The banality of good advice

In my last post, I collected a list of best practices boiled down from a year’s worth of blogging and a lifetime’s worth of study.  The bullet points? “Write often, be organized, use an outline.” 

That’s painfully unoriginal advice. Every hack with a website spoon feeds the same basic tenets.  Still, as basic and familiar as those tenets have become, we self-styled gurus will never tire of repeating them. Nor should we.  It needs to be said almost as often as it needs to be heard.


A teacher once told me, “There are no advanced mistakes, only basic ones.” Everyone falls apart on the fundamentals. Your computer can perform a billion computations in a second, but they all break down into six basic functions or primitives.  Whether it’s a computer program or a screenplay, you can generally achieve any effect you want by putting together a series of simple operations.

Screenwriting has thousands of pieces of hacknyed good advice. “Enter a scene late, leave early. Show, don’t tell. Read dialogue aloud so it sounds like something a real person would say.” The list goes on, and it’s all obvious, common sense stuff. But writers (you, me, even the greats), often forget the basics in the heat of battle.

When I show my work to other people, they inevitably point out one or two galling flaws. This is doubly frustrating, one, I hate that I made a mistake, and two, it’s frustrating that I need the same advice as a raw beginner, even after ten years in the industry. It’s a blow to my ego and my self image. Maybe I’m not special.

There are four stages of competence. Sucking, and being unaware of it, sucking and being aware of it, being competent, but having to think about it, and being competent unconsciously (wikipedia can make this sound smarter, but I stand by my capsule summary). It’s this last step that we’re striving for, the unconscious competence that some might even call mastery.

I’m a long way off from mastery. Most days it’s an uphill battle to get to mere adequacy. I take comfort in the fact that my failings are universal, that I can help others with their common problems because I see my flaws reflected in their work.

Most of my writing advice, story coaching, note giving, development, whatever you want to call it, is merely echoing the same banal, fundamental advice over and over again. This is well and good, as the more it is said, the more it is taken, the more it is given, the more likely it is to become second nature.

Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

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