Bad Writing Advice

One of the more frustrating aspects of being a writer is receiving outdated or irrelevant feedback. Here at the end of the year, it’s important to reflect on the good things – but also the things that didn’t work so well. I’d like to share some advice I saw on various Discord servers that didn’t match my own understanding of the realities of what it means to be a writer.  

Craft

Advice: Delete adverbs to create a streamlined flow.

Reality: This is an extremely useful piece of advice given to screenwriters, but the conventions that apply to spoken dialog don’t necessarily translate to prose fiction. Prose writers can’t rely on cinematography to direct the reader’s attention, so we have to use words to create a sense of focus through pace, which will sometimes be slower and heavier.

Advice: Open your story with an action-packed intro hook.

Reality: Many readers find this sort of decontextualized opening explosion confusing and exhausting, and it’s not appropriate for every genre. This style of storytelling became common during the YA fiction boom of the 2000s and is still frequently used in screenwriting, but it’s not as ubiquitous as it once was.

Practice

Advice: Write 2,000 words every day, no exceptions.

Reality: Sometimes this is easy, and sometimes you’ll find yourself writing many more than two thousand words in a day. Still, it’s important to write at your own pace and allow yourself to rest. When it comes to professional writing, it’s also important to respect wordcount limits instead of charging ahead with the “more words are better” mentality that many writers pick up in high school or college.

Advice: Only write what you’re passionate about.

Reality: Passion will only carry you so far. Famously prolific writers from William Faulkner to Chuck Tingle have argued that discipline, persistence, and a good-natured willingness to occasionally make concessions to market trends are much more important in the long run.  

Career

Advice: Apply to an MFA program.

Reality: MFA programs are expensive, and you also have to take the cost of living and the opportunity cost into account. Meanwhile, week-long writing workshops and retreats often have financial aid available and may be more accessible to people who aren’t interested in pursuing an academic career.

Advice: Be active on social media.

Reality: Many agents and editors have made it clear that they don’t take a writer’s social media presence into account, and the days of being signed because of a viral tweet ended several years ago. While it can be useful to pay attention to calls for submissions on social media, especially Twitter, it’s not necessary to have a lot of followers (or even a public account) in order to find a venue for your work.

It’s important to note that a lot of this advice isn’t “bad” so much as it is “not generally applicable.” For example, the “write 2k words a day, no exceptions” maxim makes perfect sense for a professionally established novelist under contract to produce three manuscripts every two years. If you’re given the opportunity to be that sort of novelist, “2k words per day” is what you need to do. Nothing controversial about that. Still, the extent to which this advice has transformed from a specific professional practice to A Gospel Truth About Writing can be frustrating.

If you’ve been subjected to any similarly “bad” writing advice, please feel free to leave a comment. The end of the year is a good time to vent and get it all out so that you can start the new year fresh and energized.

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A version of this post originally appeared on Get Your Words Out, a community of writers aiming to maintain healthy creative habits and writing productivity. Membership is open for 2023 through January 16, 2023. The community’s content is limited to members who maintain their writing pledges, but the GYWO Twitter account is accessible to everyone and posts encouragement, prompts, and writing resources at a steady but manageable pace.

Eight Quick Editing Hacks

It’s always a good idea to take time with editing. Giving your manuscript time to rest and breathe before returning to it with a critical eye can work wonders. Deadlines will not wait, however, and sufficient time may not always be available. That’s when editing hacks come in handy!

This post lists eight of my favorite editing hacks, four for deleting extraneous words and four for catching typos. Each of these editing hacks is painless and intended to help you apply a final layer of polish to your writing before you send it out into the world.

Four Quick Style Hacks with Ctrl+F

Find + delete quantitative adverbs.

This especially applies to Americans, who tend to use quantitative adverbs to add color and rhythm to their speech. Unfortunately, these adverbs don’t often translate well into writing, and they can usually be deleted without affecting the meaning of the sentence. “A lot” and “a bit” are common, as are “only” and “very.”

