5 Reasons Why Writers Get Bad Advice

Here’s how it usually goes down: A promising writer is struggling with some aspect of her novel. When we discuss it, it turns out what’s holding her back is a piece of writing advice she’d been told to follow or -- as one writer recently reported -- “No publisher will ever consider your work.”

It happened again today. What kills me is that, as is so often the case, the advice the writer was given -- “Never tell us what your character is thinking.” -- was 100% wrong. It’s a perfect example of one of the reasons writers get bad advice: since most new writers tend to do “X” poorly, they’re told it’s better not to do "X" at all.  When the real answer is: “X” is essential to a good story, here’s why, and here’s how to do it well.

There are four other main reasons writers get bad advice:

1.    Writing maxims are not fully explained, and so ironically seem to imply the opposite of what they actually mean. For instance, the utterly untrue belief that because literary novels are character driven they don’t need a plot.

2.    Writers are taught to follow story structure models that by definition focus on the external plot rather than the internal story. Story structure is actually the byproduct of a story well told, not something that can be imposed from the outside in. Even by the much venerated, often woefully undermining Hero’s Journey.

3.    The belief that learning to write well is the same as learning to write a story.  Writing well is meaningless unless every single beautiful, well-chosen word is there solely in service of the unfolding story. Beware the seductively slippery slope into the lush valley of wordsmithing.

4.    The belief that writing is all about creativity and self-expression rather than communication. And, even more insidious, that learning to communicate will stifle your creativity, when in fact it’s the best way to unleash it.

The good news is that, given what we now know about what the brain responds to in a story, we can sift through all the questionable advice writers get, pluck out and refine what actually works, and lay to rest what doesn’t.  That’s exactly what this series is all about.  Over the next few months, we’ll be examining common pieces of “bad advice” and either debunking or clarifying them, so they become useful members of the community, rather than the dirty rats that undermine our stories.

What about you, what bad advice have you gotten? What “old writing saw” have you always wondered about?