Writers — especially new writers — get a lot of advice. When it comes unsolicited at parties or the holiday dinner table, we know to take it with a grain of salt. But other sources of advice are tricky: what about our writing group? A writer friend with more publication credits than we have? Conference presenters? An #askagent chat on Twitter? Some of these folks have a lot more credibility than we do.
That doesn’t mean their advice will make you a better writer. I’ve collected a few of my personal least-favorite writing tips here. You may have seen them, too — in classrooms, books, social media posts, and conference talks. Use them to develop your own nose for bad advice. There’s plenty of it out there!
Most nouns need an adjective
I remember doing this writing exercise in my fifth grade English class: we wrote a page of plain writing, then went through an added adjectives in front of all the nouns. Voila! We now had rich, descriptive writing.
Many newbie writers still try to enhance their writing with adjective stuffing. While adjectives certainly have their place, they work kind of like salt and spices in cooking: it’s easy to overdo it.
Use adjectives to selectively draw the reader’s attention. If you give every detail equal treatment, readers’ brains will get tired of processing it all. They also won’t know what you’re trying to say with the scene. Your descriptive language communicates what’s important to the narrator and what has the most relevance to the story. It’s a powerful tool if you use it intentionally.
Vary your dialogue tags for richer prose
Much like adding adjectives before every noun, new writers are sometimes told to spice up their writing by replacing said with more colorful dialogue tags. Think shouted, exclaimed, croaked, or intoned.
Unfortunately, these quickly become a distraction. Readers’ minds breeze right by the word “said” after a snippet of dialogue. Most alternatives create a speed bump. Use descriptive dialogue tags very sparingly and always have a good reason for doing so.
To avoid excessive repetitions of said, use rich descriptions to show the reader who’s talking. For example:
Benny buttoned his coat and grabbed his keys from the bowl next to the door. “I’m headed to the store — need anything?”
“Nope.” I turned back to the television.
By including details about character actions around the dialogue, you can often eliminate the need for dialogue tags.
Weed out all forms of the verb “to be.”
I’ve heard this one a lot. Many people assume all instances of to be are passive voice and weaken your writing. And while you should avoid phrases like a pencil was resting in her left hand, that doesn’t make was a dirty word.
Consider a phrase like he was in the shower the first time the phone rang. It reads simply and clearly as-is. Don’t write your way into a more complex sentence just to get rid of the word was.
Always listen to agents’/famous writers’ advice and do things exactly as they say.
First, a disclaimer: if you’re submitting your work to someone, follow their submission guidelines to the letter. They’re telling you exactly what they want to see. Your first impression depends on your attention to detail in this step.
However, they’re also telling you exactly what they want to see — they don’t speak for the entire publishing industry or every reader in the world. Many agents and editors will offer free advice on Twitter, blogs, and elsewhere. This is a great way to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t in your genre. It’s also only one person’s perspective.
Successful authors, too, can be full of advice for aspiring newbies. Listen to all of it, but don’t get too frustrated when the advice starts to feel contradictory. Publishing professionals are humans just like the rest of us, with their own unique set of quirks and preferences. Try to let their advice inform, but not dictate, what you do with your own story.
Write what you know.
New writers might want to take this advice to make their first book go more smoothly, but don’t be afraid to branch out. Rather than limiting yourself to your own lived experience, commit to knowing what you write.
If you write outside your experience, do your research. Make sure you’re the right person to tell this story. Engage a sensitivity reader if you need to. Write a story that will ring true to people who do know your story world firsthand. But don’t be afraid to write something unfamiliar as long as you’re willing to put in the work.
I’ve been writing for fifty years. I do not listen to advice. Does this mean I am arrogant? Probably. I’ve been working with several young writers recently and I’ve noticed some trends toward, cliche rule of the month. Advice can be dangerous. I am sure I have informed incorrectly. I do try to be careful with it. Without a few articles, essays, short stories or a novel under their belts, all of them are a tad too literal when listening to the voices of experience. I can’t remember how many times I have said that adverbs exist for a reason. They are perfectly fine to use sometimes, and should not be shunned completely. Show don’t tell is another. (I will not list all of them, this is the last.) A writer has to tell a story so that he or she can have scenes that show what happens. Many of them think this means that they are not allowed any narrative. For the most part, I learned my craft by reading, pulp fiction and less lofty titles, as well as the classics. I have seen every rule broken, increasing the effectiveness of a scene, mostly by the legends. I always advise to take every tip or rule with a grain of salt. Especially when I’m the one giving them the tip. Superb article. You explained the pitfalls well, offered good alternatives.