Why Most Writing Advice is Garbage

20 December 2012 by 21 Comments

Serious Novels

[In hindsight, that I asked Tony to write this either makes me very wise or kind of a dick. Or both. Yeah, probably both.. nah, really, I\’m still leaning toward dick. — Susie]

A little while back, Susie asked me if I would be interested in writing a post about “why most writing advice is garbage.”  At first I thought, “But I write a lot of writing advice.”  Then I thought that I read a lot of writing advice.  And then I realized that most of it doesn’t really do anything for me.

Here are a few reasons to ignore most of the writing advice you find:

Some writers are better at writing writing advice than they are at writing fiction.  When I first began taking my writing seriously, I got on the internet (this was in 1998, mind you) and found a site with tons of great writing advice. (I found it by searching Yahoo.)  The author had so much to say, and I found her advice inspiring.  I thought that she must certainly be one of the best authors ever, so I picked up one of her books.  It was really awful, and I vowed never to read her books or writing advice after that.

Different sources can contradict each other.  Stephen King says to write a book from the beginning to the end.  James V. Smith says skip around.  Chris Baty says get to the end within thirty days.  Chuck Wendig says spend as much time as you need to.  Who is right?  All of them?  None of them?

Nobody really follows advice anyway.  Have you ever given someone advice before?  Most people who ask me for advice end up doing the exact opposite of what I tell them.  Maybe it’s because I give them bad advice, or maybe it’s because they know that my advice is not going to work for them.  Whatever the reason, they generally just do what they’re going to do.  Come to think of it, I generally do the same thing when I ask for advice.  Why would writing advice be any different?

Many writers who give writing advice are not any more successful than you are.  I’m a great example of this.  I have written several articles with recommendations on how to improve your writing, but I have yet to have any fiction published.  How do I know what’s good?

If writing advice is so awful, should you just ignore it?  Maybe.  But maybe not.  Here’s my advice on taking writing advice.

Writing advice You can’t go wrong with timeless writing cliches like, “Write what you know.”

Pay attention to what the writers you admire have to say.  As a matter of common sense, the authors whose books you like will probably have the best advice on writing books that you can be proud of.

Take writing advice with a grain of salt. (Or a shot of whiskey.)  Think about it before you try something.  Is it honestly something you will be able to do?  Will you actually benefit from it?  Or is it just an idea that sounds cool but will waste your time?  Ask yourself these questions.

Use what works for you.  Ultimately, if you’re in a good groove and like what you’re doing, maybe you don’t need any advice.  On the other hand, if you feel like your writing is stagnating, perhaps it will help to seek the mentorship or support of  a fellow writer.

Bad advice may not be all that bad, either. if it inspires you or makes you want to write, whether to try it or to prove it wrong, it’s probably worth a try.

Do any readers have advice on taking advice?  Please share with the rest of us in the comments.  In the mean time, stay motivated and keep writing!

Tony

Divorcé, proud father of four, blogger, black coffee drinker, ukulele enthusiast, and Tech Sergeant in the United States Air Force

21 thoughts on “Why Most Writing Advice is Garbage

  1. The best I can do is to tell people how -I- do it and, then, tell them to go figure out how they do it. I can give some good places to start, but every writer writes differently, and it\’s not for me to say \”this is how it\’s done.\” Besides, what works on one book may not work on another book even for the same writer.
    Really, the only advice worth listening to is \”write.\”

  2. The irony is that this is great writing advice.

    That being said, I do think that often the best teachers are not the people who are best in the field they\’re teaching. To take the example of dance, some of the most amazing performers I know are rotten teachers, at least in part because they\’re so far advanced in their technique that they\’re simply unable to distill the incredible things they do into parts or steps or instructions that students can understand. Sometimes the things that make them great are precisely the ineffable, subtle, unteachable qualities they bring intuitively, or from years of experience, or from particular quirks of their bodies (I will never be able to do a Turkish drop like Rachel Brice because my spine is literally too short).

    What I do find helpful in writing advice – and in any form of teaching – is when the person dropping the knowledge is clear, as you are, that there are many ways to get there and here are some things that work for some people and it\’s okay if they don\’t work for you. I\’m going to pay a lot more attention to the advice offered by someone who is willing to make space for multiple learning styles and creative patterns.

  3. This is a tough one, because I too have found a lot of pieces of writing advice conflicting and it\’s hard to know which to take.
    I usually break down the advice as I decide whether to take it or not.
    1) is it specific and concrete to the kind of writing I\’m doing? ie., does it assert things about all writing (which can be open to debate) or does it describe strengths, necessities, and conventions of a specific kind of writing? I gravitate toward the latter.
    2) what is the person\’s experience and background? I may not choose to take a writer\’s advice if an editor\’s advice (on, say, substantive editing and rewriting) would offer more tools/specific things I can apply to my own writing
    3) does what the person has to say ring true and make sense of something I haven\’t been able to understand or apply to my own writing before? This is very subjective, but when you\’re struggling to improve your writing, the right advice can provide a \”Eureka!\” moment — I\’d say, take that advice.
    I agree with Jericha, BTW — this is some great advice about writing.

  4. I am not a writer, at least not a creative writer (my job currently involves writing proposals, so basically the most boring type of prose) so maybe my input is not welcome here anyway. But I would think that creative writing, be it poems or novels or short stories or whatever, is such a subjective experience that writing \”advice\” is generally no more than \”here\’s what I do and it works, so you might as well give it a try,\” which is totally fine.

