Writing advice comes at all levels of quality, from enlightening, to helpful in some circumstances, to story-ruining. For an example of all of these, just look at our breakdown of Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules of Writing. Yes, Kurt Vonnegut, a famous writer, had advice that ran the gamut from great to terrible.
To instruct you on exactly what advice is good or bad, I’d have to teach you everything I know about storytelling. I’m working on that, but in the meantime, I’ll give you what tips I can.
What Advice to Ignore
Let’s look at some general categories of bad advice I’ve seen out there.
Opinionated Process Advice
Many people have strong opinions not only on what a good story is, but also on the process you must use to get there. They might tell you how often to write, how much you should plan your story before writing it, or what aspects of a story you should plan first.
For some writers, tips in this area can be very helpful. Maybe you have trouble motivating yourself to write, but once you do it every day as someone suggests, it gets a lot easier. However, process advice can never be more than ideas that may or may not work. The characteristics of a good story are universal, but the habits that people use to get there are not. If someone tells you that you must write every day, they are revealing their own ignorance and arrogance.
I do have some sympathy for advice givers who insist everyone has to plan their story ahead. For a lot of people, it’s much easier to get good results by outlining first, and not everyone who would benefit from outlining wants to do it right off. Even so, to insist that everyone must plan is to forget that stories are infinitely malleable. Unlike building a house or cooking a meal, you can modify your results as much as you’d like without starting over. For some, ad-libbing is worth modifying their results a lot. Ultimately, only you can judge if planning is for you.
More importantly, process advice can’t replace lessons in storytelling. Imagine you hand your story to an editor, and that editor tells you that your characters are weak. To make them stronger, your editor instructs you to go people watching and take notes. Who knows, maybe people watching will help you, but even if it does, that editor still isn’t doing right by you. You weren’t told what was wrong with your characters, so you didn’t get the opportunity to better understand storytelling and craft your own solution. If the people watching doesn’t make your characters better, you’re back at square one.
You might have noticed that though Mythcreants is a speculative fiction blog, most of the advice we give works for other genres too. When we specify a genre for an article, it’s because we are discussing something that most commonly appears in that genre, like magic for fantasy or spaceships for science fiction. Our advice is like this because genre has little impact on storytelling itself. A hook, climax, and resolution are exactly the same anywhere.
Yet I have seen lots of genre-specific advice in the wild, very little of it worth the paper or pixels it used. People are fascinated by genre, so it’s a natural thing for advice givers to gravitate toward. But they usually treat genre like it’s both more essential and more limiting than it really is. Somehow, industry professionals never get tired of making up stuff that is required for a genre and insisting writers follow their guidelines.
They also tend to ignore how different genres are defined by different things. For instance, romances and mysteries are defined by a specific type of plot, whereas most speculative genres are defined by setting or atmosphere. No matter what anyone says, there is no type of plot required by fantasy or science fiction. You’ll want a plot that makes use of the fantastical elements present in the setting, but the same goes for any memorable story element for any story in any genre.
It is true that your genre will give readers certain expectations. But in comparison to what stories have in common, these story elements are minor and more flexible. On top of that, if you are writing in a genre, it’s probably because you know and like that genre. In that case, any “requirements” you don’t already know are just as likely to make your writing less imaginative as they are to help you.
Genre’s real purpose is to market your story once it’s written. Traditional publishers care about genre, but they’re also very fickle about which genres they want. By the time you finish writing a novel, they’ll probably want something different.
The bottom line is that if you’re new, you should focus on storytelling itself. Getting into genre is putting the cart before the horse. If you’re an experienced writer and you are switching genres, then you might have reason to do some genre research.
Unpleasant and Elitist Advice
Unlike many writing websites, Mythcreants never uses the word “amateur.” Instead of having a list post on “Five Amateur Character Mistakes” we might have one on “Five Common Character Mistakes.” We don’t use the term “amateur” because I have banned it. In this industry, it’s a derogatory term, and those who use it are getting web traffic by instilling fear of humiliation in readers.
Most storytellers long for outside validation. That’s only natural. It’s also natural to hear about problems in fiction, realize our work contains these problems, and worry that it makes us look bad. But advice givers don’t have to blatantly capitalize on this insecurity. They should motivate you to sharpen your skills because it’s rewarding to do so, not because a few blemishes in your work would make you a fraud.
