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. Sage comments from the Dark and Bloody Ground. I just offered a much smaller chunk of the Wisdom then I stumbled onto yours. I like your style. Maybe because I am in Winchester and we used to live in Louisville. And Frankfort, et. al. If I can figure out how to follow you I will, I’m new at this.

    • Welcome to blog land! You’ll get the hang of it!

      • Are you a Cardinals fan? I can score tickets to their games easier than UK. Thank you for the note of encouragement. I have a couple of novels in progress myself and strangely enough credit Mr. King with my interest in writing. I noticed a pile of his books in one of your photos. My first book is titled Ghost in Mississippi, no kidding. Sound familiar? I started it in 1996 only to return to writing when I retired last year. That was a historical novel somewhere in between Harry Potter and ‘salem’s Lot. I had ideas of picking up the torch with a book series after that English lady finished the Potter series. My current effort is a contemporary story about small town murder, corruption and the detective culture resigned to justice.
        I am very excited about this novel and if I can get an agent or a publisher to read it I have every confidence it will be on the book shelves before the written word is completely and irrevocably obsolete.
        I am interested in your work as well. It seems you have the gift of talent and are working at it. I am impressed. It really is a small world.

  2. tnkerr says:

    I will take your advice and ignore all advice that doesn’t fit with what I am doing or what I can do. You wrote it so much more eloquently though!

  3. stevewthomas says:

    As writers we never stop writing, not really. We’re always writing in our heads; maybe not consciously, but we are writing. That’s why I keep a notebook — not a journal, a notebook — to capture those all-too-infrequent flashes of insight, the little inspirations that are so quickly gone, never to be recovered. Your advice is sound. Don’t follow someone else’s rules. If you’re a writer, you never stop writing, even when you think you’ re not.

  4. Don Royster says:

    It took me a long time to discover this one. When they say write what you know, I interpret this as write what you know emotionally. And as you already know, we all have experienced the width and breadth of human emotions. I emotionally know what it was like being born, falling in love, losing my job, and one day, dying. I know fear, hurt, pain, loss, love, hope, joy, and all the other thousand emotions each and everyone of us feel. The rest is dependent on our imagination and our creativity.

    • I like how you put that. Yes, I use my own feelings and experiences. No, I don’t limit myself to those things.

    • stevewthomas says:

      You could also interpret the adage to mean, “Write what you WANT to know”. . .this, of course, applies to non-fiction, but not always. Actors often decide to accept a particular role, not because it’s familiar but because it’s “foreign”; they haven’t experienced it yet but want to. . .One can use this “technique” in writing fiction, too, by writing in a genre with which you have no experience, no familiarity. The result is not only a more versatile writer, but one with a broader range of experience. Just sayin’

  5. maztracey says:

    Thx Julianne for making me feel better about not writing every day 🙂

  6. Hi Julianne,
    I enjoyed your blog article very much – I’m often amazed/irritated at the ‘professional’ advice I read that makes less confident beginners terribly insecure about ‘getting it right’, instead of thinking about getting it right for themselves.
    I have written about my own writing methods, but I rarely advice people to follow my methods. They work for me, they don’t necessarily work for others.

    Some of the advice I do give is:
    – Don’t worry too much about the first draft of your story. Let it be a mess of spelling/grammar mistakes and plot holes. Once you finished telling the whole story, you can put on your editing cap and fix all the flaws before you let anyone read it.
    – Anyone beyond the age of 10 has all the experience necessary to write convincing fiction. You might have to exaggerate the loss of your pet to write convincingly about the loss of a parent or child, but you have experienced loss.
    – Most of the ‘rules’ are ‘suggestions’. Some suggestions make sense, others are ‘personal preferences’. Use the ones that make sense to you, ignore the ones that seem biased.
    – If you intend to publish your work, make it the best you can, then find people who don’t care about your feelings and let them rip into your manuscript with a red pencil.
    – You will need other people to read your manuscript to find all the typos and errors, simply because you won’t read exactly what’s on the page, but you’ll read what you think you put on the page. I recently had a blind reviewer find two errors in a book because he converted my epub to mp3 and had the book read to him by a computer.
    – Enjoy reading and stories in all forms: novels, short stories, films, animation, stage plays, poetry, radio plays, anything that tells stories.

    Thank you for your interesting blog article, I added you to my ‘follow’ list.
    Martyn V. Halm, author of the Amsterdam Assassin Series.

