4 Common Writing “Tips” That Aren’t Always True

Wouldn’t it be awesome if there was a cut-and-dry rulebook that writers could follow in order to produce the perfect product? As a perfectionist, that would be a dream come true for me! But the longer I write and the more writers I meet and talk to, the more I’ve become aware that even the guidelines we think are guaranteed to make our craft better, easier to accomplish and more accessible to readers often come with a catch or two.

This week, I want to look at four of the most popular writing tips I’ve encountered that have had personal exception. Note that this is not to say these are all wrong, all the time. They’re just not all right all the time, either, no matter what writer workshops and how-to books say – which was something of a wakeup call for me not long ago.

1) The first draft is always terrible.

I like the premise and purpose of this saying, but the more writers I’ve met, the more I’ve realized that this is really not true for all of us. One of the reasons my CP and I clicked so well from the get-go was we realized we shared the inability to be okay with “bad first drafts.” We hold ourselves to a certain personal standard for our first drafts that determines whether we’re willing to go back and work on them again. So the standard is not really that every first draft is terrible. It’s that it’s okay if they are. A first draft can be whatever it NEEDS to be for the author to put it down on paper.

2) Always Show, Never Tell

“Show, don’t tell” has become something of the eleventh commandment for writers, and I used to swear by it. But again, my CP (bless her) set me right by pointing out that always showing can drag the narrative on so long that the reader loses interest. A good balance is to generally “show emotion, tell action.” We don’t always need to be shown every movement as a character gets out of bed…just tell us “she got out of bed!” Showing emotion helps the reader connect with what the character is going through. But there are exceptions even to that; in the heart of verbal warfare, for example, there’s no harm in saying “Sadness lashed across his face” rather than going into the details of “his eyes widened, wetted, his mouth hung open…”

(Tip: Particularly in editing, make note of the scene pacing to ultimately determine whether telling or showing is a better option!)

3) Adverbs are Evil

While it’s true that an excess of these handy descriptors can leave one feeling a little worn-out and overstimulated, most readers I’ve talked to actually enjoy a sprinkling of adverbs in their word buffet. It’s perfectly all right to mix up smirking with smiling smugly, or to have a character do something alarmingly, charmingly, happily or sadly. The key isn’t so much to strictly avoid one thing or another as it is to not let your writing go stale by ONLY relying on one style – like ALL ADVERBS, or NO ADVERBS. Give the readers a good mix, and it will help keep your storytelling fresh!

4) The first draft is the worst it will ever be

I WISH THIS WAS TRUE.

Unfortunately, after 11+ rewrites on one of my favorite stories, I have realized that it’s entirely possible to write a draft worse than the one you started out with – one that strays too far from the heart of the story you set out to tell. The trick is to be willing to try different paths until you find the right one, and to not be afraid to make it worse before you make it what it should be. Writing is not a straight line between “rough first draft” and “perfect final product.” Sometimes you may get lost in the quagmire, detour, retrace your steps and lose your mind a little before you reach your destination. But it’s all good, because it’s all part of your process.

Are there any writing tips you’d add to this list? Leave a comment and tell us about them!

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