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Opinion: Tips For Avoiding Tips For Writers

Posted July 16, 2012 by Lisa McInerney in Ramp Specials
How To Write

They say you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. That seems a solid motto – you can provide scene, opportunity and motivation, but the last push of any action needs to be undertaken voluntarily if it is to be authentic. You can bring your horse to the river but you can’t make him gargle, you can buy a dowdy friend a Brown Thomas gift voucher but you can’t turn her into something approximating decent, you can’t make George Michael love you if he doooon’t.

And yet we’re constantly trying to make mortals into writers.

Has there ever been a more misunderstood vocation? Here we mean writing as a compulsion rather than a weekend jaunt through the thesaurus. Writing as character fabric, rather than an addictive little pastime. Writing is not for everyone. It’s not even for a fraction of everyone. And yet there’s a whole perplexing movement out there which runs on the notion that writing is a skill which can be taught, a muscle which can be exercised, a club to which everyone’s entitled to membership. Creative writing classes, writers’ circles, degrees and diplomas and workshops and programmes.

And tips. God, creative writing tips. If you need tips on how to be a writer (this is not the same as tips on how to get published, by the way, for such pointers are very necessary), then you are not a writer at all. Writing is not a costume you throw on in your spare time, and a writer is not something you become after you finish college. It’s something you just… are. No amount of tips or tricks successfully manoeuvred will make you a writer. You may as well give tips for aeronautical engineering or tips on how to become Mexican.

Tips for writers tend to cover the following:

Write Every Day

You can write the Bible between now and lunchtime and you still won’t be a writer if you weren’t one before. It’s no more quantity that makes you brilliant than it is the colour of your eyes or how many pairs of pants you own. This sails perilously close to a Malcolm Gladwell mantra – if you write for 10,000 hours, you will become Ernest Hemingway. This is untrue. If you’re a writer, you will be certainly a good deal better after writing for 10,000 hours (and also shagged tired), but if you’re not a writer, you can scribble your intentions in the sands of time and they’ll still be full of exclamation marks and disjointed, florid twaddle.

Find A Place To Write

Ah, one’s own literary sanctuary. Hide yourself away and chew pencils while staring at inspiring vistas, by all means, but don’t kid yourself that you’re a writer while you’re at it. Writers don’t take Writing somewhere quiet and romantic where they can tangle themselves up in it and feel deep as a stoned teenager. Writers run from writing. No one wants Writing on their back; it’s a heavy fuck of a monkey and it’ll do nothing but spit in your ear that you’re useless and clunky and should probably just drown yourself before a baying mob comes along and does it for you. If you’re a writer, what you need is to find a place not to write. And good luck with that, because such a place doesn’t exist. You can landslide yourself and that bastard will find you, asking you what the hell you’re doing under all those rocks when there’s a million words in your mindsack you’re supposed to be diligently birthing.

Edit, Edit, Edit

You don’t need to tell a writer to edit. A writer will edit despite themselves, because they hate everything they write and it looks awful and it makes no sense and the metaphors are all wrong and life is a harsh mistress. If you have to be told to edit your work – if you get to the end of your day’s allocated writing time in your little literary sanctuary with the damn vista and say to yourself, Well, that looks good! – then you’re no writer. You’re a happy soul with a meaningful existence and you should go die in a ditch.

Use Good Grammar, Punctuate Properly, Spell Correctly

Has it come to this? If you don’t know how to use the tools, then don’t use the tools. If you don’t know the difference between its and it’s, then you’re no more a writer than you are a pine marten. If you are a pine marten, you’re forgiven for not knowing the difference between its and it’s, but you still can’t be a writer.

Write Even If You Have Nothing To Write

Staring at a blank page? No matter! Write anyway because writing is a muscle and you don’t want to get atrophy.

