Writers on Writing: Bad Advice

by Sherwood Smith

There’s a lot of writing advice floating around out there—some people like to help others, some people like to be authorities. And dispensing advice is a whole lot easier than, say, building someone a new computer. But sometimes you see advice being given (and gratefully received) that makes you shudder and tiptoe away.

There was one bit of advice that was being circulated for new writers some ten, fifteen years ago: If you want to call yourself professional, then you will send out a story a week.

Well, of course, as soon as the P-word is trotted out, people get anxious. Heaven forfend we are not thought professional. Whatever that means.

Whether it was or not, I thought that was awful advice. Though maybe everybody else could write a successful story a week, and I was the only dweeb who takes at least a year to come up with a short story idea. Then there’s the the sending out right away. It might feel good to stuff that still-smoking story into the envelope and send it five minutes after you wrote “The End.” But is that really a good idea?

Unless you’re one of those rare writers who turns out fantastic prose first draft, you don’t see all the flaws of that story, you mistake the emotion of composition for the effect of reading it cold. Most of us have to let the story cool off for a while before tackling it again, getting beta readers, polishing yet again…and for all intents and purposes, that is the first draft.

The second problem is related, that one must resend a rejected story out a kazillion times without rewriting it. Let an editor tell you to rewrite it after you’ve been paid. Not every writer needs or wants beta readers. But what if time goes by and you look at the story again and see how to fix it?

Write and sell short stories before you try novels. This was probably good advice (except for born novelists) thirty years ago, but I don’t think it is anymore.

Don’t bother with grammar—that’s what copyeditors are for. Grate advisse. Make’s it so much more eezy two rede.

Stick to writing what you know. So I know how to fly? Or what life is like on another planet? Can we all say imagination? Seriously, I can see some utility in cautioning writers about splashing into an area of which they are ignorant, but there is a such thing as research.

Kill your darlings. In other words, if you admire a bit of writing, that means you need to take it out. Yeah, sometimes what we admire most, um, doesn’t work for others, but I really think that the time for cutting is after beta readers one trusts point out the purple patches or the overused expressions or the interlarding of scaffolding that was invisible. If those problems suddenly become visible, and the bit no longer pleases us, time for the red pen. But deleting something you’re proud of because you’re proud of it, and for no other reason? Sounds to me like a great recipe for writer’s block.

Finally, I think the best summation of bad advice is any version of You have to do it my way or you are doing it wrong.

So what bad advice have you seen handed out under the “professionals do it this way” header, and why is it bad advice?

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Writers on Writing: Bad Advice — 38 Comments

  1. Don’t write omniscient; it will never sell.

    Well, it has sold before and it may do so again, plus it’s part of my voice and attempts to change chapters written in omni to limited third always turned into a desaster.

  2. There are bits of well meaning advice which get taken to ridiculous extremes.

    “Show don’t tell” — except that sometimes telling is the right technique, and it’s the showing makes it boring.

    “Start in media res” — except I am so sick of those stories that start into action without giving me any reason to care about what’s happening or who it’s happening to!

    “Write every day or give up now” — people work differently, and some of us are burst writers. I’d like to write every day. I’d also like a flying pony.

  3. A lot of the bad writing advice I run into is bad because it’s both absolute (“never do X”) and inconsistently applied.

    For example: “If you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi, don’t call them horses, call them fleetfoots or xyflads, because a fantasy world wouldn’t use our English word for them, so you shouldn’t either.” Sometimes it’s fine to come up with your own word for horses, but sometimes that’s a bad idea… and honestly, if we took the “they wouldn’t use our word” reasoning for horses, why would we stop at horses? There’s no reason most fantasy characters would use the English words for horses, doors, clothing, the color red… and pretty much anything else.

    Then there’s “show, don’t tell”, which is good advice in general, but frequently badly explained and applied. I’ve seen it described as a general ban on declarative sentences, or on ever using emotion words in the narrative. (Related: I’ve been told I should never use sentences that use the verb “to be”, because that’s passive voice and automatically bad.)

