Top Ten Examples of Common but Terrible Writing Advice

Following up the recent post on this topic, I thought I’d take a stab at a more thorough and better organized list of Common Bad Advice.

Previously, I criticized the linked post by saying that the items did not make a coherent list – four items involved advice about big or relatively big issues, while one item aimed at the nuts and bolts of the craft of writing. Here, I’m going to handle this division by splitting bad writing advice into two categories, which I could call Big and Little, or Broad and Detail, but I think I will call Erroneous Advice About Storytelling and Erroneous Advice About Writing Craft. The former will be easier because part of it can be pulled out of the previous post.

Erroneous Advice About Storytelling

1. Start in Media Res        

I am told that quite a lot of novice writers start too early, long before anything happens. No doubt that is true; I wouldn’t know, never having read through a slush pile. But starting too early isn’t actually the problem I’ve seen; nor is starting quietly intrinsically a bad thing to do.

When I’ve looked at workshop entries, the most common problem is not lack of action in the opening, but lack of context – an opening in a “white room” setting, where the protagonist is not placed in the world. I don’t mean that the setting is literally undescribed (though I have seen that). I mean that the reader is given no feel for who the protagonist is, no idea of what anything means in relation to the protagonist, no idea why anything is important to the protagonist or to anyone else – in other words, no hook for emotional engagement. It doesn’t matter if the opening scene is a battle where a hundred thousand people die and the fate of worlds trembles on the outcome. Explosions and fiery doom only matter to the reader if the reader is already engaged with one or more of the characters involved.

Look at the beginning of From All False Doctrine. Nothing is happening. Four young people meet on a beach and chat for a while, with clear hints of the romances to come. That’s it. That’s the whole opening chapter. This is the exact opposite of starting in media res. Yet it’s a charming, intriguing opening that immediately draws in the reader.

Not that one can’t start in the middle of a crisis. That’s fine too. Look at – I hesitate to illustrate things with my own books – but look at Tuyo. (Honestly, when I thought, Hmm, book that starts in a crisis situation, this is what leaped to mind.) This is a quiet crisis – no explosions – but it’s definitely a crisis. Let me think of something similar by someone else, another quiet crisis, okay, the first book of The Sharing Knife series, where right at the beginning, Fawn walks away from her family. She’s in the middle of a very personal crisis. Look at both these characters. They are both themselves from the first moment. Their crises are theirs, no one else’s. And they both are in their worlds. The reader has a sense of both the character and the world right away, not just a confused sense that there’s a crisis somehow for someone. Starting with a wide-angle shot of a battle isn’t the same. Whether you start in the middle of a crisis or not, I think you’re well-advised to start with the protagonist and put the protagonist in the world.

2. Show, Don’t Tell

The previous post hit this, and so did this linked post, so I will just say:

Telling (“He was furious”) is just fine if

(a) the narrator rather than the author is doing the telling;

(b) it’s a transition scene or any other type of scene where it’s best to move along briskly so you can get to the next scene that is actually important.

Showing (“He slammed his fist down on the table”) is preferred if

(a) the author wants to slow down the action

(b) the author wants the reader to engage emotionally in that scene

3. Think of the Worst Thing You Could Do to Your Protagonist and Do That

Elaine T nailed this in her comment on the previous post. I said something like, “Wow, do you get how awful a thing I could do to my protagonist? This is blazingly stupid advice.” Elaine pointed out that the right advice is more like, “Do the worst thing to the protagonist that he can respond to well and that will make him grow as a character.” That’s far, far better advice.

4. Write What You Know

Again, I hit this one in the previous post. Everyone already writes what they know. Writers are people who do things. They write about people who are doing things. It is impossible for a writer not to write what they know. If you don’t make the assumption that writers ARE writing what they know, regardless of whether they’re writing SFF or murder mysteries or whatever, then every single author would be limited to memoir.

This is true even for authors who are writing about nonhuman people, such as Martha Wells in the Raksura series and far more so for James Cambias in A Darkling Sea. The nonhuman characters are still people and they are still doing stuff for reasons that matter to people. If those people were not emotionally comprehensible to humans, then those stories would fail to engage the reader’s interest except at perhaps the most superficial, intellectual level. They don’t fail in that way because they are comprehensible, even if they are different.

It is of course desirable to know something about how nonhuman creatures behave if you’re writing characters like the above. The raksura have several behavioral traits similar to cats. They don’t behave exactly like cats, obviously, but their behavior is coherent and believable in the context of animal behavior. So is the behavior of the extremely different species presented in A Darkling Sea.

5. Kill Your Darlings

In the comments to the previous post, Irina pointed a huge, flaming arrow at the reason this is the worst possible writing advice, wrong on every level: this advice encourages the writer to believe that any scene they think is particularly good in their own writing is actually bad. People shouldn’t try to qualify and backtrack and justify this particular phrase. They should just quit saying this.

The correct advice is: If a scene is not beneficial to the story, if it detracts from the story in some way, then you should take it out even if you particularly love it.

