The other day, somebody asked me what the best and worst writing advice I’d ever gotten was.
The best was easy: “Learn to type.”
My mother was the first to give me that particular bit of writing advice, though I’ve seen it since coming from a variety of authors, including Ursula le Guin and Isaac Asimov. But Mom was the one who made me take the secretarial typing class in high school (which you had to type 55 words per minute to pass) instead of the college student class (which you only had to be able to type 20 words per minute to pass). Mom, I owe you.
There are a bunch of reasons that still make this good advice, though there are writers who prefer a pen or pencil and paper for their first drafts. If it really is part of your process to slow things down and handwrite, stick to it. For the rest of us, though, there are two advantages, the first being the obvious speed of production gained by being able to touch-type at 55+ words per minute (after 40 years of practice, I think I’m a lot faster than 55 wpm, but I haven’t done a typing test in a very long time).
The other advantage of touch typing is less obvious and has to do with ergonomics and the long run. I have a good friend who essentially wore her neck out by spending thirty years looking from fingers/keyboard up at the computer screen and back down to keyboard, over and over, every few minutes. The doctor said it was like bending a spoon back and forth, over and over – eventually, the metal weakens and gives. Not something I ever want to have to worry about on such a personal basis.
(One can, of course, use dictation software to avoid the whole problem…but I also know someone who, having blown out her wrists typing 16 hours a day on a non-ergonomic keyboard, proceeded to blow out her vocal chords, i.e., gave herself semi-permanent laryngitis, by overusing dictation software. Possible the second bit of Really Good Writing advice should be “Don’t work 16 hour days on a regular basis.”)
The worst advice was a lot harder to pin down. The first thing that came to mind was “Learn your craft by writing short stories; don’t even think of trying a novel until you’re selling reliably as a short fiction writer.” The second one was “Get up half an hour earlier to write.”
The first one was demonstrably bad advice for me: I am a natural novelist, who wrote and sold five entire novels before finally managing to sell a short story. There are natural short fiction writers for whom the opposite is true.
Of course, when that advice was given to me, there was still a lively short story market in the SF/F field, and there were even still places you could sell literary/mainstream fiction for actual money (as opposed to being paid in copies of the magazine). Then the short fiction market pretty much vanished. The Internet is bringing it back a bit, but since I do very few short stories, I’m not that conversant with what markets are available for short story writers.
Still, whatever market is or isn’t out there, it remains true that a good X will sell sooner than a lousy Y, where X is whatever length comes naturally and Y is whatever doesn’t. And you are much more likely to do a better job on what comes naturally than on something that’s hard. Of course, if you are a genius brimming with talent, you may write a brilliant X, while your Y is merely good; the brilliant X is still likely to sell faster than the merely good Y, but the good Y is going to be far enough beyond the usual slush pile content that you’ll have a decent shot at selling it. Being a genius is, however, something that few of us can judge for ourselves, so it’s best not to count on it.
Getting up half an hour early to “squeeze in” writing time is something that sounds good in theory, but I don’t know anyone it actually works for. Staying up half an hour longer never seems to be recommended, but it does work for some folks I know…provided they have time to catch up on their missing sleep periodically.
Because the big problem with taking half an hour out of your sleep time is that if you short yourself on sleep for very long, your brain starts to crinkle up and shut down. And the first thing to go seems to be one’s creative juice.
All of the folks I know who make “stay up half an hour longer” work are people who do not have to get up and go to work in the morning, so they can sleep in an extra half hour or hour (and sleeping in is a lot more attractive than going to bed early, for most of us). To make “Get up half an hour early” work in the long run, one would also have to go to bed half an hour earlier, so as not to incur a growing sleep deficit, and nobody I know wants to do that.
You may have noticed that both my best and worst advice don’t have much to do with choosing the words one puts on paper. Anyone who’s been reading this blog for a while knows how I feel about all the writing “rules” that are out there (hint: not positive), but in my experience, the absolute worst advice is aimed at the process itself. Because once you get the words down on paper (or in pixels), you can fix them if you’ve messed something up, but if you mess up the process, you may very well never get the words down in the first place.