    Related to ‘kill your darlings’: “If you enjoyed writing the story then it’s probably terrible. If you laughed even once writing the story then it’s definitely terrible.” It’s good to remind people that just because they think something’s funny doesn’t mean the audience will, and you need to be careful that you don’t sacrifice consistency and characterization just to give your story the type of madcap adventure/passionate romance/happy ending that you personally really enjoy. But telling people they can’t enjoy writing…

  4. The million word myth. Write a million words and you will magically sell everything your write without needing beta readers or revisions.

    Um… I have a million words in 1 series of 5 books out of 26 published novels. I still need beta readers and revisions because I am not a 1 draft writer, never have been. Never will be. My creativity comes in layers and I never know which layer comes first. More like a 3d jig saw puzzle.

    Granted I’ve cut down to about 4 drafts from 20, but a million words and I’m still learning.

  5. @ Wednesday
    Is the not enjoying writing part of the suffering artist pose? Sounds screwy to me.

  6. Variations of the “write and send out a story every week” mantra are still around, though nowadays it’s sometimes self-publish a story every week or a novel every two months or whatever insane schedule some writers have.

    But the one I hate most is “Never use adverbs or the passive voice”. Bonus points if the person giving the advice has no clue what passive voice actually means and has some poor newbie writer exorcising all forms of “to be” from their manuscript. Or the guy I recently met who somehow combined both prohibitions and claimed that writers shouldn’t use adverbs, because adverbs were passive voice. Arrrgh!

    However, I think the biggest issue with writing advice is when it turns into blanket requirements or prohibitions: “A real writer always…” or “A real writer never…” Writers are all different and what works for one (Write every day works for me, for example) doesn’t work for someone else.

    And while even the most noxious advice (Kill your darlings, Write what you know, Don’t use passive voice or adverbs) has some kernel of truth in it, it’s the absoluteness that becomes the problem.

  7. How about,

    Study the market so you know what sells?

    “Real” writers drink like fish, work late at night, smoke (things legal and not), have disastrous relationships that give them fodder for their angsty books, have groupies with whom they sleep when they’re too wasted to know better…

    On the million-word goal – all you have to do is keep writing and you’ll automatically get better (works for some, but most of us need critical feedback as well). I do, however, refer to this piece of advice as a caution that writing skills take time to acquire. Lots of time.

  8. Oh, man, is this ever one of my rants! LOL

    I think the thing that gets me most is how many “Rules” are out there. “Show, don’t tell” being one others have already mentioned, “Don’t use adverbs”, “Don’t use adjectives”, “NEVER EVER use was/were because it’s passive voice”, and the various rules around metaphors (“eyes can’t flash” — do people really think that’s meant to be taken literally?).

    Some of this is good advice in moderation, but in writer’s groups, I see it evolve into “If you ever do this, you are a HORRIBLE writer and will NEVER be published”. I’ve seen author’s voices edited out because it wasn’t “technically” perfect, and the result is saddening. I’ve seen some really great first drafts edited into oblivion by well-meaning critiquers, because everything interesting about the story was shaved off, because it didn’t fit the Rules. Yes, sometimes an adverb is the right word. Adjectives help with description. Sometimes you don’t want to show everything! GASP.

    Then there are the people who try to fit rules for other genres — and questionable rules at that. I still remember the critiquer who went after my fantasy story using Harlequin Presents rules. Oy!

    There’s also the idea that to be a “Real Writer”, you must write every single day. I’ve seen this advice given countless times, to the point that I sigh and roll my eyes every time I see it. It certainly is better to write regularly, to keep the story in your mind, but every day? Even when I was writing ridiculous amounts of words, I still didn’t write every day. I averaged out to 1-2k a day, but there were still people who would criticize me because it wasn’t every day, even if overall I was producing more than them. Because I didn’t write every day, I wasn’t a Real Writer.

