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4 Pieces of Well-meaning Writing Advice to Beware of!

Writers get well-meaning advice all the time. Whether you’re a poet, a novelist, a business writer, or the editor of the New York Times, there will always be people telling you how to do what you do, but this way. Their way.

Should you always listen? Good question…

Crazy Writing Advice

Write What You Know

I don’t know about you, but I have lived a basically pleasant, average life. I believe everyone gets dealt their measure of unhappiness and discord, but I was never abducted by Somali pirates, I’ve never contracted a rare disease, traveled the world, had a whirlwind love affair with the son of a minor European royal, or even gone skydiving.

What if what you know is kind of boring? Does that mean you’re a pretentious try-hard for wanting to do more than that? Should you feel underqualified?

No. Writing what you don’t know means you’ll have to do some research, so be sure to put yourself in a teachable frame of mind. Get ready to learn. But, please, for the benefit of modern literature, feel free to write about that which you don’t know.

Only Pretentious Smartypants Use Semicolons

A variation of this advice is famously attributed to Kurt Vonnegut: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

Kurt, I beg to differ.

First, you need not have been to college to understand how a semicolon works and second, sometimes, nothing else will do when you want to tie two corresponding-yet-complete thoughts together in a melodious way.  The most common (non-listing) way to use a semicolon is to bind two independent clauses (word-blobs with complete subject-and-predicate structures) together.

Turn a deaf ear to any and all writing advice that tries to take tools out of your writing toolbox and tries to tell you that it’s for your own good.

Never End a Sentence with a Preposition

At one point, I was a holier-than-thou writing tutor, and I had one commandment. Never, ever, under any circumstances, end a sentence with a word like to, for, from, in or with. I would always make my students bury these words further down in earlier parts of the sentence, confident that I was properly apprenticing them in the art of wordsmithing.

Too bad I didn’t realize that the prepositions rule included other, longer words like between, beyond, upon, and about. I’m sure we can all think of beautiful, perfectly literary ways to use these words to end sentences, and more importantly, Grammar Girl says it’s okay, and so does Merriam-Webster.

Show, Don’t Tell

Before you crucify me, let me say that 99% of the time, “Show, don’t tell,” is a perfectly necessary piece of advice that all writers, particularly those new to the craft, need to heed religiously. Too much telling is almost invariably boring. New writers think that telling feels to the reader like the training montage from Rocky; actually, it usually feels like having to sit through a story that usually ends with, “Guess you had to be there.”

For experienced writers, nonfiction writers especially, acclaimed essayist Philip Lopate has a rebuttal to this advice. In his writing advice guide To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction, Lopate says, “The nonfiction student’s reluctance to provide summary and analysis shows the markings of that nefarious taboo of writing programs everywhere: “Show, don’t tell.”… We must rely on the subjective voice of the narrator to guide us, and if that voice never explains, summarizes or interprets… we are in big trouble.”

It’s fine to use telling as the connective tissue that binds your scenes together and provides crucial information.

You can waste half a page of context clues for the reader to guess Mama’s age, or you could tell us she’s 37. It’s up to you, and sometimes, it’s better not to waste the space. Conclusion? Tell—sometimes.

What’s your least favorite piece of writing advice? What do you do instead? Tell me about it in the comments!

This post was written by Positive Writer regular contributor Shanan Haislip.

About Shanan Haislip

I'm a full-time business writer, an essayist, and webmaster at The Procrastiwriter, a blog about ways to fit writing in around a full-time life (without going insane). I'm also a regular contributor on PositiveWriter.com and contributed to The Audacity to be a Writer. Join me on Twitter at @Write_Tomorrow.

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Like a good friend, Bryan guides you through the process of facing your inner demons, conquering the craft, and creating work that matters. ―Jeff Goins

  • Ani

    I’ve been thinking the same thing about “write what you know”… I agree that if all wrote only what we knew books would not entertain us and help escape the reality!

    • And how can we escape reality unless a writer provides a map?

      Good point, Ani.

  • The “write what you know” advice has tripped me up in the past. I’ve found that a better route for me is “write what you love.” If I love a particular subject, I am more inclined to learn everything I can about it and then express my new knowledge in writing.

    • Erica, I love this. That’s perfect.

  • Catherine North

    I completely agree with you about ‘show don’t tell.’ It’s good advice, but it gets applied too rigidly. All those actions like nail-biting or frowning or whatever we use to ‘show’ characters’ emotions can get boring too if over-used.

    • Great point. Sometimes we need the summary. We need to be told. And if I want scene after scene with no exposition, I’d go see a play.

  • I entered a writing contest recently, submitting my first fiction piece after years of business writing. The critique I received back was much appreciated, but having the reviewer write “Never use semicolons in fiction” in the margin provoked consternation. Never? I think with all the rules you mention, the issue is balance. Follow the rules, but not to the point our writing becomes awkward.

    • Kate, that one rule provokes SO MUCH RAGE in me when I hear it. Why take a perfectly useful tool away from a writer? It takes ten minutes of research to figure out how to use a semicolon correctly. Then you have it forever, there as another arrow in the quiver in case that’s what’s called for.

      Ugh. Nonsense.

  • Hart Johnson

    “drop the dialog tags, and when you must, only use said”. Yes, often sound, but sometimes people just have conversations without a ton of action in there and you NEED to tag (especially with more than two people). And said is USUALLY fine–I am not advocating the inevitable things the actual dialog can get across (argued, sniped, whined) but WHISPERED is a word with extra meaning. And JOKED is something the reader may NOT get that says it a lot more elegantly that giving all the OTHER cues that tell it’s a joke. It is along the lines of “Show don’t tell” to me–it is USUALLY sound advice, but I get irritated when people take it as a concrete rule.

