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?

 

{ 18 comments }

Rod Griffiths April 13, 2013 at 9:06 pm

To paraphrase Lincoln
“You can help some of the people all of the time and you might even help all of the people some of the time, but you can’t help all of the people all of the time.”
I still read your stuff because it sounds as if you have thought about it, and you don’t treat the reader like an idiot.

Suzannah Windsor Freeman April 14, 2013 at 7:24 am

Thank you, Rod. I try very hard not to make readers feel that way! You’re right—can’t please everyone in everything.

ChemistKen April 13, 2013 at 10:24 pm

I think the biggest reason many people get worked up when they see certain writing advice is because of the many cases where other writers or agents have phrased that same advice as is if it was a hard and fast rule which can only rarely be broken.
Read ChemistKen´s last article ..The Insecure Writer and Changes in the Publishing Industry

Suzannah Windsor Freeman April 14, 2013 at 7:26 am

Maybe they are each agent’s or editor’s hard-and-fast rule for them personally. Some hate first-person, present-tense POV and basically see it as a huge no-no. Some detest prologues. To them, perhaps these are rules. But to another agent/editor who works in another genre, these might be completely fine.

Chris Cannon April 13, 2013 at 10:55 pm

I remember reading your article on filter words. It was a lightbulb moment for me and helped me understand Deep POV.

Suzannah Windsor Freeman April 14, 2013 at 7:26 am

Thank you, Chris! When I learned about filter words, it was a lightbulb moment for me, too!

Margaret April 13, 2013 at 11:32 pm

I’ve always enjoyed your articles. It is my choice whether I take your advice or dismiss it. That being said – I have discovered that the problem with the Internet is, it has convinced everyone that the world is entitled to our opinion.
There should be a button that asks us twice “are you SURE you want to post this?” ESPECIALLY in the comments area. ;D

Suzannah Windsor Freeman April 14, 2013 at 7:28 am

Ha ha, yes. Everyone IS entitled to his or her opinion, but maybe some people feel that any sort of advice is a personal attack on their own work.

Debra Eve April 14, 2013 at 5:33 am

I remember that post, Suzannah, and I thought it completely enlightening! I’m finding more and more it’s about listening to my intuition and doing what works for me. On point, I just read an essay by Joseph Epstein on George Elliot. He comments on how much “telling” as opposed to “showing” she does: “Tell all you want…so long as you remember to do it brilliantly.”
Read Debra Eve´s last article ..Carl Gordon Acts on Divine Calling

Suzannah Windsor Freeman April 14, 2013 at 7:30 am

Intuition is huge. If every writer always followed all of the rules, we’d have a very limited variety of reading, wouldn’t we? I agree that some advice is great advice, but not always great advice for every single story. Some stories need to be more shown, and some more told. Thanks, Debra!

Benison O'Reilly April 14, 2013 at 1:10 pm

Great article, Suzannah. I always consider writing advice in terms of guidelines, not rules. I’m sure Stephen King advises in ‘On Writing’ advises to never use adverbs but then admits he still does! I must re-read your filter word article now.
Read Benison O’Reilly´s last article ..The youngest of my boys, Joe…

Suzannah Windsor Freeman April 18, 2013 at 6:40 am

Thanks, Benison! You’re right—’guidelines’ not ‘rules’.

florence fois April 16, 2013 at 8:00 am

Suzannah, it’s been a while since I’ve left a comment. However, this compels me to speak to you directly and not just read the post and leave. All rules are for a reason … all rules are meant to be broken ??? which is which??? Oh, who knows.

If there is an answer it is simply that some of the greatest books ever written, that are still being written … break or ignore the rules. Even if we discount all classic literature. Okay, take away ALL literature and speak only of genre fiction. Best sellers start with dialogue, have long rambling prose, cut away for chapters of back story and a few have done it with first person, present tense :)

What the reader really wants is a good story and how we get there is as individual as we are. If young or newbie writers concentrate too much on process they can kill their voice before the first note hits the air.

BTW … missed you :)

Suzannah Windsor Freeman April 18, 2013 at 6:42 am

Missed you, too, Florence! Great to see you here again. I agree that new writers concentrate far too much on writing advice. They so desire to be published that they forget to spend time learning to be creative and develop their craft.

Christi Craig April 17, 2013 at 4:46 am

Such a great post, Suzannah. I love the questions to ask ourselves when considering advice, especially this one: When I read my favourite books or stories, can I see the advice in action?

Following Florence’s comment, I think it’s important to understand the advice, even the rules of writing, so that we can recognize when successful authors break those rule (because they do sometimes) and why (why certain rogue techniques work better in a story versus the “norm”). Better yet, so we can know when breaking those rules or ignoring the advice pushes our own writing to a better place.
Read Christi Craig´s last article ..Q&A (and Giveaway!) with Randy Susan Meyers

Suzannah Windsor Freeman April 18, 2013 at 6:44 am

Thanks so much, Christi :) There are so many factors that go into what works best for a particular piece of writing. Definitely, it’s important to understand the advice to know when and why you can break them. Same with rules of grammar.

Stephanie Scott April 19, 2013 at 5:30 am

This is the BEST writing advice I’ve ever heard! ;)

Truly, though, all advice writing or not needs to be weighed. I have taken some snippets of writing advice to the extreme and realized the voice of my character was sapped because I was so fixated on eliminating passive voice (and not fully understanding what that meant at the time) and filler words. I think it takes time to build up that knowledge and add to it piece by piece.

I read a writing book that said never ever use a flashback in the first 50 pages. then I took a writing class that showed how small flashbacks can be effective if used the right way. To me, I take this conflicting info to say, do not rely on flashbacks to tell your story, but use only when necessary to advance the plot or show something new about your character. And then, maybe delay that a few chapters in to keep the story moving. Still, those conflicting ideas drove me crazy for awhile!
Read Stephanie Scott´s last article ..Blogging A to Z: P is for Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Jennifer Frost October 31, 2013 at 7:17 pm

My answer is: Read more books! Ask any good writer for tips on how to become a better writer and they will tell you to read more. Read more books by great writers, read more articles by great journalists, and read more industry literature from respected writers in the field. Take note of how great writers take a complicated subject matter and make it understandable for the average visitor of your blog.
~Jenn
Read Jennifer Frost´s last article ..How to Write a Descriptive Essay

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