A chalk slate with "Disaster" written on it.

Disaster by Alpha Stock Images used under CC BY-SA 3.0

Most people want to give useful writing advice, but there are exceptions. I read a lot of writing advice to stay informed on the state of the industry,* and a lot of it is irredeemably useless. Since this is obviously a popular trend that people are following on purpose and not a symptom of poor understanding, I’ve created a list to help anyone else who wants to give useless writing advice. I promise it will be very useful for that! 

1. Redefine Terms 

Let’s say you’ve got an opinion to share, but there’s a problem: your opinion is really conventional. For example, you think that important characters should be fleshed out and three-dimensional, but they shouldn’t have so much backstory as to be boring or confusing. Everyone already thinks that, so there’s no way you’re going to get any clicks with such a pedestrian take! 

You know what would get you a lot more attention? If you posted something with the title “Stop Developing Your Characters!” It’s provocative, so people are sure to click on it, even if it’s just to make sure they haven’t misunderstood something.

However, you’re not ready to stand by such an absurd statement, which is where redefining common terms comes in. After getting people to click on your boiling hot take of a title, your first paragraph redefines “character development” as giving a character so much backstory that it overwhelms readers. Obviously that isn’t what the term actually means, but that’s not your problem. 

Now that you’ve redefined a common term to mean something negative, you can stand by your title and technically not be lying. As we all know, technically telling the truth is the best way of telling the truth. This also gives you a chance to introduce your own term like “character manifesting,” which you can define as giving the character enough backstory to be three-dimensional but not so much that readers check out. 

None of this advice will be even a little useful to anyone, but it can fill up a lot of page space, and it has great traffic potential. A lot of people will hate share it, of course, but you’ll also get a bunch of genuine shares from people who enjoy the feeling of intellectual superiority without the pesky business of applying intellectual rigor. 

2. Misinterpret Stories

A key facet of useless writing advice is creating arbitrary formulae that stories supposedly adhere to. Sometimes, you go the whole hog and say the formula applies to all stories ever. Sometimes, you’re a little more restrained and only claim it applies to all stories with spaceships or what have you. Writers eat this up, because they’re desperate. Writing is hard, and a preset formula is incredibly tempting. The main problem is that stories don’t actually conform to these formulae, so finding examples can be tricky. 

Let’s say that one step in your formula is for the protagonist to leave most of their friends behind near the end of the story. You’ve just read The Fellowship of the Ring, and it’s a cool moment when Frodo and Sam break off from their companions, so all stories should do that. You grab Star Wars: A New Hope as another example, since Luke also leaves some of his friends on Yavin when he attacks the Death Star. It’s a completely different context, but that’s not important! And hey, Spock also leaves his friends on the bridge in The Wrath of Khan so he can sacrifice himself to save the ship. You’re on a roll! 

Unfortunately, three examples isn’t enough to really wow anyone, but you’re out of low-hanging fruit. You need another famous spec-fic story that your marks audience will recognize, and Dune seems like a good pick. Only one snag: there’s no moment near Dune’s ending where Paul leaves his friends behind. Don’t worry, you have options. 

First, you can just pick a moment from earlier in the story and use that as an example, even though it doesn’t match the others. Paul does leave a bunch of his friends behind when he flees into the desert to live with the Fremen about a third of the way through the book, so that should work just as well. How is anyone going to check? You’ll be publishing a blog post or YouTube video; it’s not like they can interrupt you to ask questions. Besides, you’ll add so many examples that checking them all would be exhausting. 

But if you’re really worried that someone will notice the inconsistency in your structure, there’s another option: you can still use the end of Dune, but say that Paul metaphorically leaves his friends behind when he becomes emperor. This is 100% effective, because “metaphorically” can mean anything. By reading this article when your friends haven’t, you’re metaphorically leaving them behind right now! 

3. Be a Genre Prescriptivist

In storytelling reality, genres are a collection of associated traits. Sometimes, these traits are aesthetic, like spaceships for scifi and castles for fantasy. Other times, they’re more plot focused, like how mystery stories usually explore the question of whodunit and romances feature a prominent love story. 

These genres are always fuzzy around the edges. A story might have both spaceships and castles or a whodunit romance, inviting a wave of discourse about which story goes in which genre and whether tacos are sandwiches. Even so, genres are useful categorization tools. If you market your story as science fiction and there’s no advanced technology or aliens to be had, audiences will be mad. 

That’s no good; you need to make your genre advice useless. So start assigning genres arbitrary meanings and hard borders. Ideally, whatever criteria you use should apply to at least some stories within a genre. That way, it will bring at least one famous example to mind, and people will be less likely to think about all the stories your definition doesn’t apply to. You might say something like “science fiction is about exploring the unknown,” which certainly fits famous TV shows like Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica. It doesn’t fit Dune, Old Man’s War, Starship Troopers, etc., but shhhhh.

Your new definitions can be either complimentary or defamatory based on what you’re trying to achieve. If you say that cyberpunk stories are about uncovering what it means to be human in a dehumanizing world, that sounds pretty cool. Cyberpunk fans will probably like that and recommend you to their friends. If you say that urban fantasy is about denying the realities of life in favor of a comforting lie, that doesn’t sound good at all! Urban fantasy fans will get mad and talk about how wrong you are, boosting your profile in the process. 

For best results, praise genres that are already culturally prestigious, and attack genres that are routinely derided. This way, you can appear to have a bold and provocative take without actually risking anything. Literary fiction is, of course, the most prestigious by default, so see if you can come up with some flattering definition like “literary fiction enriches the soul, while genre fiction is junk food for the id.” 

