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. Drew says:

    Blogging for the past 7 years made me realize how hard could be keeping a rhythm with something that doesn’t pay the bills. I’m constantly trying to maintain some pace of regular writing, but occasionally I skip posts for days if not weeks.

  2. Prince Bhati says:

    I really find very hard to write even simple article. I believe writing is an art and fully agree with your article. Thanks for sharing this informational post. Looking forward to your future posts.

  3. tinablogsalot says:

    You just took a big load off of my shoulders. I hate “writing rules.” The whole point of writing, in my opinion, is to be creative and creativity HAS NO RULES. Also, thank you for writing in plain English. I think your blog is the most unpretentious thing I’ve read all day! I try to use the same simple approach to my writing as well. 🙂

  4. insideoutsanta says:

    I have now had three creative writing professors in college. The first one said “OUTLINE!,” the second said “BE SPONTANEOUS!” At least the third and current one says, “What works for you?” Thanks for the post!

  5. slevjay says:

    Glad I saw this post. Makes me feel so much better about my own writing. It was also hilarious.

  6. Kimmyco says:

    Lol, writing is a passion of expression. I love your direct perspective and enjoyed reading your article.

  7. More bad writing advice: repeat your thesis. Never repeat anything, assume your reader is intelligent and they got it the first time; if they didn’t, they’re not going to get it the second time, either. Even worse writing advice: the only kinds of facts are statistics and quotations. Those are in fact the least reliable forms of fact because they can be manipulated and/or distorted. So much to say here, so little anyone will probably notice.

    • Sounds like you could write your own bad writing advice post!

      • I teach writing and have tons to say about it. Most good writers don’t teach the subject, they do something else. The biggest problem with how writing is taught is that nobody is forced to observe good writing before trying to put it out themselves; on any job, the first thing the employer makes the new employee do is watch someone who is experienced as they perform it. To try and have people write essays of any sort–blogs included–without having read the great essayists is just plain stupid. Hence my program on the classic essays, examining how they marshal facts and what kinds of facts they use, this fall. Couple this with how people are taught–they’re told all of the things they can’t do, and nothing that they can do–and it makes a good case for the de-funding of all schools, public and private. Of 250 (?) students that I’ve worked with the past two years, only two have been halfway decent writers, and many of these kids are from fairly privileged backgrounds and attend supposedly better schools.

      • I recently spent 3 years working with at risk kids. Some of my kiddos were quite smart, some had learning issues, but all had one thing in common–they couldn’t read or write as well as they should have been able to. I had a couple smart kids that could not read at all, and all my kiddos save one could barely write. I’m not a teacher, but in talking to students and teachers at the grade school level, it seems like so much emphasis is being given to getting the kiddos to pass standardized tests that reading and writing are falling by the wayside. That is ridiculous. How in the world will our kiddos get by in life if they can’t read and write effectively?

  8. Anne Fischer, Author says:

    A refreshing common sense approach. Thank you 🙂

  9. Stephen, stop reading here…. hilarious! Begone horrid asshats! Fantastic advice. Thank you for the practical guide for normal folks. I feel much better now!

  10. Pingback: Bad Writing Advice | The Iridescent Bubble

  11. purplebri says:

    When I come home feeling like my brain cells are fried and I STILL have to cook and clean and put the cats to bed, that’s the exact day that I need to write more than any other. Writing helps me find my center and keeps me connected to ME. Even 15 to 20 minutes in my journal makes all the difference in the world. I never feel guilty when I don’t write, but when I feel I don’t have time, I sit down with my pen and notebook and talk to myself about why I don’t have time. Usually, I end up with a nice journal entry AND a bit of story, and no one has starved to death yet.

  12. L. Palmer says:

    My high school art teacher, who is a wise woman, would often say, “Know the rules so that you know how to break them.”
    While a lot of writing advice is well-meant, it becomes a cookie-cutter version of the imagination, instead of having the organicness of how the imagination really works.

  13. I loved this! Thank you!

  14. chickcando says:

    Love this advice, as I’m staring at my chickens with my laptop open. I’m drawing a blank so I’m calling it a day of rest. I feel like I just got permission!
    You’re amazing! Thank you for the advice.