The correct codicil is: maybe you can re-tool that scene and use it somewhere else. Or maybe you can revamp your story’s plot so that the scene you love is in fact beneficial and necessary. Either way, you should hang onto that scene.

The correct assumption is: your feeling about what is best in your own writing is something to trust and value. Your tastes may change and you may decide later you were wrong, but you are probably not that wrong. If you particularly love a scene, there is probably something there worth loving.

I’m going to add a personal note here. I wasn’t sure that readers would necessarily appreciate the Ryo-Tano plotline, which became so hugely important in Tarashana. The relationship between Ryo and Tano pulls attention away from Ryo’s relationship with Aras and it adds massively to the length. But, among other things, it also shifts Ryo from the position of a younger man with far less authority to a position as an older man with far more authority. That develops his character in ways I think are good.

But that’s not why I wrote those scenes. I wrote them because I loved them. Then I gave Tano a through-line that justified his presence in the story. The plotting came way, way after writing his first scenes.

So far every reader who has shared their reactions with me has really liked Tano and appreciated those scenes. Imagine if I’d decided nope, kill your darlings, and taken Tano out of the story completely. That would have been bad for me, unfortunate for the readers who love that plotline and character, and unnecessary. Tano’s presence was beneficial to Ryo’s character development. Also, it was not that hard to set up the broader plot in such a way as to justify Tano’s presence in the story.

Erroneous Advice About Writing Craft

1. Avoid Adverbs / Adjectives / “Be” Verbs / whatever

Honestly. Do not limit your use of the English language in unnecessary ways. Writing is hard enough without tying this sort of anvil around your neck. Go look at any writers widely considered to be good stylists; for example, Patricia McKillip, Nicola Griffith, and Guy Gavriel Kay. Open their books and look at their use of adverbs or whatever the heck you should supposedly avoid. Then forever dismiss proscriptive advice of this kind. Use adverbs or adjectives or “be” verbs in ways that seem good to you. Your judgment of how to use these parts of speech may change over time and that’s fine. You may decide to ax every instance of “very” from your own writing and that’s fine too. But don’t uncritically follow any proscriptive advice and definitely do not contort yourself trying to do so.

2. “Said” is Invisible

“Said” is not necessarily invisible, as I pointed out in this post here, where “said” becomes just about as obtrusive as fingernails on a blackboard.

I’ll pull out the specific snippet of dialogue I used in the linked post:

“I was promised a long story,” Duvall said, after they had gotten their food and drinks.
“I made no such promise,” Dahl said.
“The promise was implied,” Duvall protested. “And besides, I bought you a drink. I own you. Entertain me, Ensign Dahl.”
“All right, fine,” Dahl said. “I entered the Academy late because for three years I was a seminary student.”
“Okay, that’s moderately interesting,” Duvall said.
“On Forshan,” Dahl said.
“Okay, that’s intensely interesting,” Duvall said.

I listened to this book — Scalzi’s Redshirts, which I actually liked quite a bit — and in audio form, this repetition of said-said-said got increasingly painful. Then I got used to it, which took something of an effort of will, and as I say, I did enjoy the story. But, if you’re going to use “said” a lot, you would be wise to vary your sentence structure a lot more than this.

3. “Said” is Too Boring

However, avoiding “said” is even worse. There are a small handful of unobtrusive dialogue tags other than “said,” including answered, responded, muttered, whispered, snapped, and shouted. Overusing any of those makes them more obtrusive. Using anything else that I can think of is obtrusive except with great attention to context plus extreme moderation. That is why movement tags are so useful: they let you avoid any of the above.

But don’t go out of your way to avoid “said,” which is indeed reasonably unobtrusive as long as you vary your sentence structure.

4. Vary Your Word Choice

This is simultaneously both true enough to be justifiable advice and totally wrong. It’s true that you probably don’t want to keep repeating the same words over and over. If you said “discussed” already on one page, you probably don’t want to say “discuss” and “discussed” and “discussion” in the next couple of paragraphs.

That is unfortunately hard for me to avoid. I’ve thought about this, and it seems to me that my brain must get primed with a specific word the first time I use it and then pull variants of that word up again repeatedly for the next few minutes, whenever the context permits. That can happen with practically any word for me, as far as I can tell, and repetitions like this are amazingly hard to spot, though I think reading through the Death’s Lady trilogy in paper did help. We’ll see.

I’m also DYING to see how many typos you all catch NOW. Is my reading the books carefully in paper after already clearing out all the typos you all find enough? We shall soon see.

But! If you are writing about an elephant, say “elephant,” not “lumbering pachyderm.” (Especially since elephants rarely lumber. The feet of elephants are important sensory organs in several different ways, and elephants actually move with great precision and even grace.) Don’t say “elephantine beast.” Don’t say, “animal in the genus Loxodonta.” Just say “elephant,” even if that means you use the same word five times in two paragraphs. Do not, in other words, contort yourself trying to avoid the right word. If it’s the right word, then use it.