Write anyway? Write what? Writing cannot be turned on and off like a tap at allocated hours in your little literary sanctuary with the damn vista where you don’t do any editing. Writing something pointless and empty will not make you a better writer if you’re already a writer. It’ll make you feel like shit and you’ll end up throwing your laptop at the wall. If you’re not already a writer, and you’re probably not, then write any old shit down to get your allocated hours in, because that’s all you do anyway.

Join A Writers’ Group

Good. God. The last thing a writer needs is another one. The last thing a bad writer needs is a circle-jerk. Which leads us to…

Get Feedback

Because it's fucking misery, that's why not.

Writers will pursue feedback just to shut the monkey up, but it doesn’t really matter what feedback you get if you’re not already practically perfect. This is part of the whole leading-the-horse-to-water thing. It’s not that non-writers will ignore negative feedback, although a shocking amount of them do because nothing hurts quite like being told you weren’t born to do this sideline you just took up six weeks ago. No, it’s impossible to tell someone who can’t write what they’re doing wrong if they can’t already see it themselves.

And this is the crux of the matter. All writers know they’re terrible. They know how awful their prose is and it kills them. They can’t get away from it. They lie awake at night wondering why the Muses haven’t struck them down yet for being so utterly heinous. And non-writers don’t get that at all. You cannot explain to a bad writer what makes them so bad, because they’ll never see it. The metre that stutters and lurches. The badly chosen phrases that they’ve read and fallen for elsewhere, splattered throughout their prose like olives on a birthday cake. The misused words, the repetition, the repetition and the misuse of words that’s literally the worst thing ever. And above all else, the dearth of what it is that makes a piece of writing beautiful. The magic and the glamour of using language to save something true and raw and real.

You can lead a man to Microsoft Word but you can’t make him a writer. And while it’s tempting to concede that would-bes, wannabes and has-beens are more than welcome to bolster and pontificate at each other all year long if it makes them happy, alongside that happy amnesty, the art of writing is being cheapened by day-trippers and Sunday Scribblers.

Tips for Writers might be good for a giggle, but what they really do is help convince a modern world becoming ever more dumb that writing is easy and that there is no further need of literary standards. This is why we now have appalling monstrosities like Stephenie Meyer and E.L. James. Not everyone has a novel in them, damn it.

About the Author

Lisa McInerney

Lisa’s soul is so damn sensitive, she has to invent and occupy parallel universes just to spread herself evenly. This is also known as being a frustrated novelist.

  • http://twitter.com/SerialBlogamist Catherine C


  • http://twitter.com/ElleEmSee Laura C

    Ahh now, I do believe that everyone has a novel in them but those novels are more than likely a lot of shite.

    My first novel, an epic about a small girl being adopted into a rich family, was penned when I was just 8 years old. 8 years old! I was ahead of my time, it must be said. It also must be said that I simply re-wrote the story of Annie and changed the names. God bless my parents for humouring me so.

    • http://twitter.com/notRuairi Rú Hickson

      I agree that everyone has a novel in them, though, in a lot of cases, it’s debatable whether it should ever get out.

      • http://www.lisamcinerney.com Lisa McInerney

        The only way the majority of people should have a novel in them is if I lodge it in their gullets. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell or something equally enormous.

        Laura, I too wrote my first novel at the age of eight. It was called Tundercloud and was about a wild horse whose parents clearly couldn’t spell.

  • Sinéad

    “You can lead a man to Microsoft Word but you can’t make him a writer.”Thank you, yes. 

    The greatest hazard of being an editor is the number of acquaintances who will request that you read their masterpiece. I’ll tell you what pals, the likelihood that 20% of the people I know are born novelists is rather statistically unlikely, so the fact that one in five of them has handed me a sheaf of unfinished prose does not bode well.

    It’s so grim to explain why it’s not good as well.

    Oh, the amount of times I have complimented a nice font…

  • http://twitter.com/Fearganainim Fearganainim

    Ha! Ha! Marvellous piece! 

