Words of Advice from Famous Authors That Are Just Wrong

I imagine this post is bound to draw some criticism, but bring it on!

Maybe it’s just me, but when I read pithy statements from famous authors that are hailed as sage advice, I often scratch my head. Based on my experience as an author, sometimes the savvy advice is more rosemary or thyme than sage.

This silly analogy makes me think of spices, which leads me to think how everyone’s tastes are different. You may love cumin in your chili (I do), but a friend of mine says it tastes like dust and she can’t stand it.

So what’s my point about sage advice? That just because some really famous author said it, doesn’t mean it really applies to you. What works as gospel for one writer may be madness for another.

So it may be wise to take such advice with a grain of salt (unless you don’t like salt—so maybe that expression doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in this context). For you, maybe that great advice is just plain wrong.

Words of Advice I Disagree With

So, I’m going to list some oft-quoted words of wisdom from some famous authors and tell you why I don’t agree. I’m not saying you have to agree with my take or response of these. In fact, you can disagree with my pithy statement: “Whatever works for you.”

  • “The first draft of everything is sh**.” ~ Ernest Hemingway. I guess I’ll just start with the big guns. Who am I to argue with Hemingway?

Personally, I am not a fan of his writing. I think he forged some new territory with his style, but I’m veering off topic here. It really doesn’t matter if I (or you) like an author’s books or not. The question is whether their advice should be considered gospel for writers.

For Hemingway, this clearly was the case—his first drafts were probably terrible. He found a method of writing, no doubt, that worked for him, and that works for many writers. Which is writing a really rough (or awful) first draft. I don’t know if he plotted out his novels. I imagine he wrote a bit by the seat of his pants.

Like I said: whatever works for you is fine and acceptable. So . . . I disagree with that remark. I know many writers (myself included) that write a pretty decent first draft. Like Dean Koontz, I edit as I go, and plot intensely, so that when I write the last line of the book, I am pretty much done. I will do some light tweaking and proofreading, but I almost never change anything when I reach the end of my “first draft.”

My first draft is essentially my last and only draft. Is it because I’m not a real writer, or I’m lazy? Nope. I just have a different method that works for me.

  • “If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.” ~ W. Somerset Maugham. What is it with the swear words? Just wondering . . . Sorry, W., I am going to really disagree with you here.

All those things he lists are so true. You must have them to be a great writer, but the way you write is crucial. There are some really horribly written books out there, written by passionate writers who have good skills and can tell a good story.

But their writing style is awful. Boring. Derivative. Flat. Uninspired. The same old, same old. Stale. Need I say more? Having a unique, fresh writing style is truly important to readers, agents, and publishers.

Don’t write like everyone else (read: the mainstream best-selling authors in your genre). Find your style and nurture it. It does matter.

  • “It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” ~ Jonathan Franzen. Excuse me? I am not even going to go there. Do you know any writers who aren’t connected to the Internet these days? Don’t get me started on this one.
  • “The artist must bow to the monster of his own imagination.” ~ Richard Wright. Hmm, interesting. I am not familiar with any imagination monsters. And if I had some, I wouldn’t bow to them. Some writers say they can’t control their story. Their characters run amok and take over the plot. They start to tell one story and end up with something completely not what they intend.

I guess I could call those monsters. But who says we have to bow to them? Oh, Richard Wright. Sorry, Richard. My imagination bows to me. I am my imagination. Let’s not get too psychotic here.

  • “The scariest moment is always just before you start.” ~ Stephen King. Maybe that’s true for Stephen King because he knows the terror lurking around the corner, waiting for him in the story he’s about to tell. Although I think he’s talking more about being intimidated by the task ahead.

In his book On Writing he says, “The basics: forget plot, but remember the importance of ‘situation.’ I won’t try to convince you that I’ve never plotted any more than I’d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible.”

If I took that approach to my novel writing, I think I would be scared, too, when I sat down to start my first chapter. Instead, since I DO plot extensively, I love that moment when I jump in and start. It is never scary but exciting! That’s why I preach that plotting is essential!