5. Once You’ve Got a Rough Draft, Cut Your Wordcount in Half

I guess this may count as something midway between craft-oriented detail advice and big advice about storytelling. But it’s pretty common advice, and it’s wrong.

That is, it’s at least somewhat right for some people. I almost always overwrite. I don’t know how often I’ve cut a hundred pages or more from some story or other, but a lot. I always cut, sometimes extensively. I cut two whole chapters from Tarashana. (Did you notice that we left the starlit lands and poof! emerged from the pass into the winter country? There used to be a chapter there. (It was unnecessary and also contained interactions that constituted too much of a spoiler for later events and for subsequent books. I cut that chapter almost as soon as I wrote it.)) I also cut at the paragraph and especially at the sentence level.

So, I cut almost all the time, and I cut a lot. (Never by half, though.)

But I know other writers who produce an amazingly stripped-down version of a story and then add even more words than I generally cut. They add description and transitions, say, having left all that out of the first draft. For example, David Drake said, during a panel at a convention, that he writes like this. Telling writers who obviously need to add a metric ton of words that they should cut is ridiculous. If they believe this advice, it’s harmful.

It’s important to really believe in your heart that everyone’s writing process is different. Once you believe that, you can stop taking prescriptive advice that is wrong for you, even if the so-called writing authority offering (or declaiming) that advice does so as though their advice constitutes a set of immutable laws of nature.

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9 thoughts on “Top Ten Examples of Common but Terrible Writing Advice”

  1. I love how even your list of Bad Writing Advice contains far more GOOD writing advice. And, being currently engaged in a TARASHANA reread, I must add my voice once again to the chorus of People-Who-Love-Tano, Ryo’s relationship with him, the contrast we see between Ryo-Aras and Ryo-Tano relationships, the way Ryo applies what he learns from Aras, and even Aras learns from Ryo. Just. SO much love.

    But reading the first two pages of dialogue in Redshirts put me off the book and, in fact, Scalzi forever. I hadn’t minded as much in Old Man’s War but couldn’t get past the clunkiness of the dialogue there. It sure let me know how much I appreciate good dialogue in other books!

  2. Thank you, Mary Beth! Your thumbs up for Tano was very important — that was JUST the reaction I hoped readers would have to him. When you and Kim both gave Tano a thumbs up, I relaxed because I knew he would work for readers in general.

  3. I’m an inveterate underwriter. So much that if I write to a minimum of 1000 words, I write my story in say 1050 words, and in subsequent edits get it in the 1700s to 1900s. (On the other hand, I can’t outline; this is guaranteed to trigger Already Written Syndrome. Even though my underwritten first draft is much like a big sloppy outline.)

  4. Irina, that’s exactly what I remember David Drake saying — that the first draft is like a big outline. That’s hard for me to really imagine.

    I agree with you. I dread Already Written Syndrome and definitely think that’s a potential hazard for me. Usually it’s impossible for me to outline anyway, but I think that is probably a good thing for that reason.

  5. I tend to write first drafts that leave out so much detail that it is essentially just a story-form outline of what I meant to write. So cutting half of THAT would be a terrible idea; I’d have no story left at all.

    Varying the use of ‘said’ is one of those things that, done well, is invisible – and when it’s not, it’s not. I try to shift between using ‘said’, using other dialogue tags, using actions to delineate who’s speaking, and leaving tags out entirely (for short conversations, or for conversations between characters with vastly different voices).

    Your list of terrible writing advice turned into a list of great suggestions instead! :)

  6. Well, the in media res advice came from a guy praising Homer for not starting the story of the Trojan War with Leda and the swan.

    I think we can concede that’s a little too early.

  7. Phew, that writing advice. I hear you.

    I was reading a book recently where I almost put it down because I was worried it was going to follow the “do the worst thing you can think of to your protagonist” rule. I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt, and the character just… succeeded and was happy and it was so pleasant to read. It’s funny how NOT having the protagonist fail in a horrific manner felt subversive. Having meaningful stakes is important, but I find myself making a mental calculation of “if the character fails and the bad thing happens, would I still want to be reading this book or would I have wished I had put it away before now?” sometimes.

    I’m always hesitant to talk about where ‘said’ bothers me because so many young authors seem to want to avoid using it entirely, and I agree with you about that being the worse choice. Having a variety of dialogue tags, action, and “said” makes a book much easier to read. That said, pun unintended, if an author uses “said” for everything, I’m not going to put the book down. If I hit untagged dialogue and I don’t immediately know who’s talking, though, that can be a dealbreaker to me.

    Untagged, unclear-who-is-speaking dialogue: I put the book down.
    Using only said for dialogue: I grumble about a line editor, but I keep reading.
    Using a variety of methods so it appears seamless: I subconsciously get a happy feeling but don’t notice that it’s happening.

  8. I once stopped reading a book for almost a year because such terrible things were happening. I did go back and finish that book eventually. I thought the author would pull off a decent ending somehow, and she did. But today, I just would not keep going through a middle section that grim.

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