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Harmful Writing Advice (That You've Probably Heard Before)

By Megan Malone

There’s no one-size-fits-all method of writing, and some advice (even if it works for some people), can harm your writing. So, try to examine the advice you follow before sticking to it! Look carefully if words like never, always, or all appear. These words suggest that there’s only one right way to do something. Below are 6 unhelpful recommendations- chances are, you’ve heard them before. Don’t let them stand in your way!


1. “Always have an outline before writing.”

While some writers are comfortable with piles of scene cards, others feel like outlines are downright suppressive. These types of writers- generally called Pantsers, after the way they fly by the seat of their pants- thrive when they’re able to simply let loose onto the page. On the other side of the coin are Plotters, people who enjoy solidifying the skeleton of their story before writing. To them, going the Pantser route could seem overwhelming and confusing. You could also be in-between. Experimentation is important, so you can find what process works best for you!


2. “Said is dead.”

“This advice can be unhelpful”, she bellowed, “and tire your readers!”

“But why?” he gasped.

“Because too many wild dialogue tags distract from the story,” she answered.

“I’m still confused,” he objected.

“It’s like too many exclamation marks: when used sparingly, they can highlight a sentence or point. But in excess, they’re tiring. This is painful to read, isn’t it?” she finished.

Please revive “said!” “Said” is to a novel as background music is to a movie. Not every piece of music in a movie can be a giant song taking up the spotlight. It’s the subtle music, working in the shadows, that is the staple of a movie. You barely notice it’s there, but it adds to each scene and allows you to enjoy the bigger moments!


3. “Start Small.”

In my experience, this rule held me back. I enjoy working on larger projects, and this piece of advice felt like it was saying: until you master short stories and essays, you’re not good enough to start on that dream novel. It felt like I was endlessly pushing through smaller projects, unable to write what I was truly passionate about. Last year, I took the leap. Although my novel may not shine with the polish that comes with experience, I feel like it was the right decision. So, if you’re in the same boat as I was, just know that you can do anything… including going big.


4. “Remove ALL adverbs!”

Don’t get out your adverb obliterator before distinguishing between good adverbs and bad adverbs! A bad adverb simply repeats what has already been said, such as “cried sadly.” A bad verb is an opportunity, because you can combine your verb and adverb to make a stronger verb. So, if I saw “cried sadly” in my drafts, I’d examine it. I see that I could replace it with sobbed, which combines “cried” and “sadly” into a stronger word. On the other hand, a good adverb provides something new. It can’t be easily combined with the verb, such as “she cried gleefully”. If you’re not sure which category your adverb falls into, you can remove it and re-read the sentence. If the adverb is integral to the sentence, keep it!


5. “Think big. You need to make your story as different as possible.”

If you have something no one’s seen before… great! Write it! But I feel like this piece of advice puts a lot of pressure on authors. It can feel like everything’s been done before. And, everything has, in bits and pieces- nothing is truly unique. And that’s ok! It’s the way you put everything together, and the way you write in your own voice (nobody’s done YOU before!), that makes it different!


6. “You’re only successful if you’re a traditionally published author.”

If this were true, the authors of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Martian, Legally Blonde (it was a book before it was a movie!), and Eragon would be failures. This should be evidence enough to disprove this idea!


Select your advice carefully, because your writing is unique! Specific pieces of advice will give your writing a boost, but other tips can hinder you. Care for your writing and push through what could be holding you back!

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