Below are six common pieces of writing advice I’m personally sick of hearing and what I recommend doing instead based on my experience as an author, reader, and editor.
✕: Never use adverbs.
✓: Only use adverbs when they add meaning to your prose.
It often seems that in order to be a writer, you have to worship Stephen King. On Writing is the best writing advice book ever written, obviously, and every claim he’s made about how to write is law—including the idea that adverbs should be eliminated.
But adverbs aren’t bad. It’s just that by definition, adverbs describe other words, and if a writer uses them when they are unnecessary, they become clutter for readers to trip over.
Here’s an example:
Adam jumped excitedly. “I can’t believe it!”
In this sentence, the adverb “excitedly” doesn’t add any new information or meaning to the sentence. Adam’s act of jumping conveys that he is excited, along with his excited speech.
✕: Show, don’t tell.
✓: When you want to draw a reader into a scene, create an image for them. When you want to deliver information quickly, summarize.
Writers love to scream “Show, don’t tell!” from every corner of the internet because it sounds good, and it’s short and sweet. Plus, the idea behind it is sound: it’s best to describe situations instead of simply stating them. For example, instead of, “He was sad,” you might write, “Emotion clogged his throat as he tried to speak evenly.” One of those sentences is much more compelling than the other.
However, “Show, don’t tell” implies that one should always describe events in a story and never summarize them. The truth is that whether or not you describe or summarize depends on the scene and your goals for that scene.
If you want to draw the reader deeper into the moment, describe it. Paint them a picture of the emotion your point-of-view character is feeling. Give them physical sensations to sympathize with. Describe what the setting looks like using one or more of your character’s five senses as they experience life in the scene.
If you want to deliver information quickly, summarize events. Maybe you need to convey that something has happened, but it’s not interesting or significant enough to get its own scene. An example would be if your character moves from one place to another, or if time has passed between scenes, and you need to let the reader know about it.
✕: Only use “said” as a dialogue tag.
✓: Only use dialogue tags when it is otherwise unclear who is speaking. Use dialogue tags other than “said” and “asked” sparingly, such as when you want to create a clearer image for the reader.
This advice is mostly sound. Like unnecessary adverbs, dialogue tags other than “said” and “asked” are can trip up your reader. In contrast, “said” and “asked” are almost invisible; your reader will read smoothly over them, focusing on your character’s important words instead of the way they are saying it or, worse, the fact that they’ve said it spelled out with a distracting word like “stated” or “replied.”
But like all writing advice, following this absolutely isn’t helpful. Sometimes, you will want to use a different tag besides “said” or “asked.” The point is that you should consider these tags carefully. Are they adding to your reader’s experience? You might want to make it clear that your character is speaking softly. In that case, you might use “whispered” as a dialogue tag. But using “whispered” too often will become distracting to your reader, and they may end up putting your book down and not picking it up again, even if they wouldn’t be able to articulate why.
Another important thing to consider is whether or not you actually need a dialogue tag. If your character has just completed an action, you don’t need a dialogue tag if you keep their speech in the same paragraph as the action.
Here’s an example of an unnecessary dialogue tag:
Lacy slapped the table and said, “You’re not listening to me.”
It is simpler and clearer to instead write this as:
Lacy slapped the table. “You’re not listening to me.”
This way, we know it is Lacy who is speaking. Just make sure you keep the action and the dialogue in the same line. A new line implies a new speaker.
✕: Write what you know.
✓: Draw on your personal experiences to add authenticity to your stories.
“Write what you know” is a piece of writing advice that many others have spoken out against. They suggest that “write what you know” implies that you should only write about everyday experiences you have had such as at your job or school and not fantastical ideas like shifters or science-fiction ideas like alien races.
Don’t get caught up in the literal meaning of “Write what you know.” A more accurate interpretation is that you should draw on your personal experiences when writing about any subject, be it fantastical or realistic.
I’ll use one of my own books as an example. In Breaking Hell’s Rules, I wrote about a genderqueer succubus who had recently gained freedom from Hell after meeting their soul quota (required number of souls delivered to Hell). Aside from the part about being genderqueer, none of that is based in reality. Yet I drew heavily on my personal experience as a millennial who had recently graduated college. I had worked for years to gain my freedom from school and was incredibly disillusioned by what I found within that “freedom.” Similarly, my main character, Reth, struggled with their experience of their newfound freedom from hell. I was also coming to terms with being nonbinary at that point in my life, and I drew on that experience to write Reth’s gender identity.
Writing from your own life experiences can be cathartic for you personally but also make the story feel more real to your readers and help them to sympathize with your characters since you will be writing from a place of deeply knowing your characters’ motivations.
✕: Make your main character likable.
✓: Make your main character’s motivations understandable.
How likable your main character needs to be does depend on your genre. For example, in romance, you’ll have a much easier time pleasing readers if your main character is physically attractive, charming, a good partner, etc. (These are the only kinds of main characters you can have in romance, but these are examples of trends.) Nevertheless, it is much more important for your character to have motivations which make sense to your readers and which, ideally, they can identify with.
What you don’t want is for your reader to be involved in your story, but then your character does something, and your reader says to themself, “That doesn’t make sense! No one would ever do that!” Enough of this—maybe just one instance—and your reader will lose interest in your book. To prevent this, focus on your characters’ motivations. Why are they doing what they are doing? What emotions about which experiences are driving them to take actions in your story?
✕: Follow your heart, not the market.
✓: Decide what to write based on your goals.
The first thing wrong with this advice is that it assumes that the market is at odds with what you want to write, which may or may not be the case. The second thing is that it discounts those who wish to make a living or any money at all from their writing.
What you write about—the genre, subject, etc.—depends on your goals for your work. Are you writing as a hobby with no desire to make money? Then don’t worry about the market and write whatever comes to you. Is your eventual goal to make a living from your books? Then you probably want to research what’s already on sale and choose a genre and subject which seems to have an established readership.