A hundred years ago, there were hardly any resources to teach you how to write a novel.
You had to work everything out from first principles and forge your own path.
These days, things look very different. There are hundreds, even thousands, of books, courses and other resources, all claiming to hold the secrets to writing a bestseller.
The problem with having all this advice is, some of it turns out to be contradictory, biased and sometimes just bad.
What works for one writer might be torture for another. And what one reader finds excruciating, another may find delightful.
Below are some of the most common pieces of misguided advice that is either overstated, misinterpreted, or just plain wrong.
12 Common Pieces of Terrible Advice
1. Start ‘In Medias Res’
This advice isn’t necessarily wrong, it’s just been distorted and misinterpreted.
The Latin phrase ‘In Medias Res’ translates as ‘in the midst of things’, and (although it was first coined in ancient Greece) became popular as a reaction to early novelists spending a lot of time laying out backstory and spending many chapters setting things up before the main action of the story began.
In response to this, the advice to start ‘in medias res’ makes perfect sense.
Rather than making the reader sit through pages of backstory, get straight to the point of whose story it is and why we should care — preferably with a dash of conflict thrown in.
The problem is, this phrase has often been taken to mean ‘in the middle of the action‘and as we explain in this article, story, conflict, and action are not the same thing.
So, well-meaning writers have started their novels with car chases, burning buildings, fistfights and more, and then been confused as to why readers are still not engaged.
Whereas, a story that starts with a woman on a train, staring out the window, can still draw us in and become a bestseller.
This is because we don’t care about action if we don’t care about the characters. So rather than thinking of it as ‘In the middle of the action’ it would be better to think of it as ‘in the middle of the protagonists’ internal conflict’. Not as catchy, I admit, but potentially more useful.
So remember, when we say in the midst of ‘things’, we mean the story and the lives of the characters, not a high-octane scene that immediately gives you whiplash.
Here’s a great article that explains things in more detail: https://authorkristenlamb.com/2013/03/start-in-the-action-the-trouble-with-in-medias-res/
2. Descriptive Dialogue Tags Are For Amateurs
It is true that new writers have a tendency to overuse descriptive dialogue tags, such as:
- she exclaimed
- he blurted out
- she hinted
Experienced writers will try to point out that ‘said’ is a magic word, in that it becomes almost invisible to the reader.
Some go even further and advise you to eliminate dialogue tags altogether, saying that using them makes the writing sloppy.
As Brandon Sanderson points out in his lecture series on novel writing, J.K. Rowling loves descriptive dialogue tags. Her works are full of them. And she is one of the most successful authors alive, with her books touching the hearts of millions.
For the record, we back the advice that you should avoid too many descriptive dialogue tags…but if anyone tells you they should be completely eliminated or you’ll never get anywhere, you should expelliarmus their advice.
3. Don’t Use Adverbs
The quote from Stephen King ‘The Road to Hell is Paved with Adverbs’ is often trotted out by people who believe an adverb is the mark of the devil, and every last one should be eliminated from your writing. And it’s an elegant quote, to be sure.
But as with all advice, it’s a little more nuanced than that.
Adverbs have their place, and can be a useful tool in the toolbox of the writer.
The problem is, many inexperienced writers use them too often, and frequently using a more specific verb instead of an adverb and verb will make for more powerful writing.
However, refusing to use them completely isn’t the answer. If you’re sure; the adverb is the right choice, then it may well be.
Just don’t lean on them when a stronger verb would be better.
And as anyone who’s read On Writing — where the King quote actually comes from — will know, even King himself doesn’t actually advocate never using adverbs. When he feels it’s appropriate to use one — he will.
4. Let the Editor Sort Out the Grammar
We’re not talking about first drafts nobody will ever see, here. While in your early drafts, it’s much more important to let everything flow and get the story written. That’s not the time to get hung up on typos and comma placement.
But if you’re thinking of sending your book out into the world with its question marks in a jumble and its Is and Es all backwards, then think again before you decide fixing that stuff is someone else’s job.
Sure, if you’re a genuine prose virtuoso, and your choice of words is so breathtaking they have readers swooning within a few sentences, perhaps you can get away with slightly dodgy spelling.
But in 99.9% of cases, poor grammar, punctuation, and spelling identifies you as someone who has not taken the time to learn the basics of the craft. And how can you become a master if you haven’t got the foundations?
No agent or reader is going to penalise you for having the odd typo, but if your work is riddled with sloppy errors, it’s going to be a turn off to anyone who loves words.
The fact is, grammar, punctuation and spelling are the easiest things to learn when it comes to writing a novel. They are reasonably consistent and objective, unlike voice, character, plot, tension and all the rest, which are ephemeral and subjective in the extreme.
So, don’t wait for an editor to fix your grammar, or you could be waiting a very long time.
If you’re really struggling, use a program like ProWriting Aid, which can help find the problems and assist you in correcting them. They even have a free online grammar checker you can use.
5. Hook Your Reader Right Away
Similar to’In Medias Res’, the problem with this advice is misinterpretation.
