The Ten Worst Pieces of Writing Advice You Will Ever Hear (and Probably Already Have)
There is perhaps more writing advice in the known universe than there is actual writing. Or at least it can feel that way when you’re flailing around for a life raft during the apprenticeship phase of writing fiction (which, by all accounts, lasts anywhere between ten years and the rest of your life).
But all writing advice is not created equal. I know this both because I’ve amassed a lot of it over the years and because I’ve worked as an editor long enough to see the sort of atrocities it can result in. Here are my top ten caveats.
1. Show don’t tell (part one)
If writing advice were classic rock, this would be “Stairway to Heaven.” It’s popular in part because intro-level creative writing classes are full of phrases like “he felt sad” and “Dilbert worked in an insurance office as an actuarial and hated it because he felt like his creativity was stifled.”
So what do you do? Show the dude breaking down over his girlfriend dumping him. Show Dilbert going through his day. Reveal his hatred for his job by having him cover his cubicle with psychedelic doodles.
Take that advice beyond the beginning stages, though, and what you get are stories that really should move the reader but don’t, either because the emotions are all related from the outside or because the narrative doesn’t provide the sort of dense, information-rich substrata upon which complex characters are built.
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.
2. Show don’t tell (part two)
Which leads me to my second point: Your story is about Gina, at forty, deciding whether or not to leave her boyfriend. Are you really going to spend half your story showing us Gina’s white-trash childhood in Elbridge, Michigan (a key bit of backstory)? Or are you just going to cut to the chase, provide a few key details, and move on?
And hey, if you’re feeling especially bold, you might even consider coming right out and telling us that Gina grew up white-trash in Elbridge, Michigan—and in the process, revealing your own voice as a writer. It can be scary, but goddamn, it can really save time, this telling thing.
3. When in doubt, cut
One of my mentors in grad school was famous for dispensing pretty much just one stock phrase in the margins of stories: could cut.
All told, this guy’s students probably learn as much from him as they do from anyone.
That’s because beginning writers tend to be verbose. We can’t tell the difference between an essential detail and an inessential one. We’re like golden retrievers romping through Storyland, and pretty much every damn thing we see is a squirrel.
But push this advice too far, and again, you’ll get stuck writing mediocre fiction. Because sometimes the things that don’t work are actually important. They don’t work not because they’re the wrong things, but because they’re the hard, ambitious, at-the-very-edge-of-what-you-even-know-how-to-say-things, and the only way to land them is to dig deeper, work harder, and sometimes even (god help you) add rather than cut.
4. Write what you know
Student writers want to write like Hemingway or Faulkner, despite never having been to war or lived in the South. Or they want to write about the glittering world of high finance, despite the fact that they’re from a small town in Idaho where snake-hunting is considered a wholesome form of recreation.
Which is more interesting? Some kid trying to rehash Hemingway, or an eyewitness account of the annual Rattler Round Up? That’s why writing instructors tell you write what you know.
But that advice begins to break down when you’re just reworking your own bio. To keep advancing you have to stretch your limits. And sometimes that means writing from the point of view of someone who is super not you. Such as, for instance, someone of a different race, shape, or sexual orientation—or even someone who’d use the Rattler Round Up as a setup to murder his own brother.
Scary? Sure. But if you’re not pushing yourself as a writer, what are you really doing?
5. Omit adjectives and adverbs
Elmore Leonard said using an adverb was almost always a “mortal sin.” Mark Twain declared open season on adjectives. Gordon Lish famously carved all such inessential fluff from Raymond Carver, and influenced countless others to do the same.
Omitting adjectives and adverbs is generally good advice. Because adverbs have a tendency to supply information in a half-assed way that really should be handled by the story (“he sleepily responded”). And adjectives have been known to stuff stories full of sweet, airy, unnecessary, redundant nothings (not unlike this sentence). This is why minimalism is popular: It doesn’t fuck around.
But consider this line from Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses: “Below the knee, the hairiness came to a halt, and his legs narrowed into tough, bony, almost fleshless calves, terminating into shiny, cloven hooves, such as one might find on any billygoat.” There are six—count ’em, six adjectives in this sentence, including any, which is clearly unnecessary, and as such, clearly a point of style.
Or this one, from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita: “...she stood, a few feet from me, and stared at herself contentedly, not unpleasantly surprised at her own appearance, filling with her own rosy sunshine the surprised and pleased closet-door mirror.” Two adverbs and two adjectives, two of which actually ascribe human emotions to an inanimate object.