  15. blissluk says:

    Great article that we all needed in this world of so claimed Musto-Dos and Must-Haves.
    You very rightly point out to listen to advice, but moreover give it your personal toch and do it your own way. Thank you for remembering us about what matters and what doesnt. 🙂

  16. northernmalewhite says:

    pretty much all
    given to writers can be


  17. christina017 says:

    It’s really brings great fun set-up your blog and practice your skills and writing as well as have the chance to express your emotions and passions.

  18. SwanDancer says:

    The best feel-good blog I’ve read in weeks! No more guilt for not writing every single **day. Thanks to you, Julianne!!!

  19. Jennifer says:

    Thanks for the good advice! I’ve found when I outline a creative writing piece, it will inevitably go awry. My characters take on a life of their own, and their path is usually a whole other trail than the one we started down. Fortunately, that means they’re fully realized as individuals and believable, at least that’s what I tell myself.
    Another odd thing is a writing technique that I don’t know if anyone else uses, but it works for me. I tend to write fast and get the logistics down during the ‘good writing times,’ but nothing beats the times when I’m feeling bad or exhausted for getting the emotions down. It’s like my defenses are down and I’m wide open to what the character is experiencing. I’ll find myself going over things I’ve already written and adding in the emotional responses that make it ring truer to life. Whatever works, right?

  20. I started a blog in January and heard much of what you wrote by the “knowers” of writing. No outlines for me since I also find them too tedious. I’d rather get “write” the the work. Editing then takes the front seat to tweak the words or story which I sometimes get impatient with.

  21. I think its cruel to tell an artist of any form to practice their art everyday– I know that would suck the joy right out of me.
    Great article though, and congrats on being pressed!

  22. Midwestern Plant Girl says:

    Congrats on gettin’ pressed!!

  23. Kat says:

    I call shenanigans! LOL, yeah – me too!

  24. ericjbaker says:

    I see a “like” button. Where’s the “love” one?

    I’ve been thinking of doing a post like this, but you said it all so well.

  25. mirkinfirkin says:

    Me, I tend to write when my demons threaten to overwhelm me. Writing helps to keep me less crazy and helps to ease my pain. This explains the seeming randomness of my blog posts – I write about whatever catches my attention, and my posts are usually quite short, averaging probably 300 words. But, having said that, I recently did a word count, and found to my surprise that I’d written well over 100 000 words in less than a year.

    For me, my writing is a balm to my soul, and in my case proves the old adage, “Laughter is the best medicine.”

  26. kboys3 says:

    I too worried about not writing everyday or even every week. I kept replaying something I read that said you will lose your readers if you are not consistent. I became paralyzed if more than 2 weeks went by thinking, “Great, now no one will read what I wrote”. But interestingly, that didn’t happen. People still read when I do post whether a day goes by or 3 weeks. I love what you wrote about not following other people’s rules. I’ve decided to write when I want to and stop worrying about my ‘popularity’ factor! Write On! (But only when it suits you of course!)

  27. Radhika says:

    This is wonderful! I wrote something in the same vein a while ago, would you like to read it?
    Here it is:

  28. debra colby says:

    Funny, I just had this same type of conversation w/a friend. And I too, mentioned the fact that writing each and every day is almost impossible for me. Two jobs and trying to squeeze in kid time is challenging enough w/out the guilt of having not written that day. So thank you for having the time to write what I was thinking…I woulda done it, but dang…I just didn’t have the time.

    • Lol! Glad to help! I can’t tell you how many days I just didn’t have the time or the brain cells either. Oddly enough, moving my fiance and all my furry babies in with my parents to help my folks might just get me a little more time. I had to cook and clean anyway, after all, and now I don’t have to work such long hours just to get by.

  29. whitejmin says:

    Reblogged this on whitejmin and commented:
    good article. thanls!

  30. poly says:

    I know I will determine my success in my own time. Thanks for the great insight!

