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The Worst Writing Advice

In last week’s post, we considered some of the most helpful advice about writing. But, as I mentioned in that post, everyone is a critic, ready and more than willing to offer advice. Some of it is helpful, but much of it is anything but that. And much of that counsel is offered by people who are not writers, and some of it comes from those who are still working at the craft but have not yet been published. So how do they know what works? They only know what hasn’t worked for them. Let’s consider some of the worst such advice.

But first, we must preface ourselves. Much bad advice might have begun as good advice that, over time and with much overuse, became unbalanced. Beware of throwing the baby out with the bath water; strive for balance.

Another caveat is that we should beware of blindly accepting advice from “experts.” Even they can be wrong. (Don’t get me started on the Covid-19 panic!) As one such acknowledged writing expert, Ernest Hemingway, reminded us, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master” (emphasis added). So read the experts’ advice, but weigh it carefully. They might be wrong. Even Hemingway. Not everything he said about writing was uttered when he was stone-cold sober. And remember that he committed suicide.

Enough disclaimers. What bad advice have I received?

  1. Write only what you know.

If I followed this advice, I would have written precious little because I readily admit that I don’t know a lot about much of anything. None of us does. The amount of knowledge anyone has or can have about any subject is relative to not only what everyone else knows but also the total amount of knowledge in the universe. I might know a little about a subject that few others know, but there’s always going to be someone out there who knows more about it than I do. As Will Rogers quipped, “We’re all ignorant, just on different subjects.”

Although I have written about some things that I did know (e.g., my family history and my own experiences), some people know more about even those things than I know, and they have different perspectives on those events and facts. (My brother is always telling my kids versions of events we shared that are much different than my versions of those things!) Memories differ. Details get mixed up. We even sometimes “remember” things that didn’t even happen!

My greatest joy, however, has come from writing about things I did not know, things that piqued my curiosity and prodded me to research and learn new things. Then I wrote about what I had learned from the research. So write what you know, but also write about things that you don’t know but are learning.

2. Don’t use adverbs (or adjectives).

This is terrible advice because every part of speech exists for a reason, and as long as it is fulfilling its purpose in life, it’s good and useful. The source of this advice is the teacher who, in an attempt to prevent students from going overboard in the use of one particular part of speech, forbids its use. One teacher, perhaps, has encouraged students to be descriptive in their writing, so the student writers pile on the adjectives. The next teacher, appalled by such excess, lays down the law forbidding adjectives upon pain of death for violations.

The key is balance. There’s nothing wrong with any part of speech properly and judiciously used. Just use each part in moderation, only for its intended purpose, and when no other part of speech will do the job better. (And isn’t this principle of balance and moderation the key to most of life?)

3. Don’t use complex sentences.

This advice, followed too closely, produces an endless stream of short, choppy, uninteresting sentences that soon bore readers. “See Dick. See Jane. See Spot. See Spot run. Run, Spot, Run!”

There’s nothing wrong with short, simple sentences. But neither is there anything wrong with compound or even complex sentences. The key is variety. Moderation. Balance.

I once had a college history professor comment in her discussion of the student papers she was returning, “Don’t be Pauline in your writing like Mr. Peterson.” She was referring to my tendency to overuse complex sentences much like the Apostle Paul was wont to do in his biblical writings. Although there’s nothing wrong with complex sentences, her comment directed me back to the essential point of ensuring variety in my sentence structures.

Also, keep in mind the fact that we tend to write like what we read most. I read mostly academic nonfiction, so my writing tends toward a compound-complex sentence style. If you’re reading is Hardy Boy-type reading, you’ll tend to write like Franklin W. Dixon. The key is to recognize your natural tendencies and strive for variety in your writing.

4. Don’t use semicolons.

This bit of advice is similar to the prohibition against adjectives and adverbs. In my experience, the people who gave such advice did so, not because semicolons are bad, but because they did not know how properly to use them. They shied from using semicolons and thought everyone else should, too. That’s carrying it too far.

A semicolon has been described as being weaker than a period but stronger than a comma. It’s a brief hesitation that connects two thoughts, two independent clauses, without using a conjunction. Study their use. Learn how and when to use them. Then use them. In moderation, of course.

Those are just four of the many bits of bad advice for writers. Which others can you suggest? Share them in the comment box and tell us why you think it’s bad advice. Let’s learn from each other!

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