If there’s one constant across all types of writers at every point in our careers, it’s that we’re always looking for ways to improve.
Whether you want to write your novel faster, pull more traffic to your blog posts, or leave deeper psychological scars for readers of your short stories, you want to get better. I know because you’re reading this right now and because authors are never completely satisfied.
Luckily, writing advice abounds in every corner of the internet, and we can even find words of wisdom from many of our hero authors.
Much of that guidance has gained a mystique of infallibility over the years, and most of us can recite it by rote: show, don’t tell … nix adverbs with extreme prejudice … jump right in to the action.
But as fitting as these nuggets are for most of us most of the time, they don’t fit every situation. In fact, sometimes the accepted bits of writing advice can be downright deleterious to your author health if you follow it blindly.
The good news is that we’re thinking beings, and we can use our thought processes to decide what’s right for us. We don’t have to apply every word of counsel to our own careers, even if it comes from a literary bigwig.
And there’s no better time to start ignoring guidance that doesn’t fit our situations than right now. With that in mind, here are a dozen sacred cows of writing advice that you should feel free to slaughter in the new year.
Show, Don’t Tell
This seems to be the standard-bearer among all writing advice. The gist is that you’re supposed to tingle the reader’s senses through dialogue and action rather than laying out the story using description and summarization.
This is good advice much of the time, but your tales will never be as rich as they could be if you always eschew “telling.” Backstory is not the evil some make it out to be and, in the case of short stories, it can be absolutely essential to filling in gaps for your audience.
And what are we, anyway, if not storytellers?
So, yes, spend most of you writing time showing your audience what you want them to know, but don’t be afraid to tell them something neat from time to time, too.
Don’t Start with the Weather
The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest invites writers to come up with the most inane, ridiculous, over-wordy, trite, or otherwise uncompelling opening line to a novel that we possibly can. Winners are rewarded with fame and fortune … well, at least a hunk of infamy.
And, as the name hints, the whole shebang was inspired by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s opening to his Paul Clifford in 1830:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
This one is bad, we’re told, largely because it relies on a description of the weather. With so many other ways to grab the reader by the throat, why resort to banal matters like rain and darkness? It’s lazy writing and pretty much tells us that we’re in for more of the same during the rest of the story.
I really like this opening. It lays on the foreboding right away, and I know I’m in for something, well, dark.
Similarly, it’s OK to use the weather in your opener if it helps set the scene the way you want it; the way your reader needs it to be set.
You don’t necessarily want to open with idle chitchat about a coming heat wave, but weather can help you get right to the heart of setting.
Write What You Know
I don’t know anything — not really — about ghosts or zombies or vampires.
But I sometimes write about them. The same thing probably goes for other horror writers. And western writers. And, truth be told, for a whole heap of romance writers.
If I wrote only about what I know, all of my stories would be about computer programmers, dads with lame jokes, and baseball card collectors.
We can learn.
Figure out what you want to write about, research it if you need to, then write about it.
And then, voila!, you’ll also know about it.
Write Every Day
I admit this is one of the tenets by which I live my writing life, and I think it’s important for most writers to write almost every day.
You have to put forth consistent effort with your writing if you hope to get anywhere. When you sit down day after day and crank out a few hundred or a few thousand words each time, they flow better and you build momentum.
But I will allow that there are some days when you just can’t write without shirking your duties to work, family, or your personal well-being.
When everything goes haywire on the job and your son has soccer practice until 10 pm and you haven’t worked out in a week, trying to shoehorn in half an hour of writing is only going to add to your stress and probably cause your already bad day to get worse.
You’d be much better off to acknowledge your shortfall early on and dive in to the things that are more life-and-death. But be sure to come back all the stronger and more dedicated the next day.
Plan on writing every day, but recognize that one missed session doesn’t mean you’ll never be a writer.
Clichés and idioms are two more devices that only lazy writers use.
At least, that’s what conventional writing advice tells us.
But clichés are clichés for a reason. Everyone knows what I mean by:
- loose cannon
- tough row to hoe
- all thumbs
- as old as time
- all fun and games
- ace in the hole
To these, we can add in less idiomatic and more thematic entries like the cop who eats donuts, the teenage girl who goes into the dark basement by herself, and the hard-working single mom who is too wiped out to keep an eye on her wayward kids.
These are societal cues that put us on equal footing with our readers and give us a common understanding of the situation at hand (see?). Quickly.
Is it better to say that an old man is a “salt of the earth” type or spend a few paragraphs explaining his character, or maybe a few chapters chipping away at it?
