More Bad Writing Advice You Can Ignore

For this week’s Throwback Thursday, we’re looking at an excerpt from a previous post titled More Words of Advice from Famous Authors That Are Just Wrong.

Last week, I went over a few bits of writing advice from famous authors that I personally disagreed with. Maybe some of you disagreed with me. I think it’s great to agree to disagree.

Hopefully, though, some of you got the point—that just because someone is famous, it doesn’t mean you have to follow their formula (or creed or belief system) to become a great writer. Or a successful one.

Sometimes following a lot of advice from other people tends to confuse who you are. You are an individual, unique, and what works for one writer may not work at all for another. Stephen King doesn’t like to plot, but somehow his books have been hugely successful. His method seems to work for him, but I can assure you it doesn’t work for everyone.

So, let’s look at some more wise advice from famous authors, and you can decide if the shoe fits. But know that for every specific bit of advice, you can often find the opposite. Take a look at these two quotes for example:

  • “Wait, wait, wait, wait. Don’t try to write through it, to force it. Many do, but that won’t work. Just wait, it will come.” ~ Toni Morrison
  • “You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.” ~ Jack London

Hmm, so do you wait or not? To quote my personal adage that I shared with you last time: “Whatever works for you.” Jack London tamed the wilderness with his novels; I can picture him out there on the Alaskan tundra fighting off wolves with the aforementioned club. But Toni Morrison delves deep into character motivation. And often that motivation can’t be coaxed out with any threat of bodily harm.

The longer you work at the writing craft, the more you learn what draws the story out of your imagination. Maybe you’re the club kind of guy. Maybe you’re more like Toni Morrison. Maybe eating a lot of chocolate will do the trick.

Here are some more words of advice from famous writers that are just wrong to me:

  • “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” ~ Neil Gaiman. Such is the pitfall with critique groups or partners. I know an author who just can’t trust her instincts. She has her critique group read her novel, and each person gives her completely different advice on what to change and how. Then she tries to please everyone by implementing everything. You can imagine the mess that results.

Even if a writer has only one critique partner or test reader, what that person may say is wrong and should be changed may not be the plain truth. In fact, it could be the worst advice ever.

So, the first part of Neil’s sentence doesn’t work for me. In fact, I think it’s dangerous advice. And the second part of the sentence is also untrue.

I trust my excellent test readers (who are authors I highly respect), and if they tell me what is wrong with my novel and give me some ideas on how to fix it, they are often wonderfully right! I so love it when a critique partner points out my errors or weak passages or plot holes and tells me ways I can fix those flaws.

In fact, I make my living working full-time doing exactly that for my writing clients. I tell them what doesn’t work and how to fix it. My caveat here is that once advice is given, the author needs to ponder on the advice and see if it feels right. Intuitively, it will either ring false or true.

It’s your book; you get to decide. Don’t listen to everyone who wants to tell you how to make your book better. Conversely, don’t tune those people out who have good suggestions for you.

  • “Be daring, take on anything. Don’t labor over little cameo works in which every word is to be perfect. Technique holds a reader from sentence to sentence, but only content will stay in his mind.” ~ Joyce Carol Oates. This is a weird one. I am all about laboring so that every word is perfect. Technique is paramount.

I don’t think content will stick in someone’s mind as well as a perfectly worded sentence that is beautifully written.

I’m actually not sure just what she is talking about. But even a great plot or premise will fall flat if the writing isn’t tight and each word isn’t exactly the right word needed in that particular sentence.

Be a perfectionist. Content is not the only thing that will stay in a reader’s mind.

  • “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery. I tend to disagree with this as well. I like the gist of it—that you have to pare down and remove the bits in your story that are unnecessary and are just adding filler. I am all for trimming so the words that remain are all needed.

However . . . often to achieve “perfection” in a story you need to add. I would say, from doing hundreds of critiques, this is more the case. Scenes need to be added. Characters need further developing. Themes need to be reiterated. Less is usually more. But too little is . . . just too little.

Maybe I would rewrite this sage bit of advice to this: “Perfection is achieved when a writer adds exactly what is needed and takes out exactly what is not.”

So now that I have given the impression that I’m a snob and dismiss all the great advice those highly successful authors tout, in an upcoming post I’ll share some famous quotes that I wholeheartedly agree with. Hopefully you’ll think better of me after that.

Maybe the best advice I can give writers is this: If you’re going to give advice, remind writers that your advice might not work for them. That they should embrace whatever works best for their personality and creativity.

Got any words of advice you’d like to share? Let’s hear them.

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  1. I agree with you on most of these, especially the last one. I’m a “putter inner” type of writer and almost always have to add words, paragraphs, etc. to flesh out my stories more. And hurray for technique as well as content!

  2. THANK YOU!!

    If I went by the Internet, I would believe that Neil Gaiman’s bathwater was better than Perrier. Don’t get me wrong, as an author I’m “down here” and he’s “up there,” but as you said, that doesn’t mean he is ALWAYS right. And it really is more about what works for each individual writer.

    Now THIS is a great quote: “Perfection is achieved when a writer adds exactly what is needed and takes out exactly what is not.”

    Thoroughly enjoyed this article; thanks!


  3. It’s really brave to have the courage to just wave away advice from such powerful literary figures. But you are right – if we listen to every single piece of conflicting nonsense out there, we might just end up in a state of utter frustration. Better to take action as in actually writing and build a strong working habit around accepting our own writing process – whatever that is.
    Loving the flashback by the way.

    Thanks Bren

  4. Thanks for continuing on the same topic as last time. It’s encouraging to know it’s ok to drift from “seasoned advice” if I feel the need.

  5. Your response to the Gaiman quote—which I’ve read before—re: critique groups/friends/etc reminded me of a critique from a writing friend on a short story of mine. I’ll share the excerpt in question, his response to it, and my response to his response. I’ll add that he had the entire story, so he knew the full context of this passage, which you (and anyone else reading this) do not. That’s another problem I have with critique groups, though, especially when they’re only reading an excerpt of a story. Without the full context, a lot of what folk will say will almost certainly be irrelevant. Steven James makes that very point, in fact, in his criticism of critique groups in his book STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE.

    “The lakefront has changed,” Sarah replied.

    I pressed my lips together and nodded. “Time does that to a place. You still haven’t answered my question. Where have you been these past six months?”

    “Please don’t do that. I’ve always hated it when you do that with your mouth,” she said. “You never showed me that face before we got married.”

    My lips still pressed together, I forced a smile.

    “God, you’re as incorrigible as ever.”

    He had highlighted Sarah’s words “when you do that with your mouth” using Word’s track changes feature and wrote, “Uh, frowning? This is awkward phrasing.”

    My friend wasn’t present when I responded, so he never saw my response. I stared his comment on my computer and deliberately pressed my own lips together, and wondered why he didn’t get it. I also failed to see why he thought the phrasing awkward. Don’t get me wrong, though. He’s a good guy, and in other comments he pointed out I learned some things I hadn’t known before, so his critique did have some merit to it. But that comment of his was completely perplexing.

  6. Here’s another one I hear all the time: “Write for yourself.” That’s terrible advice for most writers.

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