The Biggest Problem with Writing Advice

by Suzannah Windsor Freeman

Woman overwhelmed by books being handed ot her

Today’s article is written by Suzannah Windsor Freeman, founding editor of Write It Sideways.

True story:

Once, I wrote a blog post which gave some advice about limiting filter words in your fiction. The post went viral on a social media outlet, which from my perspective was a good thing—writers were obviously wanting to pass it on to other writers.

Except, when I headed over to read the comments all these people were leaving, I was hit with a wave of conflicting responses.

Half of the comments said, “This is the absolute best writing advice I’ve ever received.”

The other half said, “This is the absolute worst writing advice I’ve ever received.”

And here I was, left trying to figure out how there could be such mixed responses. Could it be both the best and the worst writing advice, or maybe neither? Isn’t all writing advice up for interpretation?

Don’t Put Your Brain on Hold

Some common filter words are knew, watched, saw, looked, and wondered. “She wondered what he was thinking.” “He looked at her and knew she was wondering.” You get the picture.

Nowhere in the post did I say that filter words should never be used. The advice was that they can often be eliminated in favour of wording that’s more specific and effective, wording that doesn’t filter the character’s thoughts and feelings before they get to the reader.

I stated quite plainly that sometimes you will use filter words, and they will be the right choice. However, if you take a look at your work-in-progress and find it absolutely littered with them, you’ll probably want to get out your red pen.

Those who declared my advice to be “the absolute worst writing advice” were obviously thinking I was suggesting that we never use filter words. And that suggests to me that they didn’t read the entire post.

While I can’t be inside other people’s heads, those who declared my advice to be “the absolute best writing advice” may also have been guilty of taking an extreme view of things—that is, rushing out and eliminating every filter word from their works-in-progress.

The problem on both sides is the same: writing advice requires use of common sense in its application. Those who have been writing for many years have probably already learned this lesson, but newer writers often jump on advice like following all ‘the rules’ will get them to the top.

All advice, in every realm of life, requires careful decision-making based on a variety of factors.

Writing: Good Advice, Bad Advice, Best Advice, Worst Advice

Think about these common pieces of writing advice:

  • Show, don’t tell
  • Eliminate adverbs
  • Don’t use clichés
  • Write every day
  • Write what you know
  • Don’t use dialogue tags other than ‘said’
  • Avoid long passages of description
  • Use all of your senses to describe things
  • Make every single word count
  • Get feedback on your writing
  • Plan your writing beforehand
  • Let your creativity guide you

Some of these conflict with others, and some are open to interpretation.

Are these bad pieces of writing advice? Are they good pieces of writing advice? Are they either the best or the worst pieces of writing advice?

They can be the best pieces of writing advice for you if they help you overcome whatever’s holding you back from being a more accomplished and effective writer.

They can be the worst pieces of writing advice if you consider them rules—if they are attached to words such as alwaysnever, or only. They can also be the worst pieces of writing advice if they are subject to interpretation and the writer misinterprets (ex: ‘write what you know‘ doesn’t necessarily mean write what you know literally, but what you know emotionally).

Most writing advice has at least some take-away for the reader. If a book/magazine/expert/blog presents advice—even if they do so in a way that sounds to you like rules—they probably do so assuming you understand the need to apply their advice with care. If they say, for example, “Get feedback on your writing,” that can be a good thing. But there’s also a fine line between looking for fresh eyes and constantly seeking the approval of others.

Two of my favourite writers/bloggers share conflicting philosophies about when to publish your writing. One says, “Quit practicing and get yourself out there” The other says, “Don’t worry about getting published just now—work on your creativity and craft.” Which one of these accomplished, published writers is correct?

The answer is, of course, both of them, because it depends on what kind of writer you are, and what kind of writing you do. It depends on where you are in your journey and what your ultimate writing goals are. It depends on what you need right now.

Questions to Ask About Writing Advice

Some key questions to ask yourself about writing advice are:

  • Is there an aspect of this advice that applies to all writers, or does it apply mostly to writers in a specific genre/field? (‘Start with a bang’ might not apply to literary fiction so much as to a high-concept thriller.)
  • Is this something just to be mindful of when I’m editing, or is an entire philosophy I need to consider when I’m planning and writing? 
  • Could following this advice be detrimental to me or my writing? If so, how can I adapt it to meet my personal needs? (‘Writing every day,’ when you already have a full plate, could make you more stressed out and affect the quality of your writing; on the other hand, ‘writing when the muse hits’ might mean that you never learn the discipline to put butt-in-chair.)
  • When I read my favourite books or stories, can I see the advice in action? (Selective use of clichés, adverbs, filter words, etc.; short-but-powerful descriptive passages) Or, do my favourites depart from these pieces of advice?
  • Why do I think this is such good or bad advice? 

Those who thought my post on filter words was good writing advice probably thought so because they’d never noticed the degree to which they relied on them in their writing. Those who thought it was bad advice probably just read the first few paragraphs and decided I was suggesting they never use filter words.

As a writer, you’ll come across plenty of conflicting advice. Understanding that advice is open to interpretation and usually isn’t usually a matter of always or never will help you keep an open mind, apply the advice when appropriate, and—most of all—improve your writing craft.

Are there pieces of writing advice you’ve taken too seriously in the past? Are there any you may have dismissed too quickly? What are your favourites and/or least favourites?

 

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