The word ‘hook’ often makes the writer think they have to create an eye-catching bait with a sharp tip, with which to ensnare the hapless fishy reader.
We prefer the advice of one author to think of it more like seducing your reader.
You don’t necessarily have to grab your reader by the eyeballs and drag them stumbling into your story. While this is certainly valid and can be effective, it’s not the only option. And not all readers like it.
It is also possible to beckon your reader with a fluttered eyelash, the wink of an eye and a glance over the shoulder. You can create an enticing atmosphere, throw in a few delicious hints and delight them with your gentle lullaby of words.
6. Never Use Prologues
There are some people out there who despise prologues. If a book starts with a prologue, they will immediately slam it shut and throw it out the window.
To us, this seems like the most bizarre behaviour. Surely, it should be the quality of the writing that decides the merit of the book, not whether or not it has a prologue…
So why the hate for prologues?
The reason prologues have a bad name is they’re often used as an excuse to info dump, or create lazy hooks before the story actually gets going.
A skilled writer will create genuine hooks as part of the main character’s introductory pages and will weave any information of backstory seamlessly into the main content.
But just because prologues are sometimes misused in this way doesn’t mean they have to be.
It is possible to write a gripping prologue that is beautiful, gripping, and wholly necessary to the story.
If you’re really worried, then do as one author suggested, and simply hide it — just call it chapter one, instead. No one will ever know…
This is arguably what J.K. Rowling did with the ‘first chapter’ of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which is told from a different viewpoint and time period than the rest of the book—hallmarks of a prologue.
8. Write What Sells
Being a writer is hard. If you manage to make a living doing it, you are one of the lucky ones.
So the best reason to be a writer is not for the money, but for the love of it.
Furthermore, if you write in a genre or about a topic that doesn’t fully excite you, then your writing is not going to sparkle—which means it probably won’t sell anyway.
Worse than that, you won’t have enjoyed writing it as much as you would have writing about whatever really floats your boat.
So please, don’t write what you think will sell.
Write what you love.
9. It’s Got to be Perfect
The perfect is the enemy of the good.
You may have heard advice that you should make sure your novel is absolutely perfect before it gets into the hands of readers.
This advice is excellent when aimed at writers who think a sloppy first draft is good enough because they can’t be bothered to edit.
Yes, you should try to make your novel the best you can. And yes, you should sweat over every line, word, and comma.
But ‘perfect’ is a dangerous word.
‘Perfect’ can stop you from moving forward.
The fact is, no book is ever perfect. But that doesn’t mean it’s not great, and wonderful, and will bring great joy to readers.
So do as much as you can, but one day, accept that you’ve done all you can do as the writer you are today and get it out there.
10. You Will Get There if You Persevere
One thing is true: if you don’t persevere, you definitely won’t get there.
The problem is, perseverance isn’t enough. You have to also be improving.
There are some writers who just slog away with the mantra to persevere going round their minds, churning out novel after novel.
But they never get anywhere, because they never actually improve.
You definitely need to keep writing, but you also need to keep learning, evolving, and raising your game.
You can do this through reading and analysing other books in your genre, getting feedback from other writers, going on courses, reading books on the craft, and taking the advice of successful authors.
If you’re just plodding on, writing word after word with blinkers on, you could be going round in circles.
11. Only Write What You Know
Like many others, this piece of advice has noble roots.
In essence, it’s a response to writers misrepresenting cultures and people about whom they have little understanding, while at the same time reinforcing unhelpful, harmful stereotypes.
But it’s been blown way out of proportion, causing angry pushback from writers who feel like they’re having the hands of their creativity tied behind their back.
They rightly point out that our shelves would be far poorer if we couldn’t write from the points of view of characters who were different from ourselves. That imagination, after all, is the cornerstone of fiction.
But this advice was never intended to mean that if you’re a librarian in Paris, all your characters must be, too. Clearly, that’s ludicrous.
What writers should take from this advice is to be knowledgeable and sensitive when creating characters, ESPECIALLY when those characters represent types of people who exist in the world today.
This can be done by talking to those people (where possible), reading about their cultural and political histories, and using sensitivity readers.
Not only will this make your writing better from an ethical point of view, it will make it better from an authenticity point of view.
12. Always X, Never Y
As you may have gathered from several of the posts above, any absolutes when it comes to writing advice are usually problematic.
What works for one author is creativity death for another.
And what grips one reader bores another into a coma.
So don’t follow any piece of advice slavishly (yes, even ours).
Consider it. Try it out. Then decide for yourself.
Want to Become a Better Writer?
We’ve addressed some of the most common bad advice bandied around, but trust us, there’s plenty more out there waiting to distract, disorient or discourage you.
Of course, that doesn’t mean all advice is bad, or that you should avoid listening to what other writers have to say.
Quite the contrary. Taking advice and learning from others is key to improving as a writer.
The important thing is to avoid being dogmatic. Use your own judgment and experience when it comes to deciding what advice you follow and what you ignore.
Read widely and broadly. Write as much as you can. Listen to what others have to say — then trust your instincts.
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