There are two kinds of people who give advice to writers: those who want better writing, and those who want payment.
Teachers, from the unsung heroes singing the ABCs with snotty toddlers to college professors hacking through forests of sophomoric prose, are mostly the former.
Once you venture beyond formal education, though, the search for guidance can lead straight into the slough of despond where some self-proclaimed guru will offer you the keys to the kingdom, on an installment plan. There are also wonderful writing teachers who ought to be paid for their time and expertise.
These five questions will help you to avoid hyenas and find legitimate guides —
1. Do non-writers read their books?
This is important because, if you’re going to take writing advice from someone, it might as well be an actual writer. Not someone who has set him/herself up as an expert on the basis of figuring out MailChimp.
When a writer who is read and loved by millions, like Ray Bradbury, E.B. White or Stephen King dispenses writing advice, I’m happy to pay.
2. Do they tell you how much they earn?
The above mentioned writers never, to my knowledge, sent emails to their readers bragging about their income. If a so-called writing guru leads by telling you how much they earn, it’s a con.
Writers can and do earn great salaries as writers. But if a person’s primary income stream is other writers s/he is a huckster, not a writer.
3. Do they promise you a secret formula?
Writers are wishful thinkers, in the best possible way. We wish to understand, report, illuminate, entertain, and above all connect. This fundamental optimism keeps us at the keyboard. It also makes us susceptible to slicks who claim to have discovered a secret to striking rich as a writer.
This prospect is pure mirage — and enticing as an oasis.
If someone really had the secret to endless, effortless cash from freelance writing clients s/he would simply enjoy the income. If the technique were valid and replicable, teaching it would create competition.
4. Do they try to up-sell you?
A writer who earns a comfortable primary income from writing shouldn’t be hustling you for a few bucks. I’ve encountered sales pitches ranging from $199 for an online journalism course to $10,000 for one year of “mentoring”.
The give away, whether at the low or high end of the price scale, is the guru’s insistence that this is great value. Two online courses for the price of one! Access to a “community” (as if there aren’t a gazillion free writers forums and Facebook groups)! Cheaper than college! Cheaper than a weekend in Vegas! Only 20 percent of your annual income!
The people most likely to be tempted by dubious expertise are those worst-placed to pay these rates, which makes fake gurus opportunistic dickwads.
5. Do they tell you it’s all in your head?
Without fail, every single fake writing guru will preach some version of “failure is a mindset”.
Never mind that writer’s median income has dropped by 42 percent since 2009, according to the New York Times, and that royalties and advances are down by 30 percent in that period. Or that more than 1,800 newspapers have closed in the U.S. since 2004. Or that magazines like Glamour, Redbook, Cooking Light and ComputerWorld ceased print publication in 2018.
PayScale data show only 10 percent of all writers earn more than $83,000 per year, meaning even fewer earn above the much-hyped six figure mark.
Failing to earn scads of money as a writer is not a mindset — it’s a reality.
The only people who tell you it’s all in your head are the ones who are ass-covering for the inevitable moment when you realize that over-priced bottle of secret sauce isn’t going to make you a millionaire.
Where to find the real thing
Don’t despair of getting sound, disinterested writing guidance— and don’t pay through the nose for it.
If you want advice on the craft of writing, hit the library or bookshop.
My favorites include:
Zen and the Art of Writing — Ray Bradbury
Bird by Bird — Anne Lamott
Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind — Natalie Goldberg
On Writing Well — William Zinsser
Steering the Craft — Ursula K. LeGuin
For honest first person advice, join a writing group or workshop, or take a class. Some of the best, wisest writers I know work in community colleges or extension programs, for little reward and less recognition, because they want other people to experience the life-altering power of writing.
Seek the positive
Writing should be a source of joy, even if it’s a job.
A writer worth listening to embraces both its struggles and its delights.
“Writing is survival,” Bradbury wrote. “Any art, any good work, of course, is that. …We must take arms each and every day, perhaps knowing that the battle cannot be entirely won, but fight we must, if only a gentle bout. The smallest effort to win means, at the end of each day, a sort of victory.”