Ask any successful author and they’ll tell you they’ve received plenty of advice over the course of their careers—some good, some okay, and some terrible. If you search the internet for “writing advice” or better yet, “writing tips” you’ll find hundreds of articles spouting what to do and what not to do. Quotes from Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, Earnest Hemingway, and other great authors ring like church bells from on high…but sometimes, an aspiring writer’s inexperience can lead to the misunderstanding or misapplication of these sage words and to the detriment of their work.
In today’s post, we’ll discuss the Worst Writing Advice Ever given and how to revise these memorable tips to make them work for you:
(1) WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW
In my unscientifically, anecdotally measured assessment, “Write what you know” is the most well-known and misapplied piece of writing advice in the business. Like all writing advice, it was undoubtedly birthed with good intention and there is a nugget of truth within…BUT, following this advice to the letter will likely result in more harm than good.
One problem with this tip, if too rigorously applied, is that a writer could accidentally pigeon hole themself and limit their growth and potential. In my case, I was a submarine officer in the Navy, so if only wrote what I know, I’d be writing submarine novels exclusively and would have missed out on all the success I’ve found by branching out into different genres and topics. The industry loves to pigeon hole writers. Don’t make it easy for them.
Paula Munier has this to say:
Write what you know, is especially bad advice when you’re young and really don’t know anything. Think instead of in terms of write what you love and write what you’d love to know.
I love Paula’s hot take on this because as a writer this resonates with me on a daily basis. My most dynamic prose, my best dialogue, and my most productive page counts happen when I’m enthusiastic and interested in the topic and character. When you love what you’re writing, whether you happen to be a subject matter expert or not, it shines through on the page.
REVISED: “WRITE WHAT YOU LOVE.”
(2) SHOW, DON’T TELL
If you’ve not heard this gem before, then you must be new to planet Earth (or at least new to the writing community). Like the previous entry, “Show, Don’t Tell” is born from good intentions. There’s nothing that screams amateur to agents, acquiring editors, and discerning readers more than a writer who “tells” the reader everything about everything. By over explaining, an author eliminates both the nuance and the thrill of a great story. Subtext, foreshadowing, and metaphor are either redundant or missing altogether. Over-explaining renders dialogue unnatural and neuters all intrigue and uncertainty that helps drive the narrative.
To compensate, authors trying to adhere to this idiom believe they need to become Michelangelo with words, painting the page with their artistry. This results in overwritten, self-indulgent, and long-winded prose that tests even the most patient readers.
Trust your readers to use their imagination to bring the scene to life. They’re reading in lieu of watching television. They want to let their minds explore, if you over explain it kills the joy.
How much or how little to show and tell will be different for every author, but just like in elementary school, good writing is “Show AND Tell.” All tell doesn’t work, but neither does all show. You have to master both to delight and impress your audience.
REVISED: “SPARK THE READER’S IMAGINATION”
(3) KILL YOUR DARLINGS
Kill Your Darlings was made famous by the iconic Stephen King. The advice is profound, but sadly, when taken at face value it often does more harm than good.
Here’s what Dana Isaacson has to say on the matter:
Writers may sometimes misinterpret this advice to mean they must absolutely (and gratuitously) cut out anything in their prose that they love.
He goes on to explain, “Instead writers should to be coldly analytical. They should be ready and willing to edit out things in their work that do not actually benefit their story. Even if something included in the text is lovely or wonderfully clever (aka a “darling”), if it does not serve a greater narrative purpose, then it should be cut.”
In other words, King’s advice is not suggesting butchery, but thoughtful slimming down.
REWORDED: “WHIP YOUR DARLINGS INTO SHAPE”
(4) WRITE YOUR STORY YOUR WAY
I think this advice falls into the category of the road to hell is paved with good intentions. When someone tells an aspiring author to “write your story your way” their heart’s in the right place. At it’s core, the counsel is meant to encourage the writer to trust their own instincts and not write a book to please every possible stakeholder because those are the types of books that lack bold, fresh vision. But embracing this advice too strictly is equally catastrophic.
Literary Agent Gina Panettierri says:
“I have found with many novelists that it’s only through discussion and interpretation by third parties that they are able to elucidate what they’re aiming for with their story.”
Award winning author Hank Phillip Ryan adds another dimension by pointing out that writing your story your way is often taken by an author as license to ignore constructive criticism.
Instead of dismissing reactions you disagree with, open your mind and take a moment and think about what your reader might be saying. Don’t let your impulse to defend your work prevent you from improving.
In other words, every story—even those written by masters of their genre—can be improved. No author is perfect and when ego starts to interfere with craft, the end result is a story that doesn’t live up to its potential. Writing your story your way isn’t a license to ignore counsel from people who know what they’re talking about like agents, editors, and successful published authors. Just like there are no single person Fortune 500 companies, there are no bestselling novels that have not had input from a small army of talented individuals helping the author achieve his/her vision.
REWORD: “WRITING A BESTSELLER TAKES A VILLAGE”
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