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. deepti says:

    this is like the advice i give my friends when they come with their relationship problems. you know whats going on in your relationships better than anyone else. If you think something is wrong then trust your instinct instead of asking for advice. It always works for me.

    I personally don’t write an outline. I have the basics of my story. But I feel I need to plan other things, like the setting if its a fantasy world, the the main characters and thinking up names (just can’t get in the mood writing “A went to school” and such. It makes me realize why people tell you not to name lab animals.) I just can’t write about them as a person that way. When I give them names and plan about them I can create characters that are real. I think flexibility is important. And how(planning or not) you write it depends on the genre. i find it easier to write with less planning when its a romance or general fiction but not science fiction or fantasy. And no matter how much you love writing you cant let it overtake your life, so if there is more important stuff to be done writing everyday is not a choice.

    Great blog. It’s annoying when people keep telling you what to do. 🙂

  2. I understand, and appreciate your points. All makes sense to me. So much so that even though posting here might lead you back to my spanking new blog site, I take that risk. You write well. I read an entry on another blog earlier this evening that explored the vulnerability a writer feels, putting stuff out there. That’s where I am at. And I try all the approaches. Set aside time, make an outline, don’t make an outline, free write, don’t waste creative energy free writing. Sheesh, lets just do what comes naturally.

  3. vera ersilia says:

    Excellent post for all those who would write by instructions. A bit like painting by the numbers. The only thing I would add is : know your grammar, syntax, and all the rules of the language, so you’ll know when and how to ignore them, modify them, or break them,

  4. Pingback: Bad Writing Advice | Julianne Q Johnson | Korn4D Agile Blog

  5. edesorban says:

    Great bad advice! I need to share with my writing class.
    Reblogged on My Miscellania. (

  6. Pingback: Bad Writing Advice | My Miscellania

  7. Michael Philip Kashgarian says:

    Just write if that’s what you want to do. I wrote and self-published an ebook novel (“John Doe Versus Death”) and disregarded all types of advice I read about. It’s fiction and there are no rules or mistakes (even actual mistakes aren’t mistakes). If people read it, they read it. If they don’t, they don’t.

    • While I believe in artistic license, I also believe in learning one’s craft. So I do believe that actual mistakes are in fact mistakes, if one is talking about grammar, for example. One can certainly disregard rules and such, but one must do it with a certain amount of discretion,and with purpose, or you might just end up with bad writing.

  8. Dennie says:

    Hi, Julianne,
    Found you through the above re-blog and your “Bad Writing Advice” was exactly what I needed today after beating myself up.

  9. kreaaaaase says:

    Reblogged this on innocentlittleliar.

  10. Good advice about bad advice. I suppose the only rule regarding writing is that there are no rules. As you said, do what works best for you. When I was a journalist I used to go through my notes and place numbers in the margin that became the sequence of the paragraphs for my story. That simple method kept me organized. When it comes to writing works of fiction, for me creating an outline is a must. Not that it’s detailed. It’s just a simple sentence or maybe even just a word on what each chapter is about. If I didn’t have that track to run on, I’d never reach the finish line. That’s one of the beautiful things about writing, for the most part if’s a self taught, individual experience. You become your own muse.

  11. Great post. I agree with your ‘take’ on these so-called best practices. Even writing can be over-thought and when that happens, the essence of the original message is lost (in my opinion). Like music, if the feeling and vibe are lost, it becomes noise and writing becomes a bunch of words thrown together without touching the reader.

    Thanks for sharing!!


  12. Just a Little Background Noise says:

    This was fun

  13. “It is always a silly thing to give adive, but to give good advice is absolutely fatal” or something along this line, — Oscar Wilde
    you are absolutely right!
    And glad to meet you through the Freshly Pressed, I’m a 28 year old graduate who just moved to Cambodia, with absolutely nothing at all.

  14. Stuff Jeff Reads says:

    Great post! As a “professional” writer, I have been asked to speak to university writing classes about how to make a living as a writer. I always quote Liz Phair: “It’s nice to be liked, but it’s better by far to get paid.” So my advice to students is to dedicate part of your time to writing things that pay well (in my case technical documents) and then keep some free time for creative/enjoyable pieces (like poetry and fiction). Cheers!

  15. Thanks for this! Have totally fallen prey to the “write every day” guilt… No longer! I appreciate the humor here.

  16. sarabarnes98 says:

    Reblogged this on The Written Odyssey and commented:
    This is a good piece to remind everyone that not all of the advise out there is going to work with how you approach writing.

