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August 6, 2019

Can Common Writing Advice Be Wrong?

Stencil of "Way Wrong" on pavement with text: When Writing Advice Is...

I’ve often said that there’s no “one right way” in writing. That truth is evident from many perspectives.

I’ve posted about how there’s no “one right way” to…:

  • draft a story. Whether we’re talking about the common advice to “write every day” or “wake early and write first thing,” our writing processes might work great for us…until they don’t. When our job or family situation changes, we might need to be flexible and try different processes. Plotters might even need to try writing by the seat of their pants—or vice versa. *grin*
  • edit a story. The common advice to never edit as we go might be exactly wrong for how our brain works. Personally, when I start a writing session, rereading what I wrote the previous session (and making appropriate changes) helps me get back into the story, voice, and characters.
  • apply writing craft rules. There’s endless advice about how to start (or not start) a story, whether to use adverbs, how much backstory to include, how to show and not tell, how much description vs. action to include, what makes characters compelling, etc. In truth, writing rules should usually be considered “guidelines.” *smile*

In other words, if there’s no “one right way” for most aspects of writing, any common advice that tries to lay out a right vs. wrong dichotomy is likely wrong itself. How should we approach writing advice if even the most frequently shared advice is often wrong?

5 Tips to Watch Out for “Bad” Advice

Tip #1: Watch Out for Advice That Doesn’t Apply to Us

In addition to those bullet points above, there’s also not “one right way” to query our story, publish our book, or market to potential readers. For each one of those categories, we can probably think of situations where much advice wouldn’t apply to us. For example, maybe we’re going to self-publish and don’t need to query at all, or maybe our prioritization of sales numbers is different from those doing heavy marketing.

The same idea applies to many types of advice. Sometimes, in addition to there not being “one right way” to do anything in writing, the advice just doesn’t apply to us:

  • We might have different goals.
  • Our tendencies might not match up with the “usual.”
  • Our genre or readership might have different expectations.
  • The usual advice might not work for our processes.

Even the best advice won’t always apply to us, our processes, our story, or our goals, especially as our knowledge, goals, and career change over time. So we should all give ourselves permission to ignore whatever advice doesn’t help us or our story.

Tip #2: Watch Out for Simplified Advice

As I’ve mentioned before, most advice (even those in the “often wrong” category) usually contains a kernel of truth:

  • We can’t wait for perfect circumstances to write, so defaulting to a “write every day” attitude might help—at least until we know how to establish a writing schedule that works better for us.
  • Editing as we go can result in never moving forward, so we should change our drafting process if we catch ourselves getting caught in an endless editing loop when we’re supposed to be writing new stuff.
  • Most schools don’t teach students how to show, so new writers often fall back on telling rather than showing and need to be reminded to “show don’t tell.”
  • Etc., etc.

In other words, advice that might be helpful to get newbies onto the right track needs more nuance as we learn more. The problem is when the advice is simplified down to a pat lesson that ignores that nuance.

Tip #3: Watch Out for Extreme Advice

Also as part of that simplification process, much common advice tries to divide options into extremes, ignoring the very large gray area in between.

Most writers are somewhere in the middle of the plotter vs. pantser spectrum. While adverbs (or adjectives) can be a sign of weak writing, they can also be necessary. And so on…and on.

That’s why I talk so much about trying to find a good balance. I’ve written (or hosted guest posts) about finding a good balance in showing vs. telling, character backstory, story description, character emotions, plot obstacles, story pacing — or in our lives. *smile*

Tip #4: Watch Out for Attempts to Find the “Perfect”

Much like how there’s no “one right way,” there’s not going to be a “perfect” approach either. Instead of perfection, the best we can hope for is balance, and even that is a never-ending struggle to accommodate constantly shifting variables.

What are 5 signs that common writing advice might be wrong for us? Click To TweetOur job, family, budget, and life situation can change from one month to the next, so our goals will often change along with us. Those changing goals will affect our processes and what works best for us.

Similarly, there’s no “perfect” amount of showing vs. telling, or backstory, or description, or emotion, or what have you. The “right” amount depends on many variables, such as our story, our genre, our characters, our voice, our readership, our pacing, our story’s mood, etc.

The amount of character growth and emotion I use in my romances, where readers want to feel a strong connection and empathy toward the characters, wouldn’t be the right amount for a hard science fiction story with an android main character. The “right” balance of any element is strictly a judgment call based on the story we want to tell.

Tip #5: Watch Out for “Missing” Exceptions

Much like how Tip #1 pointed out how advice isn’t “one size fits all,” we can assume that virtually all advice comes with a list of exceptions—even though they’re never mentioned 99.99% of the time:

“Write tight!” *
( * Unless you already write tight, in which case, an attempt to write even tighter would mean you’re going to have to flesh out elements later.)

I was reminded of this exception aspect of the advice truism recently when author Jackie Lau shared how common advice can make comprehension difficult for some readers. Her thread made me realize that common advice can alienate readers who are neurodivergent, dyslexic, struggle with focus, or are just plain distracted or interrupted.

Example: How Advice Makes Assumptions

I’ve often heard the tip “Resist the Urge to Explain,” which means to avoid spelling things out for readers. That piece of advice is so common that writers and editors often refer to it by the acronym RUE.

