July 14th, 2021

5 More Writing Tips We Love to Hate

by Eldred Bird

In a previous WITS post, I covered five of the Twitter writing community’s least favorite tips and so-called “rules” for writing. One article wasn’t nearly enough space to cover the subject, so I’m back with five more!

As I stated last time, everyone has their own interpretation as to the meaning of these gems. All opinions herein are my own and may not reflect your reality when it comes to putting words to the page, but isn’t that what writing is about? We all create our own reality when we tell our stories.

Let’s dive in and see what we can learn about these five tips.

Don’t Use Passive Voice

First, let’s define ‘passive’ as opposed to ‘active’ voice.

Active Voice - The subject of the sentence is the one performing the action. An example would be, “Billy punched Mark in the jaw.”

Passive Voice – The subject of the sentence is being acted upon by another party. “Mark was punched in the jaw by Billy.”

While active voice is best in most situations, as with any other tool in your writer’s toolbox there is a time and place for passive voice. Active voice tends to keep pacing up and paints a clear, concise picture of the movement, and sometimes mood, of the characters. Passive voice can be used to slow things down a bit and reflect on the effect a character or object has on a particular situation.

Passive voice is also a great tool for character building in dialogue. If your character speaks in passive, it can indicate a lack of personal responsibility—things happen to them not because of their own actions, but because of outside forces. Evolving dialogue to become more active over the course of the story is a good way to show personal growth in the character.

Avoid Flashbacks

Personally, I don’t have a big problem with this one if it’s made clear we’re going back into a character’s memory. Therein lies the problem. The transition is where writers are in the most danger of tripping up the reader when the flashback starts. Give us a clear lead-in to the flashback so we know where we’re headed, then make it obvious when we return to the present.

The other problem I see with flashbacks is they can easily become backstory data-dumps. Treat your flashback just as you would any other scene in your story. Weave the information into the narrative and don’t dump unnecessary details that don’t help to move the story along.

Maintain One Single Point of View

I think a quote from one of my favorite movies (A Knight’s Tale) sums this one up well:

“You have been weighed, you have been measured, and you have been found wanting.”

There are so many good books out there with changing POVs that this tip can be considered total hogwash.  High on that "good books list" is The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, so changing POVs is not a new concept. That doesn’t mean every story that uses multiple points of view will work.  Again, it’s all in how you wield this sword when chopping your manuscript into different parts and pieces.

As with flashbacks, be careful to make the transitions clear to the reader so they don’t get confused as to who they are currently following. My personal rule is to only switch POVs at a chapter or scene break. This gives a clear delineation between the viewpoints.

My current WIP, a fantasy, is written third-person close POV whenever the MC is in the “real world” and switches to first-person when he is in the fantasy realm. After the first couple of switches, the reader clearly understands where they are simply by the POV.

Don’t End Sentences in Prepositions

If you’re trying to get a passing grade in your English class, by all means follow this rule. Otherwise, feel free to end your sentences any way you want to (see what I did there…). If it works with your voice and flow as a writer, then do it. Use sentence fragments too, if you like. If it makes the sentence feel awkward, maybe you need to take another look at it. Maybe awkward is what you were going for. Bottom line, if it works for you, it will probably work for your readers as well.

Make Writing Your First Priority

When I saw this reply to my query about tips on Twitter, it struck me as so ridiculous that I just had to include it in this post. The reply came from David Martin Lins, author of the newly released novel Skull Valley.

Okay. The worst I ever heard was... "Anyone can raise your children, only you can write your book. Prioritize the book and hire a babysitter." - a keynote speaker at the conference where I met you.

I can’t believe a keynote speaker at a national writing conference would throw out that kind of advice. And as if that wasn’t enough:

She also said she has an egg timer she starts when her now-adult daughter calls her so she can get back to her writing.

I think it goes without saying (but I’m going to say it anyway) that family comes first, especially your kids. The world is not going to implode if you don’t hit your word count goal for a couple of days.

Spend time with your kids. Read to them, tell them stories, and listen to the stories they tell you. Odds are you’re going get some writing inspiration out of the exercise and your children will benefit from some quality time with mom and/or dad.

Some Final Thoughts

I’m going to wrap this post up in a similar fashion to how I ended part one. Keep in mind that these tips have come from the experiences of others. Any time we get a piece of advice it’s up to each one of us to determine what we do with it. Mull it over to see what applies to your work and how it applies. The advice we choose not to incorporate into our work is just as important as what we decide to hold onto. In the end, it’s all about communicating with the readers and building your unique voice as a writer.

What do you think of these writing tips? Do you have a favorite (or least favorite) piece of writing 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.

