Ever wondered what really bad advice looks or sounds like? I asked several of my favourite authors what the worst advice they ever received regarding writing was and here is what they told me:
When I was in sixth grade, and writing stories like crazy, the school principal dropped by the class one day to see me. He said, “If you spent less time writing these stories all the time you’d be doing better in math.”
In a strange way, the worst advice I’ve ever been given was “write what you know”. Let me clarify that, though. It’s only bad if you take it in the wrong way. I believe all writers should be free to step outside their own experience and write about situations and events they weren’t present for. Otherwise you’re imposing a ridiculous straitjacket on yourself. I’ve made an entire career writing about gods, demons and monsters who (full disclosure) I’ve never actually met. Where “write what you know” does apply is in terms of character. You need to write people as people, informed by your observations of how real people speak and act. It’s very noticeable when you don’t.
The worst advice I ever got was “People don’t buy crime fiction written by non-whites”
I was once at a book fair in London where you could book a ten minute chat with a commissioning editor. The one they gave me started off by telling me she wasn’t a crime commissioning editor; I think she described her genre as chic-lit. Then she went on to tell me that my 129,000 word thriller was much too long and should never exceed 90,000. She advised me to cut it down. I explained that I couldn’t do that; all the fat was already gone. So she said I had to face it that I would never be published. Two 130,000 published thrillers down the road – and with a 140,000 one coming in January – I think that was pretty shit advice!!
‘Write what you know’. In my first book I have a serial killer burning bodies; in the second I describe the killing, cooking and eating of a small songbird. Obviously I’ve never done either. If I only wrote what I knew all my books would be about being in the army, working as a probation officer or going to the pub. Writers need to use their imagination so far better advice would be to ‘Write what you enjoy reading’ – this way you’ll inject passion into your work, you’ll enjoy the process and the end result will be all the better for it.
Okay, so when I was about 23 I sent a short story off to a small press quarterly magazine thing – back in the day before the internet etc – and they wrote back and told my it was awful and that I should give up writing because I clearly wasn’t cut out for it… They’re no longer in business;)
If you want to be a writer you have to write every day.
Well yes, nice idea but if you have a job, kids, a dog, parents, a life, it’s not always that easy, and it’s not essential either. Thinking time AWAY from writing is just as valuable.
The worst advice I’ve heard is that there are rules to writing fiction.
There are none.
When I was starting out, there were any number of people who wanted to tell me how often I should write, how many words I should write a day, what time of day I should write, what girl I should marry (oh, wait, that was my mom), my best shirt color for writing, etc.
But the worst writing advice was this: You should write every day.
No. A thousand times no. YOU write every day, chump. I need to fill the cup. I need to travel, meet people, fight my lawn to the death, wear pink shirts, whatever. All of that non-writing makes me a better writer when I do sit down to work.
This isn’t advice, just a personal observation: If something works for you, it works for YOU, not necessarily anyone else. If you’re a golfer and have the most godawful swing anyone’s ever seen, but the ball flies long and straight and true, guess what? You have a swing that works. Don’t change it for anything. And, in the name of all that’s holy, don’t try to slough that swing off on somebody else. It’s yours, and yours alone.
A long time ago, a writer who shall remain unnamed told me to write without any idea of plot or plan. Just let it flow, were his Yoda-like words of wisdom. Let what flow? I asked, given that I was supposed to have no plot or plan. It, he said. I tried this. It did not work. All you get is a stream-of-consciousness load of rubbish, as if someone vomited words onto your page.
“‘Your main character is a bit too prickly, no one will ever relate to her. You should make her a bit softer.’
They were talking about My Best Friend’s Girl and, happily, I didn’t listen to them.
The worst writing advice always is: Write what you know
I think it limits you too much, sure use your experiences to frame characters and stories and scenes-but I read to escape and I write to escape as well.
The worst advice came from an author on my MA course. He said, ‘imagination is over-rated. Don’t use your imagination.’