  • http://twitter.com/JayRow Jen Ronan

    Huzzah! Well said Lisa:) I think Writing is a condition you live with, like some sort of a disorder. (“I’d love to go for coffee, but my Writing’s acting up something terrible today…sorry.”) My entire waking day is narrated by one of those aforementioned monkey bastards on my back going “Oooh, this thing you’re doing seems interesting…WHY AREN’T YOU WRITING ABOUT IT RIGHT NOW YOU FAILURE!!” I live in a constant state of fear that I should be always scribbling to capture thoughts or phrases otherwise my world will end and I will die horribly and alone. Great craic all the same when you’re in The Zone, though.

    • http://www.lisamcinerney.com Lisa McInerney

      That’s exactly what it is: some sort of terrible condition that eats you from the inside out, leaving you flimsy enough to blow away in a strong gust.

      I have never had great craic writing, only great craic after having written.

  • http://twitter.com/beatingblog Karen Mulreid

    So, wait, WAIT. You mean if I lie awake at 3am cringing at a blog post I’ve posted going ‘what was I THINKING!’ then I … am … a writer?

    Do you think you can be a bad writer though? A writer, yes, but a bad one? Or if you’re a bad writer you’re not a writer at all?

    • http://www.lisamcinerney.com Lisa McInerney

      *gets guru hat on*

      My dear Karen. There are no bad writers, just non-writers. You appear to be doing it right. Carry on.

      • http://twitter.com/beatingblog Karen Mulreid

         It’s all a bit subjective I guess. Is that the right word. Subjective, subjunctive, sub – what?

        For example I know people who have never read a Marian Keyes book and say that they judge those who do. It’s not real literature so they don’t read it. But in my book (ha!) Marian Keyes is a wonderful writer and very muchly deserves the title.

        So who’s right? Is she bad or is she good?

        • http://www.lisamcinerney.com Lisa McInerney

          Show me an unedited piece and I’ll tell you. 

          The whole ‘is chicklit valid’ argument is one we should do soon, actually. Keyes seems to have the touch, ear for dialogue, and ideas, but there are a whole glut of appalling ‘novelists’ out there who can barely string two words together. But it’s all about the broad sell when you’re selling to broads. And a great editor makes all the difference.

  • http://twitter.com/sirona_gs sirona

    I just want to say an enormous ‘thank you’ to you for writing and sharing this. It’s like you reached inside my head and read every doubt and horror that I apply to anything I write. It’s just, I can’t tell you what an utter *relief* it is to read something like this and know that you aren’t insane for the way your mind works; that there are other people out there who think, feel, see the world the same way. Just, thanks for this. Saving it where I can look at it as often as I need to.

  • Lindsey

    This is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, one of the most insightful articles about what a pain in the ass it can be to be afflicted with Writing. I instantly shared it with similarly-afflicted friends and we’re forming a support group even now.

    Thank you so much for this article.

  • Claire Gleeson

    This is all true, great article. I’ve wasted money on several “How to be a great writer” books in my time, and most of them say exactly these things. Also such gems as “start in the middle of the action” and “give your protagonist an obstacle to overcome”…
    Best book I’ve ever read on writing is Stephen King’s aptly-named “On Writing”. He knows what he’s talking about.

  • Claire

    I agree with this, yet I am trying to write my thesis, I am not a writer. I have to make my thesis interesting to read because I am only a number to examiners and if it doesn’t sound interesting or imaginative then I will be given a bad mark because i’m sure they will read all the same stuff over and over. The subject and research maybe good but if I can’t make it sound good then I am doomed and I know I am!

    • http://www.lisamcinerney.com Lisa McInerney

      Valid point. I guess here I was specifically referring to creative writing – fiction, especially. 

      Writing as a skill outside of the creative sphere can be taught as any new language can be taught. But creative writing? I don’t think so. It’s a way of thinking, really, a knack for communication that’s truly special. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=695132914 John Green

    What’s worse than the scribe monkey, though, is when you’re all writ out and the monkey jumps off. You’re stuck with four worthless novels and a sense of emptiness, hollowness, meaninglessness that only Nietzsche can put a name to. Imagine NOT being a writer after it’s being your defining feature for half your life. Abyss-mal. 

