Use your words

The ten worst pieces of writing advice

Some counter-advice from Susan DeFreitas:

1. Show don’t tell (part one)

Take this advice beyond the beginning stages and what you get are stories that really should move the reader but don’t, either because the emotions are all related from the outside or because the narrative doesn’t provide the sort of dense, information-rich substrata upon which complex characters are built.

2. Show don’t tell (part two)

Your story is about Gina, at forty, deciding whether or not to leave her boyfriend. Are you really going to spend half your story showing us Gina’s white-trash childhood in Elbridge, Michigan (a key bit of backstory)? Or are you just going to cut to the chase, provide a few key details, and move on?

3. When in doubt, cut

That’s because beginning writers tend to be verbose. We can’t tell the difference between an essential detail and an inessential one.

4. Write what you know

To keep advancing you have to stretch your limits. And sometimes that means writing from the point of view of someone who is super not you.

5. Omit adjectives and adverbs

Consider this line from Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses:

“Below the knee, the hairiness came to a halt, and his legs narrowed into tough, bony, almost fleshless calves, terminating into shiny, cloven hooves, such as one might find on any billygoat.”

Language is your Swiss army knife, and you can’t do shit like this with just the knife and the corkscrew.

6. Work on only one thing at a time

Different types of projects can feed off of each other. Immersed in a long-haul novel about a deep, dark family drama? Play hooky with sci-fi. Tinkering with the intricacies of short stories? Plunge into plot with a bona fide book. Stretch out. Have fun. Just don’t stop writing.

7. Start in the middle

As fiction writers, we’re often told to start en media res. Which is a fancy way of saying, when the shit has already hit the fan. But start too late, and the first third of your story will have to lift three times its own body weight in exposition—at the precise point where it should be charming the pants off your reader.

8. Kill your darlings

If you, as a grown up, still love some crazy turn of phrase or sentence or plot development that’s wildly inappropriate for the story, maybe it’s the story that needs help. If that thing is your darling, I say, date it.

9. Vary your word choice

Sometimes a bear is just a bear—especially if you find yourself reaching for constructions that will get you pegged as a pretentious ass.

10. You must be in a writers group

Here’s a bit of advice from Neil Gaiman that may be worth as much as any workshop:

“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.”

The Ten Worst Pieces of Writing Advice You Will Ever Hear (and Probably Already Have) (via Chuck Palahniuk)

Typewriter icon by Simon Child from the Noun Project


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