  31. That’s funny. I knew I always wanted to be a writer but I couldn’t just make someone force me to write. I hated in high school and even college creative writing courses where they’d make you sit down in front of your daily journal and do 20 minutes of forced bullshit mundane wriitng. All mine was usually bullshit drama Iw as dealing with at the time it never got me anywhere. I knew I had a knack for writing when people would freak out about their essays and I’d be like what’s the problem here? Introduce, talk, add facts, back up said facts, conclude. But then again, if they said hey sara, can you solve this algebra problem for me i’d tremble in fear. I am just having a real hard time focusing on this memoir I am trying to get together. I have combed through journal after journal and I see the patterns that have been re-emerging in my “life story” over the past 10 years. Yet, I still have no fucking clue what to focus on. I am just frustrated. Being a writer with ADHD is quite a challenge. You need the structure but you don’t. So, it’s like trying to put a square peg in a round hole or whatever that saying is. Thanks for the advice though. I have heard those same trite things repeated over and over. Like, math instructions. 😉

    • It’s hard to write with any kind of frequency and focus in the best of times. I cannot imagine trying it while managing ADHD as well. You are a superhero!

      • If I am a superhero lock me up now because I fail left and right over and over again. I still try o contain my striking good looks though. ha ha

      • Failing just means your finding the right path to succeed. Sorry for the triteness, not enough coffee yet today.

      • You’re right. I’ve faced lots of obstacles and adversity in my life. I never let those rascals stop me before!

      • I used to have these recurring dreams, well, more like nightmares where I had to save people but I was always too scared I always hid, it was a force way bigger than I could handle. abd for some reason in this weird macabre way. It’s coming true. Like, I can’t be there for these people who need help and I blame it on myself. I guess that could be grounds for a good book, huh?

      • All our experiences, even our most dreadful, add to our art. I’ll be keeping you in my thoughts, and hoping that happier times are ahead for you.

      • Thanks. I think facing the darkness instead of running from it all of the time makes you a more dynamic writer. My mind is much more open than it used to be. I used to censor myself not take myself to such places with my work but why would I do that? If I censor myself I wouldn’t have a unique voice.

  32. Nice Stuff In This Blog .. I Like It Very Much…..

  33. Pingback: Freshly Riffed 49: Welcome To Hell, Enjoy The Buffet | A VERY STRANGE PLACE

  34. Thanks for the humorous look at some of “the rules”. I agree with what you’re saying here — we all have our own ways that work best for us. I’ve always heard “Write what you know”, though, as “Write what you know or can fully imagine”. Whether your story takes place in the most mundane house in the world or on Mars, I’ve always felt the story is about the characters — how they feel, how they are transformed by the plot. Everything else is props and dressing. Who can “know” life on another planet? Or vampires? If we viewed this rule that way, there would be no science fiction or horror. What we can and do know, though, are emotions. We can write fear. We can write disorientation, homesickness, delusion, all of it. In that sense, I have to agree: write what you know or can fully imagine.

  35. julesdownunder says:

    Love this! I am constantly berating myself for not following “the rules” of writing. Truth is, I should be celebrating what I am accomplishing… and if that happens to be dinner on table and kids in bed before I lose my sanity, then I’ve accomplished a lot! I’m still going to keep writing the best I can, but on my terms. I spend enough time second guessing myself…

  36. hipmamamedia says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Julianne for so clearly articulating the realities of most writers, especially women! I don’t care how egalitarian our society is compared to the days of yore, it is still harder for a wife and mom to balance everything! I also don’t write everyday. There is no way I could. Some days are consumed with my job or my responsibilities to home and family. I also don’t always have uninterrupted chunks of time so I write in the nooks and crannies (I wrote a post about that) and constantly keep ideas in my head or jotted down to work on later. I also sometimes write from the middle or the end and then back in the rest of the story. Another thing that drives me insane is the “gospel truth” that you shouldn’t write post longer than 500 words because you will lose the reader. Says who? If it is interesting and needs more words to be told, then tell it! (clearly I write long as evidence by this comment. ha!) And as far as writing only what you know, I am also a freelance writer and often have to research topics for my articles, so yes, you can learn about a topic and write thoroughly on it as long as you do your homework! Thanks for letting me rant! 🙂

