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)

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.

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.

Susan DeFreitas

Column by Susan DeFreitas

Susan DeFreitas was raised in rural west Michigan and spent fourteen years in the high desert of central Arizona. She is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won the 2017 Gold IPPY Award for Best Fiction of the Mountain West; her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has appeared in The Nervous Breakdown, Story, Southwestern American Literature, and Weber—The Contemporary West, along with more than twenty other journals and anthologies. She holds an MFA from Pacific University and lives in Portland, Oregon, where she serves as an editor with Indigo Editing & Publications.

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Comments

LeahD's picture
LeahD from Boston is reading The Devil In The White City April 11, 2014 - 2:48pm

Nice list; I agree with number 10 especially. I've tried writing groups in the past, and found Neil Gaiman's advice to be accurate. Too much feedback too early on in a manuscript's life can be destructive. 

Susan DeFreitas's picture
Susan DeFreitas from Portland, OR is reading Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist by Sunil Yapa April 11, 2014 - 3:00pm

So, so true. And even a strong publication record does not necessarily make someone good at providing feedback, particularly when it comes to not pushing their own agenda/aesthetic. 

LeahD's picture
LeahD from Boston is reading The Devil In The White City April 11, 2014 - 3:18pm

Definitely! Even if they are an excellent writer, that doesn't always translate to a skill at offering criticism. I've learned the hard way that it's a separate talent. 

Michael McDonagh's picture
Michael McDonagh from Boise is reading Going Postal April 11, 2014 - 3:19pm

I saw the title, and the first example, and thought I would largely disagree with the article. But it's pretty spot on. It's really just the title I have a problem with. It's more accurately stated -- Any writing advice, taken too literally, will screw you up. 

Nice post, though. If you kill your darlings for the sake of killing them, that means the only thing you'll try to publish will be the parts you don't care for. That one never made sense to me.

mjm

michaeljmcdonagh.wordpress.com

Twistedsage's picture
Twistedsage April 11, 2014 - 6:00pm

I found this insightful, seeing the otherside of the coin as it were.  There's a line in the frist episode of House where Foreman says, "First year medical school you hear hoof beats your thinking horses, not zebras." and House responds, "Are you in first year medical school?"  

I guess at some point we all have to grow up.  

Thanks for the post.

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami April 11, 2014 - 9:38pm

Start in the middle is one the bugs me the most. Related to the chapter 2 switcheroo.

With one of my novels I'd need to do that for every mini-story.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated April 11, 2014 - 11:07pm

Maybe 11 should be "Break the rules!"  It seems like writers will do something insanely stupid, and when someone points out that maybe they shouldn't they'll talk about how a big part of writing is to break rules.  Which is true, the point they are missing is that sometimes it is also time to follow them. 

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami April 12, 2014 - 12:07am

I'm not going to follow number ten no matter what. It's something stupid Hollywood that they apparently think makes better fiction when it doesn't. (If you need one large flashback to explain things, your starting waaaay to late.)

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated April 12, 2014 - 2:27am

Wasn't that 7?

eirikodin's picture
eirikodin from Auburn, NY is reading Mediterranean Caper by Clive Cussler April 12, 2014 - 10:45am

When I have finished a story I usually end up working on a number of projects, typically two or three.  Some are new starts and others are some I put on hiatus.  This really helps me to keep my mind schizophrenic in nature and allows me to keep thinking.  At some point I have to focus on just one story because I become distracted.  Working on mulitple projects kickstarts my mind and that's why I think working on one thing at a time is horrible advice.

 

Leif

Chacron's picture
Chacron from England, South Coast is reading Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb April 12, 2014 - 11:40am

@Dwayne: Agreed, I've heard words to the effect of 'But I was breaking the conventions!' used loads of times in defence of stories that were so outragous that they simply didn't work, usually written by people desperate to produce something innovative or original. Credit to them for giving it a go, but usually it crashes and burns.

I like this article, perhaps because I recognise advice I've dispensed myself on enough occasions and then later realised wasn't quite as wise as I first thought. I do tend to stick to working on only one project at a time, but doing lots at once does seem to work for a lot of people.

Nick's picture
Nick from Toronto is reading A Million Little Fibers by Steven McTowelie April 12, 2014 - 1:09pm

One of the best craft articles I've read in a long time. Refreshing. Thank you.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated April 12, 2014 - 2:27pm

@Chacron - You know, I think less of the defence 'I was trying to be orginal' than just about anything.  But than again, I don't think anything is original. 

