Worst. Advice. Ever.

Posted Posted by Sarah Rodriguez Pratt in Best Of, Rants & Raves     Comments 20 comments
Jan
4
images2 Worst. Advice. Ever.About 25 years ago, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I’d just read the Little House on the Prairie books and realized–thanks to my fantastic school librarian–that they were written by a person, a living human being; and that some people write books as their jobs. (Until that point, I’d honestly thought stories were manufactured in factories, just like the books on which they were printed.)

 

Since that realization and decision, I’ve heard a lot of writing advice–and not all of it has been good. But even the most misguided words, if reframed properly, can offer inspiration and assistance. Below are some of the most well-meaning but ultimately useless gems I’ve been handed, and how I’ve managed to make them helpful (your mileage may vary; apologies if one of them made a huge difference in your life and changed everything for the better):

 

  • “Write what you know.” I’m a bit torn on this one. We all have to start somewhere; but if all you ever write is drawn solely from your personal experiences, you’re going to be as boring as that person on Facebook whose statuses consist entirely of “Ate some chips,” “Watching TV” and “Going to bed now.” So I’ll chalk this up as training wheels advice: great for getting started, but eventually you need to ditch it.

 

  • “Who cares if it’s good? Just be proud that you finished writing something.” I appreciate the kindness behind this sentiment, but I disagree with it. Not everything you write is going to be good, and you shouldn’t fool yourself into thinking it is simply because you created it. However, the opposite isn’t true, either. Don’t walk around with your back in a sad arc, burdened by the shame of your less-than-perfect works. Use that embarrassment to drive you to be a better writer, not to stop you altogether. And speaking of perfect…

 

  • “It’s not done until it’s perfect.” This declaration usually comes from my own head, not an external source. That makes it even more treacherous, as it’s far harder to escape. But as Voltaire said, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Your writing doesn’t have to be perfect, and striving for perfection will probably drive you mad. The real key to writing is recognizing when it’s good enough.

 

  • “You really shouldn’t write until you’ve read ____ / studied ____ / gotten an MFA.” I know I need to read more Shakespeare. And when someone tells me they have an MFA, I congratulate them and smile and wonder if I’m effectively hiding my sudden terrifying inferiority. But to me, the most important thing I can do to improve my writing is just that: writing. Reading and studying are crucial, but they’re not a substitute for actually writing, revising, and honing your own work. You wouldn’t say, “Well, I’m not going to even start working out until I have the running shoes and lightweight workout clothes I want,” would you? No matter what equipment / training you have, your first few workouts / stories are going to be rough. But you can’t become a great writer without becoming an okay one first.

 

  • “Why don’t you write something with vampires / wizards / zombies ? Everyone seems to love vampires / wizards / zombies right now.” As I do with vampires / wizards / zombies, I’m going to pretend whoever tells me this doesn’t even exist.

 

  • “If writing is so hard, maybe you should do something else instead.” Sometimes, a combination of stress, pressure (internal and external), and rejection may push you away from the keyboard for a while, though hopefully not forever. But don’t ever think you should stop writing just because it’s difficult, or because you’re not as good as you want to be yet. Again, the only way you’ll become a better writer is to just keep writing. Or, in the words of Winston Churchill: “When you’re going through hell, keep going.”

 

Surely this isn’t the only less-than-helpful writing advice out there. What about you, loyal readers / writers? What awful advice has been handed to you?

 

wbn blog headshot SARP 150x150 Worst. Advice. Ever.When she’s not revising her first trilogy of YA novels, hugging her rescued dogs, or playing “Rock Band” with her husband, Sarah Rodriguez Pratt writes for her blog ThatsAGirlsCar.com. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in English from Harvard University and a Master’s in Information Studies from UT-Austin. A native Texan, she grew up in McAllen but has called Austin home for over a decade.

 

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20 Comments to “Worst. Advice. Ever.”

  • Someone telling me to push my manuscript through one of those online grammar-bot programs and then treat its word like holy writ. Uh, yeah. Somehow I don’t think having my novel sound like it was written by a computer is going to help my readers connect emotionally with my work.

    • I’ve never heard of an online grammar check program, but I guess it’s not surprising. Sounds pretty soulless. And treating anything automated as “holy writ?” No, thank you.

      Thanks for commenting, Anna.

  • At a writer’s conference, a somewhat famous novelist was giving a workshop on dialogue, and his advice was to consider dialogue “expensive,” as in use it sparingly. I’ve spent years trying to figure out why to think of dialogue as expensive, since my favorite novels often have long, rich passages of dialogue and I’m pretty sure the writers didn’t go bankrupt in the process. I think the genesis of the advice is that good dialogue is hard to write, and if you can’t write compelling dialogue it’s better to hide your weakness than expose it. Yeah, whatever. It’s true, dialogue is hard to write but well worth the hard work it takes to do well. For me, a much better advice for writers is to go & do whatever you want, just make it work.

