If there’s one thing I’ve learned from writing, it’s that we need to apply most writing rules sparingly. Just as in life, you need to have a good balance of both breaking and following the rules. Here are my six least favorite pieces of writing advice:
Write what you know
I have a love-hate relationship with this one. I find sticking to this rule 100% undermines one of the greatest benefits of reading and writing fiction: it allows us to empathize with people different than us. It also protects us from sounding like complete asses.
The problem with writing what you know?
It limits you, and it limits your stories.
If I wrote what I knew, I’d only be able to tell stories about a white girl who grew up in Northeast Ohio. It’s not really the most exhilarating story, I’ll be honest.
My most recent short story follows a man on a spaceship fighting Lovecraftian monsters, and I’ve found I love writing space fiction. That’s a far cry from the experience I had growing up here in Ohio, though.
In its defense:
If you never experienced or learned about trauma, your characters might not have an accurate reaction to the traumas you write for them.
It makes sense, right? This concept is true of many aspects of our writing, so we need to balance what we write with a little bit of what we know–or can learn– so those parts are honest, accurate reflections of the human (or inhuman) experience.
Kill your darlings
This one is all about ditching the parts of your story that you love. Sometimes, we become unnecessarily attached to lines and structures in our writing. They can make it feel formulaic, redundant, and weak.
Sometimes, though, you do need to stick to your guns and defend your darlings. It is an extension of you, after all.
For example, the editor of the anthology publishing (happy dance!) my space horror wanted me to change key elements in the last sentence. But I loved that sentence! Worse, I felt the suggested change weakened the end and deviated from the speaker’s voice. After discussing and (re)reviewing it, the editor agreed to keep it.
Fiction writing is an art and cannot be taught
I loathe this one. No one is born a fiction writer. WE ALL HAVE TO LEARN THE ALPHABET! All writing is comprised of skill sets and tools that can be practiced and honed, and you can learn them! It’s no different than learning any other skill, and that’s all there is to it. Ignore anyone who disagrees and just keep writing and rewriting. You’ll get better, I promise.
If you’re bored, your reader will be bored
Only partially true.
How long have you been working on this story? How many times have you read it, revised it, edited it? I don’t blame you for being tired of reading the same damn thing over and over.
But you can relax. Your reader hasn’t read it yet. If you’re in serious doubt, have someone else (I recommend a non-writer) read it. If it doesn’t bore them, you’re doing just fine!
Never end a sentence with a preposition– and other sacred grammar-based rules
Look. I love grammar. I actually enjoy breaking down the parts of a sentence. There’s even have a poster in my classroom declaring myself to be “the grammar snob about whom your mother warned you.”
But look at how snobby and pedantic that sentence reads. And it’s simply to avoid having the word “about” at the end?
These sort of rules are great for formal academic papers, but the thing about language is it’s changing constantly. Bootylicious is in the Oxford English Dictionary, for god’s sake. I think we can put a preposition at the end of a sentence now.
Besides, we are fiction writers! It is our job to manipulate language to tell compelling tales. We also need to have narrators and characters who speak in a way both understandable and believable. Bad grammar is every bit as usable and acceptable a tool as perfect grammar is. Moreso, even.
Does that mean you don’t have to pay any mind to your grammar? Of course not. It means you have to pay more attention and wield that bad grammar like a pro! Even bad grammar has its rules, after all. The slang you’ll hear in L. A. is pretty different when compared to the slang of, say, rural West Virginia. You need to be fluent in the unique language of each setting you write in.
Ditch adverbs and adjectives
“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.” ~Stephen King
While this one definitely falls under the “other sacred grammar-based rules” from above, we come across this idea so frequently I felt it deserved its own section.
Fellow writers, do not take this one 100% to heart.
Stephen King, I love you. Your horror stories are a source of inspiration. I thoroughly enjoy torturing myself by reading your stories immediately before bed (and have had spectacularly terrible dreams as a result).
However, I think you’re being a touch hard on adverbs.
If we abide by his statement about adverbs, we’d never use them. But guess what. Stephen King uses adverbs. I found three in one page-length section alone in The Shining!
Can many adverb usages be revised, resulting in stronger writing?
Yes! They do need to be used sparingly.
Should they be used with care and precision as a result?
Duh! See above about fiction writers and language manipulation.
Should we ban all uses of an entire aspect of the English language?
God no. That is limiting in approach, style, and dialogue.
Ultimately, I think there is only one hard and fast rule to apply to writing:
Just write. Write in whatever manner allows you to tell your story best, and the most accurately.
What’s the worst piece of writing advice you’ve encountered? Comment with it below!