At the end of January, I had the opportunity to attend the Salt Lake Comic Con FanX event and attend several wonderful author panels about various writing topics. One of those panels tackled the topic of “Bad Writing Advice” with authors Dan Wells, Natalie Whipple, Nathan Shumate, Dan Willis, Johnny Worthen, Jared Quan, and Larry Correia. The authors on the panel were wonderfully entertaining, but more importantly, they shared the bad writing advice they’d each been given during the course of their writing careers.
While the panel lasted for approximately 45-50 minutes and provided many great and humorous examples of bad writing advice, I’m going to limit this article to my favorites. Some of these examples may surprise you.
Write what you know.
We’ve all heard this one and have all secretly questioned the viability of this advice. Really, how many people out there want to read about a middle-aged woman who’s happily married, has two kids, and works as an editor? Sounds like a best-seller… not! If writers followed this piece of advice, the world would have been deprived of sci-fi, dystopian, fantasy, historical, steampunk, urban fantasy… The list goes one. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never lived through a zombie apocalypse, but I’m glad Max Brooks decided not to limit himself to writing what he knows, or he wouldn’t have written World War Z. Now does this mean a writer should pen that medical drama they’ve dreamed of without doing the necessary research and asking a few doctors to pre-read? If the author wants the story to be believable, there’s going to be an investment in research. As with any writing endeavor, it’s work and not all of it is writing.
Pick a path and write only that.
Can you imagine a world where we all had to actually work in the career we put down on our 9th grade education plans or had to be limited to the jobs selected for us because of some proficiency test we took in high school? If that were the case, I’d be a chemical engineer or forest ranger (not that I have anything against either of those professions). The world is a wondrous place with countless options, so why limit yourself to just one genre when writing? Maybe the reason you haven’t achieved the success you’d hoped is because you should be writing in a different genre. People reinvent themselves all the time. Why not explore writing something different? You just might discover you can write than one type of book.
Show, don’t tell.
This is one of my favorite pieces of writing advice, partly because I know what it means. But also because if employed correctly, it can improve the writing of an author. However, showing everything is not the way to go either. Let’s face it. Life in general is boring, punctuated with highs and lows. Don’t show the boring stuff. You know what I’m talking about—laundry lists about cleaning or a morning routine or flowery descriptions of rooms or outfits that have no importance to the plot. While I’m sure you have intimate knowledge of how to get from point A to point B in Boise, Idaho, including turn-by-turn instructions on how to get to from your protagonist’s home to the hospital doesn’t impress me. It bores. It’s the highs and lows that are the most exciting and the most miserable, but it’s also our best opportunity to grow and change. As a writer, it’s your job to decide what to show and what to tell. Show the highs and lows, and if the boring must be included, it’s a great candidate for brief telling.
When you have writer’s block, you just need to wait for your muse to speak to you.
Every author on the panel laughed at this one and said it was a load of crap. Why? Because there is no muse. You might get a spark of creativity from the fates that is the seed from which your story will start, but it’s up to you to nurture, develop and turn that spark into a great story. Writing is hard work. Anyone who says differently is full of it. Every author who’s written a book will tell you that the best way to write your story is to just write it. Staring at a blank page and waiting for the muse to whisper a story to you is not how you write a book. To write a book, you need to sit down and write, even when you don’t feel like it. Even when you have no idea what to write. Just write something and work at it.
Any advice that deals in absolutes: always or never.
And finally, my favorite piece of bad writing advice: advice that has the words always or never in it. Never use adverbs, never talk about the weather, always write what you know, etc. The problem with absolutes is that there are numerous examples of people who have become wildly successful by ignoring advice with absolutes. Where one author may eschew adverbs, another may embrace them while both authors go on to become writing greats of their time.
So what’s the takeaway? There’s no magic bullet. There isn’t a secret formula of advice to follow that will ensure your success as a writer. A lot of it is luck, but if you catch a break, having the skill to back it up may keep you from being a one hit wonder in the writing world. So keep writing and developing your skills and decide for yourself self it a piece of writing advice is one you should follow or one to ignore.
Now it’s your turn. What’s your favorite piece of bad writing advice? Leave a comment and share!
Now… go write something!