It depends, but if he is a minor yet vital figure in your story, all those words might be put to better use elsewhere. In that case, you should at least consider the clichéd shorthand.
Don’t try to factor your prose into an uninterrupted chain of clichés, but there is no reason to avoid them like the plague (see, again?), either. Used judiciously,clichés can buy you a heap of understanding and keep your story moving forward.
Axe the Adverbs
Almost as common, in my experience, as, “show, don’t tell,” is the advice to hack all adverbs from your writing as if they were a virulent strain of poison ivy growing in your otherwise pristine word forest.
Adverbs are lazy, they say. (There seem to be a lot of lazy writers around here, judging by available advice).
Adverbs make your prose flabby, they say.
Adverbs are evil, they say.
This may all be very true, but not in every case.
Sure, it’s better to use interesting, action-packed verbs than to try and spice up vanilla ones with modifiers. And there are some adverbs that should be used very infrequently: very, clearly, nearly, almost, and the like.
But sometimes, an adverb can help you set mood and tone in a single word. Economy of expression can be important when you’re limited for time and space, or when you’re just trying to keep your prose lean.
And sometimes, a well-placed “only” is the only way to emphasize and differentiate among different options in a sentence: You should use adverbs only when they improve your sentence, but the same can be said for other parts of speech, as well.
Write for One Person
You hear this advice a lot in the context of writing blog posts or non-fiction books, and it’s another case where the idea makes sense most of the time.
If you hone in on one imaginary persona to address, your writing tends to take on a more conversational tone, and people relate to that.
But what if you choose the wrong person?
What if you imagine writing to a 50-year-old white guy with three kids but the most likely readers of your topics turn out to be Hispanic women in their early twenties, with no children?
Well, for one thing, you need to brush up on our market research skills. More importantly, though, you’ve missed your chance to really connect with the core of your audience. And if you try to do this with fiction, you may whiff entirely. It’s a lot easier to imagine who wants to read a soccer blog, for instance, than who will pick up your bodice-ripper. The world is full of closet romance readers, you know.
So what should you do?
Most of the time, writing for one person is fine. You just need to be aware of those instances when you don’t really know who that person is. In those cases, just be you. Write with your own voice, because it’s going to come through eventually, anyway.
Readers will either love you, or they won’t.
Kill Your Darlings
As Stephen King said, you must kill your darlings if you want your writing to be worth a darn.
Or maybe it was William Faulkner or Allen Ginsberg or Eudora Welty. Or Arthur Quiller-Couch. Definitely Quiller-Couch.
Whoever said it, what he meant — probably — was that we need to regularly slash through our manuscripts and other bits of writing to excise those passages, chapters, and even characters that we love but which don’t do anything to help the story.
Sounds good, because lean writing is better writing.
But it’s easy to get carried away trying to make your prose smaller and tighter, and you can lose perspective. In the fever of improvement, it’s quite possible you’ll slash and burn too close to the bone and lose something valuable in the process.
And, while you might not be sacrificing material components of your story, you could be losing some of its essence.
After all, your darlings are dear to you for a reason. They often best convey the tone and mood that you intended for your entire work, even if they’re obscured in pile of unhelpful text or wrapped up in an inessential character.
So, go ahead and kill your darlings if you want, but don’t be afraid to keep a few photos of them around. And you might want to find an accomplice to help you carry out your dastardly deeds and keep you from going too far.
Start in the Middle of the Action
Writing is tough, and crafting a story that draws the reader in from the very first sentence and leaves her helpless to resist the next line and the next and the next is a delicate art that authors spend years trying to master.
One technique that is espoused by writers of all genres is to open your tale right in the middle of the action. Begin with a bang and steal your reader’s breath. Compel them to read further to find out what led to the conflict, what will happen next, and just who the players really are.
This can work well … or it can be downright confusing.
While you have the entire arc of your story in your mind, your reader does not. So if you begin the first chapter of your book with Frank running from the agents of Entropy in the dark realms of Omia Prime while stuck in a time warp that has him 300 years in the future and them 300 years in the past … you’ll be geeked, and your audience will be bewildered.
Seek ways to grab your reader by the throat right away and then to keep them moving deeper and deeper into your world. If you can do this with action that won’t leave them out in the cold, great.
If not, then it might be prudent to work on intrigue through realm-building and character development to provide a bit of context.
Don’t Write Prologues
Speaking of providing context and laying the groundwork for what’s to come, authors have struggled for generations with what to do about prologues.
On the one hand, a prologue lets you build your audience up to the main action of your book and gives them an inside into the world of your protagonist.
