bad writing advice

In honor of National Novel Writing Month, today I shall debunk some bad writing advice!

Recently I read an article about a bestselling writer who is having trouble finishing the third book in his trilogy. This quote jumped out to me:

‘The best advice he ever received…was from the writer who ran the workshop he attended after he won that first short-story contest: “It’s late once, but it’s bad forever.”’

That is not good advice. That is terrible advice!

To be blunt, that’s not advice, that’s a pre-rationalization for procrastination. Or a rationalization for indulging in self-doubt, which for writers is an especially self-destructive quality. (A writer’s best method of dealing with self-doubt is to lock it in the cellar and beat it with a pillowcase full of doorknobs until it stops whining.)

In fact, this is an actual cognitive error, a formal logical fallacy called the Nirvana Fallacy. It is, quite literally, a form of erroneous thinking.

A better piece of advice is “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the possible.” Perfection is simply not possible in this world. This is especially true of fiction, which is by its very nature subjective and not subject to quantifiable analysis. What makes a good bridge? It doesn’t fall into the river. That’s quantifiable. What makes a good book? Everyone has their own answers, and none of them are quantifiable. A lot of writers think that they can write a perfect book that everyone will like, but there’s no such thing. Better instead to write the sort of book that you would like, rather than trying to create something perfect.

So, instead of tinkering endlessly with your book to try and make it better, finish it and the write another one! You’ll learn more by finishing it than by puttering with it and rewriting it over and over in an effort to achieve nonexistent perfection. And once it’s done, you’ll write another book, and then another, and you’ll learn much than you ever will if you spend five years trying to polish your first book to perfection.

Steve Jobs was by all accounts a irascible perfectionist, but he knew that the Nirvana Fallacy was a mistake. So we’ll let him have the last word here:

“Real artists ship.”

-JM

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