Language is your Swiss army knife, and you can’t do shit like this with just the knife and the corkscrew.
6. Work on only one thing at a time
Henry Miller’s #1 Commandment: Work on one thing at a time until finished. And #10: Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing. Perhaps you’re sensing a theme here, which can be roughly paraphrased as, for god’s sake, get the thing done.
Writing just about anything can take as long as the half-life of plutonium 239. Clearly, we all just need to stay on task if we’re ever going to finish anything, right?
Maybe so, maybe no. Jess Walter, author of Beautiful Ruins, claims it took him nearly fifteen years to write that book (which, incidentally, hasn’t done so badly). Like a lot of other authors, Walter works on short stories when he gets stuck on novels. And he switches between novels when he gets bored.
Different types of projects can feed off of each other. Immersed in a long-haul novel about a deep, dark family drama? Play hooky with sci-fi. Tinkering with the intricacies of short stories? Plunge into plot with a bona fide book. Stretch out. Have fun. Just don’t stop writing.
7. Start in the middle
As fiction writers, we’re often told to start en media res. Which is a fancy way of saying, when the shit has already hit the fan. No throat-clearing, no ponderous pondering—your protagonist is hanging off the side of the cliff. Work your way back from there.
When you’re just starting out, that’s stellar advice, because beginning writers tend to start too early. Say, when the protagonist woke up that morning, or even worse, when they were born.
But start too late, and the first third of your story will have to lift three times its own body weight in exposition—at the precise point where it should be charming the pants off your reader. This, as far as I’m concerned, is like trying to seduce someone while steering a car over black ice with one hand and playing the Goldberg Variations with the other.
And don’t even ask how that’s possible. Because it isn’t, and that’s the point.
8. Kill your darlings
If you like a sentence too much, cut it. This is good advice for writers who get attached to that clever turn of phrase that has nothing to do with the story—that amazing sentence that hijacks the whole scene—the plot development that just blows their minds. Which is to say, writer babies.
These are the same sort of people who still fall for wildly inappropriate romantic partners. The ones so impressed with the genius things that bubble up from their brains that they haven’t yet realized the real challenge is to make people care.
But how do you make people care if you don’t care? Or, for that matter, when you sound like everyone else? At a certain point you grow up as a writer, and in so doing, gain some real sense of who you really are.
If you, as a grown up, still love some crazy turn of phrase or sentence or plot development that’s wildly inappropriate for the story, maybe it’s the story that needs help. If that thing is your darling, I say, date it. Expand on that voice or development. Build a story around it. Chances are, it’s at least as interesting as the one you set out to write.
9. Vary your word choice
Not long after you first pick up a pen, you realize that if you write like you talk, you repeat yourself a lot. Writing teachers work to break us of that habit in high school. So when you write “James Joyce was the man! ‘Dubliners’ is a great short story. As far as short stories go, it doesn’t get better than that," your teacher might suggest "As far as short fiction goes," to help avoid the repetition. And boom. You may still be sixteen, with a voice that breaks unpredictably into falsetto and the table manners of a Visigoth, but you sound 30 percent more sophisticated on paper.
Still, any ironclad rule such as “never use the same word twice in the one paragraph,” is, as Ursula K. Le Guin points out, a bit of blatant BS. Repetition of words, phrases, images, bits of dialogue, running jokes; all of these tools are rightly yours as a writer. And beyond all points of style, sometimes you just need to use the same damn word.
I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve seen where a bear becomes a lumbering menace or a hulking mountain of fur or even an ursine creature. Really, sometimes a bear is just a bear—especially if you find yourself reaching for constructions that will get you pegged as a pretentious ass.
10. You must be in a writers group
Do you need friends who are writers? Readers? Community? Absolutely. Do you need a group of people who are willing to read a story or chapter of yours every few months or so? Not always—especially if you find yourself overwhelmed by feedback that really isn’t all that useful.
As an editor, I’ve seen the work of writers who have lost their bearings due to too much feedback. These are stories where all of the sharp edges have been lopped off—precisely the sorts of things that might make one person fall in love with a piece and another throw it across the room. The sort of thing that makes it your own.
Here’s a bit of advice from Neil Gaiman that may be worth as much as any workshop: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
Hold your vision. Seek your people. And by all means, take whatever advice you find helpful, and disregard the rest.
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