Never Say Never and Other Bad Advice

Never Say Never and Other Bad Advice

I spend a lot of time reading writing advice. It’s useful to know how other writers solve certain problems; they often think of solutions I don’t. I have an entire tumblr tag of writing advice I find useful and I share its contents whenever I find a writer struggling with similar problems.

But I’ve stumbled on a lot of bad writing advice over the years.

This is not a post to gush about how writing is art and there are no rules anyone should ever wax eloquent about. I believe a writer can do anything as long as they find a way to make it work. But outside a few hard and fast guidelines (you should always edit your work – yes. You should always use proper grammar – of course), there really isn’t a set of universal writing rules, and you only have to look as far as your bookshelf to prove it.

Probably the worst form of writing advice comes in absolutes. (You must always… is a good indicator, as is you should never…) While a veteran writer knows how to filter advice, guidance like this can devastate beginners. And since we live in a world of sensational headlines, it’s hard to avoid ten things you must include in your writing to be successful… style blogs. Which is why experienced writers need to be as aware of how to tackle the topic as novice writers seeking their first set of advice.

Sometimes It’s Simply Bad Advice

I think it’s Neil Gaiman who often says when someone tells you there’s a problem with your work, they’re often right, but when they offer a specific solution, they’re often wrong. (Which is a particularly stellar bit of advice.) The fact is only a writer has enough information about a story to make the final decision about what works best for it. And part of getting to that point is learning to trust you have that ability.

Writing advice spoken in absolutes runs counter to this discretion. It suggests that there is only one universal solution to a specific problem and all others should be disregarded. This is particularly egregious when you consider that one of the most important steps in the writing process is to develop your own voice. How can you do that if you’re trying to mimic another writer’s style specifically?

In fact some of the worst writing advice is so common, everyone can quote it!

Never use adverbs! What? You want me to re-write a sentence with five extra words just to avoid using one crystal clear descriptor?

Always use said because it’s invisible to the reader. It absolutely is not. Whenever a writer uses specifically said and nothing else (sorry Neil Gaiman, but I’m looking at you), it annoys the crap out of me. It’s boring and it’s repetitive. And I’ve met plenty of other readers who feel the same.

Now it’s true you can’t please everyone all the time, so you probably shouldn’t try. But there probably isn’t a one-answer-fits-all solution to most writing problems.

Beware of Personal Biases

Writing is so subjective. People talk about this a lot, usually in the context of rejections, but it applies to pretty much every part of the process. Everyone has pet tropes they love – and pet tropes they despise. For example, I’m not a fan of women as jealous rivals – a trope that has seen a lot of discussion in recent days. In addition to several other tropes, it’s one I’d like to see less of. But that doesn’t mean I should tell everyone to unequivocally avoid it, especially when I don’t know how they plan to apply it.

Everyone likes to read certain types of stories. Chances are you write the same kind of stories you enjoy reading. But since a wide array of people will read your work, not all of them will feel the same way about the bricks you used to build it. One of my beta readers recently admitted to disliking the narrative method I chose for one of my novels. They thought I should change a large body of the work to fix that issue. I checked with the rest of my beta readers, most of whom read a lot more fantasy fiction, and none of them agreed with that assessment.

This feedback came from someone I admire and respect. And it wasn’t bad feedback; it helped me re-evaluate several aspects of my story. But if I had acted on that advice without considering alternatives, I might have made a big mistake.

It’s Better to Improve an Idea than Abandon It

I once read a lengthy tirade about how you should never use amnesia in your stories. The argument was a good one; that amnesia is often used to rob a character of agency. And I agree that is a pitfall of the trope. But I strongly disagree with the statement that it should never be used. There are plenty of interesting and creative ways to use amnesia without robbing a character of agency.

One of my novels features a main character who has lost a large chunk of her memories. Much of the story revolves around her quest to regain them. The fact that she doesn’t have the history of several issues often makes it difficult for her to choose the appropriate path forward. But she is no damsel who sits on the sidelines waiting for others to make choices for her. She goes out and acts, using the information she has available to her to evaluate each situation she encounters. Does she make decisions based on lack of information that come back to bite her later? Sure – that’s part of what makes the story interesting. But she deals with those obstacles too.

In the end, it all comes down to how you use something potentially problematic in your work. The best stories are those that turn troublesome tropes on their heads. And if a writer’s seeking information about something potentially troublesome, it’s probably because they want to find a way to avoid the pitfalls. So the absolute worst advice you can give them is to avoid the idea all together – that isn’t going to help them improve.

So How Can We Give Better Advice?

We can start by being aware of our personal biases. If you’re not a fan of a particular trope or method – by all means, announce it. It’s helpful for people to know the position of their source so they know how to weigh their advice.

We can also try to offer a well-rounded answer. List the pros and cons of a particular method. Discuss pitfalls and poor portrayals of troublesome tropes so new writers know what to avoid. List viable alternatives even if they aren’t your top choice.

If you really can’t think of anything helpful about a particular topic, perhaps avoid entering the conversation.

Ultimately, it’s important to allow every writer to choose the solution that works best for them. After all, one of art’s greatest strengths is the ability to turn weakness on its head.

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