Friday, April 05, 2013

Unsolicited Writing Advice You Should NEVER Follow


by Edie Melson

Have you noticed the phenomenon that occurs when you confess you’re writing a book? It doesn’t matter if you’re an established author with thirty-plus books under your belt or someone working on a first novel. Announce you’re writing a book, and you’re in for as much irritating advice as any first-time pregnant woman.

Here is my top 10 list of Unsolicited Writing Advice You Should NEVER Follow.

1. Write what you know. On the surface, this may sound like savvy advice. It’s not. With the advent of the Internet, you can do the research you need to write about almost anything.

2. Write every day. Again, it sounds good. Surely someone who’s serious about something will do it every day. Truthfully, we all work better when we take time to relax and let our minds rest.

3. Never read while you’re writing. I’ve never found this to inhibit my output or the quality of my work. I’ve found that reading keeps the writing fire stoked. Just be sure you’re not reading instead of writing.

4. Write dialogue like you talk. We all want the dialogue we write to read like a real conversation. But the smart writer knows that means taking the boring parts out. Listen to a real conversation or better yet, record one. Then write it out. You’ll see how truly awful it is.

5. Never use clichés. Never is NEVER good advice when it comes to writing. Sure you want to avoid clichés—in narrative. But the fact is, we all use them occasionally. Judiciously sprinkling them throughout dialogue can give your writing a familiar flavor that helps the reader connect with your characters.

6. Never use the verb was, it’s passive. Sometimes the word was is passive, sometimes is just past tense. How to tell? The quickest way is to see if it’s helping another verb, like, She was sleeping. That’s almost always passive. A better option would be, She slept.

7. Always outline before you write. Some people are known as plotters—or those who prefer to outline their story before writing. Others, referred to as pantsters or intuitive writers, like to discover the story as they write. The best way to do it? The way that works for you.

8. Real writers don’t have to do rewrites. I’ve never spoken to a writer who didn’t need to do rewriters. I’ve heard rumors, but I suspect I’m more likely to get an in-focus picture of a Sasquatch than meet one of those elusive novelists.

9. Always write in the same place. Most of us need variety, and that includes the place we work. Sometimes I write at my desk, others at the dining room table, and on good days, the screened porch out back.

10. Don’t begin to build a platform until you have a contract. This is the worst advice I’ve ever heard, and there are two major reasons. First, if you wait until you have a contract to build your platform, you’ll probably have a hard time getting said contract. Second, you will be way behind. It takes a good year to a year-and-a-half to build a viable platform.

As you may have noticed, the first clue the advice you’re hearing is suspect are the use of the words ALWAYS and/or NEVER. There are very few absolutes in the world of publishing.

Now it’s your turn, what’s the worst writing advice you’ve ever heard?

Edie Melson is the author of four books, a freelance writer and editor with years of experience in the publishing industry. She’s the co-director of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference, as well as a popular faculty member at numerous others. She’s also the social media columnist for Southern Writers Magazine and social media mentor for My Book Therapy. Connect with her through Twitter,  Facebook, and her popular blog for writers, www.thewriteconversation.com.

17 comments:

Ron Estrada said...

From Stephen King's "On Writing," the master of horror advices us never to use a thesaurus. He referred to them as "creepy." While I agree with him in that we shouldn't use words we'd never use ourselves, I often have trouble finding a word that I've used every day of my life. So the thesaurus is a little reminder for those of us who suffer brain damage brought about by the raising of small humans. By the way, the rest of King's book is excellent, if you don't mind a bit of profanity.

Edie Melson said...

Ron, I agree, a thesaurus can be a useful tool. I keep one on my computer. I had forgotten Stephen King said that, thanks for reminding us that even the greats can advice that doesn't work for us!

Brandi Boddie said...

I don't know if it can be considered the worst advice, but it gets tiresome to hear "Write, write, and keep writing" from famous authors. Well, yeah, we all know that we need to keep writing to improve. How is that profound, lol?

Gina Holmes said...

Good stuff, Edie. Love the comparison with the 1st time mom. Ha! I always tell people that write what you know is more about writing what you know emotionally. So if rejection is something you've struggled with you can pull from that and so on. good article!

Tessa Stockton said...

"There are very few absolutes in the world of publishing." That right there is golden. Thanks, Edie, for the great post.

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Conflicting writing advice drive you nutso. Like you MUST blog vs don't blog...build plaform vs focus on writing...be open and honest vs don't overshare on your blog. The list goes on. I think we have to find our happy mediums with platforms we can MAINTAIN, while we still focus on getting our writing to its highest possible form.

