The Top Three Worst Pieces of Advice I’ve Ever Received (And Why They’re The WORST)
Writers get a lot of advice on their craft. From people who don’t write, it’s almost always a disaster, but even from established, award-winning authors, advice on writing can be bad. While there are a lot of terrible pieces of career advice for aspiring authors, here are three that really irk me…in countdown form!
3. “You should write what you know.”
This one bugs me for a lot of reasons. Particularly because a lot of really amazing fiction wouldn’t get written if we stuck to what we know. How can a person have ALL the experiences that their many characters live through? How can one writer live through so much (and still have time to write about it)? It’s not possible.
It’s just so incredibly limiting. Does this mean I can’t write about war unless I fight in one? Does this mean a man can’t write a story about a pregnant woman because he’s never experienced it? Does this mean you shouldn’t write about a character that loses a spouse because your spouse is alive?
Of course not. Just because you haven’t actually lived it doesn’t mean you can’t write about it effectively. The beauty of writers is they’re able to make us feel something we haven’t necessarily felt before—even if they haven’t necessarily felt it before. Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why is a tragic story about a sixteen-year-old girl who kills herself, and the aftermath that those around her endure. I’m pretty sure Jay Asher was never a suicidal teenage girl, but he wrote it masterfully. And I’m glad I didn’t lose a great book to the “but I don’t know about this,” fear that some struggle with.
Throwing things you know and are familiar with into the mix definitely does help add realism to the story, but don’t be afraid to explore uncharted territory with you work—that’s what research is for, after all. If you do thorough research, your writing will reflect that. If it’s something very serious, interview someone with real-life experience about it. Look for a few of these individuals and see if they’ll read your work.
You should be respectful of the subjet matter, and humble when writing on topics you’re unfamiliar with, but you should also make sure that you don’t let fear of the unknown stop you from writing the story in your heart.
2. Show, Don’t Tell
Let me start by saying this isn’t 100% bad advice—I’ve been known to chant this one, myself. Showing is very, very important and having an active voice, rather than a passive voice, can make a world of difference in your story.
But I worry, when I hear this, that some writers are going to be so afraid of “telling” that they’ll never tell anything ever.
Telling, while a weaker form of writing in most cases, has its place. It can help you convey a large amount of information in a short space. You know what I mean—the information that’s boring and lengthy, but necessary for the story to make sense. An example that comes to mind is the camping section of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I distinctly remember by eyes crossing reading multiple detailed descriptions of how the characters were setting up and taking down their campsites. It was mind-numbing. And the worst part was, it could have been resolved with one sentence: “Harry, Ron, and Hermione travelled for days, setting up campsites, taking them down, and repeating the process until it all started to run together.” Then slow down and describe when the action starts!
There are details you can gloss over, it’s okay. Your reader will appreciate not being bored to death by a bunch of backstory or repetitive blather. Think of it as the book version of a montage. It’s an acceptable form of writing and it can save everyone (yourself included) a lot of grief.
And that leads us to our final point. The worst piece of writing advice I’ve ever encountered. So, without further ado, the award for The ABSOLUTE Worst Piece of Writing Advice I’ve Ever Come Across EVER is…
1. “Don’t worry if it’s ready yet—just put it on Amazon and let the reviewers tell you what needs work!”
What? WHAT? If anyone ever tells you this, don’t walk away, RUN. This person is clearly very, very confused about how publishing and book-creation work.
This is exactly the kind of terrible, career-destroying advice that is perpetuating the unfortunate stereotype that indie authors are just creating a mountain of terrible, unedited trash.
First of all, nine out of ten times, reviewers leave completely unhelpful, unconstructive feedback. Unless you think commentary like “this sucks” and “go kill yourself” are actually going to help you write better, then intentionally putting a piece of work that’s nowhere near ready out there is kind of like giving a two-year-old a car and saying, “Have fun in the real world, kid!”
You will never see a director release a movie that’s unedited and unpolished on YouTube to “let the commenters tell them what’s wrong” because YouTube comments are just about the least helpful things you can possibly read. No professional in any industry would ever do this, and neither should you.
Second, you will absolutely ruin your reputation as a writer. Any agent, editor, or publisher who looks you up and finds a self-published novella with 43 one-star reviews and a plethora of simple errors will make you look far worse than having nothing out there. I’m not saying don’t put stuff out there and build up a portfolio, just make sure it’s a good portfolio full of properly edited work.
Your work must always be polished before it goes out for final publication. There is a lot of room for personal preference in the world of writing—art is, after all, largely subjective—but this is one of those points on which there is no compromising: You. Must. Edit. If you’re going to publish something, make sure it’s your best work—the best thing you can possibly produce.
Will it ever be perfect? No. Will everyone like it, even if you edit it to death? No. Will it be something you can be proud of? Yes.
To wrap this up, if I could leave you with one thought, it’s this: None of the advice you ever receive is going to be absolute. Even if it comes form a good source—heck, even if it comes from me—I encourage you to question it, doubt it, and consider it…but only take it to heart if it suits you.
Advice I find phenomenal and incredibly helpful might be disastrous to you. Advice that works for you and improves your writing by leaps and bounds might be completely useless to another writer. That’s the beauty of art—it’s different for each of us (and so, the tactics we use to create it are different for each of us, too!).
The only universal truth is that that last bit of advice I cited is absolutely, irrevocably terrible. Ignore #1 forever and ever and ever. And happy writing!
What is the absolute WORST piece of advice you’ve ever gotten as a writer?