I’m having so much fun with these, I’m going to continue in the next post. I will admit readily, though, there are many great words of advice from famous authors that I heartily agree with. That’s because they work for me. I’ll share some of those in future posts, but for now will leave you with this last quote:

  • Don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously. ~ Lev Grossman.

Mine included.

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  1. Love it, and agree whole-heartedly. Especially with Hemingway. Why pantsers feel they have a monopoly with the way books are written, I’ll never know, but I’m tired of them telling me that plotting in advance is wrong, or, worse, impossible.

    Unfortunately, if attacking writing advice that doesn’t work for everyone is taken to an absurd conclusion, there won’t be anything left to guide writers in how to accomplish anything. So I think the best solution is for each writer to struggle through a book or two, and then develop their own method of writing. And, keep quiet about it!!!

    1. Good point! My advice, which I will be reiterating, is to find what works for you. Nothing wrong with sharing advice and methods with others but we are all different. One author I know kept forcing herself to write her novels in order, meaning from page 1 to the end, and it grieved her until she realized her brain worked better with writing her scenes randomly and then piecing them together. She’s won awards and sold big, but it was tough until she figured out what worked for her.

  2. Suzanne … a great contribution to the discussion … some advice is just plain awful and famous authors have no monopoly on what making good writing. And sometimes really good author’s can get away with violating the rules, but most of us can’t.

    For myself, my first draft isn’t “sh..”, but because I tend to be left-brain oriented, my first draft has the guts of the story, but it takes me several rounds to flesh out my characters and their responses to the conflicts and challenges they encounter. I’m hoping it will get easier and faster over time, but that remains to be seen.

    Thanks for a fun read … keep ’em coming

  3. I am right with you on 90% of this, especially Hemingway. I’m one of those who will sit for minutes, maybe hours, searching for the right word before I go on because I believe the rest of the book is predicated on what is laid down first. I do minimal rewrites and when I finish my first “draft,” I am 95% done. The only thing I differ on is bowing to the imagination. I don’t consider it a monster but a subconscious muse. I have started one story only to have it become something else, have written things about which I have no clue as to the meaning, but then it is revealed to me later, so I welcome these unexpected and unexplained deviations. I believe (for me) this is where the mechanical becomes the magical and the story comes alive.

  4. With regards to the Stephen King advice, it probably depends on what you write. He writes suspenseful stories filled with the unexpected, and it’s been my experience that plotting twists and jumps ahead of time is counterproductive. If I know what’s going to happen ahead of time, it’s harder to keep it a surprise for the reader. If you write more literary work, or something with a very complex or technical story, plotting might be necessary.
    I also bow to the monsters of my imagination. It makes the stories scarier when it spins out of control and I have no idea what’s going on. This could be why I also identify with Hemingway’s observation that the first draft is crap. With all the randomness and twisting around, my re-writes are pretty extensive. I don’t actually think he meant that as advice so much as encouragement for writers who look at a horribly written first draft and want to give up on it.

  5. You missed the most obvious one and I can’t even think of who said it. “Write what you know.” If this was the golden rule of writing there would be nothing but books about writers trying to get their work published.
    The other bit of wisdom I followed for years was Don’t give up and keep trying. Ironically it was only after I gave up on my book and was ready to archive it and move on that I got my contract with a publisher. Although I would never advise writers to give up on their work, I would say stick to what works for you. Non-specific advice from others is only so much blather.

  6. i think that last line said it best 😉

    for me, i use whatever is working right then; it’s like a dance, there are turns and twists, slow and fast beats, ad libs and choreographed lines –

    they’re all good the way all the fruits and vegetables are good, in their time, in their place, and in their proportion

    and sometimes that sway “comes” to me, and other times i hone it

    it doesn’t matter, it’s all good, for me anyway 😉

    best wishes all

  7. As a pantser who eventually learned to always start with a well-crafted plot, I get what these famous writers are saying, but I have to side with you.

    When you know where you’re going in a story and how you’re going to get there, you avoid characters running amok, first drafts that require a lot of rewriting, there’s nothing to fear whether it’s the first line or the last, and there are not monsters (imaginary or otherwise) beating you senseless.