    This is especially problematic now that I have health problems that mean I really can’t write every day. Sometimes I’m lucky to write once a week, because of pain and other issues. I resent the idea that because I’m limited, I shouldn’t be taken seriously.

    /rant

  9. Doesn’t look like anyone mentioned this one: in my university writing program, (which is very literary but I’ve managed to get by writing fantasy anyway) we were told to limit the use of gerunds, particularly constructions as in “there were people in the sunlight, shopping and working and milling.” Good advice for a beginner, but I’ve had a couple students critique my deliberate gerunds just because they were gerunds, which makes sense in poetry where the -ing sound stacks, but not in fiction!

  10. No Infodumps Ever! (Said in the tone of Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. Sometimes there are things a reader has to understand about the setting or the rest of the story will make no sense. John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman is awash in wonderful infodumps; Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose has bunches of them.

    No clunky, tone-deaf, endless info-dumps, maybe. But an across-the-board ban? So not.

  11. I tend to get very cranky and irritable when rules are trotted out–not least because they can be used to justify bad writing as easily as to squash creativity (or, in fact, point out problems in a work). When I was editing comics I had a writer whose work was flabby and dull, and when I tried to make him tighten things up and polish the work he pointed out, with considerable irritation, that his story followed the 7-beat plot to the letter and was therefore unassailable. The underlying sense being that I was a big meanie and didn’t know what I was talking about. Sigh.

  12. Deborah’s example, “Study the market so you know what sells?” bugs me the most. I recently read a blogger who insisted you won’t sell if you don’t conform exactly to the standards of your chosen genre, “because readers have expectations.”

    He went so far as to say writing the book you truly want without constantly worrying about squishing your novel into a predefined box would damage your chance at ever selling your work. HA!

    Yes, we’ll all conform and produce cookie-cutter novels, nothing original nor unexpected. We’ll all chase the latest trends in the hopes of riding someone else’s coattails. That’s the true and only path to success, yesseree.

  13. These failures of writing advice are part of a regrettably common tendency, which is for useful techniques to be understood as rules, and for those rules to be treated as absolute. Strunk & White’s “Omit Needless Words” is a useful technique for tightening up flabby prose. But sometimes (say, in Brust’s Paarfi books) one of the great pleasures of a text is all those glorious, arguably “needless” words that contain one of Paarfi’s long-winded digressions.

    One can get pedantic and argue that said words are needful, and that the rule is *Universal*, damn it, but when people do that it tends to be because they want things to work simply and according to a knowable rule set. Writing is complicated. You can derive principles, and enumerate techniques that will be more or less useful, but trying to make a rule or specific technique *the only* technique is folly, and usually the result of ignorance, or buying into a fashion or fad.

    “Do what works” isn’t sexy or pithy or appealing as writing advice, but its about as universal as such advice can get. Other than “read a lot”.

  14. But sometimes you see advice being given (and gratefully received) that makes you shudder and tiptoe away.

    Well, I don’t think one has to tiptoe away. Every once in a while, one can also wade in and say, hey, I’m glad this works for you, but it may not work for everyone.

    Depending on the community, this may or may not have any visual impact–and we can’t spend time and emotional resources doing this all the time, of course–but I figure there’s always going to be some lurker who needs to hear that there’s no one true way, and chiming in every so often is a way of helping make that happen.

  15. Write what you know – most people I know seem to interpret that as writing a scene from their life exactly as they remember it. Which you can do, sure, but it’s not a guarantee that it will be a good piece of writing.
    Rather, I’ve always felt that there are things that I know – happiness, depression, the feel of sunburn, salt on skin, how to milk a goat, the texture of eel’s skin, train stations in Germany, how to watch a loved one die and how to keep living afterwards – and I can use them. The details from my life, rather than the narrative of it, will help to make a story great. I can use those details in just about any story I could write.
    I’m also a great believer in research, which can be anything from reading a wikipedia article to reading a doctorate thesis. A friend’s or a relative’s anecdotes can also provide material.
    I think that if I ever wrote a story in which I couldn’t use even the smallest detail from my life or my research, it would be a bad story.