If I’d followed that advice I would have never written a psychological thriller and would never have been published.
The worst writing advice is also the best writing advice: Never give up. If you don’t need to write to feel complete as a person, do something else. Many people imagine a writing career to involve million-pound advances, daydreaming, long literary lunches and glamorous parties. The reality is very different. The most successful writers I know, be they screenwriters or novelists, work incredibly hard, writing and promoting books. They endure rejection, disappointment and constant angst about whether their last book was their last good book. Sometimes it’s OK to give up. Writing is all-consuming. If you’re not prepared for that, ‘never give up’ is terrible advice. If, on the other hand, you live to write, it will be the wisest advice you ever hear.
I submitted a book once and an editor told me it was ’too clever’. That was my feedback. Essentially, ‘Dumb it down, man.’ Not the best advice I’ve ever had but I was fairly new to the game and figured, ’This guy must know more than me.’ Anyway, I did it. The story suffered. It lost all the tension I’d created with my ’too clever’ version and it never saw the light of day. I spoke to another writer and she said, ‘You didn’t need to make it less clever, what you needed was a different editor with some imagination.’ Out of some shockingly lazy advice came some great advice that meant a book like Nothing Important Happened Today would eventually find the right home.
“The worst piece of writing advice I was ever given is that old cliché, “write about what you know”. Of course there’s an element of truth to it. But taken literally, it’s horribly restricting. It says “stay in your lane”, only write about things you have direct experience of, don’t use your imagination, don’t think beyond yourself and People Like You. I think fiction should be about far more than this. It should be about lives you haven’t lived, experiences you haven’t had, people you haven’t been. Fiction should encourage us to think outside ourselves.”
This isn’t so much the worst piece of advice, but it’s the worst thing I hear writers saying to less experienced writers: Every first draft is total rubbish. I see this all over the internet – even very successful writers proclaim their first drafts as utter crap or total drivel. Why? First drafts have good bits, bad bits, absolutely wonderful bits and I find this insistence that everything needs to be rewritten, possibly multiple times, to be both corrosive and disingenuous. I want to say to new writers, write from the heart and have confidence in what you write. Yes, some of it will be rubbish and need rewriting, but it’s not a given. I think this particular trope contributes to writers’ lack of self confidence and imposter syndrome at every level of the craft. Far more important to respect the work you’ve done, take yourself seriously, do what you can to identify the weaknesses in your writing and work hard to make them better. But don’t just write off weeks and months of effort as rubbish. You’re better than that.
‘Don’t read other people’s books when you’re writing’. Terrible advice as reading is essential to writing!
Has to be “write what you know”. If I had a quid for every non-writer who’s told me this over the years I’d be far richer than I’ve got from my books. And we’d literally have no sci-fi, zombie, horror, historical or crime genres. I can only think of one convicted murderer who’s successful in the thriving Crime Writing community, for a start. If we all followed this advice, there would be nothing to read but textbooks and my most hated genre of all, the solipsistic how-I-have-suffered memoir. There’s this thing called research; anyone can learn about anything in this wonderful world of ours, and writers find research opportunities wherever they go.
I’ve also been told frequently that I can’t write unless I’ve travelled copiously. I did actually travel copiously back when I was a travel writer, but virtually none of it has made its way into my work. My books come out of staying locked into my bedroom watching reruns of the Real Housewives until I get bored enough to write, not from jogging about the world eating “street food” and going to moon parties.
Of course there’s an element of truth to the advice, but it’s interpreted far too literally. We all know what it’s like to be frightened, heartbroken, red with rage, paralysed by despondence; these are things we can all access again if we need to. My main problem is controlling myself from indulging in apocalyptic fantasies the way I did in an MRI scanner the other day, frankly…
I think the worst thing is that before you are published people tell you that it’s impossible to get published unless you know people or are a journalist or have connections. Mainly it’s people who haven’t managed to get a deal and are looking for a reason but it can really put you off even trying – unless you are a stubborn asshole like me!
