The problem with writing advice is that every writer is different. This leads to lots of advice being passed around, often with the type of reverence reserved for holy scripture, that may be of limited use, or at worst, incredibly harmful to a new writer. Following on from my Ten Most Valuable Writing Tips I’ve Received, I thought I’d share the ten worst. Again, this very subjective. I’m sure there will be one or two tips listed here that some of you swear by (or according to number 3, by which some of you swear). The best advice a writer can receive is to go with what works for you. The following definitely didn’t work for me.
Write what you knowThis is an incredibly frustrating piece of advice. We have been blessed with a wonderful imagination yet when starting out as a writer you’re told to stick to what you know. How many wonderful works would never have been written if authors only wrote books based on their own experience? Whole genres would disappear overnight. Instead of “write what you know”, try “know what you write”. Go where your imagination takes you but make sure you’ve done your research. I have never cloned anybody, worked in data analysis or run a missing persons investigation (although I have witnessed mass civil disobedience at first hand), yet all appear in my novel Second Chance, and I’ve been complimented on its believability. To do this, I did plenty of research to ensure what I wrote was plausible within the world I created.
Join a critique groupLet me start by saying I’m not against critiquing itself, just against joining established critique groups when you first start out. I know there are many helpful groups out there but for a first time writer who is trying to find their feet, joining an established group may be too much, too soon. I’ve spoken to many writers who found the experience demoralising, and in some cases destructive. If you ask for a critique, those critiquing feel obliged to find fault, even if what you’ve submitted is perfectly fine. There is also a macho culture of offering ‘tough love”, to prepare writers for the submission process. Add group dynamics into the mix and the result can be turn from being a critique to just plain criticism. If you are a new writer who wants to improve their writing – and you should – my advice would be to find a mentor, join a class, use friendly beta readers or form your own critique group with partners you trust.
Don’t end a sentence with a prepositionI know this advice may be a mystery to many American readers but at school in England I was taught never to end a sentence in a proposition. To this day I still find myself mentally correcting conversations whenever anybody does it, yet it’s grammatical nonsense. This is not how people talk – or think – in real life. Re-arranging a naturally flowing sentence to fit this grammatical rule ends up producing something that reads unnaturally and will throw a reader’s concentration. Ignore.
Be unique and unpredictableI don’t like this piece of advice, not because I want every book to follow the same formula. I like difference and I like to experience the new. The problem is, most writing won’t necessarily be unique and unpredictable to the writer themselves because they are the ones that are writing it. This can lead to all sorts of problems as they try to artificially add unique and unpredictable elements. I prefer Neil Gaiman’s advice: be true to yourself because out of the millions of writers out there, you are the only you. If a writer remains true to themselves and their characters, their writing will be unique and unpredictable.
Before you start, know everything about your lead characterIt is true you need to know enough about your main character’s background and motivations to be able to give depth and realism in your writing. But do you need to know the name of their best friend at Kindergarten, or what they received from their parents for their seventh birthday? Unless you are writing about a woman battling to find the last remaining red-headed cabbage patch doll to give to her childhood friend who will otherwise kill her parents as revenge for a horrible birthday, I suggest you develop the information you need to know for your story and enjoy discovering new elements as they pop into your head during the writing process.
Try X to get in the writing moodIf you take your writing seriously, you need to be able to write when you can. We all have our little quirks – I like a cup of tea and some biscuits while writing – but looking to get yourself in the writing mood is the same as only writing when the muse takes you. The more you write when it is tough, the easier it gets. The more you wait for the right mood, the less frequently you will write.
Start with your character and go from thereThis one is going to annoy all you pantsters out there but this piece of advice annoys me. Not because it doesn’t work for many writers but because it is put up as the way to write. And of course, there isn’t just one way to write. Before I start my first draft I need to know what I’m writing about and where it is going. Yes, I need to know about my characters, but I also need to know location, environment, external events and everything else that will have an impact on the story, and depending on the original idea, any one of these may come before the character.
Learn about what’s hot and what’s not in the industryI’ve seen this a number of times and I think it’s codswallop. For a start it encourages you to write for money, which is never a good target as the majority of us will never have a runaway bestseller. Secondly, books take time to write so if you target a trend, by the time your book is published it may well be over. Thirdly, if your heart is not in your work, if you don’t love what you are writing, it will be obvious to the reader. Learn about how to structure a book so that it is commercially appealing by all means, learn what turns readers on or off (but again, reading trends come an go), but if you write the book you would like to read and forget about trends, there is a good chance others will want to read it too.
Find your voiceThis piece of advice also goes hand in hand with “you’ll know when you find it.” It’s terrible advice, not because it isn’t important for a writer to find their voice but because it gives a new writer no idea what voice is or how you find it. I am sure there are hundreds of writers sitting out there as I type, sitting in the lotus pose and meditating in the hope of reaching the enlightenment of the voice. Much better advice is to write as you speak, or to write so quickly you aren’t consciously choosing each word.
Write the best work possibleThe problem with this piece of advice is not that a writer shouldn’t try their best but that so many writers end up in a perpetual state of editing because they are trying to reach the unattainable: perfection. The hardest part of editing is knowing when to stop. The breakthrough for me came after see in Philip Pullman’s annotations of Northern Lights, one of his most famous works. Please click on the link. You will find images where he has completely shredded the well loved piece and rewritten large sections, not because it is bad but because he feels differently now to when it was written. Yet the piece he is editing has been published and sold in the millions. When editing, always ask yourself if you are improving or just changing. If you are just changing, stop editing.
So what about you? Do you agree with me? Are there any that I’ve missed? Or do you think I’m peddling nonsense? Please let me know. I’d love to hear from you.