April 28th, 2021

Five Writing Tips We Love to Hate

by Eldred Bird

While perusing the Twitterverse recently, I happened upon a question that caught my interest. Author Jeff Richards asked, “What is your LEAST favorite common writing tip?”

We all have that one piece of advice that makes us roll our eyes when someone feels the need to impart that particular kernel of wisdom. Below, I’ve collected some of the most popular responses from Mr. Richards’ query. Everyone has their own interpretation as to the meaning of these gems. Let’s take a deeper look and I’ll give you my opinion (I’m full of them).

Write Every Day

“Write every day” is the one I hear most often and was also high on the Twitter list. The most common complaints about this piece of advice involve finding the time and/or the inspiration. Both can be quite difficult at times. You need to write consistently, but that may not mean every day in your particular life situation. I like to approach this tip more as, “Make time in your schedule for writing and stick to it.”

The truth is life doesn’t always give us a choice, so do your best and don’t kick yourself to hard when you stumble and miss a day or two (or in my case sometimes weeks). There are times you need to give yourself permission to say, “It ain’t happening today…”

Show, Don’t Tell

“Show, don’t tell” is something I see run up the flagpole at every critique meeting I’ve ever attended. It’s good advice in general, but not something you can avoid in every situation, nor should you. There are many times where telling is not only appropriate, but the most expedient way to get the point across.

Rather than rehash this one, I’ll just point you to a WITS post by Lori Freeland. I’m pretty much in agreement with everything she has to say on the subject.

Don’t Use Prologues

I have to admit “Don’t use prologues” used to be one of my favorite pieces of advice. I always felt the need for a prologue meant you were starting your story in the wrong place. I also found a good number of the prologues I encountered were simply data dumps of back story that could have easily been woven into the fabric of the narrative or eliminated completely.

I’ve flipped my opinion on this one a little. Sometimes a prologue can set the proper mood for a piece or help the reader get anchored in an unfamiliar setting, especially when it comes to fantasy and science fiction. I think the key is to keep it short and don’t overload the reader with details you can work into the story when they are necessary. A lot of back story can be implied by context and world-building done by your character’s interactions with their surroundings.

Avoid Adverbs

We’re all familiar with the Stephen King quote “The road to hell is paved with adverbs,” but what does it really mean? Some people say never, never, never, ever use adverbs and preach it with fire and brimstone! Come on folks, we all know there’s no such thing as never when it comes to artistic endeavors like writing.

Yes, you are allowed to use adverbs, but like any other element of writing, don’t over-use them. If your work is being propped up by a multitude of adverbs, it means your primary verbs aren’t doing the heavy lifting. Look for stronger action verbs to do the work. Your readers and your story pacing will thank you.

Write What You Know

“Write what you know” is fairly popular and top of my own list. Most people complained that if we only stick to what we know, we never grow as writers or members of the human race. A few also pointed out that following this advice would preclude you from writing fantasy and science fiction. After all, none of us mere mortals have been to space or Middle Earth or been blessed with the power of magic.

I think the real intent of this advice is that you should bring your own experiences into the writing as much as possible. When writing an emotional scene, recall your own emotional state during a similar situation and apply that to your narrative. The same applies to locations, be they real world or fantasy. Think about the things that catch your eye and give a location character. These details are what make a location real to the reader as well. When building characters draw on people you know or have observed. It will give them more depth and make them more relatable.

It can also mean before you write about a specific subject you need to do a little studying first. I like to twist this piece of advice around to, “Do your research and write what you want to know.”

Some Final Thoughts

When we hear a piece of advice like those above, we should keep in mind that most, if not all, have roots in the truth. They’ve come from the experiences of others who are trying to help by passing on lessons learned from experience. It’s up to each one of us to determine what we do with the advice. Mull it over to see what applies to your work and how it applies. Experiment with it, twist it around, play with it, and when you find what works for you, pass it on.