ReneeAPickup's picture
Class Facilitator
ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading A truckload of books April 12, 2014 - 4:04pm

Whenever I see "show, don't tell" I automatically correct it to: "Know when to show and when to tell," because as you've illustrated so well, sometimes you have to tell to uh... tell... a story.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated April 12, 2014 - 4:43pm

I've found that it works pretty decent as 'show, don't tell the main plot'.

"Bob opened the cold door," instead of, "Bob opened the door.  The door was cold."

Bradley Sands's picture
Bradley Sands from Boston is reading Greil Marcus's The History of Rock 'N' Roll in Ten Songs April 12, 2014 - 5:49pm

Show, don't tell is often great feedback when it corresponds to particular spots in a story, but it's terrible when it corresponds to writing fiction in general.

Anders Åslund's picture
Anders Åslund April 12, 2014 - 5:54pm

Reading how-to-be-a-writer-advice is like trying on diets. You are wrong any way you do it, and you are never going to lose weight. Unless you stop reading this shit and start doing what you love, you are not going to get anywhere. 

Max Awell's picture
Max Awell April 12, 2014 - 7:43pm

Very nice, the moral: there are no true answers, only judgement. Everything is situational. Quite an insightful and experienced article. As an aspiring young writer, it's great to see some sound advice in the pile of nonsense i've encountered. Even some things that he said, i don't believe in, but may help other people. Great job.

 

AdoraBelle's picture
AdoraBelle from Canada is reading David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas April 12, 2014 - 8:19pm

Another one, though one could say it's related to #3 is, 'cut anything not relevant to plot', especially descriptive passages.
I've even seen critiques where a person has suggested trimming nearly everything that wasn't dialogue or action. It's one thing if everything is purple, or the description is jumbled or unfocussed, but I love lots of world-building and so on. I find books with minimal description rather bland myself.
***
Also just noticed someone above is reading 'Going Postal'. Obviously I'm a huge fan of that book :)

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami April 12, 2014 - 9:51pm

Often tell is the best when one has to summarize events that would otherwise derail the plot in question. Though I'm sort of trying to break myself out of the habit.

Like only featuring a story that's set within the same small town. It's a lot easier to show not tell when your writing a fictional historical town.

With a place you never been, either get a car or don't bother.:/

At first when it mentioned vary word choice, I was thinking it was referring to not starting each sentence with the same letter.

Lev Raphael's picture
Lev Raphael April 14, 2014 - 5:04am

Love this list!  My take on #9 is this: I encourage my creative writing students to vary word choice when they have a favorite word or phrase they just automatically fall back on over and over, without beign aware of it.  I don't suggest they vary for the sake of variety itself.

And honestly, after having been in writing workshops & taught them; published 24 books in many genres; published 100s of short stories, essays, reviews and blogs, I offer my students suggestions rather than rules, telling them, "These might work for you.  See if they fit."  That's the advice I got form my best writing mentor in college.

Lev Raphael

http://www.levraphael.com

Stephen James Anastasi's picture
Stephen James A... from Queensland, Australia is reading The Trouble with Physics (Lee Smolin) April 14, 2014 - 6:09am

But! The first feedback I received from an agent was No.1 append 2, for a movie script, 'PACMAN'. In context, a movie has only sight and sound, so I learned to write in this style and carried it into my novels, adding the other senses.

Viz:
Titian curled up in the warmth, the images of the flickering flames becoming shadows of red and brown as her eyes closed. (from The Druid)

I feel that this paints the reader into the picture, and they feel what the protagonist feels, with their own intepretation. That said, I was really pleased to be challenged by this piece. Thankyou.

Thomas Kleaton Author's picture
Thomas Kleaton ... from Crescent City, CA is reading Screamscapes: Tales of Terror April 14, 2014 - 9:35am

I learned something new today, Susan. Especially with #1. While I feel you should try to show rather than tell, sometimes it is necessary to move the story forward. I enjoyed your post!

Susan DeFreitas's picture
Susan DeFreitas from Portland, OR is reading Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist by Sunil Yapa April 14, 2014 - 11:23am

What a pleasure it is to read all of your comments! And what a fine community of writers here at Litreactor. Thank you all for engaging with this piece, which is in many ways a reflection of my own process as a writer and editor. Here's to all of you, your work, and what works for you. 

jlapier's picture
jlapier from Portland, OR is reading The Echo by James Smythe April 14, 2014 - 8:47pm

"Write what you know" always drives me crazy. What I know is boring - that's why I'm makin' shit up over here!