    • Also true. I had a journo prof in college who would strike out any dialogue tags other than “said.” ARGH. No.

  • When I saw your post title, “Write what you know,” IMMEDIATELY came to mind. If this was true, Moby Dick and Harry Potter would never exists. Rules are great, but they’re also made to be broken.

    • Agreed! And it’s freeing when you FEEL so much but you don’t necessarily have EXPERIENCE with things, to be told to break that rule.

      I wish more writers would write about what they don’t know. Fewer celebrity memoirs, more fiction. That’s a good trade off.

  • Ermzie

    I’m a new author with my first children’s book now published. Actually I write poems and my book is a short poem that was illustrated into a children’s book. So I don’t have a lot of experience in “wordsmithing.” I like that word very much. When I first began to write my short poems, I would send them to my sister for some feedback. The problem with that is that my sister is a creative writing teacher who has a bookbag full of correct rules. Oftentimes in my poems I want to emphasize a thought or feeling or cause the reader (or listener) to take a fresh look at something. When I want to do those things, I often turn around the expected wording so it stops the reader and makes them think again. This sort of thing makes my teacher/sister crazy. At first I followed her instructions, but changed back to my own way when I realized that the end product didn’t quite say what was on my heart.

    • Ermzie, that’s a great point. I think there’s a happy medium there between showing that you know the rules and turning them on their heads purposefully, and just flowing the established rules of construction because that’s what’s expected of you.

      As I mentioned above, I was a writing tutor and struggled with being too prescriptive. If I could go back now, I would try and be more open to young writers trying their hand at new things, instead of shutting them down so often.

      Thanks for reading!

  • Krithika Rangarajan

    “You can waste half a page of context clues for the reader to guess Mama’s age, or you could tell us she’s 37. It’s up to you, and sometimes, it’s better not to waste the space. Conclusion? Tell—sometimes.”

    #ROFL – thank you for the early morning laughs, Shanan! #HUGSS

    How exciting is it to break rules that do not serve your purpose? So long as you don’t insult, offend or hurt anyone intentionally, it’s immensely liberating to trust your passion to lead the way! 🙂

    One of my favorite writers – Ms. Katherine Kotaw of Kotaw Content Marketing – is a rule-breaker through and through. In an era of SEO-Optimized Titles, she includes almost musical subheadings that adequately summarize a particular section of prose (e.g.: No..No..No..Yes!). You would think she would be ignored, but HER target audience laps up whatever she pens with glee because Kat – as I fondly call her – is a magical storyteller!

    So, yeah, thank you for an extremely encouraging post <3

    Kitto

    • See? She stands out. That’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Those very voicey writers don’t care about being found by Google as much as they care about being found by other writers. 🙂

  • Scotch Jameson

    Learn all the rules, but when you write, throw them all away. I want to read what you have to say, not what you think I want you to say, or the way you think I want you to say it. Yes, people are shocked by unconventional writing, but if the story comes across and grabs your emotions, you will come to think of that writing is the standard to meet. The problem with literary fiction today is instead of reading good writers we’re reading bad writers talk about good writing. My favorite writer right now is James Baldwin. Read “If Beal Street Could Talk.” A living writer I like is Herman Koch. Read “Summer House with Swimming Pool.” Watch how these writers do it. The advice, “show don’t tell” is like telling someone to use only their legs to swim. Swimming, like writing, especially fiction, takes a lot of coordination with your whole body, though you can get by with less if you really want to or have to. When I write, I personally want to use everying in me to murder the voices of all my teachers so by the end I can come through, and when you read me, you will wonder how I said just what you had meant to say for so long but somehow always felt you couldn’t until now.

    • I have nothing to add to this comment. I haven’t heard of those writers, but I agree with your points.

  • J.c. Wordsmith

    The ” write what you know” advise is one that I look at with a bit of side-eye. I know what it is to be a deaf person, but I have no idea what is is to be a survivalist. So, I write about a deaf survivalist in a dangerous adventure that I know I will never experience. A mix of what you know and what you want to know make great fodder for fiction.

    • JC wordsmith, I would love to read a story like that. What a great idea.

      • Add some zombies into that (or some alien world) and that would be bloody awesome!

  • With all you rebels out there I fear we are losing sight of what is important…the skill of writing. Yes, rules are meant to be broken, and there are many times you should override them. But the rules are there for a reason. They make us good writers! Everyone has a story to tell and thinks they should write a book. They are storytellers. What makes good writers is their ability to use words in harmony, creating imagery, imagination, evoking emotions through the art of words, with the accuracy of writing. There are so many books out there that I scoff at the horrific writing! Our expectations have lowered! Let us not forget that at the heart of all these “rules” is the precision of our words and their ability to move your reader, but we should do this with respect to the artistry of writing.

  • darkocean

    Don’t forget the setting or the characters are floating in midair to the readers. We can see the world and they can’t. xD Try not to over explain things, to the point readers feel like they are too., find more organic ways to add that Oh-so important info in. I hate mirrors, alarm clocks, and characters thinking about their golden waves of hair that wind around their shoulders, or god help me tendrils that is used way to often. Go to Wattpad.com and you’ll see what I mean. Oy.

    Also, instead of making their dialog stand out along with using body language as needed, the dialogue is in full caps lock. Whee! My favorite bad advice I’ve gotten is a person trying to convince me that I should be using other dialog tags then said … Oh, something like He ejaculated? Seriously? I don’t think so, that’s telling in my book and not the good kind. I do like some telling it cuts down a boring travel scene into one quick sentence or sometimes two words. Boom, done back to the story. 🙂 Great blog, I’m going to add this to my bookmarks.

  • Nicole M

    I hate “write what you know.” How very mundane my books would be.