Danger: Bad Advice Ahead

There’s a never-ending flood of writing advice out there for aspiring authors. Some of the best I’ve heard is also the simplest and the most universal, like this bit from Stephen King’s On Writing:

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

On the flip side, there’s tons of advice aspiring authors could probably do without. Today I’m here to tackle the misconceptions and one-size-fits-all solutions, and explain why they really aren’t helpful.

Forget setup– just jump straight into the action!

This one really rubs me the wrong way. Some authors make it work, but it’s not an easy thing to pull off and doesn’t lend itself to all genres or writing styles. More often than not it results in the reader feeling like they’ve picked up the book a few chapters in, having missed all the important introductions and world building that should have come first. The author is left trying to shoehorn this critical information in later– or worse, omitting it altogether.

You can’t write a good story without a plot outline!

Actually, you can. What’s more, an outline won’t prevent a book from being boring, having elephant-sized plot holes, or turning into a jumbled mess. It’s just a technique that can help authors who have a hard time visualizing their story or are chronically forgetful.

A good story flows like a river. It twists and turns, shrinks and grows, and forms new paths. It’s not meant to be stationary.

You’re writing fantasy? You have to follow the Hero’s Journey!

Ah yes, the Hero’s Journey: a pre-made outline on steroids that dictates exactly which points your story needs to hit in order to be considered good* fantasy. Heaven forbid anyone get creative and venture into new territory, right?

*‘Good’ as determined by the kind of people who like to read books which are just like a lot of other books they’ve read.

The “plot vs character” argument.

Some people think only characters matter, and others seem to feel that the plot is all that’s important. I find this dichotomy ridiculous. If a story doesn’t have a plot it’s not a story. On the flip side, an obnoxious main character can ruin an otherwise good novel. These two elements are equally essential.

Avoid dialogue tags at all costs!

Have you ever read a conversation between more than two characters that didn’t have any dialogue tags? It was a confusing mess, wasn’t it? That’s because dialogue tags are actually really essential. The trick is to remember that they’re only needed when the speaker’s identity isn’t clear, and that they don’t all have to take the form of he said/she said.

My Response to Questionable Writing advice

Writing is like a dish. Quality ingredients are important, but slightly less so than the skill of the chef. Presentation also needs to be considered. No matter how amazing the feast, you wouldn’t want to eat it off dirty dishes. Even the best ingredients can be ruined by a poor cook. A great one might be able to salvage poor ingredients and still create something pretty good.

In short, writing is complicated. It’s an art form, not an Excel spreadsheet. There are no key points to hit to become a publishing success, and what works for one author’s writing style in one genre may be disastrous for another.

For the love of all that is holy, please stop trying to isolate the “one simple trick” to become a best selling author! There is no single path to success, it’s not simple, and there are no hacks for reaching reader’s hearts or the top of the sales charts.

With that said, writing is arguably more approachable than any other art form. You don’t have to have a fancy degree or even a highschool education. Teaching yourself to write requires nothing more than a library card, a willingness to read, and a bit of free time.

Write things you would want to read. Write stories that move you, that entertain you, that you can feel excited about. Read good writing, and keep practicing and polishing your own, and one day you may have a best seller.

If there are any obnoxiously unhelpful writing tips you’re tired of hearing and would like to see added to the list, let me know in the comments!

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2 thoughts on “On Questionable Writing Advice

  1. Leland – I’m sure you’d agree there is a lot of good writing advice out there as well, although sometimes the only difference between good and bad rules is that the person citing the rule insists theirs are “the (only) way” toward success. Anyone who has spent a little quality time in critique groups learns quickly there are rules to writing, but once they’ve spent a bit more time they discover there are no hard-fast rules. Writers do have some leeway. They can stray away from the hard and fast, and still achieve success.

    My own website, if you recall, is rulestobebroken.com, so I’m fully in favor of breaking rules that should not be rules – ideas poorly laid out that fail to accomplish what they’re intended to accomplish. At the same time, I do believe in smart rules. logically and intelligently applied.

    • Leland Lydecker says:

      Oh, I agree that not all writing advice is bad. Some things I mention above can apply in certain specific situations; for instance, some people use way too many dialogue tags. (I’ve come across very few of them, but they do exist.) Some authors could use to cut down on the ten chapters of dull-as-dirt world building at the start of their stories (specifically looking at a number of traditionally published authors.)

      What irks me about the advice I’ve highlighted here is that it isn’t being given in response to a specific piece of work. They’re just generic “do this to write good”-type tips that pop up constantly in author’s groups and on social media. And in my opinion they have the same effect on the quality of writing as taking daily doses of chemo “just in case” has on the human body: it’s crippling, causes gross deformity, and is eventually lethal.

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