And I love the IDEA of the writer who doesn't ever re-write. When I started out, I was convinced I was one of those--every word came out just as the Muse wanted it--gold. But once you plug into a good critique group/get your writing out there for other writers to read, you realize just how much you have to learn. And yet, it's a fun process--watching your writing morph and change into something more professional.

Heather Day Gilbert said...

(and that was supposed to say CAN drive you nutso. Obviously, it's driven me nutso already! HA)

منتدى الكاسر said...

Good and nice post.....

Thanks & regards

Becky Doughty said...

GREAT article Edie. Wow. I've heard ALL of the above offered.... Ha!

Lori Stanley Roeleveld said...

Very freeing article! THanks, Edie!

Cynthia Briggs said...

My comment is more about promoting/selling my books. Invariably when I said I'd written a book the person who knows absolutely nothing about writing/publishing/promoting a book would say, "You need to get on Oprah!"

Don't get me wrong, I like Oprah, but I wanted to scream because I don't write the kind of books that Oprah indorsed on her show. The comment really showed their naivete about the industry, yet, I felt like a stoop who didn't have the wherewithal to sell my own books.

Vonda Skelton said...

Great advice, Edie. And yes, I've heard them all, too.

But if I've learned anything in my years of writing, it's that I need to do what I can stretch and do. For years, I tried to apply every "rule" of writing advice and wisdom. It accomplished nothing--except nearly driving me crazy!

TheQuietPen said...

One of the best things my college writing professors emphasized was that writing is not about getting the initial words on paper. That's only the first draft. Real writing is a process and real writers get dirty and go through every single bit, no matter how messy or how long it takes.

Here's another lie: "Writing is a solitary process. Real writers don't ask for help from mere readers or accept the advice of others with regards to their novel."

I've found the exact opposite. Writing is a collective process. Yes, ultimately I'm responsible for typing out and fixing up my stuff, but even blog posts are vetted by at least one or two people (especially when a little too much sarcasm or useless wordage might seep in). But I know my current manuscript wouldn't be at its present, query-ready state without the help of countless people who were willing to answer boring/awkward questions and listen to my struggles over getting into characters' heads. Moreover, being a selfless part of others' lives--instead of navel-gazing over my own work--is critical.

As I tell my students, you have to always consider who you're writing for. Not just because you might want their money in exchange for your work of art, but because this is an opportunity to bless and touch the lives of others. And if you're shut up in an ivory tower of intellectualism, you lose sight of that.

larrywtimm.com said...

Excellent article...and not just because I'm a sucker for "Top Ten" lists. :)

Melissa DePasse said...

Edie,

Thanks for the great info. I have one question though. On #6, you discuss avoiding passive verbs. The example you gave as a passive verb was “She was sleeping.” You suggested using “She slept.”

I have to admit I’m a bit confused. I’ve always thought that a passive verb is one where the subject is not doing the action. Such as “The bed was slept on.” vs. “She slept on the bed.”

In the example you gave, isn’t that really a difference of verb tense - not passive vs. active? “Slept” is a Simple Past and “Was sleeping” is Past Continuous. Past continuous is used for a past action that was interrupted.

For example if you were to write: “She was sleeping when the fire alarm went off.” It would not read right to me if you were to change that to “She slept when the fire alarm went off.”


Here’s a great explanation of it: http://www.englishpage.com/verbpage/pastcontinuous.html


By the way, one trick I found is to know if you are using a passive verb is if you can add “by so-and-so” to the end and it make sense, then it’s passive. For example, “The bed was slept on (by Betty).”

Maybe I am missing something??
Thanks!

Jodi Janz said...

I really enjoyed your list Edie. Encouraging words for someone trying to grasp this crazy world of writing. Here is an example of my "worst advice". When I first began writing I wrote in first person - I believed it was the voice within me. Everywhere I put my work out there people would say "if you want to get published you should write third person"; or "most people don't like first person POV". So after nine ms I switched to third person. At about the same time I came across a book by a debut author written in first person. So I started to read it thinking if he could do it why couldn't I? Within the first several pages this writer broke almost all the "rules" I thought existed. His first sentence alone was 100 words! I counted them.
So, advice is like salt - put it on the table but don't smother your food with it!
Thanks.
Jodi

Paul Anthony Shortt said...

Oh, Number 1 drives me crazy! I live in Ireland, so I'm often asked why I chose to set my series in New York. Thankfully most people are just curious about my creative choices, but one or two have come back with "But why wouldn't you set it here since this is what you know?"

We are living in an awesome age (I mean it, the level of information access in the world fills me with awe), and I believe there is no excuse for an author not doing proper research. Write about whatever you want; you have the tools to learn anything you need.