Authors Answer 108 – Bad Advice for Writers

A month ago, we talked about the best advice we’ve received as writers or authors. But what about the opposite? We don’t always receive great advice. Some of it is best to ignore. Some people just don’t know how to give advice that’s useful. Advice should be constructive, not destructive.

320px-Modern-ftn-pen-cursiveQuestion 108: What was the worst or least helpful piece of advice you’ve received about your writing?

Elizabeth Rhodes

Any kind of advice that hinges on “this is a rule of writing stories and should never be broken” is one I almost always write off. Writing rules are like rules of the English language: there are always exceptions, and these exceptions have been made by some of our favorite authors. Now, I don’t think I’m on the same level as George R. R. Martin, for instance, but I’d like to get there and saying “never ever ever write prologues because them’s the rules” does nothing to help that. Perhaps the focus should be on “this prologue isn’t working, let’s figure out why.”

Cyrus Keith

The most useless critique I ever got was a person who told me my work was riddled with spelling and grammar errors, “but don’t give up. You’ll be a great writer someday.” This was AFTER my first novel had already won the EPIC Award for Best Thriller. The worst actual advice anyone offered was, “Give up. You’re not a writer.”

Gregory S. Close

The most useless piece of advice I ever received was from a professional literary reviewer from Writer’s Digest, who informed me that I shouldn’t call the prologue of my novel a “prelude,” because that wasn’t the proper terminology.  Although the same reviewer did have other (helpful) feedback, this one stuck in my craw as particularly inane and useless.  It’s a fantasy novel that involves bards and music as major story components – it didn’t seem too much of a stretch to substitute musical terms for prologue and epilogue – prelude and postlude – but apparently, this person did not make the connection, or did not agree.

Linda G. Hill

Apart from being told which direction my stories should go and what should happen next (I hate that!! It’s not only not helpful, it makes me think too much. My stories go where my characters take them… I have very little say!), I think the worst thing anyone has ever told me is that I should turn off the comments on my blog because people don’t really read what I write anyway. Subsequently, I got rid of her and kept my 3,600 followers, many of whom have become good friends.

C E Aylett

I don’t know about advice, as such, but someone did say to me reasonably recently that a story I wrote was beautifully written yet it was the most depressing thing she’d ever read. I still don’t know whether to be chuffed or choked about that…

Oh, no, I do remember the worst advice I’ve ever had, actually. Someone read a short story and went through each paragraph for grammatical errors by — literally — quoting from some ‘rules’ of writing text book. They wrote ‘the xxx book of excellent writing says “etc., etc.” ’ I was like, er, dude, this is a work of fiction, which means style and dramatic effects take precedence, and I haven’t done a copy edit on it yet, anyway. S/he didn’t mention one word about the characters, pacing, or anything. That just isn’t useful to me, I’m afraid. And if nothing else, that s/he mentioned each time I used single punctuation marks was ‘an error’ nullified any authority s/he might have had. I don’t care what country you come from — if you are a writer you should have some awareness that there are different punctuation/grammar/spelling rules in English dependant on nationality, even if you don’t know exactly what they are.

Other than that, I’ve always had sterling advice from my crit partners, for good or ill.

Paul B. Spence

Hmm. I received so much bad advice… I would have to say the worst is that say you have to write every day, or have an outline of the complete plot. I write when I write, and I finish a 150,000-word book a year, so…

D. T. Nova

Probably extreme statements that, if followed literally, go too far in the opposite direction from other potential writing mistakes. For example, “never use adverbs”.

There’s nothing helpful to me about “keep descriptions minimal unless you’re writing science fiction or fantasy” because I haven’t attempted to write anything substantial outside of those genres.

Eric Wood

I’ve now spent days thinking of all the advice others have given me about my writing. While some was criticism, it was still constructive. My wife tells me I need to proofread better. She’s right. I was told one of my stories too closely resembled an already famous one. They were right. I haven’t really been given advice on how to write or what to write so I don’t have anything to answer for this one.

H. Anthe Davis

I think all advice and commentary is useful in some way, even if that way is ‘yeeeeah not gonna do that’, but it’s hard to pinpoint anything specific since I’ve left so much standard wisdom in the dust by now.  I haven’t read a book on writing in probably 6-8 years, and good riddance — I have my style, and if readers/reviewers/whomever don’t like it, they don’t have to read further.

Tracey Lynn Tobin

It’s not really specific advice, but I’ve had plenty of people tell me that they can’t relate to my main characters and that I should change him/her in numerous ways. It kinda infuriates me because logic would dictate that not everyone is going to be able to relate to a particular character and changing them for one thing is just going to ruin them for someone else.

Jean Davis

I’m grateful that I really had to think about this. My critique partners have always been helpful, sometimes brutally so, but helpful, nevertheless. The worst advice I’ve encountered was bad simply because it was so vague that it was not useful or so misguided that I outright discarded everything they said because they really had no idea what they were talking about, like wrong ways to format dialogue or structure sentences.