Top Photo (background) by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

20 responses to “5 More Writing Tips We Love to Hate”

  1. Someone else already raises most people's children - the school system.

    I have a simple rule: People first.

    Still chuckling at your list.

    • Eldred Bird says:

      I still can't believe someone would actually say that. I agree, people come first.

      • lmadden42 says:

        "Some one else can raise your children" quotation. I suspect the woman who made the statement was an ardent feminist. I can hear where she's coming from. From time immemorial male artists and writers have neglected or deserted their families (think Dickens and Gaugin) and become celebrated artists, revered to this day.

        Wealthy families' children were brought up by hired help (think Winston Churchill, whose fond childhood memories are of his nanny-governess because he rarely encountered his parents.) Many still are.

        But the rich and famous are not the only ones who cannot devote all or most of their time to raising their children. Today, many parents in low wage jobs have few hours in the week to spend raising their children. Many doctors and lawyers, and other professionals must devote so much time to their profession that idealized family life is not possible. This does not mean that the speaker's "advice" was sound. However, it does confront writers with an inconvenient truth: your work may require you to take time away from your children.

        • Jenny Hansen says:

          One of the things I wanted to be able to do when I had a child was to be able to work at home and be very involved in parenting. As a software trainer that HAD to go to the classroom at that time, this was a challenging shift. It took 10 years, but the shift finally happened. I know I'm lucky to have skills that translated, but it was still a ton of hard work.

          But here's what I learned...it's the little moments that matter. And it was an important part of my daughter's development to watch me work, and learn that she sometimes had to wait, and to see that my job, and my writing, matter. My husband was a big part of that, but I also see how little appreciated most stay-at-home moms are and that job is SO HARD. I couldn't do it 24/7 and stay sane. The day job is wa-a-a-ay easier than raising kids.

          • At 40 I came down with ME/CFS. I had two little boys, and a baby on the way. I had two choices (and husband finally came around): spend my tiny bit of energy getting kids onto a schoolbus in the morning/lunches/homework/being very useless as a participating parent at a school OR homeschooling them with that same tiny bit of energy. I chose to spend my energy, limited as it was, directly on them. When I was out of steam they had SO much stuff to choose from at home. And we had a great group for limited time, and scouts/dance/music/etc.

            I say we homeschooled accidentally - I was a research physicist at Princeton when this happened - and I'll never know whether I would have quit working to do this. But we treasured the process, and they still talk about it. They know they got every speck I had to give.

            • Jenny Hansen says:

              Whenever I hear your stories, Alicia, I am so fascinated. You are a shining example of not letting extreme challenges stop you.

              • I was guided by the image of Marie Curie's mother (she had 'consumption' - TB) sitting, ill, in the loving room with her children, supervising their learning (and, I assume, trying not to breathe on them), and occasionally patting one on the head. They knew she cared.

                It is a valuable thing to do with one's time.

                I just hope to keep answering the challenges until NETHERWORLD is finished, and the unnamed-as-yet third volume is completed as well. I'm over 2/3 through the second. It has been a challenging couple of years!

      • Want your kids to spend time from their very busy lives with you, when they're independent? Then give them your personal love and attention when they're dependent on you.

  2. lmadden42 says:

    My favorite response to the rule about ending a sentence with a preposition comes from Winston Churchill who said, "Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with I will not put."

  3. Terry Odell says:

    Nice list of things that we can ignore--or at least be mindful and know we're ignoring them for a valid reason. What works, works. There are days -- lots of them -- when I'm glad I never took any writing classes.

    • Eldred Bird says:

      My philosophy has always been learn the rules so you know how to break them intelligently. Creative writing really is about learning how to color outside the lines to set yourself apart in a good way.

  4. Great "rules" or non-rules that I'll share with my students in my Creative Writing classes. They're adults from ages of 21 to 91, and the most difficult thing for them is to forget all the unnecessary grammar and writing rules they learned in school, and to write their hearts out - creatively!

    • Eldred Bird says:

      It's hard to learn how to set aside the rules that were pounded into our brains for so many of our school years. I'll repeat what I said to Terry, creative writing really is about learning how to color outside the lines and set yourself apart in a good way.

  5. dholcomb1 says:

    I love these tips. Thanks for sharing.

    denise

  6. Barb DeLong says:

    Great list, Eldred. Made me chuckle and shake my head at the same time. My pet peeve (okay, one of them) is the rule of "it." Get rid of them. All of them! I have spent more time on wordhippo.com finding synonyms for so many words that I could have written a book in that time. It drives me nuts. Oops!

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