Writing Discussion

Bad Advice

Via Austin Kleon

I’ve noticed a bunch of bad writing advice lately, or perhaps by ‘bad’ I really mean that I disagree with it. Whenever someone says “There is only one way of doing things” I usually take out my bullshit-o-meter. If there was one right way, then following the rules would automatically make a perfect something (It would also mean that all books would turn out the same). That is not the case. Also, where’s the fun in that?

So here are a few pieces of advice I’d like to debunk:

It’s useless to ask a writer about their process.

Sometimes, when you’re starting out, you don’t have a process yet. You still need to figure it out, and that takes some trial and error. Sometimes, trying bits and pieces of other people’s methods is the only way to figure out your own.

Personally, I like hearing about how other people work. It gives options I might not have considered (like a treadmill desk?!), ideas for how to be more efficient with my time, or how to tackle a specific problem I’ve been having.

But, there is a nugget of truth here: in the end, no one’s process is the same. However, some parts might be close enough. We don’t have to learn everything from scratch, or rebuild the wheel.

“Take that recipe, put a your own spin on it, and then its yours.” Thank you, Food Network.

Your first novel will be trash. You need to trunk a few novels before being able to write anything publishable.

This one is absolutely false. There are plenty of examples of writers successful with their first manuscripts (Rothfuss, Rowling, Gabaldon).

This bit of advice doesn’t take into account some very important factors: non-novel writing experience (Gabaldon wrote articles for computer magazines, and founded/edited the Science Software Quarterly journal), how much time was spent revising/editing or working on the manuscript (Rothfuss took 7 years to write The Name of the Wind), or how long a writer has been working on story-craft (Stephen King started with short stories).

So yes, it is possible to write an excellent first novel. However, the writers that pull this off may have spent countless hours writing non-fiction, or doing writing related work that you might never see or know about. All writing, not just novel writing, counts towards those proverbial million words of crap. But the truth here? There are no shortcuts to putting in the time (unless you are a genius, or really really lucky).

You can’t teach writing.

If you can learn something, it can be taught. The thing is, people have different learning styles. A traditional classroom setting might benefit some people, but other people might require a more hands on approach (write and have your flaws pointed out), or learn best by example (reading a ton). Some people need structure, while others abhor it. Whatever the case, it’s learning. The trick is finding out how you learn best. It may be a combination of those things

The truth here is, there’s no formula for writing (unless you’re writing technical manuals), so it is very difficult to teach. You can teach craft, sure, but writing is also an art. I think the best teachers are more like guides or mentors who can help you figure out how to achieve what you want in your writing, stylistically, thematically etc. An experienced mentor is gold.

As with all advice “Your mileage may vary.” Your car is a custom ride, baby! You should know what you need better than anyone else.

Just for fun, what’s the worst writing advice you’ve ever gotten?

P. S. I’m probably guilty of dispensing some bad advice myself.

20 Comments to “Bad Advice”

  1. I completely agree with what you have written, though I have to say that I think the advice on number 3 could be “You are probably not fit to teach writing”, which is true, unless you develop a good resume. Also some people have that teaching spark, while others don’t. The ability to communicate ideas is very important.

  2. The worst writing advice I ever got? Someone read a story of mine, ages ago, and said (basically): “Your dialog could be better. You should watch more movies, so you can learn how people really talk.”

    I don’t disagree with the assessment (if I looked back on the story she was referring to, I might well agree), but the solution she proposed made me laugh.

    I think writing advice comes in two basic forms. One is specific advice given to a specific writer, based on actually reading his or her writing. That can be very useful (or not — see above). The other is general advice broadcast out to the world. You know: “Remove all filter words.” “Exterminate all passive voice.” “Never have a prologue.”


    Now, are there people who should cut back on passive voice or re-think that prologue or whatever? Absolutely. But handing that out as advice for everybody makes as much sense as saying that everybody should use less salt in their soup and get a shorter haircut.

    Oh, and I agree completely about first novels. My argument can be summed up in two words: Thomas Pynchon. 🙂

    (I agree about process, too — always interesting.)

    Best writing advice I ever got? No contest. I quote my father: “There is only one rule in writing: write well.”

    1. Ahh yes, I like how you break it down into two forms. I find the first especially relevant, though I remember Neil Gaiman saying something like, they’re probably right, but suggestions for how to fix it probably isn’t. LOL In the end, the lesson is to take every suggestion with a grain of salt.

