Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Worst Writing Advice I've Ever Gotten

JENN McKINLAY: I was scrolling through Twitter this week when a thread popped up asking authors what the worst writing advice they'd ever gotten was. Author Victoria/V.E. Schwab was the twitterer who lobbed the question out there and it garnered almost 1,000 comments. Clearly, there is a lot of very bad writing advice out there!


The Tweet that started it all.

It certainly got me thinking about the worst advice I've ever received. My path to authordom was a long and winding one, in fact, you could say I took the long way around - the really long way around. I decided to be a writer at sixteen, didn't start writing until I was twenty-five, and sold my first book when I was thirty-two. As you can imagine, I was given much unsolicited advice over the years from the moment I decided to be a writer to the first book sale. And I've gotten plenty of advice since then, as well.

I think the piece of advice I dislike the most always starts with "You know what you should write..." which is then followed by some half baked potato of a plot in the speaker's head that they would write, you know, if they had the time. Uh huh.


Other gems include:

1. You should just be your own agent. How hard can it be? Am I right?

No. I don't want to be an agent. I want to be a writer. Duh.

2. Don't overuse "said" as a dialogue tag. Spice it up!

"No," she remarked/refused/retorted. Said is fine, thanks.

3. Write what you know.

Nope, and I'll tell you why...BORING! And if I'm bored writing it, you'll be bored reading it. Write what you care about would be much better advice.

4. Don't use the word "was". Ever.

Welp, I wasn't going to listen to you and now I'm really not. Yes, be aware of using the passive voice but that doesn't mean every use of the word was is bad. Sheesh!

5. Follow the market.

Oh, lord no! See number three, but also, once the Fifty Shades of Twilight with a Dragon Tattoo craze becomes obvious, it's usually over before you can pen your version of it. You do you is a much better way to go.

All right, Reds, you're up. What's the worst writing advice you've ever gotten? Readers, what horrible suggestions have you heard?







82 comments:

  1. It always amazes me that so many people ready to tell you how to do your job/raise your children/run your life.
    Worst advice: “You have to do it this way . . . .”
    Only “this way” was not only wrong, it was against everything I knew was right. I ignored the advice and did what I knew to be right and it all turned out perfectly fine . . . .

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    1. Exactly! I have been told by some people how I should live my life. I thought it was because of my disability and now I am learning that it seems to happen to all of us. It is important that you do what you know WORKS for you. It may not work for other people.

      Diana

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  2. I always love the "you should write a book like J. K. Rowling" advice. Ms. Rowling, and every other author out there, found success because she wrote what she wanted to write, not what somebody else wanted her to write in imitation of what somebody else wrote.

    Also, although a trusted critique partner is a treasure, I like to steer clear of critique groups that become echo chambers where everybody is in on an inside joke, and dumps on any writer who is new to the circle and a) doesn't know the joke so b) writes something the joke forbids. Not helpful, people. Not helpful at all.

    The best writing advice, even though I hate when it happens, is when someone puts a finger squarely on a specific problem that I know is in there somewhere but can't quite catch hold of. My initial response may be "That's so mean!" but then . . . yeah . . . that's so exactly true and right.

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    1. Ha! You just described my editor, Gigi!

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    3. I hope you mean the problem spotting, not the J.K. Rowling advice. By the way, my copy of "The Good Ones" arrived on Friday, and has moved to the top of my TBR pile.

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  3. Hmmm. "Worst piece of advise." Do I have to limit myself to writing? Because if we're talking about advise in general... well, let's just say the list is long!
    As far as rotten writing advise, I have a friend and even though I love her dearly, I will no longer share any of my story outlines with her. She always, always, always, says, "then you know what your protagonist could do?" and she's off and running with her version of my story. *sigh*

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    1. Yup - that drives me nuts when your story gets hijacked!

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  4. Jenn, I think #3, write what you know is awful, too. I love authors doing all the great research they do and writing about things they want to learn about, and then I get to learn about it, too, through their enthusiastic writing. And, look at all of the great storytelling that flies in the face of that. Diana Gabaldon had never been to Scotland when she started the Outlander series. And, I just finished and reviewed Rhys' amazing new book, The Victory Garden, and I'm pretty sure Rhys wasn't a land girl, although she sure made me believe she could have been.

