header('Cache-Control: max-age=259200'); The Best & Worst Writing Advice I've Seen - Kristen Koster
Jan 132012

“Writing Advice: What are the top 5 best and worst things you’ve been told so far?” is this week’s topic in my accountability group’s HOW I WRITE series. Last week, we posted our look back at our 2011 goals and how we’re moving forward in 2012. I took this week’s topic in a similar vein. What are some of the “RULES” of writing that have struck me as both the best and worst bits of writing advice out there. Of course, any advice if not understood will never be the best.

Writing Advice: Photo of some of my craft of writing books.

Many new writers eagerly dive into the deep pool of craft books available. How do you know what's useful for YOU?

Writing Advice: The Best & Worst

1. Write What You Know

Simple, yet brilliant! You won’t find writing advice much plainer than that. Could anyone ever write about things they don’t know?

Hold on, people do it all the time! Science Fiction and Fantasy couldn’t exist otherwise. We can also hope serial killer books aren’t autobiographical!

This advice is so vague it’s nearly meaningless. Many new writers aren’t likely to mentally add on phrases like “emotions you’ve experienced”, “people you’ve known”, “situations you’ve been in”, or even “environments you grew up in”, which is a much more useful way to think of it.

And don’t let that short list fool you! There are a kazillion things you could include, but a new writer in search of the magic formula may not recognize what’s left unsaid until much later, possibly not until after they’ve been rejected for the umpteenth time for doing exactly as they were told and cranked out another Mary Sue or Gary Stu navel-gazer while muttering, “But it’s all I KNOW!”

So sit down and brainstorm a list of things you know and have experienced. Dig deeper. Don’t go for superficial stuff like how to do your day job. That might come in handy, but the characters and stories are far more interesting. Dig deeper. Reach deep down and pull up everything you love to remember. Then dive into those dark corners where the things you hate to relive lurk. Dredge it all up. Those raw emotions are what make characters come alive on a page, whether they’re human, alien, anthropomorphized woodland critters or whatnot.

Want plausibility and credibility? Dig deep and show us what you know.

Another tidbit here is, don’t throw around what you do know so it feels like a lecture or worse. What you know should support, embellish and enrich your story, never weigh it down, jump out at or patronize the reader.

2. GMC: Goal, Motivation, Conflict

I recently won a copy of Deb Dixon’s GMC book and this commentary isn’t really about her work as written, but more about how her acronym is proselytized on the streets of Writersville.

Many new writers ask for plot advice and get handed three letters: G, M, and C. If they’re lucky, they’ll get told what they stand for as well. Everyone always emphasizes knowing the GMC for your characters, but rarely explain why or how to use them to your story’s benefit.

Do yourself a favor, get your info from the source! No three letters encapsulate your magic pill. Even once you know what they stand for and how to use them to your advantage, they’re just another tool in your writer’s toolkit. A screwdriver isn’t the right tool for every job.

3. Start The Story As Late As Possible

This one refers to where to start your story along with the familiar refrains like “Start in the middle of the action!” and “Start right before a significant point of change for your main character!”

All good, and sometimes taken to extremes by the true believers who really DO want to be helpful, but if it doesn’t MEAN anything to you, it’s not very helpful. You may not know exactly what that point is yet. It’s ok to feel your way along when you’re just starting out. Many published authors have said they write the first five chapters and throw the first two or three out in their edits. Some others argue, you have to know how the book ends before you can properly write the opening. The important things are “starting it” and “finishing it”! Once it’s down on the page, THEN you can fix it. Which brings me to the next piece of writing advice.

4. You Can’t Fix a Blank Page

Ahh… La Nora speaks. And she’s absolutely correct. You can’t fix anything that’s not written down. Does knowing that help? Does repeating it as a mantra help you get words on the page? Me either. Maybe it’s one of those paradoxical truisms, where the more you repeat it, the more likely you’ll be doomed to experience it.

I’m all for “giving yourself permission to write a crappy first draft” and “good writing is really rewriting”, but just adding to the performance pressure of getting what’s in my head onto the page by pointing out the fact that I don’t have any words down yet really kills those creative juices.

So write that crappy draft. All. The. Way. Through. Discover what the story wants to be about before you stop it dead in its tracks by questioning it or worse forcing it into becoming something it’s not.

Does this mean pantsing is the right way to do it? Not if it doesn’t work for you! I’m in awe of people who can write that way, but plotting is an equally valid approach as long as you get past plotting and get down to writing. Otherwise all you have is a colorful stack of note cards, a pretty collage or a spreadsheet with lots of blocks filled in and still no story.

Trust me, people, I speak from experience here.

