Bad writing advice

If you’re an aspiring writer, you’ve probably heard them all, but here are some extremely annoying ones:

Write what you know

In a way, this advice makes sense. If you write about the things you know nothing about, you will not only make huge mistakes, but will also lack certain authenticity (and, dare to say, integrity). But this advice shouldn’t be taken literally. After all, writing “what you know” would limit everyone to writing autobiographies – because you can only know your individual experience and nothing more.

So, this advice is useless for us who are not into writing about our own lives. Of course you will write about the things you don’t know, it goes without saying. But it’s a huge difference between “things you don’t know” and “not doing a research”.

Show, don’t tell

Unless you are making a conscious stylistic choice, chances are you will do a lot of telling in your story. Let’s face it: writing is telling, not showing.

In literary terms, “showing” means describing situations, plot, dialogue, and allowing readers to fill in the blanks. You don’t tell feelings, you show a person is angry by her actions and the words she says. This is a good advice, but shouldn’t be taken as a strict rule.

The trick is to tell effectively. Just determine what works for your story and your style. There are great books full of “telling” (“The Virgin Suicides” and “Jazz” just being two examples of it), and horrible books full of showing (political thrillers seem to be particularly prone to this).

Don’t use adverbs and adjectives

“Twilight” might be a good example of what can happen if you don’t follow this rule, but seriously, you should not alter your writing style to match this advice. Adverbs and adjectives can kill a story if overused, and they sure can make writing seem pretentious and / or flowery… But they can also enrich the story, if used correctly.

Write in third person singular, in the past tense

… Because we all know first person is amateurish, present tense is pretentious and any other option is just unreadable.

Don’t use prologues (and epilogues)

I used to think this is US-centric writing advice, because, honestly, it’s not something I’ve heard before I visited some American writing forums. But it looks like it’s quite prevalent: even J.K. Rowling named her prologue to Harry Potter “Chapter 1″ (though she was famous/powerful enough by the time the seventh book was published so she got to keep her epilogue). But this is advice I don’t get. A prologue is an integral part of the book; you should know when to use one and what to put in one, but I wouldn’t say it’s “forbidden” to use it.

Write for yourself

This advice is bad because it’s impossible to achieve. Nobody writes for herself. People may write because of themselves and to make themselves feel better, but nobody writes for themselves. People write for a Perfect Reader, and even this Perfect Reader is them, it’s not the same as writing for yourself.

23 thoughts on “Bad writing advice

  1. Anna Scott Graham

    Thank you for shedding some light on otherwise seemingly entrenched no-no’s. Rules are for guidance, but also to be broken; so many of these are like death knells, yet there is NO WAY to avoid each, even within one novel! Well said, well said…

  2. Sigg3

    I don’t believe in rules, but I have discovered that clichés are king. I also have no problem confusing several tenses in the same sentence but in different senses. Also, grammar is for editors, not authors.

    I am annoyed by a sentence found on the back of a book my girlfriend is reading: “Compellingly readable.”
    This morning I began the day by describing everything as being something compellingly, starting from me taking a wonderful dump.

    Don’t take advice. Break them.

  3. Alee

    I sometimes write about what I know, but other times I write about what I want to know about, i.e. research it and then write about it. I write for myself and others: I won’t write a topic I don’t care about, but I prefer topics that others also care about.

    I’m very fond of adjectives and adverbs (lol, can you tell?). I agree that if used too often they can detract from the story, but if used sparingly they can add.

  4. Mira

    Anna,

    I agree: all of this is great to use as guidelines, but not “rules”. And while I might understand why people should write “what they know” (and it’s not the same as “what they’ve experienced”), and why writers should show, not tell, there are always “legit” and good ways to break those rules. It all depends on your story.

    Another rule, about adverbs and adjectives is about the style; and style should suit your story, not agents and editors. Orwell’s stories wouldn’t work good with lots of adverbs and adjectives, but there are so many other that work (Tolkien, perhaps?)

    Time and POV are another one of those that should work for your story, and not what agents believe it’s marketable (well, The Virgin Suicides was written in first person PLURAL and it works beautifully, because it suits the story perfectly).

    And about prologues… I have no idea why some people consider them to be bad.

    Maybe we should say these are some things beginner writers often struggle with, and some of the things that, if done wrong, can make your novel into a mess if not used in the right way… But they shouldn’t be taken as rules.

    I think it’s important to remember that these things – and others for that matter – should never be done just for the sake of it, but because of the story you want to tell.

  5. Mira

    Speaking of which, I am planning of using First person singular POV for my epic (fantasy) novel. But the narrator will not be the main character.

    I chose this narrative mode because I believe (hope) it suits my story, and it also helps me not to slip into writing what I don’t know. Since the main character is of different gender than I am, (and, arguably, of a different race), and he does and deals with some things I know nothing about first hand (all I do is observe them), I figured out protagonist and narrator should not be the same person.