And I wholeheartedly agree with your debunking of the rest - especially #6. I juggle several pieces at any given time, but that doesn't mean they never get done. Sometimes a story takes a while to ferment, and if you're just worried about getting to done, you can end up pushing things out before they've reached maturation.

Andrewbee's picture
Andrewbee from Chicago is reading some YA book, most likely April 15, 2014 - 11:26am

If I only wrote what I knew, the well would run dry very quickly. It seems I only need two or three well-chosen details to convince a reader that I am in Moscow/owner of a large corporation/a physicist/a neurosurgeon/on Mars, etc. A little research (which has never been easier in this day and age) goes a long way, and makes the reader feel smart (this is key).

Cynthia L. Moyer's picture
Cynthia L. Moyer April 17, 2014 - 9:59am

This was such a great article --- thank you!!
Whenever I'm starting to wonder about how I'm working as a writer (when comparing myself to those around me -- big no-no), I read something like this that puts me back on track.

Susan DeFreitas's picture
Susan DeFreitas from Portland, OR is reading Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist by Sunil Yapa April 17, 2014 - 4:16pm

Glad these bits and pieces resonate for you, Jason, Andrew, and Cynthia. Again, so much of the writing advice I've encountered might as well be Good Advice for Baby Writers (but Bad Advice for Grown Ups). Maybe we can tackle good advice for intermediate writers in another post!

Aneesa Price's picture
Aneesa Price April 27, 2014 - 12:34am

This is the best darn article I've ever read about writing! Thank you. I'm an indie writer and have received the advice you warn against before. Because I believe that I'm on a journey and that I will grow in skill as I write (with much effort), I've taken advice such as what you warn against, to heart. Sometimes it resonates but often it just doesn't feel right. I found myself struggling to reconcile creativity with 'universal truths'. My word, if we all followed the same rules and worked according to the same formula, the discovery of new worlds would no longer be possible. How do people not see this? I hope you don't mind... I'm sharing this article with my friends. Thanks again. 

James B Ross's picture
James B Ross July 29, 2014 - 12:28pm

I have a theory about writing advice: each piece is not a law but a tool. I love finding a "rule" that sounds particularly insane, because then I am sure to learn something (but only if I have the courage to follow a madman down a rabbit hole!) Often I like the result, though. Do you suppose that means I have "Stockholm Syndrome?"  

Each one of these rules does something very useful, but like any power tool, you can easily wreck your project. There's a grave danger in such mad science experiments.

Fortunately, for that we have "Save file as..."

Jed Jones's picture
Jed Jones September 16, 2014 - 2:28am

Wicked! I've fallen in love with this editor already, just as she describes in #8. As a recovering survivor of feedback abuse, this, to me, is therapy. And the voice she writes this with is a fine example of how the voices of our characters should live and breathe on the page.

The style Nazism of standard writing advice must be a dastardly plot by the elite to keep the rest of us mediocre.

Alana Mag's picture
Alana Mag January 2, 2015 - 5:09pm

Terrific list. Number 6 is important as it relates to millenials who need to be doing a million things at once. Used to the immediateness of social media, we need constant stimulation and feedback. Live passionately.

Dana King's picture
Dana King April 13, 2016 - 1:32pm

"Hold your vision." Maybe the most important sentence in the piece, yet it assumes something even more important: "Have a vision." (And, yes, I used "important" twice in that sentence. Sue me.)

Chris Knopf's picture
Chris Knopf from NY and CT is reading Where It Hurts by Reed Farrel Coeman April 14, 2016 - 1:33pm

I'm an editor, and I think the headline for this story does your commentary, and the subject itself, a disservice.  I guess it's good click bait, but the fact is, your so-called worst advice is usually good advice.  Though all advice, when it comes to writing, or any art form, should be taken with a grain of salt.  Which I think is your actual premise.  There are always lots of exceptions to conventional wisdom, which you duly note.  However, if rookie writers decided to throw out your ten commonly-suggested tips, our jobs would get a lot harder. 

Rachel Stedman's picture
Rachel Stedman April 15, 2016 - 4:49pm

thanks so much for a great post! I've shared on my blog, as have many on my author networks, with a 'must-read' comment beside it :) 

_Anonymous_'s picture
_Anonymous_ December 4, 2016 - 11:43am

I think people are trying too hard to give writing 'rules'. You cannot force structure on writing, just as you cannot force structure on painting, or any other art. All these rules have been broken successfully, and all these rules have been followed successfully, and any other rule has both been a failure and a success.