Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The cherished myths of writing :: "One Size Fits All"

How do I put this delicately? I have an outsized cranium. Seriously. My hats are built in a shipyard in Norfolk, Virginia by skilled craftsmen imported from a murky parallel universe where humanity has evolved into a horde of massive levitating craniums.

Would I lie to you?

This is the root of my contempt for the words "One size fits all." Those words have mocked me my entire life, whispered from the hatband of almost every hat I've ever encountered "...except you."

The truth of the matter is that there's no such thing as a one size fits all hat. At best, a third of the people who try it on will be satisfied, while the rest either look like they're trying to wear a church bell with a brim or suffer an instant compression head ache followed by cerebral edema and death.  You can no more make a hat that will fit everyone than you can make a pair of pants that will.

The same might be said of writing advice.

Last night I had dinner with a young friend of mine who is an aspiring writer. Since it's the beginning of summer break (she's in college) I asked her what she's reading.  She rattled off one fiction novel and a veritable who's who of writing guides.

It immediately occurred to me that while I've read the books she mentioned, none of them helped me. Thankfully, I experienced one of those rare instances when my brain engaged before my mouth did and I stopped myself from telling her that I didn't like some of the books she had mentioned. Who am I to dissuade her from finding her own method amongst the madness? I've already given her copies of Bird by Bird and Telling Lies and she obviously kept looking.

I think it might be the most cherished myth in writing, that just because this method or that one worked for us, it should apply for everyone else.  To varying extents, it is the core conceit of most writing guides: This is how you do it kid, follow me!  And while a lot of recent guides have shown an admirable trend toward acknowledging that this was their method and might not apply universally, there are far too many that don't.

I used to sell writing guides. It was my beat back in my bookstore days, so I've read too many of them to list here. In terms of both style and execution, the authors are as different as they are similar. I admit freely that I have my favorites. And I'm quick to point out that those are mostly of an inspirational sort rather than the toolbox sort.  I recommend them to anyone who thinks to ask and in my opinion they are the cream of the crop.

For me. These few are exactly my size and I can carry them around without getting a headache or having them slip down and cover my eyes.  That doesn't mean they'll fit you.

It behooves the young writer to find out how the people who came before them succeeded. But no matter who wrote the book of writing advice, be it Stephen King or Norman Mailer, the only way to really discover them isn't in their writing guides or memoirs, it's on the pages of the books that made them who they are today.  And anyway, with writing advice as with anything else: one size cannot possibly fit all.

Goldilocks had it right. Keep looking until you find something that's just right.

Just remember my universal caveat: At some point you have to stop reading and start writing.  In the end, no matter where you got your advice, when the ink hits the page, it's not King nor Mailer's name that's going on the cover. It's yours; the writing should be yours too.

And my sincere apologies to Andrea for going on a mental safari mid-sentence last night.


  1. It's true, I thought I had a big head until I put one of Scott's hats on. (well, actually, I do have a big head) So you get my point. Ever seen a bobblehead doll. Happy birthday Scottie.

  2. You are a gentleman and a scholar, Mr. G. A gentleman and a scholar.


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).