  16. “There is no such thing as writer’s block. If you wait to get inspired, you never will. Sit down and write no matter how you feel.”

    I used to believe it. Then I got blocked. Hard. For years.

    Now when I see this advice, I observe that the person who gives it knows absolutely nothing about writer’s block. Oh, the kind where you’re a little tired and the words don’t come easily, maybe. But the real thing? No Clue.

  17. So fun to read through everyone’s additions, as well as yours, Sherwood!

    What’s funny is when you bring someone into the circle who hasn’t heard all these prohibitions again and again, and seeing their reaction. My father was on a panel a few years back, and the thing came up about info dumps, and he, not knowing all the angsting people do in the FSF community over info dumps, said essentially what Madeleine Robbins said, and then was surprised that people were surprised at his “daring.”

    I do really like what you said about killing your darlings. It’s true that we can be unreasonably attached to some bit of prose that isn’t working in the story, but it doesn’t follow that because we like it, it automatically should go to the chopping block.

  18. Judy, ‘being stuck is to writer’s block like a horse that runs away with their rider is to a true bolter: many people casually throw the term around when it’s not applicable, but when it happens to you, by GAWD you’ll know the difference.

    Bad advice in general? Anything that starts with ‘you need to do x’.

  19. Alex, Strunk and White has done a whole lot of damage to many writers, who fail to understand that it is a style guide written for a very specific purpose, namely undergraduate essays. And in that niche, it has some value.

    But a lot of writers use Elements of Style as a writing bible and grammar book, even though a lot of the advice doesn’t apply to fiction and the grammar is flat out wrong.

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  22. About ‘independent body parts’ or whatever that is, mostly I think idioms are fine and it’s silly to pretend to take them literally. But sometimes there might be a POV glitch involved.

    Imo there’s nothing wrong with something like “Watching the child’s reaction, Ann sent his mother down the street. The child sat still, but his eyes followed his mother till she was out of sight.”

    If we’re in Ann’s POV that’s fine, because ‘eyes followed’ refers to the direction of gaze, which Ann the observer can see. But if we were in the boy’s POV, well, that would jerk me right out of the boy, because he couldn’t see his own eyes, and wouldn’t be thinking about them anyway.

  23. What bugs me is something that floats around online writing communities where I frequented through high school and college: The Mary-Sue Litmus Test. Many writers on such art sites will tout this as the end-all, be-all to know whether or not your character is too flat or too overpowered or too overdone to be believable.

    It can be so stifling to character creation if it’s applied without any thought whatsoever. Your character shouldn’t have an unusual eye color. Or be a twin. Or the sole survivor of a tragedy. Or an orphan. Or feel guilt about a past tragedy, regardless of actual fault. Or write poetry. Or be powerful. Or be half-demon. Or fly. Or travel through time. The feeling from the Mary Sue Litmus Test makes it seem like using just about anything that has been “done” immediately invalidates a character.

    I know that the point is more not to make your characters all so very, very special in every single way without any thought. The presentation as a test, as if a character either passes or fails by these criteria, just makes it feel so… final. There are much better ways to develop and refine characters.

  24. Stephanie: true. That test was funny, but I would never mention it as useful in any writing workshop. I think it more effective to point out the difference between the narrator telling the reader that Mary is the smartest, most beautiful, yadda, and showing it. We like reading about smart, skillful people . . . but we, um, need to see them being smart and skillful. If all the other characters seem to exist just to talk about how smart and skilful Mary is, well, it could be that the story has more problems than Mary being a Sue.

  25. Regarding gerunds—I’ve always been a bit unsure as to what constitutes a gerund (I’ve always found grammar confusing because it deconstructs something I learned instinctively), so I incorrectly labeled any ‘-ing’ word a gerund. You’re right: it is a verb functioning as a noun. However, regardless of whether a verb or a verbal, we were taught to be leery of them and students will start seeing ‘-ing’ words, like forms of the verb ‘to be’ as vermin language to be exterminated.

