Tag Archives: bad writing advice

When Good Advice Goes Bad #amwriting

The craft of writing involves learning the rules of grammar, developing a broader vocabulary, learning how to develop characters, build worlds etc., etc. Most of us don’t have the money to embark on an MFA program in writing. Instead, we educate ourselves as well as we can.

Jack Kerouak on writing LIRF07252022Even if you have an MFA degree, you could spend a lifetime learning the craft and never learn all there is to know about the subject. We join writing groups, buy books, and most importantly, read. We analyze what we have read and figure out what we liked or disliked about it. Then, we try to apply what we learned to our work.

Most writing advice is good because it reinforces what we need to know about the craft, and simple sayings are easy to remember. They encourage us to write lean, descriptive prose and craft engaging conversations.

The same advice can be bad because it is so frequently taken to extremes by novice authors armed with a little dangerous knowledge.

  • Remove all adverbs.

This advice is silly. Without descriptors, you can’t show mood, atmosphere, or setting. Remember, not all adverbs end in “ly,” so use a little common sense and don’t use unnecessary adverbs.

I am a wordy writer and a poet. I love words in all their many shapes and forms. I know readers like lean prose, so I work to trim it, sometimes more successfully than others. In the second draft, I use the global search (find option) to look for each instance of ‘ly’ words and rewrite those sentences to make them more active.

Margaret Atwood on writing LIRF07252022

  • Don’t use speech tags.

Well, that makes things pretty confusing. Who said that, and why are there no speech tags in this nonsense?

  • Show, Don’t Tell. Don’t Ever Don’t do it!

We’ve all experienced intensely painful feelings, such as fear, sadness, and anger. If you have shared your work with a writing group, you have been admonished to show these emotions rather than saying, “Joe grew angry.”

You can see their point. So, you sit down and rewrite your scene graphically: Joe snarls, cheeks going hot, brows pulling together, eyes glaring, lips curling in a sneer, and fists clenching. Edith sits hunched in on herself with drooping shoulders, downturned quivering lips, shaking hands, nausea rising, and tear-streaked cheeks.

Maybe that much detail is necessary, but maybe it’s not. Set that scene aside and come back to it later. Then look at it with fresh eyes and decide what will be enough to show their emotions and what is too much.

An avalanche of microscopic showing can make your characters seem melodramatic and sometimes cartoonish. Truthfully, that much physical drama doesn’t show a character’s emotions. What is going on inside their heads?

You must either relay the thought process that led to those physical reactions or lay the groundwork with some crucial bits of exposition.

  • Write what you know.

Your life experiences shape your writing, but your imagination is the story’s fuel and source.

  • If you’re bored with your story, your reader will be too.

Flaubert on writing LORF07252022You have just spent the last year or more combing through your novel. This is another example of silly advice that doesn’t consider how complex and involved the process of getting a book written and published is. I love writing, but when you have been working on a story through five drafts, it can be hard to get excited about making one more trip through it, looking for typos.

  • Kill your darlings.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. We can’t be married to our favorite prose. When a paragraph or chapter we love no longer fits the story, we must cut it, save it in a separate file, and move on.

However, cutting a passage just because you like it is stupid. Maybe it does belong there—maybe it is the best part of that paragraph.

  • Cut all exposition.

BE reasonable. Some background information is essential to making the story understandable to a reader. How, when, and where you deploy the exposition is what makes a great story. Hold the deep history back – like a magician, only produce the backstory at the time and place where the characters and the reader need to know it.

Good advice taken to an extreme has become a part of our writing culture. This is because all writing advice has roots in truth.

  • Too many descriptors can ruin the taste of an author’s work.
  • Too many speech tags can stop the eye, especially if the characters are snorting, hissing, and ejaculating their dialogue.
  • Too much telling takes the adventure out of the reading experience.
  • Too much showing can be tedious and is sometimes visually revolting.

Our task is to find that happy medium between too much and not enough. Our voice and writing style reflect our thought processes and the way we strive for balance.

Neil_Gaiman_QuoteWhen we first embark on learning this craft, we latch onto handy, easy-to-remember mantras because we want to educate ourselves. Unless we’re fortunate enough to have a formal education in the art of writing, we who are just beginning must rely on the internet and handy self-help guides.

Something to remember: most readers are not editors. They will either love or hate your work based on your voice, but they won’t know why. Voice is how you break the rules, but you must understand what you are doing and do it deliberately. Craft your work so it expresses what you intend in the way you want it said. So, the most important rules are:

  • Trust yourself,
  • Trust your reader.
  • Be consistent.
  • Write what you want to read.

