Best Advice, Worst Advice: Why Good Writing Advice is Sometimes Bad

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By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

When it comes to writing advice, there’s bad advice and then there’s good advice that sometimes goes bad. Plain bad advice is easy to spot; it’s the stuff that makes you roll your eyes or laugh out loud, as TC Editor Stephanie Lenz (Baker) did once upon a time at a “a public writers’ get-together sponsored by a major magazine.” Baker recalls: “The instructor spent ten minutes advising people on what font to use for manuscripts. She said that ‘Lucida Handwriting’ is on the ‘acceptable’ list of fonts to use for your manuscript. And I only remember that out of her bag of bad advice because it’s where I laughed out loud and got dirty looks.”

Bad advice is notable only for its wackiness; it’s easy to identify and even easier to dismiss. Bad good advice is more complicated. This is the kind of familiar writing advice that does seem to have merit—if only because it’s so frequently repeated—but at the same time may feel oppressive when you try to put into practice. You know the kind of advice I’m talking about—standard writing maxims like “write what you know,” “eliminate adverbs,” and “show, don’t tell.” Pervasive advice like this often feels like it’s a rule rather than a suggestion. And therein lies the problem.

Background Image: Lisa Norwood/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Beware of Always/Never Rules

The main difficulty with popular writing advice is not that it’s inherently bad, but that it’s presented as an absolute: you must always do this; you should never do that. Additionally, most of this advice has been boiled down to such pithy phrases that the meanings have often become unclear.

  • Write what you know

One oft-heard refrain is “write what you know.” This advice can be perplexing since, as TC Editor Ana George notes, “the point of fiction is making stuff up.” If writers were to follow “write what you know” literally, then all anyone would ever write would be memoir. Of course, that’s not the case. “Write what you know” doesn’t mean that you can only write your personal life story; it means you need to draw on the things you do know to create a realistic fictional world.

Better advice: make sure you know your fictional setting and characters inside-out. As Baker says, “Set your story in a place you know. You don’t have to have been there but you need to know it, from how it smells in the morning to what the people who live there do in their free time.” Ana adds, “In order to have a setting that sounds realistic, you do have to make the details consistent, but it’s fine to have the whole thing invented.”

  • Eliminate adverbs (also adjectives, similes, metaphors)

This purpose of this advice is to encourage writers to choose better—more specific—verbs and nouns. So “sprinted” is a better choice than “ran quickly,” “raisin” is better than “dried grape” and “industrious” is better than “busy as a bee.” A few original similes and metaphors will always have more impact than many overused ones—as TC Forum Host Faith Watson (fmwrites) says, “Best advice I ever received was actually a command from a boss when I used to write marketing copy: ‘Quit it with the extended metaphors. It reads lazy.'” That said, you’ll never get rid of every adverb—”always” is an adverb, and sometimes “always” is the word you need.

Better advice: eliminate unnecessary adverbs, adjectives, similes, and metaphors.

  • Show, don’t tell

“Show, don’t tell” is another familiar mantra that can be confusing—after all, aren’t you telling a story? Like “eliminate adverbs,” this one is meant to discourage writers from taking lazy shortcuts. Instead of telling the reader: “Bob was sad because his dog had died.” you could show the reader that Bob was sad by writing, “Bob pinched back tears as he caught a glimpse of Rover’s bowl, still full of kibble.” Showing generally has more impact on readers because it allows them to figure out what’s happening for themselves and make their own judgments; it makes them a participant and thus invests them in the story. However, showing everything would make for an unnecessarily long (and most likely boring) story. Telling is perfectly appropriate in some circumstances, for example, summarizing what happened during a leap forward in time—just as montage sequences in movies do.

Better advice: be sure to show the important scenes.

  • Avoid passive voice

In general, using active voice (“Jack threw a rock at the window”) is a good idea; it’s more direct and therefore more engaging than passive voice (“A rock was thrown at the window by Jack”). However, sometimes passive voice is appropriate, particularly in situations where the subject of the sentence is unknown or unimportant. For example, if your narrator was unaware who threw the rock, “A rock was thrown at the window” might be preferable to “Someone threw a rock at the window,” especially if you want the focus to be on the rock rather than the unknown rock thrower.

