Bad Writing Advice

You should describe this sky in lyric detail.  No, you should never describe anything at all!

You should describe this sky in lyric detail. No, you should never describe anything at all!

Like all professions, and especially in the arts, when you participate there is always a plethora of people and even masters of creation who have loads of advice to give the uninitiated.

Veritable loads of advice.  Some of it useful, some of it heard so often it sounds like a rule, some of it completely wrong.

There is no shortage of advice for writers.  There are well known truisms that, on closer inspection, are all wrong, or all wrong for you.  I’m here to tell you that’s ok.  You don’t have to follow specific bits of wisdom in order to be a good writer.  In fact, there’s some I recommend you ignore from time to time, or even completely.

1-   Write Everyday!  If you want to be a “real” writer, you must write every day!  How can you hone your craft if you don’t flex those writing muscles in a regular and structured way?

I call shenanigans.  Sure, in a perfect world, it would be wonderful and helpful to write most every day.  In a mystical land where writers only write and don’t have day jobs, it’s fine to set a goal of daily writing.  If writing is your only source of income, sure you should do this.  Here in reality, where the vast majority of writers, even best-selling authors, have a day job so that they can afford things like health insurance, rent, and other luxuries, this “write every day!” bullshit is crafted to make you feel guilty and down about an art that should uplift you.  When you are as cool as Stephen King, yes, you can set aside 4 hours every morning to write.  And you should, because that’s your job.

For the rest of us (Stephen, you can stop reading here) this write daily thing is not feasible, or even preferable.  After working 8 hours, and then cleaning, cooking, taking care of children, pets, or parents, what kind of quality writing are you planning to get done?  How is forcing yourself to practice your art when you are tired, sick, or dealing with too many everyday issues going to improve your work?  It’s far more likely to make you irritated and resentful of that time you are forcing yourself to write when you really have too much on your plate already.

What to do instead?  Write when you have time, energy, and enough brain cells left to take joy in your craft.  Yes, you should push yourself a little, to make some quality time for you and your writing, but it isn’t going to be every day, and I’m telling you that this is perfectly fine.  Many folks do awesomely with a “weekend warrior” approach to writing.  Sure, write during the week when you can, but make sure to set aside a nice chunk of time on the weekend for just you and your words.  No one should be fretting about how they can possibly manage to stuff writing 500 words in between taking the car to get an oil change and checking on their sick teen.

Sorry boys, mama can't spend time with you today because she must write all the words!

Sorry boys, mama can’t spend time with you today because she must write all the words!

 

2- Write what you know!

The problem with this one is that it doesn’t really mean what it implies.  It brings up images of Jo in Little Women, writing crazy stories about pirates and such until the professor tells her to write about what she knows and she writes a lovely little story about her sister, Beth.  Folks think this is a tale about Louisa May Alcott’s own journey to writing.

Let me tell you a little about Miss Alcott.  Louisa May called Little Women “moral pap for the young.”  She wrote it because she needed the money, and she wrote what she knew would sell.  In fact, her publisher specifically asked her for a story about young women, so she wrote it.  And that tale does not reflect her own upbringing with a stern and unpleasant father, who at one point, moved the family to start a commune.  Louisa certainly didn’t write what she knew.

And yet she did.  She wrote about a time period she knew, and there are many similarities between events in the book and events with her own sisters.  She simply used these bits and pieces to write a story she knew would sell.

Bits of personal experience bring a story to life, even if you are writing about space robot monkeys.  I wrote a book about a man and a bunch of ghosts, but when my MC needed to buy a new car, I relied heavily on personal experience.  I don’t know diddly about ghosts, but that doesn’t mean I can’t write about them.  You don’t have to know about space robot monkeys to write a kick-ass story about them.

Too bad I know nothing about ghosts, because this would make such a good setting for a ghost story.

Too bad I know nothing about ghosts, because this would make such a good setting for a ghost story.

3- “Outline first,” and also “Just write it”

This one is pretty self-evident, and yet it eluded me for such a long time.  I kept hearing “You simply must outline every bit of your story or you will never be a good writer!”  I’m sure folks who do well outlining, cringed when they heard the many versions of “Why are you wasting so much time outlining when you could be writing!  You’ll lose all the spontaneity of the story if you outline it to death!”

The truth is that anyone who insists that you write in a very certain way or your writing will suck rabid weasels is an asshat.  Every writer has a way of working that works well for them.  I don’t outline.  To me, writing an outline is ponderous and painful and counter-productive.  That doesn’t mean I don’t have a plan.  I know how a story will finish before I start, and I have all the important bits mapped out—in my head.  I will jot down random notes and keep a basic timeline, but that’s the extent of my written organization.  This method works for me, and doesn’t keep me from using extensive foreshadowing, etc.