    Now, due to the nature of the novel (and fantasy genre), the first person will go between personal narration, unreliable (or extremely subjective narration) to the almost omniscient view, because it will (probably) be written in a form of history/memoir and will include some things that narrator didn’t witness but was later informed about.

  6. Mira Post author

    Sigg3,

    I think clichés can be used or ABused, depending on what you do with them. Deconstructing clichés and playing with them is always a fun thing to do.

    I am annoyed by a sentence found on the back of a book my girlfriend is reading: “Compellingly readable.”

    Interesting… Which book was that?

  7. Mira Post author

    Alee,

    I believe none of these “rules” are about blogging (if that was what you’re talking about). But I guess some of it can be used for discussing (judging?) Internet writing, articles and blogging.

    I agree that if used too often they can detract from the story, but if used sparingly they can add.

    Exactly. I have no idea if it’s Westerners or contemporary people who are so afraid of adverbs and adjectives, but there are so many great books full of them and there’s nothing wrong about it. Sure, too many can make your work into a flowery prose mess (or, worse, “Twilight”), but if used sparingly and in a way that suit your story… In short, it all depends on your story and what you want to say; style should match that, and not any strict rule about what type of words you should use.

    (That being said, writers should try to be as precise as possible and use strong words instead of weak ones. Saying “he was very tired” is weaker than saying “he was exhausted”; but it doesn’t mean first example can’t work.)

  8. zek j evets

    I like what Kurt Vonnegut said. “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

    I also like the advice of, “A paragraph should be like a lady’s skirt: long enough to cover the essentials but short enough to keep it interesting.”

    Besides that I always say Just Write, and the rest is food-coloring.

  9. Sigg3

    @Mira: My point being, I was obsessing NOT TO USE clichés until I discovered that they are clichés for a reason. They are great!

  10. Mira

    Sigg,

    Well, clichés are dangerous beings if not used carefully. But other than that, yes, they do have their place in literature.

    Or, as TvTropes would put it:

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TropesAreTools

    Zek,

    Actually, that sounds reasonable.

    But like with any other writing advice, it shouldn’t be taken too literally. I’ve read amazing novels written in one paragraph. Yes. One paragraph. One of my favourite authors, David Albahari, uses this method.

    I tend not to use semicolons, not because they’re baaad, but because they are a clear signal a sentence is too long. And I am not sure if I am good enough at this point to keep it interesting/make sense with long sentences.

    I never really thought about paragraphs. I guess I make them as long as they need to be.

  11. Alee

    Mira,

    “I believe none of these “rules” are about blogging (if that was what you’re talking about). But I guess some of it can be used for discussing (judging?) Internet writing, articles and blogging.”

    Oh, I know these rules are for general writing, and not so much blogging. But bloggers are writers, at least the ones who are serious about.

    zek,

    What, I love semicolons! They are the best punctuation mark, next to commas. And I didn’t learn how to use them in college.

    I guess I fail at all of these “Rules For Writing” things. But I’m generally considered to be a great writer; I always score nearly perfect on anything involving writing.

  12. Mira

    Alee,

    I agree bloggers are writers, but I think different set of “rules” apply. Rule number one, that I constantly break, is “update often”.

    I guess I fail at all of these “Rules For Writing” things. But I’m generally considered to be a great writer; I always score nearly perfect on anything involving writing.

    Another proof these rules should not be taken for granted or blindly followed.

  13. Sigg3

    @Mira: that’s what we’re told. It’s utter bullshit, however. Written by drunks is not equal to Written while drunk.

  14. Mira

    True. However, I believe planning and outlining is more important than the actual writing. And a drunk has to be drunk at some point of the process. So it makes you wonder, what’s better: outlining while drunk, but writing sober, or outlining sober, but writing while wasted?

  15. Serpentus

    Also, the thing about writing is that so much is assumed. For instance, if the setting is 17th century village in rural France, then a few sentences should be enough. I think that I tend to “overexplain” or “overdescribe” because I want my readers to understand.

  16. Mira

    if the setting is 17th century village in rural France, then a few sentences should be enough.

    Are you sure? One would think that today’s readers might not be that familiar with life in 17th century rural France. But I do agree that info dumping and over explaining are bad. They never work.

    It’s not a strict rule, of course, but I believe description and explanation should be included in the story and not forced… And definitely not too much of it; a short description is usually better than a long one. As for over describing, remember, you should let the readers imagine things for themselves, and you should let them do it. Just like you should let them have their own interpretations. The sooner you realize people will always imagine some things differently than you, and that people will always have their own explanations and interpretations that you never had in mind, the better.

  17. Mira Post author

    Alee,

    Drunken writer/artist is a well known stereotype. And let’s face it, some of them ARE drunks. So it makes you wonder whether they write under the influence.

  18. Serpentus

    “Drunken writer/artist is a well known stereotype. And let’s face it, some of them ARE drunks.”

    Well, the Irish are stereotyped as drunks. Joyce and Yeats were Irish!

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