  7. Glad it’s 1 fiancee and 2 goldfish and not the other way round! (great post, btw!)

  8. pmdello says:

    Thank you. Well written advice about generic advice for the writer’s craft.

  9. Arphaxad says:

    I am with you in the manner that I think the advice in those statements are good advice, when applied correctly.

    “Write what you know” was the scariest piece of advice that almost made me not want to write. I live my life, I don’t want to write about it. Then I put in perspective and realized that I know a lot about other things and I could always learn about the things I want to write about. It helped me apply that principle of writing a more practical manner.

    Good post, I look forward to reading more of your stuff.

  10. Divya says:

    Well said!! Very helpful for initiators.I like the way of your presentation using simple words.

  11. “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.”
    … ahhhhh, I love it when you speak plainly.
    Write what interests YOU (whether you know it already or whether you have to learn more in order to write it), write when you feel you have something to say, write when you have loads of time and when you have a quick thought and only time to scribble a few reminder notes.
    But don’t let anyone tell you HOW you must accomplish your writing.
    Loved your blog.

  12. almullinslaw says:

    Great advice! Thank you for sharing.

  13. Maria M says:

    A lot of mind fodder here. I enjoyed reading your post but believe that for me writing couldn’t start until I was made unemployed now it is a salvation, allowing me to structure my day and enjoy delving into the unknown – my creative mind. Regarding rules. They were meant to be broken. We are all different and my advice would be to do what ever works for you.

  14. Veage says:

    Thank you for highlighting the outlining vs “just writing” aspect of this topic. Ive debated with many professors and teachers over this. I refuse to outline, it stifles my creativity.

  15. Well done! Thank you for such titillating support. ’twas fun to read and great to feel.

  16. theinnerzone says:

    Something I needed to hear today, thanks for making the echo louder of my feeble, inner voice.

  17. alphaphilippines says:


  18. Great post! I would love to be able to write everyday. Unfortunately, as you pointed out, I have a full time job, kids, pets, and other daily chores and activities that prevent me from just simply writing everyday. 🙂

  19. Great article. I stopped reading all of the do’s and don’ts awhile ago and the more I ignore articles about how to write, the more I enjoy the craft. Your fearless disregard of dumb, how-to-write articles shows you are a true writer. Good luck with publishing your book. I’ve written two novels and the same rules apply to getting published–ignore most of the advice, but do learn what information needs to be included in a good query letter.

  20. Charlene says:

    Thanks for the reminder to not feel guilt for not following the writing ‘rules’ and instead to seek moments where we can write for the joy of it!

  21. This is great advice especially for me as a new writer who has been writing all her life but never open to share my writings. I even published some poems anonymously when in college. I look forward to more posts!

  22. K. A. Smith says:

    Hahaha! Excellent post!

  23. Plathinson says:

    Writing daily is really not an option for most people who love to write. Like you mentioned, there are other important things that need tending to everyday. When one can’t write often, I think reading also helps a lot esp when exposed to different genres. Oh well, constant practice still is the most effective way to hone a skill, and it is in doing so that one finds her own voice in writing.

  24. Great advice! And congrats from a fellow Kentuckian on being freshly pressed!

  25. fireflyby says:

    I love your candid style. Great advice. Thanks! I can go guilt free for a few days!

  26. Jules says:

    Nicely written post, packed with truth. There is no right way to create art of any kind. (Terrific use of “asshat,” by the way!)

  27. just a fantastic read. Thanks for a great post and even better advice.

  28. Tonya R. Moore says:

    I’ve wasted so much time and effort wrestling with conflicting ideas of what a writer’s process/even ambitions should be and only would up running around in circles creatively–only to come to the conclusion that it is exactly as you say. Thanks for sharing your insight, it’s nice to be reminded every now and then that it’s perfectly okay to simply go about it in the way I enjoy most…

  29. Great advice – I am off to write now !

  30. Kelly M says:

    Some excellent advice and perhaps proof that there aren’t really any rules to writing. Writers just need to find what works best for them. The “write every day” rule, while useful, isn’t always practical. I’d find it hard to write every day but I can certainly recommend writing regularly (even if it’s 3-4 times a week) to flex those writing muscles.

    Thanks for sharing your insight! 🙂

  31. Write to your own horn. Write when you feel you have something to say. Most importantly, at least initially, write to and for yourself, no other. When you are satisfied you have told something, see what others think. Mix and repeat. Just my observation.

    Now, if you want to make a career out of writing…well, that is slightly different. Then you must write to those paying the bills. Be they the public or your employer, because then you are bound to the machine and it determines how, what, and why..