In the end, experiment with different methods until you find out what works for you, and lose the guilt because you aren’t doing what a bunch of strangers think you should be doing.  And remember, any advice that suggests that there is only one way to do something is wrong.

You can only be successful if you write after touching the mouth of a giant bluegill!

You can only be successful if you write after touching the mouth of a giant bluegill!

About JulianneQJohnson

I am a writer in Indiana who lives with two cats, two ferrets, and one fiance. I enjoy cheap coffee and expensive chocolate.
This entry was posted in Bad Writing Advice, photography, writing, Writing Advice and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

400 Responses to Bad Writing Advice

  1. I bet Stephen kept reading. If he didn’t, he should have 🙂

  2. Thanks! You have no idea (Well, okay you do) the number of times I’ve read these lies in my life.

  3. I agree!–in principle, anyway. About the write everyday myth… You say who has time to write when there is work, housework, etc.
    True, I’m not a parent so I do not have that giant responsibility, but I do work a couple of jobs and maintain a house. What about the concept of “planned neglect,” where the housework is put off (within reason) until the writing is accomplished. Not four hours of writing, but how about twenty minutes? I am also able to sneak it in here and there–in the car, on breaks, etc. just a thought.

  4. Pingback: Bad Writing Advice | ATAN's space

  5. atl7 says:

    As a writer who is often crippled by a bad case of the guilts when I hear/read advice like “write every day, even if it’s only a little!” point 1 really hit the nail on the head for me. Thanks 🙂

  6. Great advice. While writing my novel, I was constantly degraded by all this “writerly advice.” Everyday I felt like I was doing it wrong. Then I got to the end and I was like, “Hey, there’s no right way to do this shit! You just gotta get it done however you can!” I actually switch between illustrating and writing sometimes throughout the day and sometimes week to week because my brain can’t function on one or the other cylinder all day. It helps me to be better at both art and writing to sort of “cross train,” if you will. No one tells you that advice, but I figured it out just doing what felt right for me. I think a lot of young writers will be super encouraged and empowered by this post and I’m really glad you shared it. What we need is not advice, but encouragement to just get it done!

    PS- Also, a great point about Louisa May Alcott. I grew up thinking she was Jo and that I could never be a real writer because I didn’t write about pirates by candlelight in my attic by night until I finally watched her biography on PBS and realized LMA was a real person and not the beloved Jo in the book.

  7. Your observations and insights are very much appreciated. I certainly am inspired to begin writing from a structured frame of reference rather than putting the pen to paper and letting writer’s block flow. Thanks again.

  8. I enjoyed this. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed. It’s hard to write everyday. I feel so much better now that you’ve said this. Whew! Best of luck with your book!

  9. Cute and fuzzy! (Kitty isn’t bad, either.) I have one rule–I do what feels good. It is always, if I’m honest about it, the thing that passion led me to, anyway. I don’t push the river. When it’s writing, it rocks hard. When it’s gardening, the tomatoes are over a pound. When it’s sex, it’s freakin’ [edited for content]! When it’s sleep, the dreams are legendary. When it’s hiking, the bears are friendly and the flowers are photogenic.

    I go with the flow. The flow has been very good to me. Long as I don’t push the river.

  10. Falme' says:

    This is perfect! All your bad advice is exactly how I do things.

  11. Lesley says:

    I love point 3! I have always been defiant in the way I approach writing, and this article is the approval I needed.

  12. I enjoyed this article. As a major in English and Creative Writing, and certificate in Publishing, I always got that “bad advice.” Then I got my masters in teaching and did research on engaging adolescent writers. Now I don’t know what advice to give.
    I think the advice is…do what works for you.
    Good blog

  13. chefdaddy1 says:

    Good stuff, I’m new to the game, so that was a good read for me. Thank. I’ll be checking you.

  14. I found this laugh-out-loud humorous! I already break the “rules” you enumerated and am so glad you do, too! Write on–and regards.

  15. It’s been so long since I’ve heard the truth that I had to re-read this. And then I reminded myself, “Self, you did not ‘hear’ anything, you read it.”

    By gosh, by golly, I see that truth is not only alive and well, but justifiable.