    My cousin, for example, is writing a book (one that will turn out to be incredible, btw, all family bias aside), and re-wrote the prologue 50 times or more over FOUR YEARS before moving on to the first chapter, and edits incessantly (and has ME edit incessantly). He has more or less the whole plot figured out in his head. Stephen King, on the other hand, just writes, and that works for him. I would be willing to bet that every single writer out there, professional or not, published or not, has a different writing style and no advice they receive will change what flows best for them.

    If I were to ever give writing advice (not that I\’m qualified in the slightest), all I really feel I could say is PROOFREAD. As a constant consumer of the written word, I think that is probably the only thing that all writers MUST do.

    • Totally with you on proofreading — that is a major bugbear of mine.
      However, I disagree that creative writing is a completely subjective experience. There are many ways to approach it, true, but there are few ways to be successful at it. What most successful pros agree on are that it takes discipline, constant practice, reading widely, and revision after revision after revision, among other things. And attention to craft and becoming better at writing is something you often hear from writers and editors.
      As far as \”how to write\” advice goes, I may be at risk of adding to the \”my way is the right way\” voices, which I realize drives people up the wall, but I haven\’t found many credible sources who disagree with the following:
      Write the entire draft before going back to revise
      Then revise
      and revise
      and revise.
      When you can\’t see what to do next, get outside feedback, either from an editor and/or readers, and then
      revise
      and revise.
      And when you get it accepted for publication, be prepared to revise it and rewrite according to what the editor(s) there feel needs work.

  5. New writers need advice so they can try out different things and find what works for them. My college writing courses and years with critique groups and reading The Writer and Writers Digest helped me understand everything you\’ve said here… but they also gave me starting points and prompts that allowed me to explore different ways of writing, different genres, different formats. I\’ve discovered through practice and effort my strengths and weaknesses. I\’ve learned to utilize my strengths whenever possible and either avoid or get help with my weak areas.

    It\’s important for new writers to seek and take advice. When they feel confident enough to ignore advice from experts and go their own way, then they can stop seeking advice. (Note: arrogance and confidence are NOT the same thing.)

  6. For some reason, I had a really hard time writing this article because it was immediately after NaNoWriMo, and I was working a lot of crazy shifts at my job. That being said, I had a lot of fun putting it together, and reading back over it, I\’m really happy with how this turned out. Thanks for the idea, Suzie!

  7. (P.S. I have no idea why the comments are coming out with an abundance of slashes next to the punctuation :( I didn’t change any settings recently.)

  8. Love this, Tony.

    My best advice, honestly, came from getting feedback on my writing from other writers…what worked for them, what didn\’t, how I might fix it. And then reading a LOT. But none of that\’s advice. That\’s mostly practice, I think.

    I don\’t know that there\’s much advice that works for everyone. Nothing\’s one-size-fits-all. We\’re all different. Which is why the world is a wonderful place.

  9. Ah, I remember the Internet back in 1998. I remember how Spage Agey the dial-up tone sounded. I remember using Yahoo for search. Please excuse me while I have have a nostalgic moment.

    I also remember the Creative Writing prof back in undergrad reading us one author\’s list of \”Things Never To Do In Your Story\” or something like that. The last item on the list was to the effect of \”Ignore all of the above.\”

    Sure, one might think there are obvious rules like \”Don\’t make the protagonist too perfect; unflawed protagonists are boring\” or \”Never write an it-was-all-a-dream ending,\” but then there\’ll be some writer who does precisely those things and makes them work fabulously.

  10. Great comment from my friend Vince on Facebook: \”Personally, I have found networking to be much more important than writing advice. My writing advice consists of two things: 1) network. 2) finish something.\”

    • This is the BEST. Networking is how you find beta readers, cover designers, narrators, all the people to help you make it happen. And yes, finishing something is good.

      I really need to finish something. Editing. Gah.

  11. I would guess that a correlation between \”good writer\” and \”good writing advice giver\” exists, but it\’s not nearly as strong as you\’d imagine. \”Successful writer\” and \”good writing advice giver\” is even weaker.

    Maybe it would be stronger if you felt that certain authors had certain strengths (like \”writes good dialogue,\” or \”seems to do good setting research\”) and look to those authors for advice on those particular tasks.

    Like you said, all writing advice has to be treated skeptically. The author could be describing \”what works for me\” in a way that communicates \”this is how it must be done.\” The advice could be more suited to a different demographic or genre. The author could be subtly messing with you. Or not-so-subtly. Yeah, Scalzi. I\’m on to you.

    But some writing advice is universal. Get your butt in the chair and pound out words. Learn to accept criticism; don\’t let it eat your soul, and learn to give it the right amount of weight. Too much weight, and you lose your own voice. Too little weight, and you learn nothing. Read widely. The first draft will always be crap. Don\’t panic.

    • \”Get your butt in the chair and pound out words. Learn to accept criticism; don’t let it eat your soul, and learn to give it the right amount of weight. Too much weight, and you lose your own voice. Too little weight, and you learn nothing. Read widely. The first draft will always be crap. Don’t panic.\”

      I want to make a fridge magnet with each of these as bullet points.

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