Four Dangerous Pieces of Advice for Writers (And What to Do Instead)

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Any writing-related advice that says you should always or never do something can generally be taken with a very large pinch of salt!

I’m sure you’ve heard lots of poor writing advice over the months, years or even decades that you’ve been writing. Here are some that I come across quite frequently – from often well-intentioned people.

Several of these might work for some people in some circumstances. Some are best ignored altogether!

Today, I want to look at some advice that almost all writers will hear at some point, whether it’s from an interested friend, a fellow writing group member, or a self-styled guru…

Bad Advice #1: “Write, Write, Write! It’s All That Matters”

I would love to tell you that all you need to do to succeed as a writer is to sit down and write for a certain amount of time every day.

Of course, writing regularly (not necessarily daily – we’ll come to that in a moment) is important. But … it’s not enough.

As well as writing, you’ll need to:

  • Read! (Within your target genre / area of writing and more widely.)
  • Get feedback. It’s scary, yes, but it’s also the fastest way to improve your writing.
  • Consciously think about (and ideally practice) the craft of writing. That might be through reading writing books/blogs or through taking a course.
  • Do non-writing things to help you reach your goals – e.g. you might need to learn how to set up a website, or how to speak in public.

Bad Advice #2: “Always Write at the Same Time Every Day”

There’s a kernel of wisdom here: it does help to turn writing into a habit if you have a particular time slot for writing – and I’ve seen that work well in my own life.

The problem is, it might not be at all realistic for you to write at the same time every day. Maybe you work 12-hour shifts three days a week. Maybe you have childcare only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Maybe you want to write in the evenings during the week but in the mornings at the weekend.

I’ve always been a “morning person”, and before the kids, I used to do most of my writing before lunchtime. Since having kids, though, I’ve written at all sorts of different times of day, depending on what else I had going on (and when I felt inspired)!

You might also feel that writing daily isn’t the best option for you. For instance, perhaps you work 10 hour days during the week but have a lot of free time at the weekend, so it makes sense to only write on Saturdays and Sundays.

Whatever your normal writing time, try mixing it up a bit this week. You might find that you enjoy a different time slot more than you thought you would.

Bad Advice #3: “You Need to Write for the Market”

Again, this advice isn’t – on the surface – at all ridiculous. It probably seems almost obvious: of course you need to look at what’s selling (and what isn’t) before you commit to a project.

Here are just a few of the problems with that:

  • The market changes! Think of vampire novels, for instance – they were very much a fantasy niche thing when I was a teenager, but they got brought into the mainstream when Twilight was big a few years ago. Or think of all the copycat erotica spawned by the success of Fifty Shades of Grey. Unless you write very fast, current trends will be over before you’re anywhere near publishing your novel.
  • You might not want to write what’s currently selling. Do you really want to commit months of your life to slogging through a novel that you’re not even interested in?
  • And … you might not be any good at writing what’s currently selling. If your heart isn’t in it, that’ll show (especially if you’re even a little bit contemptuous about the genre and its readers).
  • Unusual, quirky books can succeed very well. In the last year, I read Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine and Sophia Khan is Not Obliged, both of which were really interesting, well-voiced books that don’t fit easily into a pigeonhole.

If you want to achieve commercial success then yes, it will help to have a good idea of who is going to buy your book. But you don’t need to write a psychological thriller because they’re popular right now, or opt for romance because you know it’s a huge genre. Instead, find a genre that you love, write the best book you can, and enjoy it!

Bad Advice #4: “Don’t Bother With Punctuation When You’re Drafting”

One of my writing tutors (who shall remain nameless) gave us this slightly weird advice. He explained that when he drafts, he sometimes gets so caught up in the flow that he doesn’t bother with full stops or commas or any sort of punctuation.

I’m a fast drafter, but I still like to punctuate! I can’t imagine trying to make sense of a manuscript that was typed as quickly as possible, where sentences ran into one another and commas were thin on the ground.

Another variant on this advice that I heard from one of my blog editors was to “never use backspace when drafting”. While I’m all for drafting without editing, I’ve backspaced a dozen times in the last three paragraphs alone (I type fast and make frequent errors … and sometimes I change my mind half way through a sentence).

Forward progress through a draft is great, and a lot can be fixed in draft two … but you don’t need to write at an insane pace.

Figure out what’s comfortable for you – and of course if you do want to leave out the punctuation, or leave in all your typos, who am I to stop you? 🙂

 

What misguided – or downright bizarre – advice have you come across as a writer? Share it with us in the comments below!

Next week, I’ll be sharing four pieces of advice about crafting good fiction. Don’t forget, you can subscribe to the blog by email to get posts straight to your inbox:

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9 thoughts on “Four Dangerous Pieces of Advice for Writers (And What to Do Instead)

  1. Very interesting article. You have slain several of my sacred cows. When I’m writing a novel I try to write every day and I try to write at the same time every day. A creature of habit. Maybe I don’t need to be quite so rigid about it?

    • If it works for you, Cary, you might as well stick with it! But if you find it means you resist writing at other times (even if writing at a different time might be a better option during a particular day/week), then perhaps shake things up a bit? 🙂

  2. Lol. I’ve heard the “backspace” advice *so* many times. My fiction writing professor last year was very fond of it. (I did not particularly care for him.) I’m not an advocate for that one—I type fast too. And the grammar issue has never been a problem for me—my sentences form in my head with proper grammar, so they pour out onto the page that way.
    Emma’s last blog post ..Science Questions, Anybody? (#1)

    • I think writing professors do get some weird ideas sometimes! I’m all for getting the first draft down quickly, but I can’t see how it benefits anyone to end up with an indecipherable mess… 😀

  3. “If you can, for even a moment, imagine not writing, if anywhere within the depth of your imagination you can see yourself ever doing anything else with your free time until you die, don’t write. You aren’t a writer.”

    Some variant on this unrealistic, (and more than a bit elitist) advice crops up all the time, and I can’t stand the notion of it. Who has time for that? Even if something is your passion, just how healthy is it to consider it the absolute only thing on which you will ever spend your time? Even Hemingway didn’t do that. If he had, he would have had almost nothing to write about, I dare say.

    By all means be committed, but the idea that being committed means there is room for nothing else in life is as damaging as it is absurd.

    • I agree that’s a stupid bit of advice.

      Some writers find it hard to imagine being satisfied with a life that didn’t involve *any* writing. Other writers would be perfectly happy expressing their creativity in a different way (e.g. art, music).

      It’s definitely ridiculous, and dangerous, to suggest that writing should occupy all of someone’s time. As you say, it also smacks of a certain elitism: plenty of people *need* to work a day job, or have family to care for, or have all sorts of other pressures on their time.

      I’d personally be pretty suspicious of someone who claimed to write in *every* free moment … I’d be concerned about their health, and I’d wonder if they really had anything to write about too!

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