    As to Maugham’s quote, we have seen badly written novels become huge successes just because people fell in love with the characters and incidents (insert a certain grey and shady series), so I think he has a point to some extent. However, does an author want to knowingly and willingly be atrocious at her or his craft? I can’t speak for others, but that was never one of my goals.

  8. I really enjoyed this, Suzanne. But even though I’m not any of these greats, I’m a writer and what works for me–is just that. And your responses reflected what works for you. Occasionally a first draft might be sh–, but not all first drafts. And maybe now and again you sit at the computer and your fingers play over the keys because you just can’t make a start. BUT YOU WILL. As Jim said, don’t give up and keep trying. There might be some of that in King’s work too.
    Beth Havey

  9. You gave us some things to consider and think about! That is good. If a writer wants to break the rules, then he should and self-publish. But I have found that the more I am learning, the more I want to learn and use the “craft” just like if you learned to sew, or cook or anything else that makes your work satisfying! The old saying, “It takes all kinds” is really true! Keep writing.

  10. Writing is such a personal endeavor that writers – like everyone else – base their view of reality on their own personal experiences. That includes what works for them during the writing process. It’s fine to listen to professional, published writers talk about their craft. Ultimately, though, you devise your own methodology and establish your own writing habits. Whatever works – as long as you keep writing!

  11. Each of these are applicable and/or inspiring to some people. I think what we find so objectionable is the extreme language. “everything,” “doesn’t matter a damn”, “anyone,” “must,” “scariest…always.”

    I love Larry Brooks’s advice,too, but he gets a lot of flack as well. Probably because he uses a lot of similar language. To paraphrase, he says “you CAN’T win NaNoWriMo as a pantser, unless winning to you is creating a first draft that is sh-.”

    Most of these writers offer great advice, but assuming it is a universal truth is what gets them in trouble.

    For me, I can relate to King’s statement even as a planner. The planning phase is very intellectual for me. I’m actively thinking “how can I accomplish what I want to?” I’m scheming and outlining. My mind is busy. Once I sit down to write, however, that questing voice speaks up. “What if my writing is bad? What if this has been done before? What if no one likes it?” Even knowing the story I want to tell and how I want to tell it, the scary moment is sitting down to actually do it.

    But, some say, bravery is knowing you’re scared and still going forth!

  12. Yup – I agree with this! I am an obsessive plotter too, and although I now edit a great deal more than I used to 20 years ago(when the first draft was the only draft!)I still try to get as much as possible right as early as I can. The story, structure, characters and chapters are invariably mapped out long before I put fingers to keyboard. Like you say, what works for some may not work for others, but I need to know where I’m going before I start my journey.

  13. I agree – I don’t like Hemmingway either. I have a lot of time for Somerset-Maugham’s writing, but not his opinions, and looking at some of the rubbish which passes for writing these days, I think he would eat his words if he were alive today.
    I enjoyed this article…more please!

  14. ok, I’ll show everyone how dumb I am – what’s “plotting?” I mean, I know how to plot to get my way but I’m not sure what you mean about it when writing a book. Obviously, I’ve never written a book! Everyone says I should but frankly, they are clueless about what it takes. It’s more than a good story, or even a good voice or style. Maybe it’s this plotting you are talking about!?

    1. Plotting means instead of just jumping in and writing off the top of your head, you actually spend some time thinking (planning) what you will write about. You can loosely plot, with some rough scene ideas, characters, themes, etc., or you can extensively plot, like I do, using charts, post-it notes, index cards, scene outlines, lengthy character treatments, pages of research. Many people feel, unlike most other vocations and skills, they can just sit down and a novel will magically appear. A great story is complex, long, and has many elements that need to work harmoniously together. It is a very difficult thing to master, and so takes advance planning and mapping out to make it strong and compelling.

      1. “It is a very difficult thing to master, and so takes advance planning and mapping out to make it strong and compelling.”

