Famous Authors’ Bad Writing Advice

For this week’s Throwback Thursday, we’re looking at an excerpt from a previous post titled 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 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 leave you with this last quote:

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

Mine included.

Any “great advice” you’ve heard that you don’t think is so great? Any of the above “truths” resonate with you?

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  1. Great article. I fully agree that advice that is good for some is not always good for all. Just as where we write is not necessarily the best place for other writers. I understand that Agatha Christie had a special bathtub constructed so she could do her writing there. I cannot imagine a more inconvenient place to write – especially for those of us who now use a computer! A story has come down to me from my ancestors about Charles Dickens. I cannot now remember if it was a great grandparent who lived near Dickens. He evidently had a large piano case set up in his yard where he did much of his writing. Doesn’t seem too convenient either. I rather like my desk, thank you. Thanks for sharing your “discoveries”. They seem to be more in the line of entertainment than good advice.

    1. More often than not, most of my novels have been written on the dining room table, though I have two desks in my office. Just the way it happens to work out. I guess I like those snacks at hand!

  2. Everything happens in a context. If the advice doesn’t work in ours, then it’s not that it’s wrong necessarily…it’s just not applicable. Great post!

  3. Wow! This is the first time I’ve ever read that it’s OK to edit as I go, that I don’t have to pour out my first draft and then go back and fix it. I have tried many times to throw the story out on paper and then go back and fix it. Never works. So I do it my way, slow and plodding, feeling all the time that I’m doing it “wrong,” but when I’m done, I’m done (other than proofreading). You have taken away my guilt!

    Also, I have never understood how a writer can start a project without knowing the ending. It seems to me the story would just meander all over the place until the author figured he was done. I couldn’t stand to read a book like that. I love catching statements or hints that relate back to somewhere else in the story. I want to reach the ending and see how it ties the entire book together. I wouldn’t get in my car and guess how to get to a specific place. I’d need a map or a GPS or a planned route. Same with a book.

    1. Carole, I was also happy to discover it is OK to edit as I go. I can’t stop myself from doing this, though I must admit I am probably somewhere in between the two methods. I still edit quite a bit once I’m finished, but I know if I didn’t also do it along the way it would be a far more tedious job at the end.

      1. The key to this is making sure you have all the right scenes in the right places. It’s more a micro edit than macro, and if your structure is wonky, all that editing might be a waste of time. Getting your scene outline critiqued first is a good idea. I do a lot of those for writers (doing three this week and one today!). Once you get novel structure down, it’s not all that impossible to have a clean draft ready to proofread when you type “the end.”

    2. I always edit as I go. Like Dean Koontz, I go over my previous chapters (a few right before the current scene). By the time I write the last scene, I proofread a couple of times and I’m ready to publish. There have been a couple of novels I’ve written in which I really didn’t know what would happen at the climax and ending. I trusted my intuition and my characters and let that guide me, and I was very happy with how that all worked out. If you really know your four key pillars (hero and goal, conflict and stakes, themes, concept with kicker), it’s hard to steer wrong.

  4. When I first started, I totally pantsed everything. Of course, friends liked it. Interestingly, even my high school creative writing teacher liked it. He was always encouraging, which is probably why he’s one of my favourite teachers.

    Many years later, however, I stumbled across WRITING TO THE POINT: A COMPLETE GUIDE TO SELLING FICTION, by Algis Budrys. This was probably the very first book I ever read on story structure. I’ve highlighted a lot of passages in my copy of the book. Then I applied his advice to a short story I wrote and mailed it off to WEIRD TALES magazine, when George Scithers was the editor. First story using Budrys’s ideas. Did my story sell? Well, no, but something did happen. I received my very first handwritten rejection. Scithers wrote: “Good, just not irresistible.” I sent him another story, and received yet another handwritten rejection: “Trying to be too literary?”

    I still haven’t been published, but I have received more handwritten rejections. Budrys’s ideas clearly work for me. And he says of his ideas that you can play with them, you can bend them, but you cannot break them; not if you want to be published.

    Ultimately, Budrys made this former pantser into a planner, so the advice of fellow planners tends to work better for me.

    Your post reminds me of other “advice” I’ve heard lots of fellow writers spout. The one I hear most often is, “Good writing breaks all the rules.” Usually, that one gets thrown at me when I mention something that sounds remotely like a rule. My response to it? This: “Well, yes and no. Good writing does break the rules, but it doesn’t break them all the time. The opening paragraph to HUCK FINN has some grammatical errors, but Twain had good reason for it, reason that is easily discerned. But in breaking those grammar rules, Twain also obeyed a riverboat load of others.”

  5. I’m so glad you spoke out for us plotters and editors. Since all my scenes are plotted well in advance I have the liberty to write pretty much a final draft as I go. Thanks for that confirmation!

  6. Quite agree that advice can be unhelpful in many situations Also that people say silly things about writing. I noticed that you only quoted male writers. Women writers have an even harder time making it, so they might have learned more, and have less sweeping advice. Or not.

    1. Please don’t make this about women versus men, that was not the topic of the blog post. I doubt her choice of examples shows an inherent difference in male vs. female writers, it’s likely just coincidence.

      Once gender is brought into a non-gender discussion it rarely ends well, even if the original digressing statement was supportive. It divides people into “us” and “them”, then someone jumps on their horse to crusade for one side or the other and everything gets ugly. Even my well-meaning comment is doubtless full of points some may want to wage war over.

    2. I didn’t pay any attention to whether an author I quoted was male or female, for it had nothing to do with the topic of the post. Other posts on this topic on my blog quote women writers. You might take a look at the other many posts that continue this discussion.

  7. For the most part I agree with your responses to the quotes you referenced as examples, however I would like to interject a (possibly contrarian) cautionary note. applying a quote of someone’s advice separate from it’s original source is bound to reduce it almost to the level of a fortune cookie in terms of universal applicability. This is due to the inherent fact that when you quote something you extract a single statement, stripping away any other contextual comments leading up to or made after that quote, either of which may have expanded on just what the author fully meant.

    Just imagine, you spend a couple of hours carefully writing an essay outlining your personal beliefs and methods on a given subject, putting in explanations and examples throughout to illustrate your points and apply them to a number of situations. Then someone grabs ONE SENTENCE from your whole essay, based solely on it’s snappy word choice and that statement is then paraded around by others as though it completely embodied everything you had written.

    I like some quotes, they can be inspirational or motivational, however I do my best to not take TOO MUCH from them or try to apply them in all situations because I just know were I to read the quote surrounded by it’s original source I would find the author was actually saying a lot more than a single sentence embodies.

  8. Thank you for your posts, i like it because they are very useful and because… I thought by myself a lot of parts, and this is cheering.
    Thank you again and arrivederci in Italy.

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