I’d had quite a lot of bad writing advice (after all, who actually knows how to write??) but top of the list is the time, many years ago, when a writing tutor scrawled across my work, ‘PEOPLE DO NOT WRITE LIKE THIS’.
Well, I wrote a whole novel like that. It got published and won an award. It wasn’t purely spite that motivated me, but it was definitely a factor. Looking back, I realise what he meant was ‘Men whose books I like do not write like this’. You have to find your own voice. I’m still working on it.
Telling a new writer that she must visit her book locations is unhelpful to the point of being plain mean. Such advice is invariably proferred by writers both successful and affluent, who think nothing of jetting off to Berlin for the weekend, and whose well-known name will get them entry to doors firmly closed to the rest of us. But writers with shallower pockets need not be intimidated. I wrote Sacrifice without visiting the Shetland Islands, and Little Black Lies (and my latest, The Split) without going anywhere near the South Atlantic. There is enough information on the internet and via your local library to set a novel on the moon (or beyond) if you so wish. To create a strong and vivid sense of place, writers need only buy a few ordnance survey maps, check out the best books on Amazon and buy or borrow them, trawl the internet and then sign up to as many social media accounts of people who actually live there as she can find. (It can be a good idea to have someone who really does know the place on standby to read the final version.) After that, you need just one thing – imagination.
Not sure about worst advice, but a friend did say, ‘I don’t know why you bother since there’s no money in it.’ (she’s married to a banker…)
This may be a tad controversial but the worst writing advice I ever got was from reading Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s a great book but the problem was I read it long before I realised that absolutely NO writing advice should be taken as gospel – because the process is so different for everyone. He said that your second draft should be your first draft minus 10%, which had me in a tailspin because my first drafts were ridiculously short, sometimes less than 55,000 words (a typical commercial fiction novel is around 100,000 words). I thought I must be doing something very wrong. But I learned in time that the only right way to write a book is the way that works for you. My first drafts are always the shortest and then I expand on them during the editing process. So sorry, Stephen King, but I disagree!
I’ve been pretty lucky with writing advice over the years, but there was one thing with speech tags. I was told that only using ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ was boring (contrary to every other authority in writing ever) and that I should vary it to keep it interesting for the reader. They suggested an ever more ridiculous list of alternatives I should use – ‘He told him’
‘He queried’ ‘He requested’ ‘He inferred’ ‘He allowed’ etc etc. Suffice to say it was ignored.
Generically speaking, I’ve not had a lot of writing advice. I’ve not been on any courses or read many ‘how to’ books, so have tended to plough my own furrow, as it were. Specific to me, a few years before I self-published, a lot of people – writers and editors – told me to ditch the supernatural themes in my books if I ever wanted to get published. I rewrote the second Inspector McLean book – The Book of Souls – on that advice, and it was dull and flat and horrible, and the only publisher even remotely interested dropped it, as did my then agent! The only one counselling me to keep the ghosts was Al Guthrie. I put them back in, self-published, and the rest is history.
Someone once advised me to print out my short stories and hand them to agents at book festivals.
N.b.: this is a great way to never, ever get an agent.
The worst writing advice I ever received was someone telling me simply not to attempt it at all. I had an idea lurking for a book (which would turn out to be Eeny Meeny) and quizzed a fellow screenwriter who had recently published his first novel. This mildly embittered scribe told me not to bother – novels take ages to write, don’t pay well and generally just disappear into the ether after publication. I was a bit taken aback at the time, but realise now that I was talking to the wrong person. I should have spoken to a debut author who’d always dreamed of holding their book in their hands, rather than someone who was looking for an easy pay day. Happily, I ignored this guy’s advice because I was desperate to bring my story – and D.I. Helen Grace – to life. Eeny Meeny went on to become the bestselling crime debut of 2014, so I’m glad I persevered. It is very easy however to get put off, even have your confidence knocked, by someone who is cynical or jaundiced about your chances of success and book writing generally. I say if you have an idea that you think is great, just get it down on paper. You can’t sell an idea, but you can sell a promising first draft. So go for it!