    • http://www.lisamcinerney.com Lisa McInerney

      You better not be referring to yourself, Green.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=695132914 John Green

        Just an observation about addiction. It could equally apply to fags.

  • http://twitter.com/aidancoughlan Aidan Coughlan

    This piece makes me very uncomfortable, Lisa. Okay, not everyone can be a novelist, and the delusion can often be very painful to watch — but to say that you either ‘have it’ or ‘don’t’ is insulting to human nature.

    I love to play tennis. Am I going to win Wimbledon? No. Am I going to win my club tournament? No. But I enjoy it, so I play it. Does my lack of prospects mean I should stop taking coaching sessions? Does it mean I should stop working on my backhand, or my topspin, or all the other little elements I spend hours each week working on? Well, no, I don’t think so. Because every time I hit a ball that looks good from where I’m standing, and sails past the equally average player standing on the opposite side of the net, I feel like I’m achieving something. I feel like the hobby that I’ve chosen to pursue is rewarding, in a way that’s entirely specific to me and my own standards.

    You ‘have’ writing, it shows, and that’s fantastic. The vast majority, as you say, were not born with words spewing forth from their proverbial pen — but to say they should stop trying to improve is insulting. Not only to those people, but to all try-hard-have-nots; to all of us who enjoy the challenge of improving outside of our comfort zone.

  • http://twitter.com/aidancoughlan Aidan Coughlan

    I should add, by the way, that I made this post after days of being tormented by snippets from the piece; it kept on coming to mind during a coaching session (hence the above example) and making me question whether or not my endeavours really were in vain. I concluded that they’re not, but nonetheless I think that’s the sign of a very powerful piece of writing.

    So when I say you ‘have’ it, I do mean it!

    • http://www.lisamcinerney.com Lisa McInerney

      Oh, hobbyists should enjoy what they’re doing – hence the ‘happy soul, meaningful existence’ line. The point of this piece is how frustrating ‘Tips For Writers’ are for writers, because they don’t offer any useful information.

      I firmly believe that there’s a chasm between those who merely like to write and those who are born writers, and I’ve yet to see evidence of list of tips bridging that gap. You can’t teach having a knack for something; as with all the creative arts, having a knack for writing means having a certain way of looking at the world, a way of putting into words a perfect snapshot of what’s going on around you. It’s kind of eerie. 

      Here I don’t have a problem with people who just love to write, but rather with the never-ending, useless reams of tips lists that state with a weird, serene certainty that writing for an hour a day will make you a great writer. Or that if you don’t write for an hour a day, you’ll never be able to ‘make it’. Writing as a career option isn’t just tough – no amount of training will guarantee you success – it’s inherently unfair. Bad writers will get to the top. Great writers will go unrecognised. And the notion that writing is some sort of cheap skill that anyone with an hour to spare of an evening can get in on exacerbates that situation.

      Self-expression is a wonderful thing. Storytelling is a natural form of self-expression. But the art of writing – creating beautiful, affecting prose – isn’t quite the same thing, and I think if we deny that, we risk losing the art of beautiful writing entirely.

      Having said that, William Wordsworth and Henry James thought Dickens was a hack. So maybe I’m the problem.

  • http://twitter.com/AprilBarry101 April Barry

    God, I love this. Should be required reading!

  • GG

    I found this fun to read. Thanks.

    I am glad I didn’t have years and years of aspiring to be a writer before actually becoming one. There’s a fair amount of pretentiousness and self-deprecation that pervades in the writing community. I have education and experience writing and people pay me to write.. I’m a writer. Even if no one paid me, I’d still be one, just not a professional. I think if I’d had years of wanting to be a writer, I’d be one of the people with a list of milestones I need to achieve before “really” being a writer. I think it’s silly,but I understand it, to some degree.

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