Better advice: use active voice most of the time. Keep in mind that the related advice to seek out “was” and “were” to eliminate passive sentences can be misleading; the presence of was/were is not a definitive indicator that a sentence is passive. For example, “Jack was throwing rocks at the window” is an active sentence.

  • Always use said

Also good as a general rule: using “said” as your primary dialogue tag. Said is unobtrusive and even when used frequently, doesn’t become annoying in the way that more effusive tags like “shouted,” “cried,” and “whispered” can. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should never use a different dialogue tag. Like metaphors, descriptive dialogue tags can be very effective if used sparingly. A single use of “whispered” will stand out if it’s the first deviation from “said” in some time, whereas it is less likely to have any impact if it just one more in a series of creative dialogue tags (yelled, bellowed, coughed, guffawed, whispered…).

Better advice: use dialogue tags other than said only occasionally.

  • Don’t write in first person / Stick to one point-of-view

While it’s true that writing in first person has limitations that writing in third person doesn’t and that switching points of view is more complicated than sticking to one throughout, there is no reason not to write in first person and/or have multiple viewpoint characters if you know what you are doing (why you are using a particular point-of-view, how to switch points-of-view without confusing the reader).

Better advice: always be aware of whose point-of-view you are telling your story from and know why you are using it. As TC Member Sparky99 says, “A writer who has published a number of novels led a discussion at a conference I went to. One woman in the audience kept asking him questions like ‘I’ve been told you can’t switch voices in the same chapter. Is that true?’ To each of her questions, he kept saying the same thing… it doesn’t matter as long as you tell a good story.”

Always Good Advice

  • Just Write

Ana says, “Just write. Don’t worry about how good it is. Edit later. Write in the now.” Baker concurs, “Allow yourself to write crap. It’s how successful NaNoWriMo participants win. Don’t edit as you go and don’t feel that the first draft has to be gold. Write like a shark—you stop moving forward, you die.”

TC Editor Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman) adds, “Best writing advice I ever got was from my very first creative writing teacher (Martha Grimes, who had at the time just published her first novel so was still teaching community courses): ‘The rewriting is more important than the writing.'”

  • Keep Writing

Sparky99 says, “Keep writing. I don’t necessarily talk to too many people who are already writing. I talk to a lot of people who wish they could write and I always tell them to sit down and try. To go to places like Toasted Cheese and look at some of the prompts and see what they can make happen.”

TC Editor Lisa Olson (Boots) adds, “Write for yourself,” which is a good tip to keep in mind particularly for those times when you’re discouraged (not another rejection!) or when the people in your life aren’t being as supportive of your writing aspirations as they could be. If you write for yourself first, you will always have a reason to keep writing.

  • Create Enthusiasm

Baker suggests, “Don’t stop for the session unless you have at least an idea of what will happen next. It’ll save you time at your next session and you won’t dread sitting down to write. It creates enthusiasm.” Boots has a similar strategy: “Write little markers to follow the next day. I did this all during NaNoWriMo this year and it really worked. It’s like a mini outline. While I didn’t always stay on track, it gave me a path to follow.”

While these specific tips might not work for you, the important thing is find something that does. Why do you put off sitting down to write? What gets you excited about getting started (or back at your work-in-progress)? Do whatever it takes to minimize procrastination and maximize enthusiasm.

  • Trust Your Voice

Writers often hear “you should write like [author/style/genre/book]” or they’re encouraged to write whatever is currently popular, or to not write anything too unique. Beware of anyone who advises you to make drastic changes to your style or thinks you should write chick lit when your genre is fantasy. TC Member mikemunsil says, “Never accept just one opinion; hear it at least three times before you even take the opinion into consideration.”

Boots notes the importance of trusting advice-givers: do they know what they’re talking about? Do they have your best interests in mind? Above all, trust yourself, and trust your voice. Your writing should sound like you wrote it, not like someone else did (even if “someone else” is a rich and famous author).

  • Break the Rules

Whether it’s hearing that you must join a critique group (or participate in NaNoWriMo or take a writing class or get an MFA…), that you absolutely need to outline your story or novel, that dedicated writers write every day… writers are constantly bombarded with well-meant advice. But remember, it’s just that. Advice.

If the “rules” help you, great. If not, break them. Just make sure, as Ana points out, that you “know what rules you’re breaking and why.”

Thanks to everyone at the TC forums who helped with this article!

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