F Scott Fitzgerald on Good Writing LIRF07252022We can easily bludgeon our work to death in our effort to fit our square work into round holes. In the process of trying to obey all the rules, every bit of creativity is shaved off the corners. A great story with immense possibilities becomes boring and difficult to read. As an avid reader and reviewer, I see this all too often.

Great authors work to learn the craft of writing and apply writing advice gently. Their work stays with the reader long after the last line has been read.

35 Comments

Filed under writing

#Writerlife101 Day 7: Worst writing advice #amwriting

Writing advice is good because beginning authors need to learn the craft, and simple sayings are easy to remember. They encourage us to write lean, descriptive prose and craft engaging conversations. The craft of writing involves learning the rules of grammar, developing a wider vocabulary, learning how to develop characters, build worlds, etc., etc. Authors spend a lifetime learning their craft and never learn all there is to know about the subject.

Writing advice is bad because it is so frequently taken to extremes by novice authors armed with a little dangerous knowledge.

  • Remove all adverbs.
    This advice is complete crap. Use common sense and don’t use unnecessary adverbs.
  • Don’t use speech tags.
    What? Who said that and why are there no speech tags in this drivel?
  • Show, Don’t Tell. Don’t Ever Don’t do it!

Quote from Susan Defreitas for Lit Reactor: Sure, hot tears, a pounding pulse, and clenched fists can stand in for sadness, fear, and anger. But that type of showing can not only become cartoony, it doesn’t actually show what this specific character is specifically feeling. In order to do that, you either have to relay the thought process giving rise to those emotions or you should have already set up some key bits of exposition.

  • Write what you know.

Well, that takes all the adventure out of writing. Did Tolkien actually go to Middle Earth and visit a volcano? No, but he did serve in WWI, and lived and worked in Oxford, which is not notable for abounding in elves, hobbits, or orcs. Your life experiences and interests shape your writing, but your imagination is the fuel and the source of the story.

  • If you’re bored with your story, your reader will be too.

Quote from Helen Scheuerer for Writer’s Edit: Your reader hasn’t spent the last year or more combing through your novel like you have, so that’s just silly. I’ve seen this advice everywhere in the last year, and it bothers me – it just doesn’t take into consideration how hard writing is. Yes, we love it, yes, we don’t want to do anything else, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a challenge at times, it doesn’t mean that it’s not work.

Bad writing advice goes on and on.

Kill your darlings. It’s true we shouldn’t be married to our favorite prose. Sometimes we must cut a paragraph or chapter we love because it no longer fits the story. But just because you like something you wrote doesn’t mean you should cut it. Maybe it does belong there—maybe it was the best part of that paragraph.

Cut all exposition. So, why we are in this handbasket, and where we are going? Some background is essential. How you deploy the exposition is what makes a great story.

Bad advice is good advice taken to an extreme. It has become a part of our writing culture because all writing advice has roots in truth.

  • Overuse of adverbs ruins the taste of an author’s work.
  • Too many speech tags can stop the eye, especially if the characters are snorting, hissing, and ejaculating their dialogue.
  • Too much telling takes the adventure out of the reading experience.
  • Too much showing is boring and can be disgusting. Find that happy medium!
  • Know your subject . Do the research and if necessary, interview people in that profession. Readers often know more than you do about certain things.

New authors rely on handy, commonly debated mantras because they must educate themselves. Unless they are fortunate enough to be able to get a formal education in the subject, beginning authors must rely on the internet and handy self-help guides to learn the many nuances of writing craft. These guides are great, useful books, but they are written by people who assume you will use common sense as you develop your voice and style.

Hack writers bludgeon their work to death, desperately trying to fit their square work into round holes. In the process, every bit of creativity is shaved off the corners, and a great story with immense possibilities becomes boring and difficult to read. As an avid reader and reviewer, I see this all too often.

Great authors learn the craft of writing and apply the advice of the gurus gently, producing work that stays with the reader long after the last line has been read.


Credits and Attributions:

The Ten Worst Pieces of Writing Advice You Will Ever Hear (and Probably Already Have), by Susan Defreitas April 11, 2014, https://litreactor.com/columns/the-ten-worst-pieces-of-writing-advice-you-will-ever-hear-and-probably-already-have,  © 2016 LitReactor, LLC (Accessed 05 February 2018.)

The Worst Writing Advice, by Helen Scheuerer, https://writersedit.com/fiction-writing/worst-writing-advice/, Writer’s Edit Copyright © 2018. (Accessed 05 February 2018.)

46 Comments

Filed under writing