Misapplied Writing Advice

Some rules of writing are repeated so often they seem like hard truths, full stops, rather than flashing warning signs. Here are a few rules that are often misinterpreted or misapplied.

1. All adverbs are evil.

I dare you to pick up a novel off your shelf and search for adverbs. You will likely find those telltale -ly words every page or so. The reason this rule is often repeated is because adverbs are misused by many beginning writers. An adverb may be the right word to use, and like adjectives, they have more impact when used sparingly.

The warning: Using adverbs can also signal lazy writing. Consider if an adverb is right for the sentence or if you can you use words that have more impact.

2. Kill your darlings.

Well, what if the entire novel is your baby? What if you love it all? This rule does not mean that you have terrible taste, but that you should not be afraid to cut anything unnecessary to the story. Knowing what’s necessary is the key.

Is it safe to cut a scene if it does not advance the plot? Not always. A scene may show character development, ground the reader with a sense of place and time, set the tone, or reinforce the themes of the novel. I see examples of the latter more frequently in literary fiction than genre.

The warning: If a scene does not advance the plot, you may be info dumping or getting off track. You can avoid this by identifying the purpose of each scene. You may want to consider how these details can be incorporated elsewhere in the story, or cut it if it does not fit.

3. Show don’t tell.

Telling is necessary at times. It’s not all bad. When should you tell? Here are some examples:  when something is not important enough to describe in full, but must be known, or to illustrate the thoughts or personality of a particular character. Here’s an older post about ‘telling’ with links to a few good articles on the subject.

The warning: Too much telling makes for a boring read. Maybe you’ve written the skeleton of a scene instead of a final scene. When you slip into telling, it could also be a sign of info dumping, or throwing in too much backstory. Know when to use it.

4. Write what you know.

You know more than you think. There are emotional truths, sensory truths, subconscious truths. We do not have to experience everything first hand to know. We can also learn from others, or do research and come to know. Stephen covered it here.

The warning: Maybe what you’re writing doesn’t feel real enough. How can you add more truth? Are you leveraging your experiences of the world to your best ability?

5. Avoid the passive voice.

Terri Giuliano wrote an excellent article on this: Two Rules Worth Breaking. It’s well worth the read. In short, there are times when the passive choice is the appropriate choice. The article also talks about showing vs. telling.

The warning: Too much passive voice can indicate that the story feels lackluster. Active voice has movement and action. Double check your passive sentences. Is each sentence doing what you intend or can you write it in a more active way?

Those are just my top five. What other writing rules do you hear repeated too often?

14 thoughts on “Misapplied Writing Advice

  1. Excellent list. I agree with all of these. They make for great heuristic rules of thumb – but terrible lines in the sand, so to speak.

    I’ve had the adverb argument before.

    1. Yes, I’ve been called on using adverbs before. However, I started paying closer attention while reading lately, and realized that they can be used effectively.

      Rules of thumb, not black and white :) Plus, it’s interesting, but these rules change over time as well, and the stripped down writing you see a lot of lately is really a modern style convention.

      1. I don’t know if I’ve been called out for it, I’ve just argued that this so-called “rule” is nothing of the sort. Like Pirate-law, it’s really more of a guideline. Maybe a strong guideline, but it’s not carved in stone.

  2. Hmm, I’m trying to think of more, but those are the big ones. Thank you for debunking and translating them! It drives me crazy when people think of them as hard and fast rules and refuse to see that there are perfectly good exceptions to each and every one of them. That said, I confess that sometimes when I’m critiquing other people’s work, I can get carried away crossing out adverbs and circling “was”s. Thanks for the reminder to lighten up! :P

    1. I know, me too! I think it would be easier if there were hard and fast rules to know what’s ‘good’ and what’s ‘right’ but writing is too subjective. It drives me nuts too :)

  3. Those are all really great points, Theresa.

    If there are any other pieces of advice I think get repeated too often, they’ve been long forgotten by now, haha, or have been so internalized that I subconsciously make automatic decisions as to whether I should break the rules or follow them as I’m writing. (Whether or not I made good decisions, however, always becomes clearer eventually–be it to me, another reader, or both.)

    When you’ve read enough advice and have been pummeled over the head with all the what-not-to-dos in the world, it kind of becomes second nature to follow said advice. (Or at least seriously consider it.) Ultimately, though, I think the more you write the sharper your “writer instinct” will become and you’ll get better at pointing out things that don’t work and explaining why you think it does/doesn’t work.

  4. I was reading a book on editing recently and I ran across the never use adverbs/-ly argument. However, as I was looking at it I noticed they explicitly said, “when writing dialogue tags”. And after further discussion, the adverb above is more acceptable in their view. However, using “agitatedly” was what they argued against because the writing should be agitated, not the tag.

      1. You know, I think the problem with most rules of writing is that they tell and don’t show ;) It’s easier to tell someone to not use adverbs. One could argue that one can provide an example, but these don’t address the whole writing (including pace & story development & characters) and therefore result in simple rules that can’t apply in all situations.

  5. You and I have chatted on Twitter about “killing your darlings.” We writers ought to simply invent a new word for what “darlings” is really referring to. I think most of the sweeping literary advice out there is simplification for the sake of repeatability and penetration. It’s like “omit needless words, omit needless words, omit needless words” – the repetition should clue us into there being more functions for words in a story than mere description and instruction, but we take the literal as the whole rule too often.

    1. Yes, that conversation is what sparked this post :) It’s so easy to get overwhelmed by all the writing advice out there, sometimes I need to take a step back and think about it.

      I think we take the literal as the whole too often because it’s easier.

Comments are closed.