As an avid writer, I’ve implemented faulty advice in my stories. And my work suffered for it. The worlds I had constructed were dull, the plot unrealistic, and the characters? No reader cared.
In this blog post, I will outline ten of the worst writing advice that myself and other writers have received.
One: Don’t Use Adverbs
Adverbs slow your writing and weaken it. Yet sometimes writers have to use adverbs, and it is the best option for their writing. Instead, better advice is to not overdo adverbs. For every piece of writing advice, there are exceptions. And I know- writers never think they are, or always think they are.
Yet sometimes you’ll be the exception, and others, the norm. Be careful when you apply any writing advice to your craft, because it causes unnecessary stress, and can damage your work.
Two: Shy Away From Sensitive Subjects
This angers me. Over the past few years, writers are told by vocal readers that they aren’t allowed to write about certain topics. Such themes include race and sexual assault. This is harmful to writers. As artists, we understand that literature is challenging, and includes upsetting subjects. That’s okay! Stories do not always have to appear nice, wrapped in red bows.
Better advice would be to encourage writers to research and understand the nuances of their subject.
Three: Third Person Is Better Than First
I used to believe that. Until I read Never Let Me Go, I believed that first person was ‘weaker’ than third. What’s great about the first person is that it allows the reader to invest significant time in the mind of a character. That doesn’t suit every story, but it could suit yours.
Don’t be afraid to use first person, or to experiment with narration.
Four: Historical Research Does Not Matter As It’s All Fiction
Historical research will always matter, because it creates realism.
That helps immerse the reader more in the story which is what you, as a writer, should aim for. No, historical accuracy is no substitute for poor storytelling, and some writers go overboard with their quest for ‘historical realism.’ But stay abreast of history, and when you write about it, have some accuracy.
A subgenre this is specifically true of is alternative history. If you write that, prepare to do significant research. But it’s worth it, and your story will be better because of it.
Five: Make Sure Your Protagonist Is Sympathetic
Protagonists do not have to be ‘sympathetic.’ They must be interesting. Sympathy is a highly subjective experience, and writers can try too hard to make their leads sympathetic. Usually, that involves making antagonists and rivals so unsympathetic, you’d think no one is like that! It’s also cheap and poor writing.
Some viewers will not sympathise with any character that cheats on their spouse or partner. There is nothing that you can do as a writer to avoid that.
Instead, I suggest writing characters that cause the reader to take an interest. Writers can toy with sympathy. One of my favourite movies, American History X, gives a sympathetic backstory and characteristics to the Neo-Nazi brothers. Although the film condemns their actions, it still gets us invested in the story. That’s done by giving the viewers a reason to care.
There’s something remarkable about media that makes you care about the usually unsympathetic.
Six: Your First Draft Will Always Suck (And Requires Extensive Rewriting)
My first drafts are a fusion of ideas and plot points. For me, I require extensive rewrites for my fiction. Yet other writers that I’ve talked to don’t. They take time before they start their first draft to outline and consider the ‘beats’ of the story. Whilst that doesn’t guarantee a perfect draft, it doesn’t automatically make the first draft bad.
First drafts are valuable. It’s the first time you see your story brought to life, and a great writer will see that as a learning experience. I find this advice pinned by negativity, with the unsettling assumption that whatever a writer tries to write, it will be rubbish.
Such a mindset is unhelpful. You might find that your first draft is decent. However, I will advise to polish it up before you send it to an editor or beta reader. That will ensure you have a manuscript you are proud of.
Seven: Listen To Your Beta Readers Religiously, They Are Never Wrong
Beta readers are great. They look through your work and give a reader’s perspective. This allows the writer to implement feedback before they query, or send their work to a professional editor. Most writers work with multiple beta readers, and personally, I’ve worked with dozens. However, beta readers’ words aren’t gospel.
They can make mistakes or read the wrong intentions.
I learned that in a creative writing class, when two beta readers gave outstanding feedback. However, they differed on my characterisation of the protagonist. This taught me that beta readers can disagree with each other, and that the final decisions rest with me.
Rather, learn to work with beta readers better. That means asking specific questions or looking for suggestions. Not all writing advice is created equal, and that is true for beta readers.
Eight: The Plot Doesn’t Matter If You Are Writing Literary Fiction
Plot matters. Yes, in literary fiction, there is less of a focus on ‘plot.’ Yet stories require an overarching storyline that ties together events, characters and themes. There is little reason to believe that plot is a dirty word, because it isn’t! It’s often what attracts readers.
Pay attention to the plot in your story. It’s vital.
Nine: Don’t Overdo The Descriptions, Readers Do Not Care How The Food Tastes
This advice is prominent in the fantasy genre. Yet as a writer, you may like lush descriptions. They help immerse the reader more into your world. Considering visual descriptions are highly prominent in children’s literature, I believe some writers look down on such descriptive language.
A better approach would be to use descriptive language when it makes sense. Only include details if it tells us relevant information, or helps the reader experience the events better. I like to know what the chicken tastes like, how the bread is buttered, and what the wine tastes like. However, describing the tablecloth, or the brand of the picnic basket, can be excessive. Show restraint.
Ten: Write, No Matter If It’s Bad
It’s good to have a proper writing habit. However, the ‘just write’ attitude can be unhelpful, especially when you have a problem with your writing. If you want help with your work, and are interested in improving, then I suggest taking a break from writing.
Seek feedback, take unrelated writing exercises or read more books. Writing will make you a better writer, but getting help can put you on the right track and potentially save hours of time. That’s great!
It’s a challenge to shift through bad writing advice. Yet through trial and error, you can make progress. Also, seeking feedback can be valuable. What terrible writing advice have you heard? Comment below!