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    1. Brilliant, Kathy! I hadn’t been to Notting Hill when I wrote the first hat shop and our Debs couldn’t believe it :) or she was being very kind! LOL!

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    2. Brilliant! I loved the Hat Shop. It is the perfect excuse for a research trip :-)

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  5. This wasn't advice for me, but someone I know is aware I'm a writer. I don't see her very often, but the last time I ran into her she was telling me about how she had advised her friend to write and publish a book because then he could just sit back and watch the money roll in. I tried to tell her it's not that easy, but she kept going on about this great advice she gave her friend. Oh, and she's planning to sit down one of these weekends when she has a few hours to spare and write a book too, because it's so easy. At least that's what she told me five years ago. I haven't seen the book on any shelves yet.

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    1. Heh heh heh. Yeah, all that money is pesky, isn’t it? And, sure, a weekend should do it - whole book - no prob!

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  6. #5 - seriously. When I was looking for an agent several years ago, I had several say some version of" I like your writing. If you sent me a vampire story I could definitely sell it."

    #3- I am quoting someone here and I no longer remember who: "Don't write what you know. Write what you want to know."Yes!

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    1. Yes, they said that #3 much better than I did! Vampires - I hear they’re coming back. *sigh*

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  7. #6 "Follow Strunk and White." No! They are pedants who break their own "rules" in their own writing and who are trying to capture some archaic standard of properness that no one uses any more. Mind you, I adore EB White's fiction for children, but not that book.

    Also, an effing copyeditor who tried to make southern dialect grammatical - in dialog. No! Luckily I had the support of my editor who fully support all my reverts.

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    1. STET is your friend! Copyeditors could be a blog post or two of their own!

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    2. Stet - Wikipedia
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stet
      Stet is an obelism, used by proofreaders and editors to instruct the typesetter or writer to disregard a change the editor or proofreader had previously marked. It is a form of the Latin verb sto, stare, steti, statum,.

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    3. Thank you! Would have bothered me all day.

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  8. If I had listened to some people, I would not be in retirement and I would not be a writer in progress ( like work in progress ?).
    Also, if I listened too much, I would not be able to write. I always did as I wanted to and will continue.
    What helps me is reading JRW 's posts and comments everyday, the variety of subjects and the inputs of true writers, thank you.

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    1. Danielle, listening to real writers--those who struggle to keep their behinds in those chairs and who write and rewrite and then edit that draft again--who write because there is a story coming off those pages--that is the best advice you can get! JRW is like one long writers workshop, with fun breaks for food and laughter and good fellowship along the way!

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    2. Oh, thank you, Danielle! 100% with the writer-in-progress! I love that!

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    3. Thank you, Danielle and Flora! You're just made our collective days!

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  10. Rules: no dialogue tags, no adverbs, no "was", no sentence fragments. Phooey!
    And a judge for an unpublished manuscript contest: "you can't write. I'm wasting my time reading your submission."

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    1. That judge should be banned! Grrr. And I love sentence fragments - they punch up the prose!

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  11. I have heard all of these, Jenn, voiced by various people. I sometimes think that the 'write what you know' advice is not properly understood by people who spout it. Write what you know to be true--to the plot, to the setting, to the characters. I don't know any actual wizards or people who can take the form of dragons, for example--but they've come alive by the words put on a page.

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  12. I think the worst advice I can remember was the person who said to Truman Capote, "Okay Truman .. go ahead and publish the chapter "La Cote Basque 1965" in Esquire. The chapter was from Answered prayers his unfinished novel. His editor cautioned him don't. He listened to someone else. Answered Prayers was a social satire filled with thinly disguised -- very thinly disguised -- caricatures of people he knew, the very rich and famous. It destroyed him.

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    1. I just realized my post did not address Jenn's question. I will be thinking of bad advice given about WRITING not publishing. oops.

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    2. No, that fits right in! I had never heard that story about TC! Oof! I had lunch with some author friends yesterday, talking about the public mis-steps of a lot of authors. It’s been quite a year for author’s behaving badly!

