The worst writing advice

Writers often ask each other this: what’s the worst writing advice you’ve ever been given? Following this question, the funny, sad and tragic stories come out, of advice given by friendly, but misguided fellow writers, of paid-for assessors who really didn’t know much about fiction or others who were plain rude.

This post is not about that. I have had some incidences of laughable advice, of occasions where my fellow writers led me onto a path that ultimately led to a place worse than where I was coming from, but those incidences will stay in my personal memory. No doubt I have given such advice, too. I have no illusions about that.

This post is about the slush I see, about an older manuscript I’m revising, and about what I think is the singlemost damaging piece of advice doled out in workshops and writing courses:

Your prose should be active and not use dull verbs.

I have a problem with this, not because it’s bad advice (it isn’t), but because it leads almost every writer to write notoriously bad prose through the simple and very human assumption that if you do something right 70% of the time, you get decent marks, but if you do it all of the time, you get full marks.

Wrong. This advice often leads to the most beginner-ish and most tortuous prose on the planet, and an editor can do nothing with it, because the crap is terribly insidious and all-pervading.

I’m writing this because I’m angry with myself for getting caught up in this must-write-active-sentences and must-use-interesting-verbs advice. I’m editing a manuscript that is full of this sort of crap. It is insidious. I have to make changes to many, many sentences. I wrote this about three years ago.

So, what is the problem?

OK, an example:

Carla opened the bottle. The contents smelled strongly of vinegar.
Carla opened the bottle and was hit in the face by a strong smell of vinegar.
Carla opened the bottle. A strong smell of vinegar wafted out.

These are all functional, quite simple constructions. But say you were afraid of starting the sentence with a name, or you had a feeling that somehow you needed a more complicated sentence.

When Carla opened the bottle, a smell of vinegar wafted out.

Here we have four perfectly serviceable constructions writers can use. Why then, do so many writers feel that it’s necessary to say stuff like this:

After opening the bottle, a smell of vinegar pervaded Carla’s nose.

Urgh. I mean: urgh, urgh, urgh. Why make such an effort to say a simple thing in such a complicated sentence, which is grammatically incorrect to boot. Why make the smell of vinegar a character? What is with the smells pervading people’s noses? Has no one heard of the verb ‘to smell’? Why, why, why?

The worst thing is, a total, total beginner will probably in all his or her ignorance, write a sentence like the top examples. After a writing course or reading a book on writing, or a few workshop sessions, he or she will come into bad habits, and those habits need to be un-learned first. Scents pervading noses, eyes dropping to the floor, just don’t OK?

Two simple rules here:

If it doesn’t sound like something someone would say in real life, don’t say it.

Keep It Simple, Stupid!

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10 comments on “The worst writing advice

  1. After this post blazed to life on my screen, a sense of humorous enjoyment pervaded my mind.

    That is to say, I enjoyed this post.

  2. Good post. We so often make hay about what is good advice to writers, but forget that bad advice needs to be squashed, too. That said, overly florid writing can work. Sometimes. Most of the time, it doesn’t.

    Reminds me of a related piece of advice I don’t see all that often: Don’t be afraid of short sentences. Some writers think they need long sentences for their prose to be worthwhile. I even saw this in an excerpt from an “upcoming writer” someone thought was the bees knees. I’m glad there was an excerpt. I couldn’t read it, it was so tortured.

    • Florid prose, or I prefer to call it rich prose, is by no means tortured prose. What I’m riling against here is how many people tend to twist the advice ‘write active, interesting sentences’ just one turn too far, and make the sentences so ‘interesting’ they stop making sense, or stop sounding real.

  3. This is totally my pet hate. I hate people who write like that, I just put the book down. Why the heck would anyone WANT to read stuff written like that? Why would you want to inflict that on someone????

    It’s just so INCREDIBLY BAD.

  4. Oh God, I’m in the middle of a manuscript where scents are pervading noses right and left. I didn’t realize why anyone would write that way. Thanks for giving me a little more insight into what my author’s doing.

  5. See, now I’m tempted to write a story where the smell of vinegar is not just a character, but the protagonist. Thanks for that.

  6. This is great! I will not soon forget it. The sad thing is, I’ve seen sentences like this in bestsellers. I really have!

    But, for my part, I will attempt not to be overly convoluted.

    Here from Jon Gibbs’s blog.

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