On the other hand, typical writing advice tells us to ditch the prologue and stop (yes, again) being lazy. Just weave the details and backstory that you would have relegated to your preamble into the heart of the story itself.
As with most of these points, that’s fine advice most of the time, but it can leave you with a less powerful finished work if you always follow it.
Sometimes, a formative event happens early in a character’s life, and a quick exposition up front can impart a potent foreshadowing that just begs your reader to continue and find out what’s next, even if next is years down the line.
Timmy fell down a well when he was eight and was stuck there, cold and alone, for a week. Your book is called From the Deep, and your cover depicts a grown man climbing out of a crevasse toward a group of unsuspecting mountain hikers.
Is it the same guy? Has he been stalking people ever since his accident? How are the child and the adult tied?
I gotta know! And a nicely crafted prologue can get me to that point.
Target a Specific Word Count
Novels must be at least 50,000 words in length and can run up to as many as 200,000.
Romance novels fall toward the lower end, while horror novels need to be over 80,000 words.
And don’t even bother publishing a historical fiction book that’s less than 100,000 words. It’s a non-starter.
Except it’s all bull.
There is no rule that says you must reach a certain word count for any type of writing that you might do. What you will find is that books offered for sale in the different genres do tend to fall within a similar word-count range.These usually reflect the appetites of readers in these niches, and observant authors follow those trends.
But that doesn’t mean you have to target specific length goals in your writing — at least not all the time.
Your story should be as long as it takes to tell, and as short as it can be to tell the tale effectively. If you lock yourself into a requirement to hit 10,000 words or 20,000 words or 100,000 words, you’ll be inclined to pad your writing with unnecessary phrases and chapters.
Write your story — your full story — tighten it up, edit it, and then you’re done. That’s your story, and it’s exactly the right length.
Seek Your Muse
Writing is a romantic endeavor for most of us, and we often picture great authors of the past slaving over their typewriters deep into each night with a cigar dangling from their lips. They were tortured souls inspired to greatness by the darkness within, the glory of the world around them, or the hallucinations engendered by the substances they consumed.
No matter how different these men and women were from each other, the common bond they shared was inspiration. Their muses called to them on a regular basis, and then the words poured forth.
Saddled with this image of how writing should work, we wait for our own inspiration. We engage in deep thought and ponder the bugs on our sidewalks. Some of us even pray for the perfect story idea.
Occasionally, we’re blessed with a promising notion and sit down to write. Maybe we bang out a few sentences or even a chapter, but then … our enthusiasm fizzles. The drivel we’re writing won’t be the next Great American Novel, so why bother?
But we know we should be writing, that we must be writing. It’s what we do.
So we begin the pining all over again.
How much better off would we be to take that seed of a story, develop an outline around it, write chapter beats as a skeleton of our structure, and then schedule time each day to flesh out the novel? Would we feel so beholden to inspiration with a suite of such finished books in our back pockets?
I think not.
The muse is wonderful and, well, inspirational, but she’s also fickle. Most of us would be much more satisfied with our writing progress if we stopped waiting for that perfect, golden idea and just buckled down to plan and write on a consistent basis.
Work on One Thing at a Time
Long a staple of written job requirements, multi-tasking has come under fire in recent years.
The idea that we can do two or three things at one time and do any one of them very well is misguided, the critics say. Constantly switching our attention between email and phone calls and writing is paramount to concentrating on none of them.
I agree with this sentiment, but only if we define “at one time.”
It is impossible to read and answer an email in one moment, write a sentence or two in your book in the next, and read a news article in the third — at least if you hope to do any of them well.
So, yes, in the moment, doing multiple things is a bad idea.
But does that mean you can’t, or shouldn’t, have multiple writing projects brewing at any given time?
In fact, I’d say it’s critical for us writer types to have multiple outlets available to us. I may want to finish my next novel, but I can’t devote all my writing time to it, or I’ll burn out in a flash. By spending some of my time on this blog, some on my novel, some on short stories, I can keep my thoughts fresh and ward off boredom and overwhelm.
We all have varied interests, and there is no reason to get locked into one mode of writing if you have multiple goals.
Sure, you want to stay focused on one task for a given duration — say, a day or an hour or a 15-minute sprint — but you don’t need to beat yourself to a pulp trying to finish one project before you work on another.
Seek advice about how to make your writing better.
Use what you find … but only when it fits your situation and your goals as an author.
But don’t be afraid to question any and all of it — including this article — in your quest to become the best writer you can be.