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    3. I remember that story about TC.

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  13. Sue Grafton used to keep a writing diary, where every day before she did her pages, she’d write in a notebook what she was thinking about and how she felt and what her story was about. So because Sue did it, I had to do it too, of course. And all I kept writing in my nice notebook was stuff like: OMG I have no idea about this book and I’m doomed. So I stopped doing it. Xxxxxx.

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  14. I think most *bad* advice started out life as advice with the best of intentions. It just got laid on with a trowel. "Hold the adverbs," for instance, is great advice about 80 per cent of the time. "Show don't tell" is great advice except when what you need to convey is boring, or is something the reader already knows."Murder your darlings" ... is too hard, so I leave it to my editor to make the cuts.

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    1. Very wise, Hallie. Especially the murder your darlings part - it’s why I love my editor even when she hurts me.

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  15. My worst piece came from my former agent who said nobody was interested in Workd War Two and it was insulting to write about the Englush countryside when such awful things were going on in Europe. Luckily I changed agents, wrote In Farleigh Field, won 3 awards and sold several hundred thousand copies! My advice would be write where your passion is

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    1. Bravo, Rhys! You have to forge your own path.

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    2. Seriously? What planet was your former agent from?

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    3. Bravo, Rhys! How did you find another agent?

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    4. Pure chance. I was on a panel with another writer. Her agent asked about me and this wonderful woman put the two of us together. I've been happy ever since. Absolutely adore my agent

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  16. Not a writer, so I can't say much about getting advice, good or bad.

    I went to high school out in the sticks, and the curriculum was limited, far from college prep. This concerned my very well educated father, and he consulted with a couple of my amazing teachers. The three of them decided that the best way to prepare me was to make sure I could write. I was assigned a subject per week and expected to research it and produce a "theme" paper. And so I did. And I got them back covered in red pencil, with suggestions for corrections in everything from spelling to grammar to to content to composition.

    When I went off to college, there was nothing any professor could throw at me that I couldn't handle. Writing all those pesky papers, those not very exceptional essays, did indeed prepare me for the pounds of term papers I would write.

    I do like Strunk and White, particularly when I have a question of grammar or punctuation. I know they are outdated now, but I've never been faulted for following their directives. At the least, it is a good place to start.

    Off on a tangent now: I'm reading a very good book, a first novel, by an Australian journalist. It's a page turner.

    Except.

    He writes in the third person present. I will give him points for his unusual style, but the fact that I've noticed speaks for itself I think. I spent too much time trying to figure out why this kept getting my attention as opposed to losing myself in the plot. Now that I'm 3/4 of the way through, I still notice when he switches to third person past, but only when the speaker is referring to the past.

    If I were a professorial writer, I would be telling me to to avoid this style unless I was writing for a screen play.

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    1. I started with Strunk and White, too. It is a good place to start. That book sounds fascinating, Ann, but you’re right that it shouldn’t pull you out of the story.

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    2. I am always jolted by books written in the present tense; my instinct is to say, No. Wait. You're telling a story that's happened - that's why you can write about it! ...But if the story interests me, I'll stick with it - either to the end, or until the present tense becomes too much of a barrier. Then, I set it aside and find another book to read.

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    3. This isn’t the kind of book I’ll set aside. Am lookoking forward to finishing it today because I haven’t a clue about the ending. I do think it could use some skillful editing, but I also look forward to his next book

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  17. My husband, a photographer, moviemaker, author (movie scripts, articles, and books), and English major, gave me the worst advice I've ever had. He insisted, over and over again, that "real" writers write for eight hours every day, and that if I did not do that I was not one.

    Knowing so many writers, really real ones, has shown me this is not true for almost anyone.

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    1. PS Who else had pizza last night, thanks to the blog's subliminal suggestion? :-)

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    2. Eight hours? Nope. More like 3-4 normally and 12-16 if I’m on deadline! Pizza? Yay!

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  18. Everything I was taught about writing when I was in high school was condemned by my first college English professor. Everything!

    DebRo

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    1. Ugh! As I recall every English teacher opposed the teachings of the teacher who came before - every one.

