Writing Advice I Choose to Ignore

copyright Cas Blomberg

Yesterday, I ran across Dylan Hearn’s post, The Ten Worst Writing Tips I’ve Received. He warns the readers the tips are ones that did not work for him, but acknowledges everyone is different. He also doesn’t seem to mind if you counter his points, which I did. Check out his list and if you agree or disagree, let him know. He’s a great writer and contrary to his assertive nature, he won’t bite. I challenged him to re-visit his list every year and I’ve agreed to create my own list and re-visit it a year from now to see if I’ve changed my mind.

Fun! Now I had to find ten tips I hated.

The problem is, I don’t get angry about most advice. Like ‘Show, don’t tell.’ It pops up on almost every single ‘Bad Writing Advice’ list. When I see it, I scratch my head and wonder, should it say, ‘Tell, don’t show’? We don’t want to show, is that right? Or should it just be, ‘Show’? Is it show we have a problem with or tell in that little gem? Or are we really mad at our intense need to shorten advice to catchy phrases and leave out all the good bits because the line should say, ‘Whenever possible show the action and create a more vibrant scene, but remember it’s important to tell sometimes, too’? Or is it because we get so frustrated the advice is vague and the advice givers, the sagacious chaps they are, don’t provide examples?

I like the advice ‘Show, don’t tell.’ Our natural inclination is to tell. We’ve got tell covered. We’re MASTERS at tell. We need to learn show. I do, anyway, and I’m not going to throw away anything that helps me become a better writer. So I look up examples on show and I try to do it. I’m good with tell, I need to learn more show so my stories do both well.

I also think many of us want to buck advice, myself included. The human race generally doesn’t like anyone to tell them what to do. I’ve met authors who SWEAR they don’t use the passive voice, and every sentence is written in passive voice. If you mention it to them, and even show them the difference, they defend it by replying it’s their style. Here’s my take on advice: I want to learn. I want to get better. I can deny I make mistakes, get angry at the advice, or I can try and hear what the advice givers are trying to say and take it to heart. After all, it’s my choice to benefit or not from the advice.

In the end though, I did find some advice that doesn’t resonate with me. Here is my list of Bad Writing Advice:

1) In today’s market you must be a writer and a salesperson. 

If I had to pick out the worst advice out there right now, it would be this one. No, no, and no. If you are an indie publisher and you want to take advantage of the market, yes, you must be a salesperson. However, writers and sellers come equipped with two distinctly separate sets of skills. Some sellers are writers and both come naturally to them. Fantastic! Go you! But I know many writers who are introverts, myself included. Rushing out and charming the pants off everyone while pitching ourselves non-stop to a digital world saturated with hundreds of thousands of folks just like us, isn’t our style. We write. That’s what we’re good at, and that’s where our focus should be. You will accomplish more by continuing to write, honing your craft, and creating more than you will by running around the internet all day long. How this will all work out in the end, I don’t know and I’m not saying to ditch your social media or your author platform completely. I am saying if you’re a writer, your focus should be on writing (by the way, that means more than just blog writing, unless you’re a blog writer. If you’re a fiction writer, you need to be writing fiction. Not writing articles about writing fiction). I also know if only the loudest, the most gregarious, and the most talented sellers dominate the book market, without creating a way for the introverted writers, we’re missing out on a whole heap of entertainment, stories and ideas. I don’t know how the next five years in the publishing industry will unfold, but I know the most important thing I can do is focus on my writing, not become a salesperson.

2) Write for your market. Write for yourself. 

Goes hand in hand with the first point. And yes, I put two contradictory pieces of advice up there. Both are misleading.

Two weeks ago I checked the kindle bestsellers report and every single author at the top wrote either young adult or romance. Every one of them. The indie market is driven by young adult and romance. Not only that, but the social media infrastructure for these markets is already built. You can probably find a hundred book tours dedicated to either genre. More groups on Goodreads exists for these genres than any other. Almost every book blogger lists young adult and romance; if you’re looking for another genre, you need to shop around.

A few weeks ago, I approached a traditional publisher and showed her my fantasy book. Her first question to me, ‘Is this young adult?’ Her second question, ‘Can this, in any way, crossover to young adult?’ Hmm. That speaks volumes.

Guess what? I know young adult dominates the market, but I don’t write young adult fiction and I’m not going to start. Not because there’s anything wrong with young adult, but it’s not my genre. If I write what’s hot, I’ll always trail behind and never be satisfied.