    • Yeah, that’s silly. Sure, it applies to some writers, but presenting it as universal? Refund, please.

      Thanks for checking in, my friend.

    • Interesting — especially considering that one of my favorite books is “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” which is pretty much nothing but dialogue. Plus, a while ago, I sent one of my short stories to a friend, who commented on the extensive dialogue. She said she’d never seen anything like that before. I wasn’t sure what to respond.

      Your comment on how dialogue is hard to write, but worth the hard work, was spot-on. It could probably be applied to descriptive passages, too. Finding the balance between too much and too little description takes work, but — again — the results are so worth it.

  • I was told great writers are born, not made. That’s about as true as saying surgeons are born and not made. As if they didn’t have to learn to cut a straight line, recognize one organ from another, know how it works by itself and with other organs and so on. The same is true of writing. Whether you only have time to read a book about writing a few minutes a day, attend the occasional workshop or go to college, great writers understand their tools and the organs of their craft. They practice, study, edit – - and then practice some more. Most of all they love what they are doing and feed their writing their passion. Loving it doesn’t mean it makes you happy all the time – but it does satisfy something good in the soul.

    • Love the surgeon analogy.

      And I agree about the “born, not made” thing. Reminds me somewhat of what Stephen King writes in ON WRITING:

      “While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”

      • David, get out of my head! I was thinking of that exact same King quote and feeling miffed all over again.

        Sarah – The worst ‘advice’ I ever received was from a well-known poet who read my piece and, in lieu of commenting, emitted an, um, bodily sound. The tenor of his feedback was loud and clear.

  • Thanks for the comments and insights, everyone! I really appreciate it. And I may print out and tape Richard’s line “go & do whatever you want, just make it work” to my computer monitor as a motivation.

    I’m curious to hear more about grammar bots, only because I’d love to find another safety net protecting me from typos. Is it any more useful than Spell Check (which has failed me numerous times)?

    • Spell check fails me by the time I type the second word. It’s fine with “David,” but then it underlines “Duhr.” Which makes me feel like I don’t exist. Which makes me wonder why I should bother to write. Which makes me turn off the computer and nap.

      • Try writing a fantasy novel. Spell Check really hates it when you make up a word, even if you use it consistently.

      • I love the “Add To Dictionary” feature that OpenOffice has (Word may have it as well). God help us if they ever print my “dictionary”. It’ll prevent you from seeing red all the damn time and allow you to add words that don’t actually exist. One of life’s small joys.

  • Sarah, nice blog. I appreciate the bad advice. I’ve heard them all. You definitely nailed it with the write- something-about-vampires line. The one thing about writing is: there are more people offering advice successfully than publishing successfully.

  • [...] to mention it in my last post: I have another blog post up at WriteByNight’s blog. The topic: The worst writing advice I’ve ever heard. Stop by and comment on the least useful writing advice you’ve ever [...]

  • As they say, advice given freely is usually worth about as much.

    As a writing student, I had some of the most absurd comments on the pieces I turned in for critique, including one girl who told me “I don’t understand your title.”

    The title in question was “Big In Japan.” I asked her which of the 3 words she didn’t understand, the “big,” the “in,” or the “Japan.” She said she “just didn’t get it.” ENRAGING!

    In terms of more general advice, I’ve also gotten comments that such-and-such character “wouldn’t do” certain actions. Says who? I made them do it, so obviously they WOULD do it! Tell me why it’s not a believable action or get the hell off my lawn, am I right?

  • Write about what you know is deadly– and wrong. Why? We all know loneliness, fear, anger, brief moments of joy, of impetuous bad love that you go for anyway because, dammit, he’s slashing back tequila and so are you. The hard part is to write about what moves your characters — and your reader. The easy thing is type up: ‘Wow, great party” and post a picture of yourself dead drunk (not that I’ve ever done this)! Truly, from author of LIE.

  • I was once told, by someone with credentials exceeding mine, that writers with “natural talent” rarely had to struggle in their production; this was a sign, he said, that someone was “born” to be a writer. Unfortunately, this weird cosmic formulation for what makes a writer a writer haunted me for years.

    Writing is hard.

    Writing is isolating.

    Writing is a lonely task.

    Writing is, if its worth anything to the writer, a struggle.

    But the worst advice I ever received was: “Why do you have to use the naughty words?”

  • Love this post! I’m not a fan of write what you know, but I do believe in research so I guess in the end you would write what you know. I like writing for children and I hate when people say “that is a good market to be in. There is a lot of money in it.” I write for children becasue I like it not because of the market. Romance sells, but I’ll never write a romance novel.

  • [...] (Image from writebynight.net) [...]

  • [...] to mention it in my last post: I have another blog post up at WriteByNight’s blog. The topic: The worst writing advice I’ve ever heard. Stop by and comment on the least useful writing advice you’ve ever [...]

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