        Surely you don’t suggest that it is impossible to write a “strong and compelling” novel without all of this “advance planning.”

        Hemingway’s quote was not “advice.” He did not presume to advise anyone on how to write. He offered his own perspectives. So I stand as defender of the maligned EH and his practice of writing shitty first drafts!

        The writing world is made up of plotters and pantsers. Neither method is “the right way.”

  15. I think this is a great post to remind those of us embarking on our writing journeys that even the greatest writers are people. They’re flesh and blood, and if they express their opinions fans and aspiring writers shouldn’t take those opinions to heart and allow those opinions keep them from pursuing their own dreams. Thanks for the article!

  16. I’ve known new writers that get so wrapped up in famous people’s advice that when they find advice that contradicts something they previously took as gospel, it sends them into a semipsychotic tailspin. I think advice like these items are great for new writers, but at some point (when you’ve spent your 10,000th hour writing, I think) you recognize the “good” advice and “bad” advice and realize you’ve become expert and no longer need general advice like this.

    I personally especially agree with the first draft thing. I write pretty good first drafts, but there are large swaths that need some real spit & polish when I revise because there are times when I have to eschew perfection in the name of getting the story down.

    Also, I wonder about the King quote about plot and situation. I think if you’ve got real characters and they do the things they really would in real life, then plot naturally flows from situation; similarly, a well plotted story is really just a series of “situations” characters find themselves in. Their actions (the plot) simply move them to the next situation. Plot, character, situation, action–in a complete story, they all must be in sync. So really, to me the “plot” versus “situation” debate is really one of semantics, not craft.

    Can’t wait for your follow-on posts. This was fun.

  17. Hi Susanne,

    It’s so refreshing to know that I am not alone when I think my first draft is pretty decent too. I’m glad there are others who think this way. I spend months and months on my ‘first’ draft so why should it be so s**t?

    In any case it is a great post. I’m looking forward to the next one! 🙂

  18. THANK YOU! I get so tired of people’s opinion as being gospel, just because they landed a big contract with a publisher and are now considered “the best of the best.” Like you said, it’s all a matter of flavor (love that analogy, because I love spicy foods).

  19. There are several pieces of “wisdom” that I;ve disagreed with; perhaps it’s part of a plot for the big guys to keep the competition away, going “hey, let’s tell them to do THIS then they’ll never make it.” Be that as it may, one piece of advice in some “how to Write” book (I think by Orson Scott Card) was “Write the market”. Of course if you do then then you’ll always be behind it and never be doing your best because you Must write what’s inside of you, what you love, or you’ll never do your best.
    I think if I’d ever listened to some of these old traditional pieces of written wisdom, I never would have accomplished what I’ve accomplished, which in my case is a 13-novel series of over 5.2 million words, written in just under about 8 years (I took most summers off).
    I outline ahead of time so I know where I’m going, but am not afraid to add in other ideas that may come to me in the course of the adventure (just so long as it doesn’t go astray of my outlined end-point). I’ve come up with a number of fun plot developments and new characters that way. I have the surety of plotting things out mixed with a bit of seat-of-the-pants.
    The combination seems to work for me, as I’ve never had writers block.

  20. The second one from Maugham is obviously an ironic one. If you do all the things up to the sentence with the cuss, it cannot be bad writing by default…

    I take Stephen King’s as that before he starts it’s him the author, but once he starts it’s his characters that run the show.

    Do you have one from Dan Brown? That should be fun.

  21. Nice post. I particularly enjoyed the food references. Of course the parts about not believing everything you hear were rather spot on, as well.

    Be well,

  22. I don’t agree with the assessment on Stephen King. He’s pantser, and the scariest thing for a pantser IS starting the story. We don’t know where the story is going, and for that matter, know anything all. It’s like stepping off into the darkness. Every time I start a new story, it’s very scary.

    And yet, it can really turn into magic once the words start coming out.