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  19. Jenn, all those bits of advice are equally irritating!! I especially dislike "murder your darlings," because I usually know when I've hit something just right or written a sentence or a scene that's particularly good. It's my job!

    But the worst piece of advice I ever got (multiple times) was "English mysteries are so over." Oh, and the particular version of "write what you know," as in I'm an American so can't write British stories or characters. Grrr.

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    1. Deborah, who said English mysteries are so over? I love English mysteries. Some people would prefer novels set in other places. Keep in mind that different people have different tastes. I love your books and please keep on writing :-)

      Diana

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    2. Hunh. Disregard the enormous popularity of Acorn and BritBox mysteries, right?

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    3. Deborah- The spectacular popularity of BritBox and Acorn would seem to indicate that some people don't know beans!

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    4. Love these BritBox and Acorn shows!

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  20. From the corporate world: "Amanda, don't think so much before writing. When I write, I just put the words on the page. It's so easy." Um, yes, Mr. Boss; indeed. That's why your emails were always sooooo loooooong! And hard to understand. #reallybadwritingadvice

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  21. Worst writing advice: Don't read the classics. Nobody writes like that anymore.

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    1. I don't think so,Bibliophile, but I ignored it.

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    2. I would ignore that too. I was not interested in the classics except for children's classics. Now I am starting to read the grown up classics and I actually like some of them.

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  22. Not a writer! I think we’re all entitled to happily ignore unsolicited advice.

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  23. Wonderful, wonderful comments above!!!

    When I was a kid, I remember my mom correcting my grammar when I wrote letters to relatives. I thought it was a given and that all kids' letters got corrected by their moms. LOL. Now I automatically edit my own writing as I write.

    Trying to recall the worst writing advice that I have received. I am trying to start a blog and sometimes it posts. It depends on the Internet connection.

    Not writing advice, though I could write a book about the worst advice I have received in my life. There has been times in my life when people have given me what I consider "bad" advice. Perhaps it worked for the person giving me advice because they had to deal with different circumstances. By now, I know what works for me. it took me a lot of trial and error to figure out what works for me and what did NOT work for me.

    There have been times when I tried to follow other pieces of advice even though my gut said NO. This happened after I became an adult. This is what happened: my hair started falling out! I would wash my hair and huge chunks of my hair was coming out! My doctor asked me if I was under a lot of stress. And the answer is YES! Trying to follow bad advice was causing a lot of stress in my life! After I saw my doctor, I decided to STOP listening to bad advice and follow my heart. I realized that I knew what works for me and I needed to be brave and stick with what works for me. It may not work for other people. Since I stopped listening to bad advice, my hair is healthier now :-) .

    Diana

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  24. I'm not a writer and that may have something to do with the teacher who told me that my writing was technically good but that "you have no imagination". While this may have been true, it was a lousy thing to hear as a teenager. I am a curious and insatiable reader instead. But I hate it when an acquaintance or even worse, total stranger, who tells me "You HAVE TO read this book -- you'll love it!"

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    1. I almost never love what I'm told I'll love. And that teacher should be slapped :(

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  25. I'm not a writer but have been given bad advice from time to time. I thing worse "advice" was not given to me, but about me, and it was given to my dad. I have a slight dyslexic tendency and was having problems with spelling and oral reading. The school administrator was giving my mom the brush off, so dad took the day off work to speak with him. My father was told that I was just so nice and sweet that he shouldn't worry about my problems at school in fact he shouldn't even bother saving money so I could go to college. He should be happy if I just graduated from high school because I was going to get married and have babies because I was "so nice and sweet." Well, my dad save that piece of advice and actually gave it to me when I was in high school, probably as encouragement. But I got mad and to determined prove this idiot administrator wrong. Well, I did go to college and I do have a degree, 2 actually, and I didn't get married and I can't have kids so guess what? He was wrong all the way around. I think, maybe it still bugs me, maybe just a little bit.

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    2. The school administrator did not know what he or she was talking about. I think this happens to many of us. Remember when someone said something similar to Michelle Obama in school?
      She mentions this in her book, Becoming.

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    3. That school administrator should not be working in a school environment. That was hugely inappropriate. I'm so sorry you had to deal with this idiot. :(

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