Common Writer Advice Revised

We all get tips from well-meaning people who truly believe the wisdom they’re imparting. The most common writer advice I hear is this:

  1. You don’t need a detailed outline.
  2. Don’t revise mid-draft; just write.
  3. It’s okay if your first draft sucks.

This advice works for a lot of people, but if this isn’t your process it can leave you feeling like you’re doing something wrong. At least that’s how it makes me feel. And lord knows we writers don’t need more self-doubt! So I set out to examine why people give this advice, and to revise it into something more useful for those of us who might not fit the mold.

1. You don’t need a detailed outline.

But writing without a scene-by-scene outline frustrates me. It’s akin to wandering around the desert looking for an oasis, and by the time I get there I’m sunburnt, my camel is dead, and the water’s dried up. I need a map! Yet I admit I have a tendency to over-outline (I blogged about that here), so I understand that my fellow writers are just trying to encourage me to write the book when they suggest I dial back on the plotting. Plus they fear it takes the joy/magic/creativity out of writing. Or that it makes a story formulaic. And for them, this might be true, but for me (and perhaps you) it does the exact opposite. An outline frees me to be more creative and let the words flow, instead of stopping to figure out what’s going to happen next.

My desk covered in today's story notes and handwritten outline.
Today’s story notes and a handwritten outline.

Another reason this advice is given is there’s a tendency to suspect outlining is procrastinating. It’s like people don’t believe I’m writing unless I have a word count. There’s more value attributed to manuscript words than to story development scribblings. To counteract this, with the encouragement of the #JulyWritingChallenge crew, I’ve started counting the words of story notes and outlines and adding them to my daily count. Thanks, guys!

So instead of telling that plotter they don’t need a detailed outline, maybe suggest this…

Better Advice: Start writing prose before the outline is done.

This advice respects a plotter’s need to outline, but keeps them from falling into the trap of forever tinkering with that outline and not starting the manuscript. For example, now I make a Basic Beat Sheet, outline a few scenes, write those scenes, outline a few more scenes, write those scenes, revise the beat sheet as changes occur, and repeat.

2. Don’t revise mid-draft; just write.

Lots of writers subscribe to this advice. It’s the basis of NaNoWriMo, after all. The aim is to silence your inner critic, stop tweaking every sentence, and just get the book done. If that’s what you need, great! If not, this advice can hinder more than help.

Better Advice: Revise mid-draft for story, not diction.

There’s a big difference between scouring the thesaurus for the perfect word and changing a major plot point. Wording can wait until the next draft, but story changes reverberate throughout the whole manuscript, so revising the previous scenes before moving on makes sense.

It’s like constructing a block tower. If as I’m building (writing), I discover my structure is falling over (story isn’t working) because something is wrong in the foundation (set up), I go back and fix it. But I don’t need to decide on wall colors yet.

3. It’s okay if your first draft sucks.

I know this is meant to be encouraging, like, “Don’t worry about it, kiddo! All of us write crappy first drafts!” But here’s the thing – I’m not going to write a perfect draft on my first try, but I should give it my best shot! Spewing words onto the page so I can make a daily word count doesn’t serve my story.

Better Advice: The first draft doesn’t have to be perfect.

Make it the best it can be, but the process of writing it will make you a better writer, so you can then go back and revise it.

We all want to help other writers. That generous spirit is one of the great things about being part of a creative community. But if you find yourself dispensing advice, don’t just recite the common catchphrases. Consider another way to phrase it or a more specific tip you can give. That said, all advice is subjective. What works for one writer might not work for another.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a camel to revive and a map to draw…


Next Up from Heather… I finally read Mockingjay and blog about what makes an ending “right”.

For more posts from Heather, click here.

Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a freelance screenwriter, game writer, and novelist based in Toronto. For more, visit her website at or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

6 thoughts on “Common Writer Advice Revised”

  1. Hi Heather, this is post is uncanny in its timing, for me! I am a planner, an outliner. Keeps me from going off track into side stories that can suck the life out of my original thoughts and leave me not only directionless but with no energy. I wind up with a lot of words going no where slowly!
    I have made a lot of false starts that way.
    My first serious attempt at a “book” is now underway and I am paying attention to my overall design and melding in the flow of creative words.
    Thanks again. Peggy

    1. Oh yes, I totally understand the “a lot of words going no where slowly” thing, and the countless false starts. Digging into my outline now. Thanks for the comment!

  2. I also cannot write without an outline. I’ve tried it and I just sort of sit there at my computer staring into space. There are so many writing “rules” out there. Some of them are useful but some are just meant to be broken. Writing is hard enough already so when a writer finds any method that helps them get through a draft, I say do it. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I agree with all of your revisions – they make much better advice. I find it’s not possible for me to plan everything before I start writing, so I have to take the plunge and start writing prose at some point. I always revise as I go along because it’s part of developing the plot and characters, not perfecting the prose. And finally, I can’t understand writers who seem to imply that it’s all right to have poor grammar and spelling in a first draft. Yes, a sentence can always be improved and made more beautiful, but how can you write something that is grammatically incorrect in the first place?

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