The 5 Worst Writing Tips I’ve Ever Received

As someone who tries to write very consciously and deliberately, I like to pay attention to writing tips from agents, publishers, and other authors. I also got a fair few back in English classes when I was a young’un in high school. I’ve seen some pretty awful writing tips in my day, and I wanted to point out how absurd some of those are. Here’s a quick summary of the five worst pieces of advice I’ve ever received, and why I think they’re so dumb.

5. Outline your stories before you write.

Okay, I get that it works for some people, maybe, but it sure doesn’t work for me. When I try to outline I end up boxing myself into corners without giving my characters room to live, breathe, and make their own choices. My characters come to life on the page, sometimes almost without my consent, and do things that take me completely by surprise. They do things that I would never do. If I outlined my stories, I would never be able to give my characters the freedom they deserve.

4. Set a writing schedule and stick to it.

When I try to force myself to write, nothing comes out. I have to be enthusiastic about it, and if I’m tired or not in the mood, my writing sucks. Granted, I’m about the opposite of a ‘creature of habit’, so I don’t even really know what a schedule is. I just work when I feel like it, when I can, in the car, on a train, in coffee shops, at home, upside down, on my iPhone, whatever it takes. Whenever, wherever, whatever.

3. “Show, don’t tell”.

Seriously, what does this even mean? We’re not painters, we’re writers. Our medium of artistic expression is language. There is no sense in which we are not ‘telling’ a story. Okay, I mean, on the one hand, I get it. Don’t say, “Dan was sad when she told him she was breaking up with him,” say “Dan felt as though shards of glass were ripping him to shreds with every word that spilled out of her mouth.” But on the other hand, getting lost in visual or sensual description will rip your story to shreds. It will turn into incomprehensible gibberish that sounds like you wrote it while stoned, or maybe like you hired Jack Kerouac to be your writing consultant. (Nothing against Kerouac. He took ‘getting lost in description’ to a high art. But I don’t want to write like him. I want my stories to be comprehensible.)

2. If you’re not depressed, alcoholic, or somewhat clinically insane, you can’t create a good story.

The absurdity of this statement is astounding.*

1. Write about what you know.

This is widely cited as the worst advice ever given to aspiring writers, and I wholeheartedly agree. How would science fiction or fantasy stories ever get written if authors restricted themselves to writing only about what they know? How would new worlds be invented? How would writers get inside the heads of characters who have been in situations they themselves can only imagine? Not only is it nonsensical, it degrades the inquisitiveness and curiosity of the human mind. Writing about other than what you know forces you to learn new things, to empathize with people who do great and horrible things, to draw up fantastical situations that inspire dreams. How dull would it be to constantly read books about going to work, raising kids, and passing terribly ordinary lives? Yes, those stories can be amazing, but I don’t want to read them over and over. Write about what you want to know, not what you already know. Write about who and where you want to be. Never stop dreaming; never stop creating.

What’s the worst writing advice you’ve ever received? How did you get around it, and what did you do instead?

*I just want everyone to know how much effort it took not to use the word ‘literally’ in this sentence.

Update: THANKS TO NO ONE for pointing out that I misspelled the word “received” in the title earlier. I just now caught it and fixed it. Gonna hide under the covers out of shame.