    Thank you for daring to brave the shark infested waters. 😉

  16. Congrats on the Freshly Pressed!
    I’ve always taken “write what you know” a bit more broadly, as in channel your own gut and truth into your stories, not necessarily experiences. Hook into the universals — if you’ve lost your cat, you can access grief even if you’ve never been widowed like your character. I know, that example’s over the top, but you know what I mean?
    I had a writing professor who wrote his first book entirely on the metro coming and going to work! Now *that’s* writing every day! Myself, I tend to crash-write for four days straight, up half the night – then don’t write for a week or two. Or three.
    As you say, to each their own. But thumbs down on outlines – it kills my creativity and my characters’ free will.

  17. Refreshingly honest and true. Certainly, my debut book found its own way into being and not the way I would have imagined. Take a look at my book preview blog inthroughacolouredlens.WordPress.com or at Amazon.com.
    I’ll keep reading your blog.

  18. adecraig2013 says:

    Very informative! Thank you for posting:) This information will definitely help me with my writing.

  19. 1. Congrats on being freshly pressed! 2. Thanks for writing this post. 3. I generally write something every day, especially for work, but not for my blog. I let that go for three years and am just now coming back to it. 4. I approach every piece of writing in a different way. Sometimes I cluster first, sometimes I freewrite/free write, sometimes I outline … OK, RARELY I outline. But of this I am certain: I will RE-write a gazillion times. Now, get back to your boys, mama! 🙂

  20. shannon213 says:

    Reblogged this on Iron Dove and commented:
    This post by Julianne Q Johnson really struck a chord with me. I have heard these pieces of advice before and put unnecessary pressure with myself without realizing it. I think the one I struggled most with was “Write what you know.” I tend to research pretty extensively before I write, even for the short fantasy story I’m writing. I will try and write something more personal/imagination based at some point without worrying so much about getting the details right for a change 😛 This post has some good insights that made me stop to reconsider some of the writing advice I’ve been following.

  21. .gretchen says:

    “any advice that suggests that there is only one way to do something is wrong.” This is excellent and so true in many areas of life as well as writing! Great advice and I appreciate the encouragement not to force myself to write for writing sake!

  22. .gretchen says:

    “any advice that suggests that there is only one way to do something is wrong.” This is excellent and so true in many areas of life as writing! Great advice and I appreciate the encouragement not to force myself to write for writing sake!

  23. If I wrote everyday, then I wouldn’t have been able to take a step back, a few days later, to read what I had written. I don’t have anyone to proof read my work. My husband doesn’t read books–only newspapers. One daughter hates to read and the other doesn’t like my type of book. I still can’t figure out what she likes to read. At times I even put my book away and then months later picked it up to read. I was able to look at it more objectively.

    • Too true. One of the good things about working mostly on the weekends is that I do get that space I need to consider what I’ve written. I strongly suggest Absolute Write’s forum, The Water Cooler. It’s a great group for writers and aspiring writers. You can share bits of your work there, and also hook up with a beta reader.

  24. Someone finally said it–that write everyday rule drives me nuts! It doesn’t take the writing process into account either. “Writing” is also a lot of revision. There’s a ton of time spent going over words–not just producing them. Thanks for sharing this excellent post!

  25. bkruger21 says:

    congratulations on getting this on Freshly Pressed! That’s where I found it. 🙂 and awesome advice too. its important to just be yourself and go with what works for you instead of trying to go with what you think to be the ‘norm’ especially if it doesn’t work for you.

  26. dental eggs says:

    Thanks for all that great advice.

  27. Erin Jory says:

    Well said! Thanks for confirming my inner certainty about my own writing style 🙂

  28. fireandair says:

    I might change #1 rather than do without it entirely, actually. Instead of “write every day,” I would say, “Play with words constantly in your mind.” Look for inspiration all the time, not just when you sit down at the computer. People who WRITE are people who are churning stuff out in their brains 24/7 — when mowing the lawn, when nursing the baby — and when they finally find that one hour on the weekend where they can sit down, they aren’t stuck sitting there going, “Okay, I’m ready for an Idea™ now, please!” They already have a week’s worth of stuff that welled up while they were running around that they can now empty out into the laptop in a flurry.

    You may have to wait for the weekend to type. Don’t wait for the weekend to THINK.

  29. tglicious says:

    I agree with part 3 on outline! One must have a little structure with what they plan to express through writing. It’s like software development which I learned a while back that can certainly be applied to most things – Failing to plan is planning to fail. 🙂

  30. I think I love you.

    Signed,
    Another up and coming lifetime writer of whatever wants out of my brain.

