Do Writers Need a GPS or Not?

I love my GPS. Last week I drove two hours to Grand Rapids, Michigan for an evening book signing. I’d never been to the bookstore before, and I knew I’d be driving through the city during rush hour. So I was extremely grateful for the navigation voice alerting me of my exit, directing me to the side of the highway I needed to be on, showing me exactly how many miles and minutes I had left, etc.

The GPS (global positioning system) got me to the hotel in plenty of time to refresh before I needed to go over to the bookstore. Or at least I thought it was my hotel. As it turned out, I’d punched the wrong address into the GPS. I was naïve to assume Grand Rapids had only one Country Inn & Suites. Somehow in the time between reserving the hotel and looking up the address, I’d landed upon the wrong one.

Anyway, with some phone calls and mad dashing, I made it to the right hotel and eventually to my book signing. I had a great time, especially because my daughters came along and we got to have a fun girl’s night together.

I didn’t really need the GPS on the way home. Once I navigate somewhere, I can usually find my way back home without too much difficulty.

In using my GPS, I’m realizing there are times when the precision is necessary and times when it isn’t.

Which is a lot like writing. Sometimes we need precision and sometimes we don’t. The dilemma is very much like the old question writers toss around, “How closely do we need to stick to the writing ‘rules’ and when is it okay to break them?” Should or shouldn’t we use adverbs, dialog tags, dumps of backstory, describing emotion, telling instead of showing, etc.?

On the one hand we’re given a lot of advice in fiction technique books and from blogs (like mine!) about how to write. On the other hand, we’re told to make sure we tell the story using our own unique voices.

Do we need to be so nitpicky? Or can we give ourselves some leeway?

How much leeway we give ourselves depends on how familiar the route has become. Like I said, when I’m traversing a new route I need the precision, the help, the guidelines. When I have the assistance, I'm able to get to my destination without the worry of getting lost or meandering too much off course.

With a first book, I suggest that writers enjoy the creative process, put aside any thoughts about rules or publication, and just learn how to develop a good story. But by the second book, a writer can travel the publication road more smoothly by using the navigation system of writing craft books and putting into practice more precise fiction techniques.

Once we’ve written several books and have become familiar with our style and voice, then we’re ready for a little more flexibility. We can try new things and veer slightly off trail. As I’ve put into practice the basics and foundations of writing fiction over the years, now I’m much more comfortable with how to manipulate them for my purposes. I’m able to discern when it works to break a ‘rule’ and when it doesn’t.

In navigating through the fiction world, it’s easy to take extremes. I’ve met some writers who are too precise, who stick too closely to the writing ‘rules.’ Being overly nit-picky can often lead to a cold, heartless story that reads too much like a road map.

I’ve also found some writers who reject any fiction-writing GPS help altogether. They’re determined to get to the end their own way. That can lead to writing that is equally hard for readers to get through.

What’s your opinion? Do you think writers need to spend time learning to navigate with fiction-writing techniques first? Or do you think writers should set their own courses and do whatever works for them?


  1. Great question (and analogy). I think writers should wait until they complete (at the very least) a first draft of the first book before they jump into all the "GPS" rules. Once we can write "The End" we'll have a better idea if the love of story is within us or not. IMO, there's no point bogging oneself down with all the rules if you never even finish a draft. By that point you'll know whether you're serious about it or not, and whether you think you want to go for it (publication). Otherwise, as has been my personal experience, learning & following the "expert" advice can often kick your creativity to the curb, and manifest a sense of defeat before you've even started.

  2. Hi Barb! You summed up the issues with the first book very nicely! I truly believe the very first book we write is about fostering our creativity and story-telling abilities. And if we get tangled up in too many "rules" we could stifle the love of writing from the get-go. However, that doesn't mean a writer couldn't later go back and rewrite the book applying what they later learn. I personally think that would be laborious! But everyone operates differently!

  3. I really agree with the point that first book should be all about writing for the love of it and focusing your passion for storytelling. Yes, there are rules (although rules are meant to be broken if they can be broken well), but there is time to learn the technical aspects later. Simply finishing the first book can be enough of a goal for the first time writer.

    But for those who want to seriously pursue writing, it definitely behooves them to bone up on craft. Then at least they know which rules they're bending when they do so (and we all do at some point!).

  4. I think we all should but sometimes some of those fiction techniques come naturally. It depends on the writer.

  5. I'm reading Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott right now, who is a great advocate for doing what comes naturally, rules be darned...for the first draft. Then the next drafts can keep what works. I guess I like that line of thinking...though I'm much more of a planner and plotter than Ms. Lamott (I'm guessing she doesn't have spreadsheets)!

  6. I think learning and writing can be combined, and the process depends on the project and the person. I took two very good writing courses near the beginning of my writing adventure and learned a lot. I was writing and submitting then and benefited from the course in the process. Now I'm learning as I proceed with my fiction WIP. I think we always have something to learn and should be open to that, however it works best for us.

