There’s so much information for writers it can be hard to know what to listen to and what to ignore. As my dad always said to me “opinions are like noses, everyone has one.” (Spoiler alert, noses was not the original body part used in his wisdom, but I’m trying to keep this G-rated okay?) Complicating matters further is that the way we consume content today often leaves little room for nuance and writing wisdom is often whittled down to a simple but rigid state, in order to make it fit in a tweet or Instagram graphic.
So, the advice I’m referring to here is what I have heard bandied around online, in writing groups, and in workshops. These are my top five pieces of common writing advice that you should ignore … sometimes.
5 Pieces of Common Writing Advice You Should Absolutely Ignore
1. Show, don’t tell.
We’ve all heard the “moon glinting on broken glass” example of how to show rather than tell. However, this advice often seems to be applied too rigidly. Telling isn’t bad. In fact, I’d argue it’s a critical component of storytelling… see, the word “telling” is in the name. Telling provides clarity and certainty.
One area where I find telling to be necessary is your character’s goal. In this instance, you can first tell and then show. It’s actually the layering of telling and showing which makes for a powerful story. However, if we spend the whole story showing your character working toward something without ever having the character acknowledging in uncertain terms, the attainment of that goal won’t have the same impact. Or worse, the reader may not actually know what the goal is or why the character wants to achieve it.
2. Write what you know.
I understand the theory behind this advice. Yes, we want to get our facts straight and write with authority. But this idea is completely limiting if you don’t ever give yourself room to step outside what you know. Besides, anything you don’t know can be researched. And the process of stepping beyond what we know to learn something new or to investigate an experience that doesn’t line up with our own is ultimately what will make us a more empathetic and well-rounded writer in the long run.
3. Don’t use a long word when a short one will do.
Again, I understand why this piece of advice exists. We want our writing to be clear and to allow the story or message to take centre stage. And we’ve all read prose where it sounds like the author had a thesaurus open on their desk, right? Some things to consider when it comes to word choice, however, are cadence and character.
Always opting for short words can give the cadence of your writing a very monotonous feel. Just as we should vary our sentence lengths, we should also vary our word length to avoid our writing feeling as though it drags. This is especially important now as many books are being put into audio format where a monotonous cadence is very obvious!
It’s also important, especially for character-driven fiction, that the word choice is appropriate for the character. If all your words are chosen for their short length, then your characters may end up sounding the same. This is a piece of advice that’s best taken figuratively (i.e. don’t use a long word simply to sound smart) rather than literally.
4. Don’t edit as you go (aka write now, edit later).
I’m going to contradict myself a bit here because I do generally follow this advice. However, this doesn’t work for all writers! That’s because there’s no style of writing that works universally for everyone. Some writers need to tweak as they go in order to fully understand the story they’re telling. I know plenty of writers who do their writing and editing in the same pass, which results in a very clean first version. Editing, for these writers, is part of their creative process.
One time you may want to ignore this even if you usually write now and edit later is if you have a strong feeling the book is going in the wrong direction. Going back to the start of the book can help you get your story on track and save you more wasted time in the long run. Remember, there is no “correct” way to write a book.
5. Write every day.
Similar to the last piece of advice, anything which prescribes a certain way being the correct way is to be approached with caution. If you’re the kind of person who’s motivated by streaks or momentum, then writing every day may work. For plenty of writers, however, even very successful ones, writing every single day isn’t always practical, sustainable, or conducive to a creative work environment.
Personally, I write four to five days per week. I need the weekend to let my stories percolate in the background and when I’ve tried to write to seven days per week in the past, I was actually less productive. I know writers who write less than this with much success. There are also people who “binge write” where they’ll have huge word counts for a few weeks and then not write anything for the next few weeks while they refill the creative well.
One of the biggest things I hope you can take away from this advice is to use the wisdom that works for you and discard the rest. Trying to force ourselves to work a certain way because it fits conventional wisdom can have the opposite effect of blocking us creatively and making us less productive. So embrace your process and lean into what works for you!