Following your Instincts

I’m only starting to learn how much of being a writer is following your gut, doing what you feel is right and hoping for the best possible result. It’s inherently unstable, unreliable and unpredictable – but it’s also exhilarating, of course.

Felix Baumgartner knows what I'm talking about...Image:

Felix Baumgartner knows what I’m talking about…

That’s not to say I haven’t been on the receiving end of some wonderful, helpful advice from people all over the world – people I’ve met through blogging, most particularly. It’s great to read how other people manage their writing goals, and how they achieve the word-counts they want on a daily basis. Everyone has their own style, their own technique, and their own ‘tricks of the trade’. Some people manage their writing completely differently from how I manage mine, and some use techniques that I know I never could. The more I read, and the more I write, the more I realise that writing is a game of doing your best, and doing the best you can to be true to yourself. At the same time, there are hundreds of websites out there offering the secrets of how to write, the tricks of the trade, the absolutely foolproof ‘rules’ – but I’m beginning to think there are no rules. How can there be?

Writing is, like any artform, completely subjective. I bring my own life-experiences to what I write, as does anyone who puts one word after another. I don’t think it’s possible to avoid this, particularly at the beginning of your writing career. Perhaps I’m just particularly bloody-minded, but I really think when it comes to writing I have to learn how to do it myself. If someone tells me ‘don’t do it this way,’ I have a suspicion that I’ll be inclined to try to prove them wrong. Just because a certain technique didn’t work for one person doesn’t mean it’s ‘wrong’ in itself. Of course, there are general rules governing writing (spelling, grammar, sentence construction, paragraph usage, consistent punctuation), designed to aid a reader’s comprehension, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Those are rules worth following, by and large, though sometimes interesting effects can be created by breaking or bending these guidelines. Even the old rule of ‘a piece of writing needs a beginning, middle and end’ is sometimes jettisoned, to sparkling effect, by writers. It takes great skill to completely throw the rules out the window, though. I’m not at that stage yet, and may never be. In order to break the rules you need to have mastered them completely and be in total control of your technique and material. But how to get to this level in the first place? Hard work and practice until you’ve mastered the rules of structure and composition. Then, experimentation – and listening to your inner voice.

Trying to write in a different way to your normal style can also be a good idea, from time to time. If a person usually writes ‘straight through’ – i.e. linearly – perhaps it’s a good idea to write scenes out of order, and put them together afterwards like a patchwork quilt. Or, as Kate Curtis has recently discussed, sometimes it’s best to start at the end and work your way back. This technique works very well for her, but I’m not sure it would work for me! However, it might be a brilliant thing to do in order to get my brain thinking differently about words and structure, and so it’s a useful nugget of information to have in my writing arsenal. One of the most useful writing exercises I ever did was take a scene I was having trouble with and rewrite it from the point of view of another character; I couldn’t believe the insight this gave me into the scene, the connection between the characters, the dynamic of their relationship, and – most importantly – the motivation behind the behaviour of each of the characters. This technique really helped me to understand why they were acting and reacting the way they were in this particular scene. But no matter what way you write, whether it’s writing each character separately, or whether you stand on your head and write with a pen attached to your eyelid, or whether you can only write on every third Wednesday – if it works for you, it’s right.

As strange as it may seem, having written a blog post which concerns itself with giving out writing tips like lollipops at a doctor’s office, I’m going to conclude that listening to tips may not always be the best thing to do for your writing. I think, from now on, I’m going to limit the amount of advice I take in from others, and rely more on my own instinct. Advice relating to publication, gaining an agent, the book industry, and so on is a different animal – that sort of advice is always worth having under your belt, I think. But I’m going to ration my intake of writerly advice, because reading all sorts of conflicting advice has, lately, been making me panic a little. There is, undoubtedly, a lot of useful, well-intentioned and good advice out there, but it’s a matter of sorting the wheat from the chaff. Instead of trying to take on board all the advice I’ve been hearing about and reading, and changing my writing to suit the advice I’ve been getting (which, now I think about it, is a little bit crazy), I’m just going to write as I feel, and hope I manage to bumble my way towards my dream, bit by bit.

Happy Friday, and happy weekend! May your writing flourish and may your word-goals inch that little bit closer, and may you write in the best way possible – your own way.

7 thoughts on “Following your Instincts

  1. Janet E. Cameron

    I had to laugh – only because I wrote something similiar (to this idea, not the way you’ve expressed it) last week! It’s still on my blog ( if you want to check it out.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Whoops! I didn’t copy you, honest. 🙂

      I’m sure you said it in a much more compact, elegant and fabulous way than I did. I’ll read your blog post and weep!

      Roll on March 1st. Can’t wait to get my hands on ‘Cinnamon Toast…’ 🙂

      1. SJ O'Hart Post author

        Nah, yours was brilliant. I laughed like a loon. But I’m very glad to know I’m on the same page as yourself, at least in terms of this topic!

        Now, get writing. 😉

  2. Maurice A. Barry

    As a long-time educator I have to agree with your sentiments. One of the things I have learned well through my 30 year career is that we all learn differently. It stands to reason, therefore, that the process by which we express ourselves must have significant differences. Of course there are similarities. It’s safe to say, though, that by the time we graduate from school or perhaps university then we’ll know enough to appreciate what those commonalities can bring.
    That said–(and I would not be here otherwise, eh)–I find it extremely useful to read and think about others: (a) it’s just plain interesting and (b) it’s like a gold min; valuable nuggets everywhere if you look!

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      You’re right, you know. I think it’s all a case of learning what’s worth learning (if that doesn’t make your educator blood boil! I used to be one myself, so I don’t mean any offence). Not everything which purports to be a useful, nay indispensable, tip is actually worth taking on board. Sometimes, it’s best to go with your gut and learn by making a huge error – or doing something wonderfully right.

      And, as you say, sometimes it’s worth learning from watching others. Ain’t life grand? 🙂

      1. Maurice A. Barry

        It sure is, and something else I’ve learned: the basic idea you just outlined; that of effectively choosing and using the best information, is what is supposed to underlie our whole education system. Too bad so many lose sight of that along the way…

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