If you are reading clear advice, then at some point you will probably feel defensive about your own work. That’s okay, because we all need to learn about flaws in our work to get better. But while we should strive to be receptive to advice that challenges us, there are boundaries that the advice givers shouldn’t cross.
- No one should tell you that you’re not a “real” writer or that you’re not a professional.
- No one should say that you need natural talent to learn from them. That only means they’re bad at their job.
- No one should make cutting personal remarks about you or other people who wrote badly crafted works. They should focus on the work itself and the flaws that the work has.
If you don’t feel good about the advice you’re getting, there are many other sources of advice available.
What Advice to Look For
Let’s look at a few characteristics that separate great advice from okay advice.
Not Just Ideas, but Lessons
Sometimes writers need a quick solution to a specific problem that won’t come up again. That’s fine. But in general, advice givers should not only give you a fish that will feed you today but also teach you how to fish so you can feed yourself tomorrow.
Let’s say you ask this question: “My protagonist is a gladiator, and I’m not sure how to make readers like them.”
An advice giver might toss a bunch of ideas your way:
- Make the gladiator try to avoid killing others in the ring.
- Explain how the gladiator is fighting to win the money needed to buy their loved one out of slavery.
- Show how the gladiator has to work really hard to get better or they won’t have a chance to survive.
These are fine ideas, but if that’s all the advice is, you won’t learn the principles that make these ideas work. If you are also told that your character should demonstrate selflessness and invoke sympathy, you can come up with additional ways of showing that on your own.
Not Just Lessons, but Reasons
In the messy and unreliable realm of writing advice, it’s not enough to take someone’s word that you should do something. That person must explain why in a way that you understand.
Don’t get me wrong – storytelling is made of concepts built upon concepts built upon concepts, and a single article doesn’t have enough room to explain it all. But if I tell you not to give your protagonist an easy victory because it will lower tension, you can at least read more about tension elsewhere on the website. We’ll link to it.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen many advice givers make statements like “every story needs a triple-reveal latte” without explaining any of the logic that went into that guideline. That neither builds your understanding of storytelling nor gives you any reason to trust the advice. In comparison, the advice giver might say, “Introducing a single-reveal latte at the start of your story will make readers think that they’ll get a triple-reveal latte at the end. If you don’t give it to them, they will feel dissatisfied.” Now you understand why the rule exists.
What’s more, now you can judge when their advice doesn’t apply. Almost every storytelling rule should be broken in the right circumstances. In most cases when we’re giving advice, we’re aiming it at the 99.9% of stories that should follow an essential rule. We don’t have time to go into the complex topic of that .1% of stories that would benefit from breaking it. But if you understand why the rule exists, you’ll know when to throw it away.
Not Just Reasons, but Instructions
I have seen a lot of writing advice that I can paraphrase as “write well.” The reason it’s not constructive to tell someone to “write well” is that they are already trying to do that; they just don’t know how. Similarly, it’s really easy for advice givers to present vague guidelines without instructions that someone could follow.
For instance, let’s say someone tells you that your narration should have an “engaging character voice.” To follow this advice, you need to understand not only what makes characters engaging but also how to make that character’s personality show up in your wordcraft. A hand wave with a few statements about knowing your character is not going to cut it.
Let’s say the advice giver shows you examples of narration with and without personality. That a bit better; you can at least compare them in your mind and come up with your own means of creating personality. Now what if they link to a list of common words and they tell you to replace those words with synonyms that better match your character’s personality? Those are instructions that anyone can follow.
Offering actionable instructions is not always easy for advice givers. It takes transforming something that feels instinctual and subjective into something tangible. But if we can’t explain something so that others can benefit from it, there’s no point in mentioning it at all.
In my first post in this series, I explained how it’s difficult to judge who is and isn’t a storytelling expert. At Mythcreants, we don’t try to prove we are qualified to give advice with outside credentials; they don’t mean anything in this field. So how can we expect you to take our word for anything? We don’t. We want you to try out our guidelines, test them with readers, and judge the difference for yourself. We believe that the more you think about them and look into them, the better you will understand and appreciate them. Continue to do this, and each new guideline will feel more self-evident than the last.
However, not every advice blog works like ours. In my next post, I’ll discuss some of the valid but confusing differences between our instruction and instruction you might receive elsewhere.
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