  23. I agree on all these points, and I like that you have the guts to disagree with the big guys. As writers, we can’t afford to follow advice blindly. Isn’t the whole point of writing to explore ideas and express your opinions? We must find our own paths. 😉

  24. I agree on most of your points, and they are well put. I can say when I first started out I was fallowing ever bit of advice I was given, until I realized it didn’t all work for me. I don’t plot extensively, but I don’t fly by the seat of my pants ether. I found a middle ground that works for me, I do some plotting but it is more of an outline, then I let my imagination do the rest. Not saying I “bow” to it, I control it, but I give it a long leash. I love this post thank you for sharing, I will have to share this with my readers, I know they will get as much out of it as I have. Thank you, I look forward to more posts, how can I not fallow after such a good read.

    Happy Writing
    Maria A Wood

  25. “It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” I think that this particular piece of advice is a little more relevant to those of us who frequently find ourselves distracted and are prone to procrastination.

    Which FYI, would be me. I am a little too ADD to be productive with an internet connection. As such, this is a piece of advice that I took to heart, completely.

    In fact, nowadays I do all of my writing (Well, my first drafts…) far away from an internet connection. I write with a pen, in a notebook. Which granted, isn’t really tree-friendly behavior, and might be considered a little out-dated, but it works for me. Far better than working at my computer ever did (because, oh look! This cat fell off a chair! hilarious!).

    Because why write, when there’s a world of free information, and amusing pictures of furry animals doing funny things. And Youtube. No? Just me, then?

    I do agree that it’s about finding what works for you, and indeed I have, and it’s a good thing too, or I’d be glued to my computer at five AM after not having written a single word.

    Since I started writing the old fashioned way, productivity has increased dramatically. But certainly, not every writer has the attention span of a drunk fish.

    To those of you that do, disconnect your internet! you’ll thank me later.

    Best wishes,

    1. When plotting my novels, I like to sit outside and use a pen and notepad. I brainstorm away from the Internet. That’s when I need the least distraction. Good points!

  26. Gosh, I’ve never googled or asked for “writing advise.” I’m in the belief that there is no right or wrong way to write… other than sticking to decent grammar 😉 It’s nice to make your writing readable. You have to find a strategy that works for you.

    I like allowing my creativity go wild on a page, play around with it, copy paste, and find out where my characters are going. Sometimes it surprises me and I like the turn that my story takes… others times I don’t and I wind up rewriting. It’s all very exciting and I love the challenge of writing in a way that draws in readers.

    Thanks for sharing!!

  27. When I write my first draft, I’m unplugged like Mr. Franzen. Every fall I hit the back to school sales and buy boxes of cheap notebooks and pens, allowing me to brain-write the first draft unfettered on their pages.
    However, once it comes to inputting the text into a computer file, I absolutely engage the Internet. It was invaluable in the creation of my latest work, a family saga that spanned four generations from 1920 to 2006. To capture the nuance of language shift over the decades, research details of historical events and even fashions of the day, I would have had to set up a cot in my local library for two years. The librarians would not have been amused by my Pisa-like towers of coffee mugs.
    Instead of littering those floors, my web browser is crammed with bookmarks that led me to all sorts of virtual depositories of information. Distractions, often yes, but for me the Internet was part of the process of writing a story that feels authentic.

  28. It’s nice to hear someone else blow holes in some of these notions. I agree that what works for some does not necessarily work for everyone. My first drafts are not perfect or final but they aren’t shit either. Why would I stick with something long enough to finish it if it were shit?

  29. I like your last quote:

    “Don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously.” ~ Lev Grossman.

    We are all individuals, and we all have our own trails that lead to the final destination – a finished book.

  30. I LOVE this article! I created and run the writers support group “Blooming Late” on the SheWrites.com site and I am forever sending them articles and vids of famous authors advice, quotes etc. But this article is sooo good because it shows that JUST because you may be a successful author it doesn’t mean they truly know it all and they are after all, just people. Im posting this everywhere!

  31. I have to say this is a fine article. Oddly the first example, for me, hit the nail on the head. I am soon to be a first time published author, just waiting on my proof copy for my final approval.

    I was convinced to submit my first draft. I was not so pleased with it but sent it off because I trusted the individual that gave the advice. I edited as I typed as well as I could but felt it needed proof reading and advice.