  31. Loved it. I’ve read every piece of that advice at one point or another. It stands to reason why someone blogs maybe because they need to vent when they don’t know what else to do anymore and would like to stop complaining out loud. Or even to get a dream or a bit of silliness, oe just an idea out of their heads for someone else to enjoy and feedback on.

  32. I’ve made a point of protecting myself from advice. I used to listen to EVERYBODY and ended up not knowing who I was or what I was saying. I’m so much happier and productive now 🙂

  33. SueLarson says:

    I enjoyed reading this article about writing! Being fairly new to the blogging world, I’ve tried and given up too many times because of the “pressure” of outlining, of perfecting, of writing everyday and that just took the fun out of why I started in the 1st place.

    • Too true! That’s one of the reasons I blog. I was so lucky when I started writing to have some other writers to give me encouragement instead of tear me down. If you want to write, then write! Don’t you dare let anyone stop you!

  34. Annie Johnson says:

    I love and enjoy this blog so much. The person writing it is talented, interesting, smart and fun. Not just because she is my daughter, but because the things I said about her are all true! Keep up the good work, I love reading your thoughts and seeing the pictures you have taken for this blog.

  35. Reblogged this on Inspire! and commented:
    I often feel a tad guilty when I’m too tired from everyday responsibilities to write anything remotely coherent! Thanks, Julianne!!

  36. Lisa Lewis says:

    Realistic advice for a change, thanks for the honest writing pep-talk!
    Great post, now I feel an urge to blog (but first, the washing!) 🙂

  37. Trent Lewin says:

    Well this is very funny and spot on. I find heavy drinking is the true success to brilliant writing, but I am not exactly a great example of brilliant writing, so perhaps you should not really listen to me. Write everyday… I agree, who has the time? Plus, a good pent up head full of words is wonderful some times. It’s like abstinence. Kind of anyway. I’m not sure what I’m talking about at this point. Could be the drink talking. I’m not sure.

  38. Pingback: Pressed from Julianne Q Johnson – Bad Writing Advice | Kiki2point0

  39. kiki2point0 says:

    I especially liked the part about outlining or not outlining. I have felt so guilty about not having an outline except what I scratched out on random bits of paper. It’s nice to know others keep the bits and pieces not on paper in their head as well!

    • Kiki, I was the same way. I thought that I wasn’t writing like a “real” writer and had loads of non-outlining guilt. Then I found out a whole lot of “real” writers don’t write that way and it was like a cloud lifted.

  40. badgamer83 says:

    That makes me feel a crap load better. I feel bad when I don’t write for a while, but then I worry about the quality of what I write and yadda yadda yadda. I just need to write when I have the time and when it works! It’s meant to be enjoyed.

  41. Oloriel says:

    Loved your article, this pritty much sums most of it up:”The truth is that anyone who insists that you write in a very certain way or your writing will suck rabid weasels is an asshat”

  42. Mr. CATSOE says:

    Being raised in the “South Bronx”, New York City, I’ve heard many, MANY phrases and words of “description”. But… “ASSHAT”..?? I LOVE IT..!! Will DEFINITELY add it to my “vocabulary”: And.. use it as you suggest one writes.. in whatever manner works best for me..!! Great advice..!!

  43. potentionprotection says:

    Reblogged this on Potention Protection.

  44. How could I resist a title like “Bad Writing Advice”? You’re right. You know what you need to make yourself thrive creatively, and following others’ advice isn’t always right. Though sometimes it can certainly inspire new actions. Congrats on publishing–how about a post on the advice you did/did not follow to get your book published?

  45. Juliette says:

    I’m standing up and cheering now. Thank you Julianne for being the voice of reason and reality!

  46. bangbangzadie says:

    Awesome advice! Thanks for sharing. I am adamantly against the outline myself, though I know it works for others. For me, it kills the story, and I like small surprises along the way. When I listened to this, I understood my resistance better: http://www.radiolab.org/story/279566-radiolab-presents-tj-dave/

    Also, have you been to Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord MA? So worth it! Take the tour and they will tell you all about crazy old Bronson Alcott, and Ralph Waldo Emerson hanging out with Louisa. http://www.louisamayalcott.org

  47. I also think the “write what you know” bit is a little dumb. I mean seriously, I don’t know any gangsters or spirits or demons, but that’s not going to stop me from writing about them. And while I would like to write everyday (and usually I do), school, work, and just plain old life gets in the way.
    I think outlining is a great way to organize though. I’ve been doing it for nearly four books.

  48. This is just the kind of bad advice I enjoy.

  49. Really enjoyed this article. Thank you.

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