The worst writing advice I ever received also ended up being the best. I was writing a book before Blood Orange which was a dystopian feminist thriller, about climate change and rising water levels – I wanted it to be a feminist reworking of The Road. My then tutor said it was far too depressing and that no one would publish it, and I was so dispirited by this advice that I gave up on the book entirely. Looking at the many great feminist dystopian novels that have recently been published, I can see that tutor was entirely wrong, and it could well have been with a good chance. However, while I gave up on that book, I didn’t give up on writing. I signed up to the crime fiction MA at UEA and I wrote Blood Orange, and I’m very happy now with the direction that my work has taken. And to be fair, it was a very depressing book and it was making me miserable writing it, so it was probably a good thing to leave it behind.
Back when I was sending out my fourth novel – after having had all three previous ones rejected by every single agent and publisher – I got a particularly unkind rejection. It was from a very big literary agent. I knew How to be Brave was a hard sell, having had to describe it as fiction but not. A mixture of fact and storytelling. Historical but also contemporary. This agent said that if I didn’t know language, I shouldn’t write. It stung. But I’ll be honest, this was the moment where I thought, fuck you. I thought, I know language. I love language. And I wrote harder and tried harder … and it paid off. So sometimes the most negative advice leads to our best work. We can turn it around. I’m glad I didn’t listen but instead turned it into the fire I needed.
The only thing I can think of is the old adage of write what you know. Some take this to mean you should only write about your own experience and/or background/location. What it actually means is if you’re going to write about something, make sure you know about it. Research it, in other words. However, that doesn’t mean you use everything you learn. Just use what you need, what helps with the story, character or setting.
Worst advice: don’t write about weather. I write about weather all the time – it’s a big deal here in Sweden! My second book even has weather in the title (Red Snow). I will never stop writing about weather (or moose).
I’m not sure which is worst, but here are a few of my favourites:
Write what you know
The problem with this clichéd piece of advice is that it is often taken far too literally. There are people out there who will insist that, if you are a baker, then you should write only about bakers. It puts off many aspiring writers who think their lives aren’t interesting enough. The thing we all know is what it’s like to be human, and that’s enough for any story.
You must write X words every single day
There is no one way to get a book finished. If you are able to spend several hours a day writing, then great. Some of us have more complicated lives. I have days in which I get lots of words written, but also days in which I produce nothing. And you know what – that’s okay; I don’t beat myself up about it. I remind myself that the writing process isn’t merely about putting words on a page; it’s also about thinking, plotting, creating. Writing is art; it’s not a conveyor belt.
Show, don’t tell
Great if you’re writing a script for film or TV; not always so great for a novel. In a book, we have the luxury of being able to get inside the heads of our characters. That means we are able to describe their thoughts, memories and emotions without necessarily getting them to act it out. We don’t have to write a long, tedious passage in which Mabel roams through her garden, sniffing her roses and smiling at her dahlias; sometimes it’s okay simply to say that Mabel loved her garden.
Make your characters likeable
It’s a myth that your protagonist has to be likeable to make a reader engage. At its extreme, a character who had no flaws and agreed with everyone else would be a huge turn-off to most readers. What your protagonist should be is interesting. If you doubt this, think about characters such as Ebenezer Scrooge or Hannibal Lecter.
Make your story realistic
No, don’t. For the most part, realistic equates to boring. Most of us don’t have arcs like those of our characters. If I were to incorporate the minutiae of real police work into one of my novels, I can guarantee it would send you to sleep. If it’s a choice between authenticity and a gripping page-turner, I know which one I’d opt for.
Someone once told me that the best way to write a novel is to write the last chapter first then think of the story that fits with it.