    I had never written a book nor did I have any idea how to submit a book. The “Big Name” publishers sent back messages,”We do not accept unsolicited submissions, get an agent.” I was swamped with all the “Vanity Publishers” with their “Bud! Have I got a deal for you!” opportunities to spend my money. I had no money and I still have no money. That was three and a half years ago.

    Last month I was offered a “No-Cost” contract for my book by a Vanity Publisher that left me alone during the three and a half years. I signed and I am proud.

    I still feel my book is incomplete, poorly written, and breaks every rule in writing but the imagination must have stood out. If it were not for this person insisting on my submitting my book it would still be laying dormant in my hard drive. Obviously, a first draft can be good enough for printing.

    BTW, this is my first visit here and I think it to be a wise choice.

    John Benjamin Kendall, III

  32. I haven’t paid too much advice to great writers, I study their work instead. Why are Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen still being read while others of their period are forgotten? Most of answers are obvious, style, characters, etc. As far as planning everything, or planning nothing, I don’t fit into either category. I let the characters changed the story if it seems to fit, but I always have a plot to follow. I have one book I’ve rewritten completely four times, and have a total of 14 major revisions and umpteen minor revisions (currently Mark XIVf), but another that has never required a major revision at all. It’s still ‘Mark I’ after twenty-odd re-readings. However in one point I slightly agree with Maugham: the characters are the thing. A good character will often make even bad writing successful. Look at Edgar Rice Burroughs. He even reuses plots, I mean how often can Dejah Thoris get kidnapped and force John Carter to butcher half the planet to get her back? And then the same thing happens to Jane, and twice Tarzan is fooled by a burned body with her ring on it. Yet they get read all the time and have dozens of movies made from them–character is the key. That’s one reason my stories tend to change, because I try to make that character live and breathe and that means sometimes my prearranged plot just doesn’t fit. I just picked up a story I outlined 11 years ago and could instantly move it forward because I had given the character enough depth. I reread the 5,000 words I wrote 11 years ago, looked over his curriculum vitae, and just like that it was moving again. That’s one bit of advice I’ve read that I’ve always taken to heart: character is key. I don’t know who said it first, but I reckon he or she was right.

  33. I ‘feel’ my way through a story. I seldom plot, yet my ‘first drafts’ of anything often read like final-draft copy. The only thing I’m ‘sure’ of when I write is that I’m unsure of anything; I’m aware that I have to write more to continue the narrative, but I can honestly say I don’t know how I do it. However, I will admit that somewhere, in the back of my mind, there is a perfectly logical and critical editor at work, who ensures that while I’m ‘pantsing it’ I’m also trying to turn out polished, publishable copy. I suspect my way of working is a lucky liaison
    between the subconscious/creative and the more critical/logical parts of my brain. I DO know that if I ever started to think about the process too much, I’d seize up and probably write nothing! I often write as if I’m ‘reading’ – I’m saying, ‘okay, I’ve finished that paragraph, so what do I need to write next to keep this story moving?’ And I proceed like that from paragraph to paragraph and page to page. It’s probably a mad way to work, butit works for me! 🙂 Great article.

    1. Thanks for sharing that. Not very many people can just wing the writing and have it come out sound. That’s why I am a huge advocate for plotting in advance. I’ve rarely come across a well-structured novel that has been written without extensive preparation and deliberate planning of how the story will be structured. A lot of writers resist plotting because they feel it will stifle creativity, but it does the opposite. It provides a helpful, clear framework in which to unfold a story and gives the space for creativity to shine.

      1. I guess what works, works. Different strokes, different folks. The important thing is the end result – regardless of whether you’re Hemingway or not!:-)

  34. Thanks for these AND for your thoughts on Hemingway. Re-visited him as an adult (Yeah, we all had to read him in school.) and after reading with my adult/author brain I thought, “Wow, this is not the writer I want to be.” But, I’m sure so many will throw darts with, who are you to criticize Hem…. So, thanks for having that courage to bring that up.

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