The Worst Writing Advice Ever
Welcome to the third in my series of Big Ass, Bad Ass Lists for Writers. Most content on this blog is short-to-medium pieces of conceptual advice, but these are long-form lists with specific takeaways and tools.
This list came from my asking a whole bunch of writing professionals I’ve met over the past decade. I asked them to share the worst writing advice they ever received. Here it is, with the hope that you can learn to ignore it earlier than we did.
Bad Advice: Keep your characters on a tight leash
“I’ve learned that the opposite is true. My characters know the story better than I do and when I trust them, they take me (and the reader) to far more interesting places than I could ever come up with on my own.”
Bad Advice: Write what you know
“The problem is, there is no story in it. It’s having the courage to dig deeper into the unknown where the story lives. It’s your job as a writer to find what you don’t know and give it meaning..”
Bad Advice: Real writers write every day
“I know many people have debunked this, but it seems like new writers still hear it a lot.”
Bad Advice: You’ll never make money, so why bother?
A great many writers have made good livings at the craft. It’s just a matter of hard work and focus.
Agent with Kimberley Cameron & Associates, author of The Author’s Checklist: An Agent’s Guide to Developing and Editing Your Manuscript
Bad Advice: Your first draft has to be perfect
“This advice comes from my own inner critic, and hamstrings many authors I know. Great writing lies in the revision process, so just start writing. Don’t let your inner critic stop you from creating. “
Bad Advice: Network with those “above” you
Bad Advice: Show, don’t tell
“The problem with this advice is that it’s invariably paired with the notion that “showing” means utilizing dramatic point-of-view, limiting your narrative toolbox down to dialogue, description, and internal monologue from a character. After studying the novels that resonate with me as a reader, I realized this wasn’t true at all. Rather, what they all had in common was a strong narrative voice derived from artfully “telling” the story. That artful telling can come in the form of using an omniscient narrative voice, switching character viewpoints in a creative way, or any number of things that are unique to the author’s voice.”
Bad Advice: Maybe you could open this novel with a description of the weather…
This violates Elmore Leonard’s first rule for writers, along with the wisdom and advice of myriad other professionals. While you’re at it, avoid dreams, alarm clocks, and your protagonist looking at their reflection.
Bad Advice: Marketing isn’t for creative people
“Marketing is sharing your passion and excitement so enthusiastically that other people get swept up in that enthusiasm right with you. When was the last time a friend recommended a book or a show you ended up loving? When was the last time you did that for somebody? That’s marketing. And it’s absolutely something you can and should do as a writer.”
Bad Advice: Keep writing no matter what
“Sometimes your writing brain needs a break, and you just need some time away from the task. Take a walk. Listen to some music. Tidy up. As long as you don’t slip into procrastination, that’s just fine.”
Jill Sherer Murray
Author of Big Wild Love: The Unstoppable Power of Letting Go, coming this May 12th.
Bad Advice: Crickets…no advice at all
“The worst writing advice I ever got was not getting any writing advice at all. When I was coming up as a young journalist, I had a well-credentialed editor who never gave me any feedback. While he’d edit my stories and send them forward, I would have welcomed more insight around how they could have been better. Because I knew I still had plenty to learn. Unfortunately, I didn’t take away much from the experience of working with him.”
Joe R. Lansdale
Legendary mojo storyteller and author of too many novels, scripts, and short stories to count, including More Better Deals
Bad Advice: Wait for the muse
“You are the muse. It always comes from you. The best way for the muse to show up is for you to show up with your ass in a chair and your fingers on the keyboard.”
Joel Mark Harris
Award-winning writer, journalist, and film producer. His latest book is On Copywriting: How to Make Money Writing
Bad Advice: I was told very clearly that, since I had learning disabilities I would never amount to much as a professional writer.
Just re-read his credentials to see whether they were right about that.
Bad Advice: Show, Don’t Tell
“This is not bad advice per se, but nearly useless when offered to beginners with no explanation of what it means. From a certain point of view, anything expressed in language is “told”. So how do you show with only words, no pictures? I figured out on my own what this really means: tell as if you’re showing. Use precise and evocative language to put the reader in the scene, and get yourself out of the way.”
Kim Cooper Findling
Author of five books, including The Sixth Storm, co-authored with her daughter Libby.
Bad Advice: Read All the Time
“Don’t get me wrong. I am a superfan of reading, and was a ravenous reader for decades But my most productive and successful decade as a writer came when I backed away from reading other people and focused on writing me.”
Bad Advice: This is just a draft of the first chapters? Why didn’t you finish it?
“Because you should write and not look back. Write until you finish an entire draft. If you stop and rewrite every time you think of a way to fix the first chapter or every time you realize you need to add something to a previous chapter, you’ll have a great first chapter… and no book. So make a margin note, finish the book, and absolutely show your unfinished drafts to a select group for feedback. Because if you rewrite until you think it’s ‘finished’ and only then show your work for feedback, you’ll have a LOT more rewriting to do and your book will take longer to finish than it has to.”
Bad Advice: If you don’t write every day, you’re not a real writer
“I’ll concede that there’s a very real sense in which it’s never going to get done if your butt’s not in your chair & you’re not actually doing the work. At the same time, people have productive & fallow periods, and many (most?) writers have other jobs they need to attend to, so you may have days, or weeks, or maybe longer, when you aren’t able to work on your project. This doesn’t mean it’s not a serious project, or that you’re not a serious writer, or that it’s not going to get done. Whatever works for you, works for you.”
Bad Advice: Forget about your first book. It never works.
Sometimes your first book, the one closest to your heart, the first one that made you want to do all the work of being a writer…it works out really well. After you pour a mountain of effort and learning into revising and rewriting it.
Award-winning author of the Felicity Carrol mystery series
Bad Advice: Listen to Every Expert
“I’d written a short story about a woman caring for her dying father-in-law, a man who disliked her as much as she did him. A writing teacher returned my paper and he wrote at the bottom, Where’s the story? Where’s the action? Later I took a women in literature course and the textbook was filled with stories similar to mine where emotion was the story. I’m so glad I didn’t listen to that guy.”
Phyllis Irene Radford
Phyllis is an award-winning author of many books, and would like to draw your attention to Walk the Wild With Me.
Bad Advice: Ignore Deadlines
“When I was a brand new author with my first book scheduled for release only a few months later, a well-established writer told me to ignore the deadlines listed in my contract. Deadlines are for lawyers, she said. Write the book on your own timeline and turn it in when it’s ready, not when the contract says. Um…that’s my name on the contract. I made every contracted deadline because I take my job seriously. At one point that other author told our mutual editor that she’d be at least 6 months late on the deadline. My book was on the editor’s desk, so she gave me the other author’s lead list position in the catalog and diverted her advertising budget to me. I’m still writing, the other writer has offended every editor in the big 5 and can’t sell a book in New York to save her life. “
Robert J Wiersema
Author of multiple horror and thriller novels, including The World More Full of Weeping, now available in audio.
Bad Advice: Write What You Know
“I shudder to imagine the world of fiction if everyone followed this advice to the letter: reams of coy (or outrageous) autofiction, with few mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, or romance novels. I understand the spirit of the advice, but it’s just not clear enough – how about write FROM what you know? Or write what you WANT TO know? Write what you fear is my personal favourite substitute, but write what you would want to read is probably the most solid variation. Do that, instead.”