  7. Learn the techniques! I tried the fly by the seat of my pants method and wasted a lot of precious time.

  8. Jody,

    I always think of a comment one of my creative writing teachers (mentors) once told me when I defended the rules I was breaking.
    He said, "Picasso learned to paint in the traditional style before he began experimenting with the more modern and abstract techniques he is better known for using".
    In other words, I believe it is better to learn the traditional techniques and rules before you start breaking them. It does save you a lot of time in revisions.

  9. Hi everyone! I appreciate all of your thoughts today!

    Love that quote, Sharon! Thank you for sharing it! We too often see the end product of those who have been working for years to perfect their techniques. What we don't see is all of the steps that they took to get to that point! They make it look so easy, when in reality it's come after years of labor.

  10. Very insightful! I believe that, yes, writers need to learn the craft and a lot of that comes through trial and error. We have to learn how to write fiction properly before we can even remotely call ourselves a good writer. I've noticed a trend with many e-book self-published authors who believe they are fantastic writers even though it's obvious the book is filled with problems. A college degree or personal experiences do not make you a writer. Honing your craft and learning how to do it well makes you a writer.

  11. Hi Jody. As others have said, I think that one must learn the rules before breaking them. But there has to be some reason for breaking them, IMO. It has to contribute to the theme or feel of the book. For example, don't have sentence fragments just to have them. Put them in creatively to give a feeling of choppiness to a scene that's supposed to feel awkward.

    I'm writing my first novel, but I'm an editor first and foremost. I'm finding it a bit difficult to JUST WRITE and not worry about conventions or even if I'm being cliche or saying things the way I want to say them. But that's my goal--to just write--and THEN, once I'm finished, have at it with editing.

  12. I was established in non-fiction before I crossed over to "The Dark Side" to write fiction -- and that training helped me write my first book. I still had lots to learn as far as crafting a novel, but I had writing skills that were a strong foundation as I waded through my work-in-progress.
    Were there a lot of re-writes?
    Absolutely. I was learning. And I gave myself the freedom to rewrite. Again and again and again.
    But I was also thankful for what I already knew (and could apply) about writing.

  13. Excellent advice, as always, Jody! When I wrote my first novel I realized I knew nothing about writing fiction, but I told the story anyway, then put it aside and began reading books on the craft to figure out what I should have known beforehand. Months later, when I finally let a writing coach offer her critique, I was able to appreciate her comments because they identified weaknesses I had read about.

    When we begin writing "we don't know what we don't know" so it helps to make the effort to learn and follow the rules. Later we can "manipulate them for [our] purposes."

  14. Thanks for your input everyone!! Carol, I so agree with your "we don't know what we don't know" quote. It's so true. It's not until we really get further along that we start to gain perspective on our work. That's why so many writers (including myself) say that when we go back to our first manuscripts that we ever wrote we're amazed at how poorly written they are! The time and growth help us see the difference in our writing skill!

    And Lindsay, I'm sure it must be very tough as an editor to sit back and learn to just write! There is a skill that comes with practice in just releasing the creative side of your brain, a process of just letting the words and story flow without the inhibitions of the internal editor. I wish you all the best as you learn how to do that!

  15. Thanks, Jody! However difficult it may be, I'm definitely enjoying the learning process!

  16. I vote for leeway! But yes, a writing GPS would come in handy in many situations. :)

  17. The problem with learning new techniques is that it's hard to find motivation until you have a reason to put in the time and effort. Until you have a work in progress, learning the rules doesn't have the same meaning as when you're working hard to improve something you are heavily invested in. Granted, trashing chunks of your work after realizing that you did it "wrong" when you didn't know better isn't pleasant, but you might as well learn to be a ruthless self-editor early on. How many people publish their very first work, anyway? You might as well use that one as a learning tool. At least, if you do, you might end up with a finished work (unlikely to ever be published, but no less a huge accomplishment). If you just spend your time learning rules, you aren't producing anything in the meantime.

  18. Our GPS usually confuses me! How sad is that? As for writing, I've definitely needed direction. And still do. I'm not confident enough to break any rules!

  19. You're lucky you only ended up at the wrong hotel, it could have been much worse, like the episode of The Office when Michael Scott blindly followed the GPS into a pond. :-)

    Great analogy. I think you've got to strike a balance. Writers certainly need to learn the craft first, and learn it well. But sometimes it is better to tell rather than to show for example. The trick is to know when to veer.

    Sometimes the 'rules' are just wrong for your particular situation and sometimes wandering aimlessly can leave you no better off than where you began.

  20. Hi Jason! Yes, I'm lucky my mix-up wasn't much worse! LOL! And it is sometimes tricky to know when to veer. I've found that it gets easier to gauge once I've been down the path a few times already.


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