What do you think of these writing tips? Do you have a favorite (or least favorite) piece of advice? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.

About Eldred

Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing KarmaCatching Karma, and Cold Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking RoomTreble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins, and The Smell of Fear.

When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21-inch knives). His passion for photography allows him to record his travels. He can be found on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website.

32 responses to “Five Writing Tips We Love to Hate”

  1. Couldn't agree more on every one of these! Sharing--thanks for writing. These rigid writing "rules" are so constraining. Context matters, and so does adapting these guidelines to your particular needs, style, and story. Great post, Eldred.

    • Eldred Bird says:

      Thanks, Tiffany. I'm a firm believer that in writing there are no rules, only guidelines. I also believe that you need to know where those lines are in order to cross them intelligently. Kind of a "know the rules before you break them" kind of thing.

  2. Terry Odell says:

    I agree with all your modifications of the "rules." Write what works is my overall approach. And it'll be different for every story.

  3. Beverly Turner says:

    I agree with every one of these. As in life, there are very few constants in writing that ALWAYS apply. I think the two tips that annoy me the most are write every day and don't use prologues. I don't write every day. There are other parts of life that have to take priority at times. I'm not going to beat up on myself if I have to step away for a day or two...or a week. And just because my butt isn't in the seat doesn't mean my head isn't in my story...thinking, planning, etc. And as for prologues, I was involved in a conversation this week where an online instructor was anti-prologue, saying I would need to be prepared to 'defend' my use of a prologue, that most agents and publishers don't like them. Just as everything else, I don't believe a prologue done well, especially to set the scene and/or entice readers with questions, is going to doom a manuscript.

    • Eldred Bird says:

      I used to be one of those who preached against the prologue, but I've been saved. I've even (...gulp) written a couple now. Looks like I'll be doing some defending as well!

  4. colleen says:

    All good ones, Eldred. "Write what you know" was an motivation killer for me as a young writer. I thought It meant I couldn't be legit writing my fantasy books. I know better now of course, but it's helped me to be very cautious in handing out advice on how to write! 🙂

    • Eldred Bird says:

      That's always been the one that irked me the most. I hate having limits put on my creative side. That's why I twist it around whenever I hear someone give that particular piece of advice. Writing outside of your comfort zone is how you grow as a writer.

      • As a person who trains counselors a common question is “How do I work with this person if I’ve never experienced X.” And my response is you don’t have to have experienced something to be able to understand the experience. I feel like this applies to writing too.

  5. Love this article. My additional take or tweak on the Prologue is to use that old..."Three Weeks Earlier" scheme. Thats what TV does. They show some exciting event (aka a fake prologue) then the show begins and explains "Three Weeks Earlier.... So, I think its all in the hands of the writer on how to bring it to the reader. Sometimes that "fake prologue" is a huge boost to get things rolling.

    Also, another Tip I love to Hate is "Get a Beta Reader." OK so what this means is let someone read your book before you toss it out to a publishing house or put it up on Kindle. Really, this one should be "loved to hate" MORE than its utilized right now (if that made any sense). What I mean is there is a big rush to get the work online to sell but a writer should allow at least ONE reader to sample the goods before they sell it to the world. But the real detail is to find a Beta reader thats knowledgeable about critiques and brave enough to point out inconsistencies, and someone who can see pace and find plot gaps. This person(s) is down right important in the writing process. Beta before Broadcast folks.

    Thanks for letting me ruminate on this topic, Eldred. I enjoy the question challenges almost as much as the content.

    • Eldred Bird says:

      I'm a firm believer in beta reader, but they need to be the right beta readers and you need to set expectations as to what kind of feedback you're looking for. While I have a few that I turn loose on their own (because they've been proven), I think it's wise to include a list of questions to guide the beta.

  6. A prologue cost me a star in a review - which meant it worked! It was a 145-word epigraph, commentary on the trilogy, and I can only publish one book at a time, so the reader (who said he wanted to) couldn't go on to the next book - and felt cheated. But it worked exactly as I wanted (one of the reasons for it) - for those who read prologues.