  32. bhumika2 says:

    Great Post Ma’am, Great advices. I will try to write daily. Thank You!

  33. Thank you for the reminder – “any advice that suggests that there is only one way to do something is wrong” My Arthiker applauds to you!

  34. kiyani2013 says:

    Hi , First of all thank you so much, u don’t know how your writing helping me in mine. i am starter of writing. i hope i will write a lot. thanks for your advise. ^_^

  35. rjphill says:

    Yup , I have been giving it a though for some time , but how to start without these moral wisdom , like you could not be go out there and write like its all about in your head.
    Go on as you like and you would get it or make mistakes without giving these things a second thought and you will be writing auto-matically ?

  36. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    If you are contemplating taking up the noble art of writing, or even if you have been doing it for a while, take the time to read this article.

  37. bvitelli2002 says:

    Very good advice and it made me laugh too! Thanks!

  38. jigneshthanki1987 says:

    Reblogged this on jigsthanki and commented:
    No shortage of advice for writers…

  39. Great post. Loved reading it!

  40. Many years, ago I had to listen to an ex-girlfriend take about her intention to become a photographer and what she intended to photograph ad nauseum.
    One day, I interrupted her and said, “One bit of advice: Buy a camera, take pictures.”
    She said that was a good idea and when she had her camera she was going to…
    “No,” I said, “get a camera, take pictures!”
    She looked offended, but six months later she was showing people her pictures and she turned to me and said, “You know, that was good advice.”

    If you want to be a writer, write. When? Whenever you can; whenever you want to.
    What? Whatever you like.

    Any other advice is just stuff you can also put on the garden.

  41. dederants says:

    Reblogged this on From Slacker To Scribe and commented:
    I’m so glad this was Freshly Pressed! I’ve fallen prey to these bits of writing advice, and have felt guilty for not writing everyday, feeling obligated to blog as much as possible as a sort of compensation to my followers and myself. There are things I don’t know much about, but I now realize I don’t necessarily need to in order to write about them (that’s what research is for); I don’t have to write all the time, because it’s not that serious, and I shouldn’t force it out of me; I’m what some people would call a ‘panser’, who simply writes without planning. There’s nothing wrong with planning, but like you, I hate outlines. I feel I can figure out, in my head, the blueprint of the story and, when pen and paper or computer are available, I write/type them up. Thank you to the blogger, Julianne Q. Johnson, for this insightful blog post!

  42. Pingback: Bad Writing Advice | WHAT'S UP WITH ME , AND STUFF

  43. Sally says:

    Julianne, I really enjoyed this post – your advice and your humour. I agree with a lot of what you say – though I must admit, I do try to write everyday, I do try to use the things that I know to influence my writing, and I do keep trying to outline my novel as I am constantly losing track of where I’m up to (Yes! I have started my novel – a late starter at 43 years of age!). But as you have probably noted, the key word here is ‘try’. Your post made me feel an awful lot better. Life with a family often make writing difficult (some nights, after they’ve got to bed, I want to just lie out with chocolate, wine and some brain-numbing tv); a lot of my life experiences seem awfully boring (so my writing’s got to be spiced up with occasional oddity), and jeez, isn’t outlining DULL???? Thanks for your honesty, and making me feel better for not being the perfect writer!

    • I wrote my first publishable book at 47, so you are already ahead of me! I do try to write as often as humanly possible, I’ve just stopped making with the guilt when it doesn’t work out. Who needs to be perfect?

  44. Arlo says:

    Your post was the the first on the search list that’s why I clicked it. I read it from top to bottom and, indeed, it’s very insightful. I’m about to embark in home-based online writing after getting burned in the corporate world, and what you wrote encouraged me even more to pursue it. Many thanks. God bless.

  45. Krisma R. M says:

    Hi Julianne, this is quite helpful..thanks!

  46. Thea says:

    So the saying “write what you know” is actually missing two words:

    “write what you know will sell”

  47. Nice picture in your blogs i like it….

  48. Sue Ghosh says:

    Great post.

  49. Great advise. I like the way you imply that there is a writing muscle, and i am sure there is, and you need to exercise it everyday. I will be doing just that.

    • Good luck with your writing!

      • Kathryn says:

        When they say write every day I took it to mean,don’t write only when you have inspiration.Write when you can even if you don’t feel inspired.. then inspit=raion will most likely come as you work.I find it’s true but I only began to do it when I was ill for three months and could not lie down as my lungs were very bad.

Leave a Reply to Kelly M Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s