5. ‘The road to hell is paved with adverbs.’

Stephen King is the master, therefore if he says it, we must take his writing advice to extremes! “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” means we must never be nice?

That faulty logic is why I’m against anything artistic stated as an absolute. Adverbs weaken verbs, but some are necessary. Inexperienced writers can take simple boundaries and fashion them into straightjackets.

My music theory professor always said “You have to learn the rules before you can break them.” Yep, goes right up there beside the “There are three rules of writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

There are rules. There are guidelines. And there are things that work or don’t. Writers SHOULD know how to effectively use words. Writers need a common language to critique and improve their art. You should be able to not only hear what works and what doesn’t, but describe why it does or doesn’t for you.

It also helps reduce confusion or talking at cross purposes with other readers and writers. Must you know what your 3rd grade teacher insisted you memorize for your grammar test? Pffft. Use what works for your style, voice and story. Will it always work? Maybe, maybe not, but just because someone said “Delete every adjective, adverb, and instance of ‘was’ and ‘had’, doesn’t mean they are correct or that you’ll be kicked out of Writerville if you use them effectively. Check what you enjoy reading. Betcha anything those authors break “The Rules.”

YOUR TURN: What is the best or worst piece of creative advice you’ve ever heard, and why?

And if you’d like to read about what the rest of my group considers good &/or bad writing advice, you can find their blogs here:

* Alexia Reed * Kimberly Farris*
* Angeleque Ford * Danie Ford * Emma G. Delaney *

  32 Responses to “Writing Advice: The Best & Worst I’ve Seen”

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  1. Excellent post! Thanks for this 🙂

  2. It always occurs to me, that the people writing books about and handing out advice on how to write, are not themselves writers ( except of of How To Write books), which strikes me as odd. I mean, if they knew so much about writing, why not, you know, just write a goddamn book.

    Advice I had from one agent as he blew me off, “Show, don’t tell”, which falls into the category of, yeah, I’m sure there’s some sound reasoning there somewhere, but what does it actually mean!

    One piece of advice I liked, along the lines of your “Can’t fix a blank page” thing, was “Don’t get it right, get it written.’

    Good luck with the search for an agent.

    • How could I have forgotten, “Show, don’t tell!”?

      Actually, the best explanation I’ve seen about making this work is by Joanna Bourne. She uses the terms “here & now” (showing) and “elsewhere” (telling) and it MAKES SENSE! I highly recommend reading her “technical topics” on her blog. Awesome stuff there!

      I think it’s good to look at it from the agent or editor’s POV, but you also have to make your inner reader happy too. That said, the majority of my craft books are by other fiction writers, at least the ones currently out on that shelf. =) But yes, consider the source of the advice. Advice from someone you trust and respect will stick with you longer and have a better chance of sinking in than that from someone you don’t respect and aren’t open to “hearing”.

  3. Read, read, read…

    • I thought that was a given? *duck* Honestly, the only downsides I can see to that one are reading to the exclusion of writing or if you are concerned about borrowing too heavily from other writers ideas and style without noticing it.

      Balance, in all things!

  4. These were all great. Thanks!!!

  5. The worst writing advice I’ve received was “write what’s popular.”

    That’s business advice, not writing advice. :/

    • Yep. Good one! But even as business advice it’s kinda sketchy with production times, although with the various avenues for ebooks and self-publishing, that window is shrinking. And just because something is popular, doesn’t mean YOU should write it to make money. YOU should write things that get you excited and want to finish it!

  6. Show don’t Tell… I heard that so many times through the year I was editing my first ms. Great and necessary advice that I give to this day. But in the beginning I had n idea what it meant. It took solid examples in my own writing for me to really ‘get it’ and act on it to improve my work.

    GMC is one I still struggle with. Mostly the G and M now. I think I have the C figured out.

    Thanks Kristen!

  7. I don’t like anyone telling me I have to write a certain way and I don’t like sharing my ‘process’ because a) I don’t have one and b) my ‘process’ certainly isn’t going to work for you.
    In my opinion, the best way to use ‘show don’t tell’ is in a critique situation when you help a writer understand how you could make something better by asking them questions about their word choices rather than rewriting the whole thing for them. 🙂

    • I love that interpretation of “show don’t tell”, Kate!

      I know word choice is one of my weak spots. You that, umm, thing, you know the one, where you know there’s a specific word you want, but you can’t reach it, just all the almost-but-not-quite-synonyms? Yeah… I get that in a big way. All. The. Time. It’s gotten better, but I go back and reread stuff and wonder what I was thinking at the time.