      And your father is a very smart man 😉

  3. Great post! Personally I love asking people about their writing process because writing a story is just as much about the journey as it is the final product and I’m always curious about how they got there.

    1. Exactly! I mean, in the past, was I looking for a magic solution? Absolutely. Nowadays I just think of it as watercooler talk.

      Bad advice? “Write for the market.”

      First of all, what the market wants now is not what they’ll want in 2 years, which is about when your book would come out if you managed to write it, agent it, and book deal it within 6 months. So you’re already behind. Second, the market doesn’t always know what it wants. Sometimes you have to show it to them, and then they’ll know. (Like JK Rowling did, or Steve Jobs.)

      1. That is very true. I call the latter the Robert Pattinson effect. I don’t think most people thought he was desirable / hot, until after the Twilight movies told everyone he was / should be. *chuckles* I don’t know why I just thought about that now.

  4. Worst writing advice? I have two that are tied.

    One published writer gave me a critique on a short story I had written that consisted of this statement and only this statement: “The writing’s pretty good, but this is unpublishable.” No explanations. I think the person just got off on belittling other writers. Either that or they just have no idea how to do a helpful critique.

    The other was from another well-respected, published author whose beginning writing workshop I took. This author critiqued my short story and suggested that it could be made better if I added racism into the story, because, “Your characters are southern, and if you make one of them black, that could add conflict.”

    Needless to say, I disregarded both bits of “advice.”

  5. I agree almost entirely with everything you said here. Whenever someone talks about a “one true way” in publishing or anything, it always sets off my BS-meter. My automatic assumption, once I see something like that, is that the person saying it has something to gain from others believing their “one true way” nonsense.

    Last year around this time, I made a comittment to myself not to dispense “writing advice” as such. I think that’s different than saying “here’s how I do it”, instead of “here’s how you should do it”. I think I’ve done pretty well at that so far… but then again, I’m no one anyone should listen to, yet, insofar as writing advice is concerned anyway.

    1. Those are different things. I think you’ve been successful. I haven’t noticed anything heavy-handed on your end. Like I mentioned above, I do like hearing how other writers work and do things, and I’m still interested in that 😉

  6. I’m not sure what the absolute worst writing advice I’ve ever gotten is. Two professors swore if you ever wanted to write then you needed to be neck-deep in Shakespeare, which was utter rubbish. That style and grammar didn’t matter was another winner. I have to rack my mind for these because, even though I’ve received a lot of terrible advice, I’ve largely disregarded it in favor of what made sense or worked.

    I wish it were easier to talk to writers about their processes. Many are too defensive, or too narrow in what they want to share. One of my least favorite things about Twitter is how often an author will tweet an obtuse declarative statement about how writing works, and then get extremely agitated when she’s questioned for clarification. There’s also an unfortunate tendency for people to swing to extremes, and we know much of composition comes from finer things than the poles. It frustrates me because I love learning about other people’s processes. I don’t tend to emulate; I just like knowing how other people make it work.

    1. T. S. Bazelli Author

      Grammar doesn’t matter?! ehhh…. I hope that wasn’t a writer. Yeah those are easy ones to disregard. I’m surprised that more writers don’t like to talk about process. I think most people I’ve run into online have been pretty forthcoming.

      And Twitter is really horrible for that.

  7. I’m pretty lucky that I’m in an amazing writing group with people who understand that all advice is not for everyone so most of it is just given as opinion, not fact or rules. And most other “advice” I read online I filter to suit me. The only glaring advice I got once was from the editor of an ezine I’d written a story about forgiveness and he told me to change the ending so that forgiveness wasn’t mentioned at all. We had a respectful debate and he let me keep the ending, but when he first advised it I was floored.

    1. T. S. Bazelli Author

      Sounds like you got lucky there! I’ve run into not so helpful groups, so I’m a little nervous about joining/participating in one. LOL I’m not surprised you stood your ground! YAY that you were able to keep it too!

  8. I remember a while back I saw a blog post with a list of absolute rules about starting a novel (thou shalt not start with swearing, thou shalt not start with a prologue, thou shalt not start with a character waking up…). I wish I could remember where I saw it. I’m trying to incorporate as many as I can into my next project, but I’m limited to the ones I can remember. 🙂

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