting the story too early. Pick a point later in the story and start there.” That advice has worked for me on a number of occasions.

But the single best piece of writing advice that has actually worked for me consistently comes from Stephen King and his book On Writing.

Write with the door closed.

King is speaking of first drafts here, and what he means is that during this phase of writing, you are writing for yourself, and not letting anyone else in. He argues that by talking about what you are writing with others, you dilute the work for yourself. He argues further that by allowing people to see your work and comment on it when it is in first draft, you are apt to make changes and second guess yourself before ever finishing.

I used to talk about my writing, even in first draft, but after reading On Writing for the second time and thinking hard about this particular piece of advice, I stopped. Mostly. I’ve slipped on one or two occasions and always regretted it afterward. When I am working on a story in first draft now, I do it with the door completely closed. I’ve found it to be freeing. I write what I want without worrying about what people with think, if something is silly or hard to swallow. And the story stays fresh for me because I am not telling it again and again to people.

The most difficult part of writing with the door closed is the desire to get some feedback other than your own gut instinct. Writers crave feedback. This is why form letter rejections can be so annoying. This is why writers critique groups are so popular. Several times over the last few months, I’ve been tempted to submit part of my story for critique in my writers group. It couldn’t hurt to get some feedback on the opening, right?

Then I remember Stephen King’s advice. It’s almost like I hear him whispering it in my ear. “You may be tempted to show your work to someone before you are finished. Resist this temptation.”

I’ve still got quite a way to go in my first draft, and so we’ll see how well I can continue to resist the temptation, but I’ve found the concept of writing with the door closed to be the most useful piece of writing advice I’ve received that actually works for me.

What about you? What is the most useful piece of writing advice you’ve received that actually worked for you?

5 thoughts on “The Best Piece of Writing Advice That Actually Works for Me

  1. I thought that was great advice, too. “On Writing” is full of such gems. Perhaps my favorite aspect of the book was the section on “pantsing” and the discovery process.

  2. Yes! I am trying that deliberately for the first time as well. I can’t yet say if it makes for a better story, but it certainly makes writing it much more fun.

  3. My wife has long had a rule with me and writing: she won’t read anything that’s not finished or let me talk about it. If I really need to talk about something to keep moving, she’ll listen, but I rarely need to do that. It’s definitely good advice.

    When I read something someone has told me all about, I rarely enjoy it because I know the story. I find myself skimming sections of things writer friends have talked about over and over because when it’s the 5th time through something, I just want to get to the stuff I haven’t heard about. I’d go as far as saying you get better feedback when you don’t talk about a work in progress or let people read parts along the way. At that point, they’re reading something as most readers will [hopefully] end up reading it: with only a vague idea about what lies within.

  4. Agree 100%! With King, with you, with my own experience. It’s so disappointing to pitch an unwritten idea and have the other person clearly not get it. Of course they don’t get it – I haven’t written it down yet so even I probably don’t get it at that point!

    Also, I love King’s practice advice on themes.

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