Beth Aman

I’m honestly not sure.  I think my brain is pretty good at detecting bad advice, so I just ignore it and forget about it.  Also, bad advice is often surrounded by grammar errors and awkwardly-phrased sentences, so it tends to be easy to spot.

Jay Dee Archer

I’ve received a lot of great advice. Much of it is related to things like writing descriptions, passive, showing versus telling, and more. However, my worst advice is more general. It’s one of extremes. It starts with the words “never use.” That’s a red flag for me. I cannot take that advice, because there are always cases where it is useful and the best thing to do. We do not have to always cut out every adverb or adjective. Yes, I’ve been told to never use adjectives. I’m not sure how I can describe the size, colour, or shape of something without an adjective and not make it too wordy.

How about you?

What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve ever received about writing? If you don’t write, then make this more general. What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve ever received about anything? Let us know in the comments below.

14 thoughts on “Authors Answer 108 – Bad Advice for Writers”

  1. Mine was “Do it the proper way before you start doing your own thing,” and by proper way meaning the way the critiquer would have written it (and not a technical thing). As if writing isn’t about developing your own voice and style…

      1. This was given to me in a writing forum back when I was a teen. The person was likening it to how they taught music, where according to them they expected their students to learn certain songs first before attempting to do their own thing, and also made spiteful comments on the side–directed to me, I think, because I tried to defend the idea of having a style–on somebody else’s work, i.e. “This is how it should be done.”

        Looking back at it now, I’m just glad I walked out of that forum in a rebellious huff. I did improve since then, but in my own pace and according to my own voice ;P

        1. And it’s nothing like music. With music, at least you learn the basics of music. It’s like practice. But writing is nothing like that. I don’t think art is like that, either.

  2. Advice about grammar and style are not a big deal. The advice I think is bad is when the commenter has an opinion about the personality or motives of your characters. This is especially bad if they’ve not sat down and read the whole work.

    I have intentionally written unlikable, irritating, or weak characters in order to redeem them later in the story. Also, many villains will be “unlikable.” That’s the point, and the writer might actually be doing a good job by making them unlikable so quickly.

    I also think advice about how “typical” characters would act in given situations is often bad advice. For example, “A man would not cry when…” This, of course, is total bullshit. I’ve seen men cry and was an intimate witness to WHY they cried. Although I write fiction, I transfer those life experiences of fifty-three years to my characters all the time.

    If we, as authors, can’t use our imaginations and explore characters outside the stereotype, then what’s the point of writing at all?

    1. And what exactly is a typical character? People vary in personality far too much to be typical or stereotypical. Everyone has their own life history to draw on to produce different reactions to different situations. And I dislike the whole “real men don’t cry” BS. Real humans cry as a way of releasing emotion. Holding it in is emotionally destructive, and will likely result in a person who is emotionally stunted. They can’t relate to other people, if you ask me.

  3. Well, I think the worst advice Paul ever received was ‘No one will read your military sci-fi novel unless you add some sexy vampires and make THEM the main characters.’

    Worst writing advice that I got…? Many years ago, a magazine editor sent me a nasty rejection letter in which he said that stories written in first person must have quotation marks on each paragraph as if they were spoken monologue by the MC.

    Then there’s the ever-popular ‘The only relatable character is an AVERAGE character, because non-average characters are totally unrealistic.’

    1. An entire story written with quotation marks? What kind of editor thinks that?

      And what’s an average character? I just replied to a comment about someone being told that people should act in a typical manner. What exactly does that mean? The problem is, there is no such thing as an average human or typical human. Everyone is different. It’s unrealistic to have boring “average” characters.

  4. I’m not an author, but I think these things can relate to most things creative. I grew up in the country and didn’t have access to “big city sensibilities.” When I went to a large, midwestern university I took fine art and design courses (along with engineering, as a double major). There was some pompous jerk of a teacher, looking back he was probably not a professor and he was relatively young, who liked to spout off about how if something wasn’t good enough to hang in the Louvre, or even a lesser museum, then there was no point in creating it in the first place.

    I was young, impressionable, and insecure. Those words haunted me. Nothing I was *ever* going to do was going to end up in a museum. I started getting panic attacks. I stopped doing all fine art for about two decades. We even built a little art studio to get me to resume, and I couldn’t walk into it without having a full-blown panic attack.

    I’m sure there is someone out there giving similar advice to writers, that if you aren’t a Tolkien or a whoever, then you should stop writing. Those people should be found and stopped.

    1. I’ve had a couple people tell me that I shouldn’t write science fiction or fantasy because they’re not real writing and won’t do well. They’d never read any of my writing. I write because I want to, not because I want to be on the New York Times bestselling list. I’m writing a story that I’d love to read, and I hope others will enjoy it, too.

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