    • Eldred Bird says:

      I'd wage the person who complained is waiting with bated breath for the next book to come out, so yeah, it worked!

      • When I tested the prologue, I got a funny response: exactly half the readers loved it, the others hated it. So I cast the deciding vote - looked at it very carefully in the context of the whole trilogy, and left it in. But the thing was that I DID get a response, so I think readers do have a strong opinion. I'll ask some of the nay-sayers when I'm finished with the whole if they have changed their opinion.

        My purpose was to provide hope during some of the events that are discouraging during the books - but without saying HOW what is mentioned occurred. Keeps you thinking.

        It purports to be the beginning (hook) of a New Yorker article written after the fact (and which still gets some significant things wrong); two more such short extracts precede Books 2 and 3; and the final epigraph in the trilogy will be the end of that faux article. People who don't read epigraphs and prologues will miss some clues, but still get the majority of the story; people who read these have their expectations. Another layer.

        • Eldred Bird says:

          Sounds like good use of the tool to me, especially since you're using the same setup in all of the books. It's more of a teaser than any kind of data dump. You're setting an expectation.

  7. Mary Bailey says:

    I am a beginner, plain and simple. I have noticed for every rule there are five exceptions! It's very confusing. I appreciate you took the time to share your knowledge.

    • Eldred Bird says:

      Thanks, Mary. Always happy to share. WITS is a great place for new writers to find guidance. I'd suggest going back through the archives when you have a chance. This place is a goldmine of knowledge.

  8. Virginia says:

    1. "Never use adverbs." Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't "never" an adverb?
    2. "If you don't have time to write, get up an hour early." Sure. That just means demands on me will start an hour earlier. Besides, you can't make the day longer by starting it earlier, any more than you can make a blanket longer by cutting off one end and sewing it onto the other.

    • Eldred Bird says:

      So you caught my little Easter egg there with the string of nevers. Good catch!

      And getting up an hour earlier, if that's your choice, falls into building some time in your schedule. Works for some, not so much for others, as you've pointed out. Bottom line is you have to do what works for you, not someone else, and try to be somewhat consistent.

  9. Anne Hagan says:

    I'm torn on the prologue point. I admit, I've found most prologues to be data dumps of historical fact. One prologue that completely ruined a book for me was in a legal thriller by a very well known author. The prologue featured a time more than 20 years in the past and foreshadowed to the point of giving away the ultimate culprit(s). They do work sometimes; most often to set up a mystery.

    I've done one. Looking back, it wasn't necessary, but it wasn't a data dump, and it didn't give away any keys to twists in the story.

    • Eldred Bird says:

      I've gone back and forth on it myself over the years. If done right and for the right reason, they can be an effective too. Done wrong, they can be a story killer.

  10. Chris Bailey says:

    Agreed! It took me years to decipher “write what you know.” Instead of writing, I worked on learning. Not a bad thing, but I could have been writing, too, instead of waiting to know enough. I’ll never know enough!

  11. dholcomb1 says:

    Great insight.

    denise

  12. Jenny Hansen says:

    One POV per chapter. That one flat-out pisses me off. I like to know what everyone is thinking. I gave up head-hopping, for Pete's sake. I should get the reward of switching POV mid-chapter if the story needs it. If the point of view should be of "the person with the most to lose in that moment," then I want to switch to THAT person, even if it's mid-chapter.

    • Eldred Bird says:

      I'll admit I'm one of those that gets confused sometimes by switching POV. I usually keep it one POV per chapter, but sometimes I break my own rule. I will still keep it one POV per scene, but use a scene break in the chapter to switch POVs. It's easier on the reader as well as me as a writer. I've been know to confuse myself sometimes...

  13. […] a previous WITS post, I covered five of the Twitter writing community’s least favorite tips and so-called “rules” […]

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