There’s a lot of great writing advice, both free and paid, online these days. Whether you like to hang around the writing community on Instagram, surf Pinterest for new writing tips, browse your local bookstore for writing craft books, or find blogs (like mine!), there’s endless information available.
And while a lot of this advice is great, it’s not as black-and-white as many people make it out to be. I’m always talking about how writing is a gray area, and that’s true when it comes to certain popular pieces of writing advice.
We all work differently. No writing advice is ‘one size fits all.’ There are often elements that you can take and use, but nothing is absolute.
Let’s break it down into how some of the most popular writing advice isn’t absolute and what you can take away from those tips.
#1 “Real writers write every day.”
I’m not sure where this started, but you don’t have to write every day to be a “real” writer.
Writing every day can be helpful, and it’s great if you simply enjoy it! But it’s not realistic for everyone for multiple reasons. We don’t all live the same lives nor have the same amount of spare time to work on our craft. We also have different life obligations and energy levels that impact our writing time.
You do have to practice if you want to improve your craft, and you definitely need to get words on paper if you want to finish your projects.
But taking days off–whether for school, a day job, family time, or a simple break–doesn’t mean you’re a ‘fake’ writer. Don’t stress out about writing all the time!
- Not Great: Real writers write every day.
- Underlying Nugget: Practicing your writing consistently is important to improve and get projects done! Find a pace and balance that fits your life.
- Pro Tip: Even if you enjoy writing every day or are working on a big project, make sure you’re taking care of yourself and doing other activities outside of writing.
My ebook, Productivity for Creative Writers, talks more about how to build your own writing system.
#2 “Show, Don’t Tell”
I’ve written an entire post about this one, but what this boils down to is that writing is about balance. That includes showing vs. telling!
I think this one is used a lot in beginner’s creative writing classes as a way to encourage newer writers to practice showing detail and emotion. That’s a huge part of how you build a scene. But what’s often neglected is that telling is okay sometimes–and it’s even encouraged when you need to add context or simple explanations!
- Not Great: Show, don’t tell.
- Underlying Nugget: Showing is really great, but don’t try to rework every sentence to be ‘showing.’ It’s okay to show and tell.
- Pro Tip: Go read my other blog post about this for more details!
#3 “Writers must suffer for their craft”
This is said not just about writing but about art in general. Artists must suffer mentally, physically, and financially to be real artists, right? They must turn all of that pain into their art!
I think this is one of the most toxic things people say about writing and creative professions/pursuits. It’s not that writers don’t experience pain–as humans, we all do. It’s the idea that writers should or must be in pain to write good stories that’s the problem.
If writing is causing you excessive anxiety, depression, or other complex feelings you’re having trouble working through, I encourage you to speak with a mental health professional. (Check out therapist & sci-fi author Samantha Heuwagen’s Instagram post about cheap therapy options!)
That being said, it’s okay to find inspiration from life and the journey you’ve been on. Great books and stories are about the human condition and how we can overcome struggle and pain to reconnect, grow, and heal. We can be happy, healthy, and handling life while also telling engaging, meaningful stories.
- Not Great: Writers should suffer for their craft.
- Underlying Nugget: The human condition will always be part of storytelling, and it’s okay to take inspiration from your life journey as you write.
- Pro Tip: If writing is causing you excessive mental pain or discomfort, speak with a mental health professional in your area.
- Pro Tip #2: If you find yourself talking really negatively about writing, try reframing it. For example, instead of saying. “writing sucks and idk why I do it,” try saying, “writing is hard some days, but I do it because it’s important to me.”
#4 “Cut all adverbs”
There’s no denying that most of us overuse adverbs in the early drafts of our work. (Y’all don’t want to see some of the paragraphs I’ve self-edited in my current WIP!)
There’s even that famous quote about adverbs paving the path to hell.
As your friendly neighborhood editor, I want to remind you that you should cut unnecessary adverbs from your writing. But that means sometimes adverbs are necessary and totally fine!
- Not Great: Cutting all adverbs from your project.
- Underlying Nugget: Eliminate unnecessary adverbs, but keep ones that add to the meaning of your sentence. If you think there’s a verb that can be more descriptive/precise, use that instead.
- Pro Tip: Search (Ctrl + F on Windows) your document for “ly ” (yes, include the space!) to find most adverbs in your manuscript. Make note of how many words it highlights, then evaluate each instance to decide if you should revise further.
#5 “Replace ‘said’ with strong verbs”
I see this advice often, and I think the idea is that strong verbs will make your writing more engaging.
While strong verbs are great, simple dialogue tags like “said” and “asked” are nearly invisible to readers. They’re a simple signal that doesn’t slow down the text like “shouted” or “murmured” can.
And obviously this section comes with the opposite advice as well. I see some advice urging writers to “avoid strong verbs and always use invisible tags.”
The truth is, there are many great ways to tag dialogue. Sometimes it’s with a strong verb. Sometimes it’s with a simple verb. And sometimes it’s actually no tag, or even using a sentence of action in place of that ‘said’ verb!
What’s really important is finding a flow and the right pacing for your scene.
- Not Great: Replace ‘said’ with strong verbs.
- Underlying Nugget: There are many great ways to tag dialogue, and you should strive for some balance that achieves the right flow and pacing for your scene.
- Pro Tip: If you’re going to replace ‘said’ or ‘asked,’ try to use precise speaking verbs. In my editing work, I see verbs used as dialogue tags that don’t quite equal speech. This can risk readers being pulled out of your story to re-read your sentence. Just something to watch out for!
Bonus #6 “You have to be published to be a real writer”
Your writing is valid no matter why you’re doing it or what stage you’re at in your writing journey.
Like to post fanfiction? Wonderful!
Want to self-publish? Awesome!
Agented and on submission? Very nice!
Sending out query letters? Amazing!
All of the above–and whatever is in between–makes you a writer. You don’t need to sell 50,000 copies of your book to be ‘legit.’ You don’t need to publish to be a ‘real writer.’ Work toward the goals you want to work on at whatever pace you want.
Because if you’re writing, you’re a real writer.
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