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Bad (and even worse) writing advice

October 9, 2008 |  1:26 pm

Classroom_1009

Agent Nathan Bransford has asked his readers to share the worst writing advice they've gotten. There are some old classics, such as "write what you know," which seems reasonable enough, but is particularly annoying to people writing about dragons or wizards. And the advice to write carefully, without adverbs, which I think is actually terrific, caused much consternation.

Then there are the contradictions -- one person was told to use "said" in dialogue tags (as in "all the things she said," she said), because, apparently "everyone is only using 'said' now." Many others were advised to never use "said," and instead find active verbs, such as "whispered," "exclaimed" and, as one exasperated commenter notes, "the physically impossible 'grinned.' "

It's likely that many of the people on a literary agent's blog are aspiring writers, so some of this advice may have been given with the best of intentions to improve on particular writing weaknesses or quirks. But a lot of it is pretty bad, and some is just plain bonkers:

  • Remove all your commas. Editors don't like commas and they pull the reader out of the story.
  • The first page of your novel MUST include the protagonist's sex, age, physical description and location. Preferably, this is all revealed in the first paragraph.
  • Worst advice: Your character should experience only one emotion per scene.
  • Narrative is what makes a good story.  Get rid of all the dialogue. 

You aren't likely to find that kind of advice in how-to-write books. Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life" has an excellent reputation; "From Where You Dream" by Robert Olen Butler, edited by Janet Burroway, seems to be either loved or loathed. A teaching colleague swears by Burroway's "Writing Fiction," which is a much-used textbook now in its seventh edition.

All their sage wisdom isn't nearly as amusing as the nutty advice people have gotten. More bad advice, and some writers fighting back, after the jump.

  • "Beginners shouldn't start out writing novels." ... So when do I start? Twenty years down the road when I am an established short story author?
  • Why are you writing romance?  You should write a real novel.
  • You can't start a romance with a dead husband ... whom the wife loved. Sheesh, like the heroine had to hate the dead husband in order to love the hero.
  • "Nobody's going to want to read a story set in West Virginia." If the writing is good and the plot is exciting, sure people will.
  • One person in a writing class told me I should change my story from a paranormal spy thriller to a story about paranormal high school kids because the spy genre was dumb and overrated.
  • "Never begin a novel with the weather." This was from my rule-loving tutor in a creative writing class. Immediately following this advice, we were asked to turn to our reading exercise for the day, the first page of the Booker Prize-winning "Vernon God Little." The (damn fine) first sentence? "It's hot as hell in Martirio but the papers on the porch are icy with the news." Ha!

The general consensus is that the NEVER and ALWAYS rules are pretty useless; there are always worthy exceptions. Except for the one about not using adverbs -- I'll wisely keep my adverbs to a minimum.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo by sergis_blog via Flickr.

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