I keep having to make grumpy TikTok videos and Twitter posts because I keep running into bad writing advice. So much of it. Everything from, “word count doesn’t matter!” to “editing is a waste of money” to “all critique is equal!” There’s just so much of it, and it never fails to make my hair stand on end.
To be clear here, to me, there are two categories of writing: pleasure and business. If you are writing just for the pure pleasure of creation, most of my writing advice is of only marginal use to you unless you’re trying to hone your craft for yourself. There is nothing wrong whatsoever with writing for pleasure. I draw for pleasure. I do a lot of arts for fun and am not trying to master any of them. They’re creative outlets for me. While I may be quite good at some of them, I’m still just doing it for me. My advice for people writing for pleasure is very different than for those who are trying to get published.
My advice isn’t always popular. I mean, whose is? Nobody’s anything is always popular. Except maybe pet pictures. I have yet to see a pet picture I didn’t like (absent issues with care and well-being of the animal in question). I try to be kind and considerate and understand that there are people from all walks of life and from all different experiences, but there are times where I just have to step in and say, “No, this isn’t true.”
I try to be kind and considerate and understand that there are people from all walks of life and from all different experiences, but there are times where I just have to step in and say, ‘No, this isn’t true.’
I’m not alone in my opinions most of the time, either. I am friendly with a number of editors who will back me up if I say something because I’m not just talking out my backside. I can back my opinions (on writing) up. Now if you ask me my opinion on sports, I have nothing to back that up with. Sportsball and I? Different universes. But my opinions often are the ones people don’t want to hear because it makes writing seem too much like work.
The unfortunate reality I have had to confront, and all of us have to confront sooner or later, is that if we are writing with the intent to publish our books and sell them, it’s a business. Yes, we are artists. Of course we are. I’m not saying we should all be identical to one another or any such nonsense. But if you are writing for publication and intend to make a go at the career and business of writing, there are a lot of harsh truths you have to come to terms with.
Writing has rules, as do genres. Editing is extremely important. Critique is valuable, and where it comes from is important. Someone on Twitter growled at me when I said you should weight critique from vetted or professional sources higher than you do rando comments. And I’m sorry, you should. They came back at me claiming they don’t need to be a professional chef to be able to say they don’t like the food. That’s true. However, that critique isn’t helpful to a writer. The critique we should listen to is by the people who (continuing the chef analogy) can say, “Your cumin balance is off with the rest of this and is making it bitter. Here, let’s change up the recipe a touch so we can stave off that edge. Try adding a little molasses.”
Because in my mind we’re making chili. And that’s how you fix a chili that has too much cumin and is bitter. Also, you can add a little water and add more guts to the chili. Toss in a few more peppers and beans if you can.
That isn’t to say the world at large’s comments don’t have merit–you don’t need to be an expert in writing to notice something is terribly written or otherwise lacking. Hardly so. But where the lack of expertise falls flat is, most of the time, the people making the critique of a writer’s work don’t really know how to fix it. They might be able to identify a problem, but fixing it requires more than just deleting it.
Writing advice that also follows the vein of “the corporate shills don’t know anything, just write what YOU want to write!” is equally poor. The reality is, if you’re going to write for publishing, you have to care what the market wants to some extent. If you want to completely ignore the rules for your genre, you run the risk of not selling and being review bombed OR never being picked up by a publisher or agent. If you are okay with those eventualities, then be honest with yourself: you’re writing because you love it, not because it’s a career. Which is fine–I encourage it, even. But stop dispensing advice like that to people who are trying to be published and want to make a go of turning it into a career.
Part of the reason I take this bad advice so dang personally is because I have seen so many writers be given horrible suggestions that damage their chances. And I get sick to my bones when people are being given bad career advice because I know what it’s like to be them and know nothing of the writing world and be starry-eyed and excited. I got taken advantage of during that time by several people who I thought had my best interests at heart. They did not.
I get sick to my bones when people are given bad career advice because I know what it’s like to be them and know nothing of the world and be starry-eyed and excited. I got taken advantage of during that time by several people who I thought had my best interests at heart. They did not.E. Prybylski
I get wanting to buck the system and wanting to stick it to “the man.” I do. The Big Five have issues with all sorts of things, and they certainly aren’t always right. I’m all for the indie authors breaking the mold and stepping outside the expected boundaries of writing to do new things. Yes, do it. Rock it. Just recognize that it isn’t right for everyone. There’s a reason a lot of the more conventional writing advice exists. And I don’t mean things about gender, race, or what have you. I mean things like: avoid using too many adverbs; semicolons should be used judiciously; writing what you know…those various pieces of advice exist for a reason. And it’s not just to “keep writers down.”
Then there are the writers who say, “Well ‘x’ big star can get away with it. Why can’t I?” Because you’re not them. They can get away with breaking rules because they did their time following them. Tolkein was able to break rules regarding word counts because he started with several smaller books and proved he could sell them (Also, The Two Towers was just barely over 150k, so not outrageous for that genre). Sir Terry Pratchett didn’t need chapters because he was Sir Terry Pratchett, and his writing flowed like that. He also used footnotes in a unique way that I wouldn’t reccommend for most writers, despite him having pulled it off with panache. There are hundreds of exceptions to the rules out there. But you aren’t them yet. Start by coloring inside the lines (within reason).
I promise you. My advice isn’t designed to crush your soul as a writer. I want the opposite for you. I want you thriving, healthy, and making money (if that’s what you want). I’m not a corporate shill. My publishing company is teeny tiny, and I don’t make enough to be a “corporate” anything. I’m also not suggesting you make cookie-cutter books that are just like everyone else’s. However, what you need to do is stay within reasonable margins as far as writing is concerned. Learn the craft well and intimately first before you decide what rules to break and what rules to follow. If you never learn, understand, and internalize the rules, you won’t know when and how to break them.
In addition to my writing, I have been a professional violinist. I have played for thirty years, everything from darkwave synth to Vivaldi. There are rules in music, too. Things like time signatures and keys. I had to learn those rules before I could break them. Breaking rules is great; musicians do it all the time, but if you never learn them to start with, you just sound like a disaster. This is the same for any art.
Ultimately, this whole post is just a big caveat emptor for writing advice on social media. Be careful what you listen to and who. Not everyone is right, not everyone has your best interests at heart, and you are better off focusing your energy on learning the rules first.
E. Prybylski has been in the publishing industry as an editor since 2009, starting at Divertir Publishing and eventually partnering with her close friend Richard Belanger to begin Insomnia Publishing.
Ever since childhood, E. has been an avid reader and writer of fantasy. The first chapter book she remembers reading is The Hobbit, followed swiftly by most of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series. In high school, she perfected the skill of walking while reading without slamming into anyone. Mostly.
When she isn’t reading or writing, E. is an active member of the Society for Creative Anachronism and has a B.A. in European history from SNHU. In addition to her many historical pursuits, E. is a musician of multiple instruments, a cat mom, and a loving wife to her husband, J. E. also speaks out for the disability and chronic illness communities being a sufferer of chronic migraines and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.