Creating in Flow

The world of creativity—with a twist of rationality

11 Types of Bad Writing Advice

Rotten writing advice gets in the way of creativity and success.

All advice is suspect. I'm not suggesting you break all the so-called rules of creativity you've collected. Only that every tip can be counteracted with its opposite. And some advice is just plain bad for you. If interviewing 76 successful novelists and poets taught me one thing, it's this: advice that one person swears by, another will find ludicrous. Here, then, are 11 types of advice to avoid:

1. Advice that limits your potential. An online student of mine once asked if what a famous novelist had written was correct, that if you'd left a novel unfinished for a few years, it was a lost cause. I reassured her that if her passion for the project was still there, or could be resurrected, she could pick it up again. One writer went back to a novel he'd put aside more than a decade before and was able to salvage parts of it. He's now happily engaged with a new version of the project.

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2. Advice that cramps your imagination. Some people would have you write only from your own point of view or about a group to which you belong. That's too rigid. Credible stories and poems have been written from the point of view of the opposite gender or from some other time or culture that you couldn't possibly know personally. Writing is about pretending.

3. Advice that insists there's one way to schedule your creativity. Must you write every single day? If you don't devote yourself to writing full-time, does that mean you're not taking yourself seriously? Avoid any advice that starts "You MUST," or that feels like a punishment. Productive artists work out all sorts of schedules that fit in with the rest of their lives.

4. Advice that makes you feel bad about yourself. A young poet told me she'd felt devastated by the admonition a teacher once gave her to put her poems in a drawer for ten years before actually sending them out. She took the advice literally and was thoroughly stymied. In fact, that kind of advice plays into a paralyzing perfectionism. Usually a few days or weeks is enough to see your words through fresh eyes.

5. Advice that tells you more about the advisor than about your own work. A talented poet friend of mine showed some of her work, much of which tends to be about the darker side of dysfunctional family life, to a co-worker. The listener's response was this: "Don't you ever write anything about nature?" The water cooler critic in this case apparently thinks poems are only about pretty things.

6. Advice that suggests what's been working for you is wrong. One novelist became insecure and apologetic when someone said it was best to "Get the story out first, then polish." His own method was to perfect each section before moving on. That worked for him because he wasn't the type to obsess over every minor detail to the extent that he never got beyond chapter one.

7. Advice about the only way to plan a book. You may hear "Outline first," or its opposite, "Just jump in anywhere." What's your natural inclination? Does an outline of any kind feel like homework? Or does writing without a plan feel as though you're falling into the middle of an ocean (and you can't swim)? An outline that suits your personality can feel freeing, but a rigid one can be a straightjacket. Try several methods until you find out that feels natural to you for a particular project.

8. Advice that's more market-oriented than you are. More than one writer has reported being told, "Anticipate what the audience wants and then give it to them." Works for some (see my last post), but for others, it doesn't pay to create at all if they're not pursuing their passions. There's a time to focus on whether your work is the best it can be for reaching the audience you have in mind. But to prematurely zero in on what you think "they" want can be inhibiting.

9. Advice that's impossible to follow. My favorite example of this is "Don't think." I, for one, can't write from my toes, elbows, or even my heart. The trick, of course, is to take this less literally, and to learn to think in more inclusive ways than the usual grocery-list-compiling way.

10. Crazy-making advice. Examples: "Read everything," or its reverse, "Don't read at all when you're writing." Obviously one can't read everything, even in a particular genre. Focusing on junk leaves little time for the good stuff. Instead, perhaps, immerse yourself in examples of the kind of work you'd like to produce yourself. And it may feel crippling not to let yourself read what you love for the year or two or more that a novel takes to write.

11. Advice that insists there's only one correct way to write, propose, query, or submit your work. For instance, you'll hear: Avoid adverbs; never use the passive voice; don't start a sentence with "there are." Every one of these "rules" has been broken repeatedly to terrific effect by top writers. And while there are established formats for query letters, nonfiction book proposals, and novel synopses, for every successful sale based on those formats, there's a major exception.

Copyright (c) by Susan K. Perry

Follow me on Twitter @bunnyape & check out my novel KYLIE'S HEEL, available for pre-order now.

Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and author. Her current focus is on the creative aspects of rationality and atheism.

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