The Practice of Creativity

Affirmations-366Days#12 & Challenging What ‘Everyone Says’: Are You Following Bad Writing Advice?

Posted on: January 13, 2016

Affirmations-366Days#12: I listen to all writing advice, but only take to heart what really works for me.

For new readers, here’s why I’m committing to writing affirmations, about the creative process, during the next 366 days.

Today’s affirmation is inspired by a panel that I was on over the weekend. I attended illogiCon, a local science fiction convention and moderated a panel called ‘Everyone Says: Bad Writing Advice’. The panelists wanted to discuss the fact that not all writing advice out there is good, or for everyone, even if it’s repeated in many books and how-to articles. I was looking forward to moderating it and it was truly a lively panel. Panelists included authors Mur Lafferty, Fraser Sherman, Josh Leone, Ada Milenkovic Brown and publisher Lynn McNamee. In preparation for this panel, I also asked friends on Facebook and Twitter to talk with me about bad writing advice. Below are some highlights from these threads of conversation:


   You should start writing by making an outline.

–Many of us learned this rule in grade school. This rule tends not to work well for nonlinear thinkers and/or people who think of themselves as discovery writers, meaning writers who write their way into a story first without a strong sense of plot. Most panelists agreed, however, that at some point in a project (for a novel, say after 10,000 words), it can be helpful to step back and make an outline. One panelist also suggested doing a reverse outline where you work backwards through a completed story to see if there any gaps or plot holes. I really like this idea. I also advocate using mindmaps instead of outlines, either as part of pre-writing or when you get stuck.


   Write what you know.

–Beginning writers often hear this a lot. Most people balked at this concept as limiting. One of my Facebook friends said, “…writing what you know* is stifling and, for me at least, has led to lots of insecurity about whether or not I had the authority to tell stories that come ONLY from my imagination. That said, there is a lot to be said for research.”

There was a general consensus to write about what you love and/or are interested in. The passion for what you’re writing about will lead you to find out more on a topic.


  Always cut your work by 10% (or 20% or 30%).

–I have heard this point made often—always cut your work by 10% before sending it out. One panelist offered a really important observation about this rule. Absolute adherence to this rule can stifle a writer’s style. This panelist explained that for years they tried to follow this rule only to realize that it made the work less rich and complex.


  Always write in the same place and at the same time.

–We all agreed that creating a sense of rhythm through writing consistently helps writers. But, an uncritical adherence to this rule is highly impractical for most writers. As an astute observer on my Facebook thread commented: […This rule can] “lead to a lot of self-recriminations …energy better spent writing whenever the hell you can and choose to…this is not a clock punching endeavor. Regular writing yes. Factory clocks only if you love them.” Capture those ideas whenever and wherever you can.


  Revise until it is perfect.

–This particular rule didn’t come up on the panel, but I thought I’d offer it here. I find that many writers internalize this rule in ways that can be immobilizing. Before sending one’s work out for publication, it is important to make it as strong as possible. However, often emerging writers lose sight about what makes their work strong, and so they never think anything is good enough or revised sufficiently. I believe a work is ready to be released when you’ve made it as strong as you can, left it to sit for a period of a reasonable period of time (e.g. days, weeks or even a few months), can’t find any more structural flaws with it, and have received positive feedback from trusted readers. Release it! If it gets rejected, that’s OK. It’s part of the process.


All the panelists acknowledged this central point—don’t slavishly follow any writing rule if it doesn’t work for you! Your writing needs are unique. Definitely learn from other writers, but make your writing practice work for you.

What;s your experience with writing advice that just didn’t work for you? I’d love to know.



3 Responses to "Affirmations-366Days#12 & Challenging What ‘Everyone Says’: Are You Following Bad Writing Advice?"

Great article, Michele. One piece of advice I wonder about is the current push towards fast reads with the action starting on page one. The most radical application of this formula includes metrics giving a maximum number of minutes or pages within which to hold a reader’s attention. While I enjoy books following that model, I also love Golden Age fiction, which tends to build slowly, include lots of description and may have little real action. My guess is that I am not alone, and that there is an underserved audience waiting for more relaxed plotting. It could be I am a fluke, though, and exploring this avenue might lead to authorpreneur suicide.

Yes, Cathy! You’re absolutely right. This actually got discussed by the panelists. And, they agreed that following this rule (or tendency) without seeing if it works for your story will result in forced writing. I think it is also about standing up for and believing in one’s work.

What hasn’t worked for me is the ‘Write 1,000 words a day’ advice. I know it works for some writers, but it just makes me dread writing.

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Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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