On the other hand, writing for yourself doesn’t always work. Because sometimes the things we write do NOT resonate with others. If you’d write that book even if no one ever picked it up, by all means, keep on trucking. If you secretly want people to read it, you should consider the advice of others. A hook does draw readers in. You can add plotlines or depth to your book and still be true to your own vision. The trick is to find the balance, without compromising what you want to say.

3) Use as many different dialog tags as you can think of and use them often.

Years ago I was a member of Writing.com. A writing community, like writing.com, is a fantastic arena for developing your skills, but it comes with a warning label: Don’t always listen to what everyone tells you. During one short story class, the leader told me I could spice up my writing by adding dialog tags like, ‘Stop!’ he chortled. ‘We’re in it now,’ she choked. Bad advice. Really bad advice. First of all, I have yet to hear anyone actually chortle words. Or choke them. You can have two separate actions, but there must be a full stop. “‘Stop.’ He chortled again and I thought I’d puke.” Which is horrible, but you get the idea. If your character must chortle, chortle away, but do it without words in his mouth. Chortle and speaking are two separate things. Said is fine. It works. There have even been studies proving how our eyes just flow right over the words ‘he said.’ That’s what we want. We don’t want to pull the reader out wondering, Wait, what was that? Because every time we pull a reader out of our story, we increase the risk that they stay out of our story. Some exceptions would be ‘whisper’ (great for tense scenes where characters don’t want to be heard, or a romance scene), ‘shouted’ (if used sparingly, for effect), and generic tags like ‘countered’ and ‘replied.’  Personally, I try to find a balance between using ‘said’ and no tags. As long as the characters are clearly identified, and you’ve established a distinct voice for each of them, you don’t need the tags.

4) Write like you talk. 

I’m on the fence for this one. Some stories pull this off well. Some. Few. Most of the time, it just sounds weak and too many authors cling to this advice as a defense against any critique. I want to learn to write well first, then break the rules. The other way around seems to take much longer.

There are two groups who need to heed this advice. The first group is those who not only speak with a unique voice (or have created one for their characters), but have mastered the other skills of the craft and their ability to captivate a reader outstrips their language skills. When I say unique voice, I mean Mark Twain and Hunter S. Thompson, and yes, perhaps you. No one can pull off the Jamaican slang like you can, and if so, great! But remember, you need the storytelling skills to back up your voice.

The second group who should follow this advice is the group just beginning their writing journey. If your stories keep sounding like a boring professor wrote them because you’re torturing yourself to find the ‘right words’ and trying to force it into a predefined shape some ‘expert’ has hammered into your skull, forget it. Just write. Nothing should hinder your writing process. Nothing. If however, one day you find yourself wanting to grow, if you want to add muscles to your stories, then you can begin to let go of this advice. I want to write better than I speak, and eventually I want to speak better than I do today. I want the two to push each other so that I’m constantly trying to better myself. I don’t want to settle for anything less.

5) Avoid jargon. 

This goes hand in hand with the previous tip. Some authors can pull off jargon. Tom Clancy, for one. Telling everyone to avoid jargon altogether is nonsense. Jargon, if used well, creates a unique voice and adds realism to a story. If it fits in your story, go for it. If the same story can be told without the jargon, pull it out.

6) Eliminate all cliches.

I love this one. Cliches are fun. Too many cliches are horrible. The same cliches over and over drag down your writing. Trying to think of original cliches stretches my brain, but sometimes I’m lazy and don’t want to go through the motions. This advice needs to be cloaked with balance. Flip through the pages of most popular books on the market and you’ll find cliches in them. Examine each one in your own writing and decide if you can come up with something original, or if you can’t and you’ll die miserable unless you include it, and then and only then leave it in there. Do NOT do what I did and install a program that searches for cliches and freak out because of the sheer number the program found. If you do make that mistake, counter it immediately by typing in another book from a traditionally published author. You’ll discover he or she had quite a few themselves.

7) Give all your characters a weird quirk.

If I run across one more character who chews gum and taps her foot I’m going to scream. Quirks add realism when they’re believable and natural. A quirk should add depth to the story. Every word, every line should be so important to the story that to take it out means we lose something. Violet Beauregarde’s gum chewing completes her character. If you rip the gum away, she’s not the same. If your detective happens to chew gum because you needed a quirk, he needs some more work. I would rather read about characters who had no quirks than those with obvious tagged on quirks.

