I know you.
You’re in love with words.
Writing takes you to extraordinary places, and you wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.
But you want more…
You want to be the best at your craft. You want to capture scenes in your mind with stunning prose.
But that desire to improve comes with a price tag, doesn’t it?
You have to read, study, and take advice–often from total strangers. And sometimes, inevitably, you receive bad writing advice–just plain awful writing advice.
Still, you honor the process. You know that rewards require risk.
So, you read the books; you join the writer communities.
You work on your craft.
And sometimes the advice works.
Sometimes, your writing soars with a skillful tweak or a brand-new strategy.
But most of the time you feel disappointed.
You feel cheated after spending countless hours scrubbing your work, whittling it down until there’s little left.
And it feels horrible, wasteful, disappointing.
I’ve been there myself.
I remember trying to please my professors in college, each one offering a different slant on the process. One told me to eliminate “ing” verbs while the next one suggested I increase them to demonstrate action.
Years later, in grad school, I realized these ingers were simply repeating what they’d heard, what they’d been taught.
Today, students come to me weekly with their own lists of shoulds and nevers, baffling rules they learned from former teachers and mentors.
Advice is everywhere, and much of it is valuable.
However, the problem comes down to context. Writers memorize rules without remembering the circumstances.
Writers take these recommendations to heart, and they can take them too far.
Unfortunately, there’s lots of terrible writing advice out there.
Let’s take a look at five common writing tips you should probably ignore.
Tip #1: Write How You Speak
How many times have you read this advice? I cringe when I see it.
It seems logical, though, doesn’t it?
Why shouldn’t we write how we speak?
Most of us have terrible communication habits. Imagine having a stenographer follow you around for a week, recording every conversation. I’d never want to read (or listen to) that transcript.
We don’t think ahead, and we ramble without concern for clarity, precision, or brevity. We stop and start, filling gaps with sighs, gasps, and filler phrases like you know, I’m serious, and I was like….
We repeat ourselves, tagging unnecessary words and phrases onto the ends of statements, hoping this pile-on approach will deliver our meaning.
We rely on profanity and hyperbole as if they were vital elements of communication.
Thanks to volume, emphasis, eye contact, facial expressions, body language, and gesturing, we manage to understand each other.
Writing requires a different set of skills.Thanks to volume, emphasis, eye contact, facial expressions, body language, and gesturing, we manage to understand each other. Writing requires a different set of skills. Click To Tweet
We don’t get to wave our hands or wink when we move into sarcasm. Writing requires careful consideration. Word order counts. Punctuation counts.
Respecting our readership counts. If I see the words “kickass” or “badass” in one more business article title, I’m definitely going to murder someone, die click away.
Draft how you speak.
After getting your thoughts onto the page, get down to some kickass serious revision.
Tip #2: Write Short Sentences…
Can anyone tell me where this idea originated?
Did we intuit this from our kindergarten reading and writing classes?
- See Dick run.
- See Jane run.
- See Spot run to Dick and Jane.
Should we thank Papa Hemingway?
Or, do we blame it on the ubiquitous style guides of the last fifty years?
Regardless of its origins, I’m tired of seeing it make the top spot in so many “Top Writing Tips” articles.
Yes, short sentences grab attention.
Like exclamation points, they show readers we mean business, adding emphasis where and when we need it.
When overused, however, short sentences lose their power. Like run-on sentences or excessive description, staccato prose will tax your reader’s patience.
And with so many reading options available, we don’t want to annoy our readers.
Variety is key.
Artists use multiple tools: pencils, brushes, knives, and colors options. With hundreds of shades at their fingertips, they still blend and adjust colors to create the desired effect.
You wouldn’t paint with a single color, so why limit yourself to the short declarative sentence?
Try varying your sentence lengths. Learn how to use commas, colons, and semicolons correctly to change up punctuation when appropriate.
Acquaint yourself with parallel structure. This one essential skill will take your prose to new levels. Over time, you’ll develop an instinct for evaluating the rhythm and flow of your sentences.You wouldn’t paint with a single color, so why limit yourself to the short declarative sentence? Click To Tweet
Tip #3: Find Your Own Unique Voice
While I encourage self-expression, this bad advice creates unnecessary trouble for aspiring writers.
This voice thing is out of control.
I realize that it helps teachers get students interested in writing, in expressing themselves.
But I’m tired of reading low quality, substance-free articles and ebooks, dripping with personality.
This approach becomes cartoonish over time, encouraging slang, profanity, or teenager speak.
Teenagers want to be seen, to express their individuality. As we mature, we realize we’re not that unique, and we don’t need to appear so.
The author shouldn’t be the star on the page.
Focus on what serves the text, what serves the reader.
Get back to the basics of action, to the who, what, when, where, how, and why.
Tip #4: Write Descriptively
How many ways can one describe a rose?
Unfortunately, for readers, the answer is too many…
Some writers could devote a third of a page to this tired image. Again, like advice number three, this tends to draw attention to the writer, to the author’s technique rather than the subject.
In elementary school, we’re taught how to identify parts of speech, and our teachers applaud our use of adjectives and adverbs. By the time we get to similes and metaphors, we’re writing purple prose.
Years later, after maturing a bit, we’re pushed to “show not tell,” reactivating similar patterns.
Avoid cleverness and histrionics.
Flowery prose points to a lack of confidence.
Remember that ex-lover, the one who talked too much during sex?
Don’t ruin the experience.
- Less is more.
- Serve the text.
- Prioritize your reader.
And one more thing…
Tame those adverbs.
Tip #5: Write 1K, 2K, 3K Words Per Day…
What’s the best way to guarantee failure?
Set the bar impossibly high, especially if you haven’t yet formed a habit or built considerable momentum.
Would you take on a marathon after a sedentary stretch of months (or years)? Could you commit to running 10 miles per day without building up to this level?
The most important step is converting your goal into a daily habit.
And for any goal to become a habit, you must make it achievable, realistic. In fact, consider making your writing goals easy.
Increase your word count as your daily practice becomes automatic and pleasurable.
If you struggle from the beginning, your mind will associate pain and frustration with writing.
As you continue your writing journey, you’ll find yourself dropping other bits of well-intentioned advice. You’ll adopt new rules to keep your craft fresh and evolving. The ebb and flow is natural.
What writing advice have you learned to ignore?
Share it with us in the comments section below.