  37. Good advice, I always suggest right from the heart the rest will follow

  38. Ashana M says:

    The one bit of advice that did work for me, of the above, is writing everyday. When I am working, I am tired every day. I never have any time or any brain cells to spare. If I can’t figure out how to write with that as a condition, I am never going to write at all. I am just as exhausted and busy on the weekends–the weekend warrior thing isn’t any better. At the same time, if I am always writing a little something–even if it isn’t anything much–then there is always an idea kicking around in my head to write about, and I’m never staring at a blank screen or a blank sheet of paper wondering what the hell to say. It also puts me in the habit of using the minutes I do have. So, I’m standing in a checkout line at the grocery store, and I’m putting sentences together in my head, or waiting at the bus stop and playing with an idea. If I weren’t writing something every day, that habit would never develop. But, as you said, that works for me. It doesn’t work for everyone.

  39. Erica says:

    Good advice! Straight to the main points. Thanks!

  40. Writer/ Editor: Carrie B says:

    So glad I found this blog. May have saved my sanity today!

  41. Jill Schmehl says:

    I heard that J.R.R.Tolkien started The Lord of the Rings without having any idea of what the story was about or how it would end. He started at the beginning and wrote until he got stuck. Then he threw all the pages into a box and started over again. When he got stuck again, he did the same. Again and again. Eventually (12 years later) he made it all the way through.
    The moral of the story is: Authors are like books – every one is different and tells their story in their own way.
    My only rule: Start at the beginning, continue on until your reach the end, then stop.

  42. I especially liked your take on “Outline first – and then just write it”. As a technical writer I outline technical documents to death, and when writing any form of non-fiction I always start with a good outline. But when it comes to fiction, I simply cannot do it. I started a novel awhile ago, and then someone told me that I should always outline. I find that when I try to outline a piece of fiction I start to get bored with the project before I get started. Does anyone else have that problem??

  43. Laura N. says:

    Yep. Writing tips are like bellybuttons: Everybody’s got one!
    I enjoyed your post. Humorous AND practical. Nice!

  44. You get it, I’m still in school and it seems like theres always an exam coming up and I’m dying to finish the stories that I’ve started but it’s just not possible. Really good stuff!

  45. I find being cajoled into writing to a schedule the same as being persuaded I should be exercising regularly…..both just drives me to sitting down with a cup of tea, a bit fat piece of cake, and gorging on day time tv instead!! I like to fly by the seat of my pants writing-wise which has caused all sorts of problems for me academically where it’s all about ‘planning’! At least I can make my own writing rules on my blog and (hopefully) only write when I have something worth writing. Absolutely agree with everything you’ve posted and congrats on the Freshly Pressed.

  46. maryhelenc says:

    Thank you! My journalism professor always said “Never a day without a word” and sometimes I feel like I’m less of a writer because I went days without words. Also, I wish I strayed out of my comfort zone more! I couldn’t agree more!

  47. This was a good read, thanks for posting it! I try to write every day, but if I don’t I’m not one to get upset about it. I do try to write my blog every day though, just to give myself to think about and get those annoyingly clogging ‘ponderments’ out of my head.

  48. jwkuyser says:

    Reblogged this on Jake Kuyser and commented:
    This is an interesting post. I’ve formed a new habit of writing every day and I feel compelled to do it even if it is just a re-blog like this one. I think it is opening new doors in my mind. For example I have written things I never would, such as stories, even if they are very short ones. I have been discovering that writing a story can be more enjoyable and involving than reading one. I like writing every day. I just wish I was always up early enough in the morning. I’m working on that. 🙂

  49. It’s great to be able to relate to other writers like myself. I am 40 years old and in the process of writing my first novel. I’ve been struggling with the process because I’ve had no formal training and have found myself researching different writing techniques and other author’s experiences rather than just writing for myself and what comes from my heart and soul. At the end of the day I know I will determine my success in my own time. Thanks for the great insight!

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