    I took a grammar course, a writing class and not an English one, once. Instead of using Strunk & White, the professor used a book called Spunk & Bite, which focusses on how to break Strunk & White’s rules. The class itself was terribly taught, but I found the textbook interesting, if gimmicky. One of the chapters is focussed on using adjectives, another on fresh adverbs, another on fun dialogue tags—all things I was taught not to use much.

  26. Amber, grammar terms can even have several forms (verb, predicate, etc etc) driving us batso.

    The Transitive Vampire is a fun grammar book that writers can enjoy working through to brush up on those pesky rules.

  27. I always try to interpret rules as guidelines. Strunk and White’s rule translates for me to “Don’t lard your sentences with useless crap.” Over on another site someone just brought up the example of writers saying a character “shrugged his shoulders” or “blinked her eyes.” You’re never going to need to specify what body part an ordinary human blinked or shrugged. (Aliens, humans with body-mods, and other SFnal creations may need the clarification, of course.)

    Similarly with “murder your darlings.” I never took that to mean that the bits you love the most must of necessity go in the bin. I always took that as “a sentence you love isn’t exempt from the editorial knife.” If it works, keep it, but if it’s not contributing to the story, out it goes, no matter how beautiful or clever it is.

    Pilgrimsoul, I am a writer who doesn’t like to write. However, I enjoy having written (as Lawrence Block once said), and I enjoy editing and rewriting. To get material to work with, I suffer through the tooth-pulling of getting new words out. I so envy folks who can count their raw output in Lake Units.

  28. I have some quite strong opinions about various and sundry writing techniques. (The overuse of “seem” is my current pet peeve.) Some of the opinions are in the Pitfalls of Writing SF & Fantasy here at BVC blog.

    Every one of the Pitfalls begins with McIntyre’s First Law: “Under the right circumstances, everything I tell you could be wrong.”

    In other words, “What Sherwood Said” when she said to avoid advice such as: “You have to do it my way or you are doing it wrong.” Run away, run away!

    –Vonda

  29. What’s fun to watch, if you’ve been around long enough, is how cyclic some of the advice is. When I started paying attention to fiction writing, everyone used “said” as their dialog tag. Then the fashion changed and “said” was horribly boring; the rule was to use any other speaking verb as your dialogue tag, but never “said.” Then the fashion changed again and the rule was not to use dialogue tags at all. Dialogue just sat by itself, accompanied by actions or other sentences to let the reader know who was speaking. Now it’s changed again and we’re back to using “said” again.

    During each variant’s term of supremacy, there were plenty of earnest (or snarky) people insisting that that particular variant was right; they had reasons and explanations for why it was right and good, and why the others were wrong and bad. I saw someone just a few days ago snarking about the not-said tags (which such folks call “said bookisms” whenever they’re not in fashion) and how awful they are. I just eyerolled and moved on.

    I decided some years ago that I don’t give a damn what the fashion is; I use any or all of the above at different times, depending on what I’m trying to accomplish. Same with other arbitrary dictates. Anything can be done badly and suck; anything thought bad can be used properly and work well. And having seen this particular merry-go-round revolving, I have much less respect for “Must” and “Must Never” rules than I did when I was a baby writer. 😛

    Angie

  30. I once had a teacher tell me that I needed to edit out my ‘voice’ and make my prose more bland. His exact words were something like, “I like what you’re doing, but you need to stop doing it.” “It” meaning “using my tricks,” “tricks” meaning, in his opinion, “flair with language.” Which, in his opinion, was a Very Bad Thing. Even though it’s how I normally write- especially when I’m trying to pile up wordcount as fast as possible, without thinking about what comes out…

  31. Kayla, sometimes they are just plain WRONG.

    I mean, if he didn’t like your voice, he could say that, but advice to be more bland? *trying to imagine that being useful to anyone*

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