  17. Harliqueen says:

    Great post. I always get a horrible guilty feeling when I don’t write everyday and things. This post was good reminder to stop doing that! 😀

  18. Kristen says:

    I’m a new blogger and this was fantastic writing advice! Thanks 🙂

  19. lauralanni says:

    “any advice that suggests that there is only one way to do something is wrong.”

    I just love advice that says don’t take advice. We all know we’re going to do everything our own way when the advisor leaves the room anyway.

    Never heard “asshat’ before. Thanks for the new word.

  20. Pingback: Bad Writing Advice | Updates from the Content Marketing Queen

  21. dramaquill says:

    Great post. Love how you dealt with all these *famous* advice segments and put a real life spin to them. Good intentions, yes, but not feasible for everyone.

  22. Bryan Caron says:

    Julianne, you are spot on, especially on the outline thing. Like you, I know where I’d like to start and where the characters will end up, but everything in between is usually up for grabs. I may sometimes start with a general outline, as in, a couple of paragraphs describing what I initially wanted (usually this is when I have an idea, but know I won’t be able to work on it for some time, so I write it down so i won’t forget the finer points, or the emotion of what I was feeling at the time). But, as any good writer knows, once you get into writing, it’s up to the characters to tell you where they want to go, and you’re just there to follow them. In fact, my most recent book that I’m currently putting the final touches on is like that. After finishing the second draft, I went back and reread my original notes and thoughts, and, other than the characters, a few minor details and the main climax, the entire thing couldn’t have turned out more different. But that’s okay, because the changes and differences just felt right. If I had stuck to my initial thoughts, the book, in my opinion, wouldn’t have turned out as well as it did. So, like you and others have said, take the rules with a grain of salt. It’s okay to use them when you’re first starting out, but once you’re able to find your own unique process, you’re own voice and special way that works best for you, ditch them because from that point on, they can only be a hindrance.

  23. Russ L says:

    The picture of your guy and cat made me LAUGH! 🙂 Thanks for liking my blog. Yours is cool. 🙂

  24. curvyroads says:

    As newbie, this was most helpful. My favorite line “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.” 🙂

  25. I really enjoyed this and found it very helpful I am still at school at the moment but hope to some day become a journalist so I found this very helpful 🙂

  26. jaykinetic says:

    I like your way of turning this oft-repeated advice on its. head.

  27. Pingback: Bad Writing Advice | Author Sean T. Smith

  28. I enjoyed your piece on writing. I’m halfway through the last book in a trilogy, and it’s starting to feel like work. I think you are spot on when you say that every writer works differently, and that what works for one may not be feasible for another. The main thing is to sit in the chair and let those words come out, one way or another!

  29. linnetmoss says:

    Thanks for your humorous, no BS take on writing. And I adore your photos (hello boys!). I must admit with trepidation that I write when I don’t even know how the story is going to proceed… with no more than a tenuous high concept for the plot, much less a plan or outline. Most of my stories start with a dream that I feel the need to “finish.” The outline part comes toward the end, when I have to make sure that everything is on a proper timeline.

  30. hannahm223 says:

    Great post! I always read that you should outline your story and wonder if I’m doing it wrong, but I just don’t enjoy writing that way!

  31. Oh, there’s no end to the bad advice out there. I’ve heard horror stories of writing tutors insisting each chapter should start halfway down the page, or that you MUST have dialogue on the first page. With outlines, I find a middle ground helps – I like having a rough outline of where I’m going, but I like to leave it pretty loose. My best work usually ends up drifting a long way from it.

  32. danielfbowman says:

    Reblogged this on Daniel F. Bowman and commented:
    I appreciate the freedom this gives individual writers based on their situations.
    More bad advice–read the genre you write. If taken too far, this keeps you from getting ideas and you remain stuck in an incest of genre.

  33. leelcampbell says:

    Lovely blog! A joy to read.

  34. a new approach and it befits me as I am one who cannot seem to write everyday. lovely post. thank you for sharing and congratulations on being freshly pressed.

  35. I absolutely love your blog. Especially your piece on Louisa May Alcott! I work in Concord at her museum. Hope you come visit someday 🙂

  36. Reblogged this on Media World Adventures and commented:
    This is one of the most interesting blogs I have read today. Please take a look-see. You will enjoy. 🙂

  37. Julianne,

    Very well written indeed! I look forward to reading more of your work. There is SO much digital ink being used to advise all of us would-be Hemingways. 🙂 I hope that you are correct in your opinion!

  38. Reblogged this on fwhidden's Blog and commented:
    Yet more “good” advice about writing!

  39. Great tips. People don’t think writing can be simple. It is just a matter of doing it. Inspiring post!

  40. therefugia says:

    Reblogged this on TheRefugia.

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