      I think process is very personal like you say. I enjoy hearing how others get ideas or even go about their process. I don’t believe I could step into say Stephen King’s or Janet Evanovich’s shoes after reading about their process. It does give me hope in that I see them facing some of the same obstacles and perhaps getting an aha! moment over something I’ve been fighting against. It’s also reassuring to share your process and see those nodding heads and know you aren’t completely nuts or alone. But I agree… there is no right or wrong way unless you never finish. That couldn’t have been the right way. =)

  8. Great post. So often I feel like writing advice is given in an obscure language, or maybe it’s just the way my brain processes information. All of these examples are good ones. The only thing I would add is giving your writing a little time to simmer before beginning to edit. Walking away for a time is huge, at least for me. I’m always amazed and disgusted when I go back, and find those sentences or paragraphs that worked when I wrote them, but makes no frigging sense now.

    • “…maybe it’s just the way my brain processes information” I think it may be a combination of the two that are working against us. But I’m probably just biased. Sometimes I think I’m far too left-brained for this, but I don’t like that label either! I want to be a centrist!

      That’s a great one, Mac! “Putting your work away/on ice” before you try to edit it. I know I read things that aren’t there if I’m too close to it. I find editing in a different format — reading on printed paper or in a pdf useful too. Yes, I cringe at some of those clunkers, but it’s also amazing to find those gems, and think, ‘Wow, I wrote that!’

  9. Excellent post. I totally agree with you.

    Best advice: Stop making excuses and write.

    Worst advice: Don’t use was, it’s passive.

  10. This is darned good writing advice right here! Thanks for the post.

  11. I always find the ‘keep a notebook’ advice a bit ambivalent. Sure it keeps you in the habit of writing but what it really needs to say is ‘keep a notebook and read through it regularly’. I try and go through my notebook about once a month if not more. It’s amazing the little bits of ideas that I have forgotten I even had because my mind had to jump elsewhere after writing the idea down.

    • Thanks for adding that one, Leonie! I’ve seen it mentioned a lot of places and I agree, the gentle reminder to review what’s in there is important too! At least you got to the point where you remembered you had one with you! I can’t even seem to remember I can do notes and stuff on my iPhone now.

  12. The worst piece of advice I ever got was to write with someone else’s process. I wasted a heck of a lot of time convincing myself that my process was somehow “wrong” – I’m mostly a pantser, with a bit of plotting thrown in – and my teacher’s process was right, because she was a professional and a plotter. Of course, as it turns out, her process was right for her, and my process is right for me. Thank goodness I don’t believe that there is one “correct” or “better” way to write anymore – I’m much more productive now 😉

  13. Great post! 🙂 THe best advice I ever had was join RWA even if you’re nto sure you’re writing romance… 🙂


  14. “Was” is passive voice. Anyone who says this needs to go back to school and relearn grammar. Not all “was” is passive voice. It may be passive writing. And it may also be necessary.

    • I almost agree, Ashlyn. I’m not sure I’d force anyone back for grammar lessons like I remember, but I do agree that if you’re going to use words, you should know how to wield them effectively. I was taught that PASSIVE means “The ball was kicked by the boy.” Yes, it uses ‘was’ but that’s not the defining factor. Object being acted upon by the subject = passive. There are just some tenses that require a good ‘was’ or a ‘had’ to make sense! That’s another of those “if one instance is ‘wrong’, they all must be” examples taken to the extreme.

      I think the people who preach that “rule” would die if they were to read a sentence like the one my husband made up years ago to play with grammar,

      The question was that that ‘that’ that there was was there, not that that ‘that’ that there was was the question.

  15. Best advice: write every day, come hell or high water, good bad or indifferent. This establishes writing as a habit, and habits, good or bad, can easily become our destiny.

    Worst advice: Make every sentence count. Reason: I can’t think of any better way to encourage your internal critic to shut down your every sentence than trying to write under the thumb of this idea.

    I think it helps to bring out the playful side when you write. The former helps me by establishing writing as just a regular fun thing I do. The latter makes it like sitting down to take a test every day, one in which I’m bound to be found lacking and wanting.

    My 2 fwiw. Happy writing to all.

  16. Passive voice has a place, usually when you want to emphasize some subject other than the doer, if that subject happens to be more important or more interesting.

    otoh, it can also be used to hide the doer. Many a politicians tries this tack, and sometimes the usage gets carried home to your article unintentionally.

    It’s good to be highly aware of these things when you write.

  17. Lots to think about, Kristen. You laid it out beautifully. We can take in all the advice out there, but in the end, we need to write our stories, letting them come from that deepest, most creative part of us to make it to the page. I guess I better get writing!! 🙂

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