Can we alienate our readers by following common writing advice too strictly? Click To TweetBut the truth is that we never know what our readers are going to pick up on—or forget when life gets crazy and weeks go by before they pick up our book again. As someone who sometimes reads a few pages at a time, I often wish side characters were re-identified more frequently. (“Wait. Was Eric the brother or the gardener?” *grin*)

When it comes to the RUE advice, we certainly want to watch out for overwriting (no one needs a step-by-step of starting a car or opening a front door) or sharing extraneous information in infodumps. But what’s obvious to one reader might not be to another.

I encourage everyone to read Jackie’s thread for a different perspective. Many of the issues she brings up (multiple he’s and she’s in dialogue tags, missing context, hard-to-parse writing, etc.) are problems in any story, and maybe the admonishment to “write tight” or RUE has made it hard to remember that context and explanations are something to balance as well.

Final Tip: Advice Needs Balance Too

Even the type of advice that might seem obvious, such as don’t tell and show, can have exceptions. So we need to balance advice just as much as we need to balance the elements of our story.

As Jackie pointed out, explanations aren’t inherently bad. Context is essential for readers to enjoy our story, and not every reader can be assumed to pick up the same things we do as the author.

For example, while we may love showing emotions, the same cues (downcast eyes, hunched shoulders, etc.) can often signal multiple different emotions—just look at how often any one phrase appears in the Emotion Thesaurus. So yes, sometimes we also have to tell a bit to ensure readers have the right context for all that showing to be meaningful.

In other words, virtually every piece of common writing advice is sometimes wrong, doesn’t apply, or ignores nuance or exceptions. It’s our job to balance the kernel of truth behind the advice and the needs of our story, our characters, our goals, and our career.

But we also want to remember the “right” approach or amount of anything can change with our knowledge, our situations, our genre, our story, our characters—or from one reader to another. There’s no such thing as perfect. All we can do is use our best judgment. *smile*

Have you come across advice that people take at face value even though it’s often wrong or inapplicable, and if so, what was the advice? Do you agree with these tips for how to approach advice? Do you struggle to find the right balance when listening to advice? What helps you know how or when to apply advice? Do you have other tips for what to do with advice?

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Sieran

Love this post, Jami! I especially liked the part about alienating readers who are neurodivergent, have dyslexia, are distracted, etc. When I read a book analysis, I find every time that I’ve missed out on so many social cues… How am I supposed to get all of this subtext without a character or the author explaining this to me? XD Some types of subtext are easy to figure out, but other kinds of subtext are simply too subtle for me to get. Also, maybe this is to do with neurodivergency, but I mentioned before that unlike maybe most readers, I feel stronger empathy with the character if the author TELLS us the emotion, rather than implying the emotion through showing. For instance, when this character is reminiscing about her mom who is slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s, I get that the character is filled with grief and pain. However, I FEEL this grief and pain more if the author also tells me directly that the character is experiencing “sorrow,” “grief”, “anguish”, or whatnot. There’s something about these emotion words that triggers a strong reaction in me. If I only get the internal monologue about her mom’s deteriorating condition, plus maybe some body language of despair, then I would only feel this sadness in a milder, more detached way. (Actually, this is not the best example, because I would react to my personal memories of my grandparents succumbing to Alzheimer’s, so my feelings would be more intense than usual. Nevertheless, I feel…  — Read More »

Star Ostgard
Star Ostgard

For a long time, I’ve tried to make clear the difference between advice for beginners and advice for more experienced writers. For example, the advice to write every day. That’s very good advice for newbies, who haven’t developed either the habit of writing or the confidence to write. But once one is past both those obstacles, one begins to learn when we can take a break and still come back strong (or when we need to take a break to get a fresh breath). And of course the whole pantsing vs planning debacle (I’ve met more beginners who almost gave up because they thought they had to plan out their stories).

My own “sage advice” (wink wink) is, if you run into a problem, try what sounds like it would work, and if it does, great. But if it doesn’t, well, it doesn’t. Try something else. It’s a learning process, and individualized. Experiment. Have fun. Learn how you write. Nobody giving advice is God. They can only tell you what worked for them.

Vivienne Sang

How long, or how many books do you need to have published before being considered no longer a beginner? I have 7 books published, but still feel I have a lot to learn.

Kathy Steinemann

Thanks, Jami. Beginning writers need some structure, but ironclad rules often lead them astray, This should help.

Pamela

And there is such a thing as “analysis paralysis” which is what sometimes happens to me when I am bombarded with too much advice. You need to do what’s right for you and your story but do make sure to edit at some point, lol!

Lindsey Russell
Lindsey Russell

I don’t see going back and adding stuff to the first draft as ‘editing’ but putting in what you left out so see it as a continuation of the writing process. I do believe the advice of not editing (looking for errors and improving) as you go is good advice. Why would you perfect something you might cut when you do a proper edit? Otherwise all good points.

Star Ostgard
Star Ostgard

“Why would you perfect something you might cut when you do a proper edit?”

By the same token, why would you finish writing an entire book only to go back and toss out chunks of it and then have to rewrite the whole thing? Whereas if you edit as you go, you know you won’t have to toss out anything because you know what’s already happened. 😉

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