Crtl+f + ly.

This will help you catch quantitative adverbs like “really” and “completely” and “extremely.” I’m a big fan of adverbs, which add texture and flavor to writing, but many writers tend to have a few specific adverbs they overuse in their initial drafts. Searching for all instances of “ly” in your manuscript is a great way to rein them in.

Find + delete words for facial expressions.

“Smile,” “smirk,” “chuckle,” and “sigh” are some of the common ones. There’s nothing wrong with these words, of course, but many younger writers tend to overuse them. Instead of describing what’s happening on someone’s face, it’s often more effective to convey emotion through action or dialog. You can usually delete words that describe facial expressions or tone of voice without hindering the reader’s understanding of the situation.

Find + delete academic transition words.

I’m referring to words like “therefore,” “moreover,” “conversely,” and so on. Although these words can help you structure your ideas as you write, few people use them outside the context of academic papers. This applies to fiction, obviously, but it’s also relevant to nonfiction that you’re pitching or submitting to an editor at a website, newspaper, or magazine. Many people cultivate a habit of using formal transition words while learning to write in high school and college, and unlearning this habit is a process. In the meantime, ctrl+f can help you weed out any holdovers from academic writing.

Four Editing Hacks for Catching Typos

Apply a different font.

This is common advice, as changing the font of your text can trick your eyes into seeing typos that you would have glossed over otherwise. I have to admit that this has never been effective for me. This is what works instead…

Copy and paste your work into a different word processing program.

If changing the font is too superficial, it may be more effective to change the entire text field. I write in MS Word and Scrivener, but I like to copy and paste my manuscripts into Google Docs for two reasons. First, it’s free; and second, it doesn’t mess with the text formatting. As an added bonus, Google’s grammar check has become remarkably sophisticated during the past two years. Sometimes it’s dead wrong, but sometimes it will surprise you with an excellent suggestion. Free grammar check websites such as Slick Write can also be useful. You may not need help with grammar, but a “copy and paste your writing into the text field” site like Slick Write can point out passive voice, frequently occurring words, and other stylistic issues that it can be easy to miss if you’re on a deadline.

Send the text of your writing to yourself in the body of an email or post it onto a private blog.

Some people swear by the email method, which allows you to read your writing with fresh eyes on a different screen. Unfortunately, there are times when my own email inbox gives me anxiety, and I’m sure this experience is relatable to anyone dealing with deadlines or a high volume of correspondence. Instead of using email, you can set up a private blog (on Dreamwidth, for example) and post your writing as an entry. If it helps to maintain separate spaces for different writing projects, you can set up as many journals as you want and delete them when you’re ready to move on. A few of my nonfiction writer friends tell me that they do this with wiki software, but your mileage may vary.

Use a free text reader tool like NaturalReader or Voice Dream.

Many writers read their text aloud to check for typos, but this is time-consuming and not feasible for people who write in shared spaces. Although text readers are still far from perfect, they’ve gotten much better over the past few years. Commercial text readers offer a range of natural voices, but my own experience is that listening to a slightly mechanical voice read your writing makes typos stand out more than they would in a human voice. NaturalReader is easy to use and works well in a desktop browser window, while the Voice Dream app is good if you prefer to listen from your phone.

All of these hacks are designed for spot checks once you already have an edited manuscript. I’m curious if anyone has any quick and easy strategies that they use to edit manuscripts (fiction or nonfiction) at an earlier stage. Also, if you’ve created a short list of “find and delete” filler words that you’d be willing to share, I’d love to see it!

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This post originally appeared on Get Your Words Out, a community of writers aiming to maintain healthy creative habits and writing productivity. Membership to the community opens at the beginning of the calendar year. Its content is limited to members who maintain their writing pledges, but the GYWO Twitter account is accessible to everyone and posts encouragement, prompts, and writing resources at a steady but manageable pace.