Stop telling writers that they should be writing

If you are in the business of telling writers that they “should be writing” then I’m afraid you are in the business of pissing me off.

Swanwick Writers School are perpetual offenders of this guilt-inducing castigation. I’ve heard great things about their courses, but my experience of following their Twitter account for a year means that it is their tedious social media presence, and not their educational prowess, which first springs to my mind whenever they are mentioned.

It’s partly the stream of soulless motivational quotes, insincere writerly platitudes and toe-curling observations about what it means to be a writer. It’s partly their bizarre insistence that ‘Editing Sucks‘. It’s partly their telling writers to ‘be like Dory … keep writing‘ and tagging it #motivation, when #patronising would be more appropriate. All are repeatedly churned out, week in, week out.

But — of course — it’s mostly due to their use of a proxy in the form of an elderly member of the aristocracy who couldn’t give two Corgi shits whether or not you are writing to tell you that, yes, what else, you should be writing.

It may be done with attempted humour, but this has been tweeted 26 times in the last seven months (I did count), and the constant drip feed is not without consequence.

It comes from others too, of course, in various forms, and I hate to keep singling out examples but it’s unavoidable, as it spreads from the ‘top’ down. Joanne Harris, for instance, highly regarded by upcoming writers as a novelist to aspire to, and whose novel Chocolat I read and quite enjoyed, generally gives really good tweetage.

But occasionally this happens and we are made to feel we should be writing when it’s lovely out, want to be doing something else, and possibly even suffering from depression.

The take-home message seems clear: you can only be a ‘proper’ writer if you set all other distractions aside to doggedly pursue your vocation at all available times. Dare to have a dossy afternoon in your pants watching Cash in the Attic then joke about it on social media? No likes and retweets is the least of your worries, pal, as we’ll be chucking you out of the real writers’ society soon.

Write every day and never give up!
Another pair that have been doing the rounds for yonks and refuse to die.

I dealt with “Never Give Up!” — horrid lie that disobeying is defeatist, and all — in a previous post.

The “Write every day!” dictat, a close relative to “You should be writing!”, is equally pervasive, and I’d love to conduct a demolition exercise on it but someone has done a far better job of it than I could ever hope. Take it away, Tracey Sinclair. “Well-meaning as it often is,” Tracey argues, “in practice it can be exclusionary: sexist, classist and ableist”.

She’s right. We don’t all always have the time, means or mental or physical capability to prioritise writing in every waking hour.

It’s easy, I imagine, to tell writers they should be writing when you’re a wealthy novelist, or a successful writing school expected to fill your Twitter stream with ‘wisdom’ on a daily basis. I have to wonder whether those dishing it out have ever known what life is like among the sea of hopefuls or getting-by writers in which 99% of us swim? Have they ever stopped to think whether they are helping — or hindering — emotionally vulnerable writers form healthy relationships with their writing goals, for instance? Guilt is unforgiving. They can do without it.

‘Write every day’ advice comes from a position of privilege — and so does ‘You should be writing!’

Both feed the misconception that the successful writing life is one which necessarily involves great sacrifice to non-writing life.

It’s not always true.

It’s not always helping.

Please stop it.

Or, as Tracey puts it:

“Writing comes with enough self-doubt and criticism. Don’t let some impossible standard set by someone who has no idea of you or your life add to that.”

Comments 10

  • Well said, Alex. I was on a novel-writing retreat recently and I asked one of the tutors (who has several novels to her name and knows her stuff), whether she wrote ‘every day’. “Nah..” she said, “I can go for a couple of weeks at a time without writing a word.” Phew, it was such a relief to hear that!

    • I’ll bet it was! How did the other delegates react to her response?

      • The others didn’t hear – it was just something I asked her over the coffee break, as I know she earns her living now from writing (and teaching, and critiquing and all the other stuff that writers do to earn a crust), so I just wondered how much of her time was spent actually writing.

        • I wonder whether she would have ‘confessed’ so explicitly had she been asked in a class setting? Not intended as a criticism of her, but it’s much easier to be fully honest one-to-one, and be prone to easing towards a more popular or expected view in a group situation.

          • Yes, good point. But she’s a pretty honest and straightforward person (which is why I like her teaching style. She’s the one that told me it’s perfectly OK to hate your first draft and that you can write a pile of poo before you shape it into something better). I can’t imagine her uttering the words ‘You should be writing!’ or ‘Write every day!’

          • I like the sound of her! (Not so much the shaping poo bit, but you get my drift … )

  • I always think that they don’t actually have anything to do beside write- no medical appointments, school events, illnesses or the need to buy food, cook and eat it.

    It’s not healthy to never leave your keyboard.

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