Failing that, hard scifi is pretty high in the pecking order, so flatter it whenever possible. YA and romance are good targets for your pejorative definitions, and if you’re feeling particularly bold, you could always try ranting about how superhero stories are inherently authoritarian or what have you. Lots of people jump at the chance to hate on superhero stories, because they’re super popular right now, but superhero stories also have legions of fans on account of being so popular, so you’ll be sure to generate some extremely useless controversy. 

4. Invent New Genres

If genre prescriptivism isn’t quite getting the job done, you can always invent new genres out of thin air. It sounds like that sort of thing wouldn’t be allowed, but there’s actually no law against it! Anyone can make up a new genre for any reason, and the process has a lot of incredibly useless applications. 

First, if you want to make a big splash but don’t actually have any groundbreaking opinions, you can take a genre that already exists and give it a new name. Have you heard about the new genre called “jokepunk?” It encompasses any story with the goal of amusing the audience, be it through humor, slapstick, dry observations, funny noises, etc. Jokepunk is actually one of the most popular genres around, and it’s a direct refutation of all those grim and humorless Oscar-bait movies that no one except Academy voters like. So you’re actually being a rebel by supporting jokepunk.

Obviously, I’ve just described comedy, a category that’s existed for thousands of years. But no one’s going to click on a think piece about “comedy” as a hot new genre. 

Alternatively, if you aren’t really sure what should go into your new genre, you can give it a fancy name that’s more about sounding cool than communicating anything. Maybe you want a genre that includes any stories with friendship arcs, language barriers, or alien monsters. That’s now the Darmok and Jalad genre. Trekkies will have a positive association, since they’ll remember the Next Generation episode that includes two characters overcoming a language barrier to become friends and fight an alien monster. For everyone else, it sounds mysterious and cool, like something from mythology. They won’t even notice that the definition would include a host of wildly different stories that have nothing in common!* 

The third and best use of new genres is to repackage bizarre and unfounded opinions as objective categories. Consider: I really don’t like the novels House of Earth and Blood, Dune, and The City We Became. Simply saying I don’t like those stories isn’t enough; I need to define them as part of a trend that’s out to get me, even though they have almost nothing in common! That’s why I’m inventing the NOOBcore genre, which encompasses every story I don’t like for any reason. Is the throughline weak? NOOBcore. Are there a lot of graphic injuries? NOOBcore. Is there a dearth of airships? You’d better believe that’s NOOBcore. 

Now, I can act like I’m being persecuted while also insulting stories I don’t like in the guise of neutral categorization. If anyone ever calls me on NOOBcore sounding pejorative, I’m prepared: the “NOOB” actually stands for “Not Optimal Oren Books,” which completely absolves me of any responsibility. That’s just what the words I chose abbreviated to.     

5. Get Extremely Weird About Worldbuilding

Worldbuilding is a basic aspect of storytelling, and nearly every author practices it to some extent. Whether you’re designing a whole galaxy from scratch, integrating the supernatural into an urban landscape, or just portraying the small town you grew up in, there’s a bit of worldbuilding in all of our stories. There’s a lot of great worldbuilding advice available, with the best of it being grounded and practical. Obviously, that means that the easiest way to give useless worldbuilding advice is to get waaaaaaaaaaay out there. 

If you’re new to this, a great place to start is by insisting that everyone take fringe fan theories seriously. Did you know that the live-action Beauty and the Beast is really a tragedy because of its worldbuilding?* If you pay close attention to minuscule details, you can sorta put together that it takes place in the late 1700s and conclude that Belle and her aristocratic boyfriend would lose their heads in the revolution. So you should be extremely sad when watching that movie!* 

If Disney isn’t your thing, you can always try your hand at high fantasy. If you apply the most poetic of licenses, it’s possible to interpret some of Tolkien’s writings to mean that Middle-earth is meant to be a prehistoric Europe. Any useful advice would ignore this as meaningless trivia, as nothing about Middle-earth is prehistoric and the world isn’t at all Europe shaped. But since we’re trying to give useless advice today, we could instead take it as gospel and insist that anyone who doesn’t agree is spitting on ol’ J. R. R.’s worldbuilding accomplishment! This theory is mostly used to complain about Black characters appearing in Middle-earth, but I’m sure we could find many other useless applications for it! 

Next, you can graduate to the top level of weird worldbuilding takes: making assumptions about a writer based on how detailed their setting is. If you like deep, exposition-heavy worlds, then you can claim anyone who doesn’t write like that is a reactionary who’s opposed to progress, because they can’t imagine a world that’s different from this one. Don’t worry, you can seamlessly do the opposite as well: anyone who gets really into building fictional settings is actually a conspiracy theorist, since they’re imagining a reality that’s different from the one we live in. 

And don’t let your weird takes be limited to just the stories themselves. You might have heard that fan wikis are a great resource for keeping track of complex setting details, but that’s WRONG. Actually, the existence of such wikis demonstrates how entitled fans have become. Now, they feel like they own the stories, similar to the way newspapers claim ownership of the real world by documenting what happens in it. To really respect an author’s intellectual-property rights, fans should forget every worldbuilding detail as soon as they hear it. There’s no evidence to support any of this, of course, but since when has that ever stopped anyone from saying something useless? 

Congratulations, you’re now fully equipped to give useless writing advice to anyone you meet! Doesn’t it feel liberating no longer being expected to say anything of value? It’s certainly easier than confronting the complex and ever-changing beast that is storytelling. I think that’s why Yoda urges Luke to take the quick and easy path in Empire Strikes Back; certainly nothing bad could happen! 

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