Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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12 Bad Writing Tips New Writers Give Each Other

Via the Passive Voice, a post at Anne R. Allen’s Blog: Stupid Writing Rules: 12 Bad Writing Tips New Writers Give Each Other


I tell new writers to join groups and get feedback from other writers, but now I do it with the caveat that most of the feedback you’ll get needs to be taken with several shakers of salt. … But do keep in mind the actual advice you get is sometimes pretty useless, especially when it comes from people who aren’t in the business. (That includes some academic writing programs, which are often based on an art-for-art’s-sake philosophy that can generate some pretty unmarketable fiction.) So keep in mind that you should probably ignore most of the specific advice you get in a critique group. … Now, with the rise of social media, the chances of being fed stupid writing rules has increased exponentially.

Bonus points for Allen for referring to the The Dunning-Kruger Effect

So, what are these 12 bad writing tips? I’m sure you’re curious, as I was.

1. Don’t make your opening scene too dark.

Allen has commentary about this, of course. I must say, I personally might well be turned off by a very dark opening scene…ah ha. Really this rule should read: Don’t make your opening scene tense. Well, phrased that way, it’s obviously bad advice, isn’t it? Of course you need to have tension right from the beginning! I imagine someone is misinterpreting something, because surely no one thinks the opening must be all sweetness and fluffy pastel unicorns, right?

2. A novel needs a prologue.

Ha ha ha. Actually, though, the opposite rule, Novels must never include a prologue, is also wrong and I think you hear that far more often.

3. Don’t put contemporary references in fiction or your book will seem dated in ten years.

Could be! But another word for “dated” is “setting.” Also, not relevant if you’re writing secondary world fantasy, of course.

4. When writing memoir, tell everything exactly as it happened, or somebody will sue you.

Not interested in memoir personally, but click through and read Allen’s comments about this if you are.

5. Novels can not contain contractions.

Wow, really? No one who, you know, reads books, could possibly believe this.

6. “Said” is boring. Use more energetic tags like “exclaimed”,”growled”, and “ejaculated.”

Ouch. More common bad advice, “Said is invisible and you should never use other tags.”

7. Head-hopping is necessary if you have more than one character in a scene.

Again, anybody who reads books must know better. Do many prospective writers not read books? Maybe their first step, before soliciting / seeking out / paying attention to writing advice, should be to start reading books?

8. All internal monologue must be put in italics.

This doesn’t strike me as wrong … oh, okay, Allen says it’s not wrong, just on the way out as a standard. Well, that’s different.

9. Never use sentence fragments: all characters must speak (and think) in perfect English.

Oh, please.

10. Never use the word “was.”

Oh, for heaven’s sake. No one is still buying into the notion that “was” signals the passive voice, are they? Nor the idea that the passive voice is always bad? I do particularly enjoy Allen’s comment on this “rule” — Past Progressive: “I was reading the book when some idiot came in and told me the word ‘was’ is taboo for writers.”

11. In a memoir, everyone must have equal time.

Yeah, this sounds unlikely, but it’s not relevant to me because I never plan to write memoir. My life has fortunately been extremely boring, a fact I appreciate practically daily as I hear about other people’s drama.

12. Never read other writers while you’re working on a novel, or you’ll write like them.

Well, I read all of Patricia McKillip’s books while working on CITY, and you know what? I cherish every instance where someone compares me to her.

The real reason not to read other writers while you’re working on a novel is, you will never finish YOUR work because you are too busy reading THEIR work. Or so it is for me, alas.

Interesting post! Lots more comments about everything if you want to click through.

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5 Comments 12 Bad Writing Tips New Writers Give Each Other

  1. SarahZ

    The Dunning Kruger Effect is particularly apparent in the software development world. There are a lot of people who think they’re better programmers than they are.

  2. Elaine T

    I loathe long passages of internal monologue in italics. Have for lots longer than I’ve read on a kindle, so it isn’t just the ebook display. I think it gets on my nerves because it seems unnecessary. Lots of books do internal stuff without them, and without confusion by the reader (me, at least). Just figure out how to signal it without italics.

    Openings – MISTS starts in a bakery. It’s the point just before everything changes. That’s the sort of opening that stories need: just enough to place you where you are and meet characters, then something happens. HOW, well… Different openings work for different sorts of stories, and I wish advice givers would remember that.

  3. Rachel

    Sarah, I suspect the Dunning Kruger Effect seems strongest in whatever field you’re a genuine expert.

    Different openings work for different sorts of stories, and I wish advice givers would remember that.

    Everything works for different sorts of stories, and I do indeed wish everyone would remind themselves of that before dispensing advice!

  4. Evelyn Hill

    Oh, I still get feedback about “was” being passive. I usually compose a thank you note in the passive-aggressive voice as a response. (I don’t send it! I just write it as a catharsis.)

  5. Rachel

    Frankly, I think sending a “passive-aggressive” thank you note sounds hilarious. Though possibly too subtle for your critic(s).

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