Bad Writing Advice And Why It’s Sometimes Right.

Anyone who has tried to write has been deluged with writing advice. Books to read, structures to follow and oft-quoted ‘truths’. Many of these are just plain wrong, but a few have some truth at their core. Below are five common ‘rules’ of writing that you should mostly ignore – and the situations when you should heed them.

Bad Advice #1

You can’t learn how to write in a creative writing class

Many people believe that producing a novel is a mystical, muse-driven process that is requires only the tapping of unconscious genius. So, creative writing courses are useless or harmful; damaging natural writing talent and forcing it into a conventional mold.

But no one is born knowing how to write a novel any more than they are born knowing how to fix a car. We all start in a different places, but every new writer can be taught to improve. How to shape their work to bring out their unique vision and voice. How to clear the clutter that compromises their communication.

When it’s right

There are a few bad teachers out there, who believe their way or style is the only right one and will try to force you to mimic them. Watch out for hard-and-fast rules. For failsafe formulas. There are no such things.

Bad Advice #2

Write what you know

This one seems daft to anyone who has heard of sci-fi or fantasy. But most people who tell you to ‘write what you know’ obviously aren’t advocating for fiction to be replaced by wall-to-wall memoir. They usually mean you should use your life experiences as a jumping off point, or should have expertise in a field before writing about it.

But sticking only to what you have personally experienced can make for dull writing. There’s a huge joy to diving into research for a novel, and learning the fascinating, illustrative details that will bring your story to life. Even if they happened to someone else.

When it’s right

You should write from your body, your emotions, experiences and your relationships, but not try to replicate them. Try taking them to extremes, or examining them minutely. The murderous rage you felt in the checkout line for the man paying with nickels. The panic when the plane lurched. These can be great places to start, but sticking to your own lived experience can prevent you exploring a larger truth.

Bad Advice #3

Only you know what is right for your book

I’ve seen people refuse to change a single word in spite of a whole class of people trying (ever so nicely) to point out that the story isn’t working. Because it’s THEIR BOOK, and the class DOESN’T UNDERSTAND.

It is natural to be defensive of your vision. But if several people keep pointing out the same problems you are wasting your time and yours by ignoring them.

If a reader doesn’t get a scene or plot point, don’t assume they are stupid. Try to make it clearer.

When it’s right

Some people think your work should read like theirs. Or they hate your genre, theme or message. If there’s a lone dissenting voice in a group, you should be wary, but never dismissive.

If you can, check your readers’ critiques of other people’s stories. See if you agree with them when it’s not your work they are assessing.

Bad Advice #4

Your book doesn’t have to be perfect when you send it out. That’s what editors are for.

The average literary agency receives about 200 submissions a week. While some of those books are terrible, a large number are well-written stories by talented authors that simply do not stand out enough. Your book has to be amazing on the first read. Don’t rush to send it out.

When it’s right

Sometimes you get to the point where you can’t let go. You find yourself making changes you reverse in your next draft.

If you’ve rewritten, put it away and rewritten over and over again, got it critiqued by other writers, polished, checked, double checked and proofread it, it may be time to send it out and move on to the next project.

I worked on my first novel (a middle-grade book) for ten years and sent it out to about 15 agents and publishers. While I got a lot of positive feedback, it was turned down every time.  I finally moved on to my next project, Transferral, which was accepted by the first publisher I showed it to.

You will never write a perfect book, but it should be the absolute best you can make it. No matter how long that takes.

Bad Advice #5

Follow your dreams and quit your day job

Ever since I announced that Transferral is coming out, I’ve had people at work asking me if I’m going to quit. I swallow down my bitter laughter. Yes, there are some six-figure book deals out there. No, I am not the next JK Rowling. The Writers’ Union of Canada’s 2015 annual report revealed the median net income for a Canadian writer is just $5,000.

Even if you’ve sold a book and earned enough money to survive for a little while, consider keeping your job. Otherwise the financial pressure can make you rush your next book, and send it out before it’s ready.

When it’s right

If you’re successful enough to build up a decent financial cushion, with good future prospects or multiple sources of income (grants, speakers’ fees, teaching, etc.), go for it! And congratulations!


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