8) Do not put thoughts in italics. 

Version A:

‘We need to change plans.’

‘Don’t we always,’ I thought to myself.

Version B:

‘We need to change plans.’

Don’t we always, I thought to myself.

In the first one, I’m misled into thinking those are two dialog lines. No thanks. I’m picking Version B, where I can tell at a glance one is a dialog line and one is a thought line. Making it easy for the reader to keep reading is my goal. Confusing the reader is not my goal. Confusing the reader pulls the reader out of my story and I want him or her to stay there for as long as possible.

9) Outline / Use the snowflake method

Any advice that tells people one method of doing things is immediately suspect in my book. Some people work with outlines. Some don’t. Period. I encourage every writer to try different methods to discover the one that works for them. An outline for a story and an outline for a research paper you were forced to write Sophomore year aren’t the same things. Just because you hated one doesn’t mean you’ll hate the other. It might, but it might not. Try everything. Discard what doesn’t work for you. Cling to what does and never let it go.

10) Write every day. 

It’s not about writing only when inspiration strikes us. Our brains adapt based on what they do. If we write every day, we become better at it. We improve our brain’s functioning, we increase our creativity, we develop new ideas and new ways of thinking about things. If we only choose to write when we have a great idea, we’re shortchanging ourselves. Writing every day leads to positive outcomes. We all know this. Unfortunately for most of us, life doesn’t care about all that research. Life says we have places to be, jobs to do, and people to take care of and writing gets pushed aside. On the other hand, once we push it aside that first day, it’s so much easier to neglect it the second day, and the third. Before you know it, forty-seven days have passed since you’ve written anything creative. Having a schedule forces us to TRY. Not having a schedule gives us an easy excuse. So what do we do? Again, balance is the key word. Try and say you’ll write twice a week. It gives you a week to stretch your brain, but where and when are entirely in your hands.

What about you? What advice do you disagree with? What’s the worst writing advice anyone ever gave you?

Published by casblomberg

Cas Blomberg is a native-English speaking writer who lives in Stockholm, Sweden.

7 thoughts on “Writing Advice I Choose to Ignore

  1. Never had advice from anyone. I just wrote what flowed through what I wrote, because I believed in it and then published it. Hmm, wasn’t so easy the publishing the side though…

    1. I once read a quote that said something to effect of, ‘If I had listened to everyone else’s advice, I wouldn’t have written a thing.’ Sounds like you’ve avoided the ‘advice trap’. Congratulations on publishing your novel! I wish all the success in the world =).

  2. Thanks so much for the link to my post and for saying I don’t bite *makes note to self yo stop biting*. There are many on your list I agree with but, of course, there are one or two where I have a different opinion.
    I like the advice “write for yourself”. It’s probably terrible advice if the question is “how do I make money from writing?”, though not necessarily for everyone. On the other hand, it’s excellent advice if the question is “how do you maintain your passion for writing.”
    The other one I like is “write every day”. It’s good advice for all the reasons you give but as you so eloquently put, it is a goal to aspire to (or a goal to which you should aspire) designed to teach you good writing habits, rather than to beat yourself up about if you fail.
    Great post.

    1. Thanks Dylan for stopping by! I’m glad you’re trying not to bite anyone, too. Warms my heart.

      Great point about motivation. I agree. If ‘Write for Yourself’ was rephrased into ‘Maintain your passion for writing by writing for yourself’, I’d take it off my list.

      I still don’t like ‘Write every day’. I get the idea behind it and I support that, but it’s too unrealistic. We miss a day, then beat ourselves up for it, we miss four and we spiral downward into the pit of WRITER DESPAIR! It’s so much easier to alter our expectations in the first place and be more realistic. I need a special internet eraser. I’d spend an hour or so fixing all the lists out there and I’d put ‘Write Often’ or ‘Write at least once every week’ in their place.

      Don’t forget, one year! I’ve already added a note to my smartphone calendar. God, I hope I have the same phone.

  3. Think you summed it up quite nicely. Unfortunately we have a bookshop to run so the writing is very ‘undisciplinary’ … 😉
    Worst advice ever given is that there HAS TO BE SEX in a book if ever you want to be a bestselling author ….

    1. Oh, that’s a good one! I always wonder where these ideas originate. Sex in a book isn’t bad, but to infer it MUST be in every book is close-minded. Are the speakers aware of the thousands of books out there, including bestsellers, which don’t have sex between the covers?

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