There are thousands of writers who have blogs focused on writing. While much of it is useful, a few pieces of bad advice have gained popularity and keep showing up in my feed. Advice, that if taken literally, could ruin a perfectly good story. Watch out for these toxic writing rules.
Not all writing advice is good
Part 1- Removing specific words from your MS
Anyone who uses “always” or “never” in statements about writing are usually wrong. Exceptions are always available. And anyone who says you should blanket eliminate specific words or classes of words is simply wrong.
Bad advice: Use “find/replace” to eliminate “that” from your MS.
Poor ‘that.’ This little word is much abused.
Sometimes it is optional and can be kept or cut to improve readibility or cadence.
He also knows that I wouldn’t ask unless I had no choice.
In this example “that” is optional. The decision to keep or remove it belongs to the author.
Sometimes “that” is absolutely necessary in the sentence. Removing it would change the sentence meaning.
That as a determiner
I never really knew hate until I met that woman.
That as a pronoun
That can’t be true.
That in restrictive clauses
She ate the cupcake that I was saving for Julie.
Better advice: Remove unnecessary instances of “that” if it improves readability and sentence cadence.
Another grossly misunderstood verb is ‘to be.’
Bad Advice: Is/Was indicates passive voice. Rewrite these sentence in active voice.
Is/was does not always indicate passive voice
I see this mistake at least once a week.
Passive voice is a sentence whose subject does not perform the action.
“John was attacked by wild dogs.” -passive. John is the subject, but the dogs are performing the action.
“Wild dogs attacked John.”– active. Dogs is the subject and the dogs are performing the action.
Is/was can also function as a linking verb
Ice cream is delicious.
You could change “is” to “tastes” but the function is still a linking verb and “Ice cream tastes delicious” will have a different voice. Since most people would use “is” in ordinary speech, simply swapping verbs might have unintended consequences.
Is/was can also indicate progressive tense.
The ice cream is melting on the counter.
Changing this to “The ice cream melted on the counter,” changes the meaning of the sentence. In the progressive tense, the ice cream is still in the process of melting.
Need more information about passive voice?
Better advice: Overuse of is/was can indicate too much telling or lack of action.
Bad advice: Never use adverbs
While most writers know that adverbs can indicate weak verbs, there are instances where adverbs are useful. These occur when the word a writer needs doesn’t exist or when a writer wishes to create a specific effect.
“Turns out your friend here is only mostly dead.” -William Goldman
Better advice: Avoid adverbs when it results in better writing.
Part 2- Showing is “always” better than telling
“The Judgement” -Franz Kafka
It was a Sunday in the very height of spring. Georg Bendemann, a young merchant, was sitting in his own room on the first floor of one of a long row of small, ramshackle houses stretching beside the river which were scarcely distinguishable from each other except in height and coloring.
or from “The Country Doctor” -Franz Kafka
We were camping in the oasis. My companions were asleep.
These are two examples I found flipping through random pages in one book. Both these examples are almost pure telling. Kafka could have chosen to show birds chirping outside the window or trees laden with flowers. He could have written about the tent flapping in the dry breeze, or the snores of his companions, but instead, he chose a more simple approach. One that spends the least amount of time establishing a setting. Why? Because in these instances showing would have delayed the start of the real story. Rather than waste time on building a setting, Kafka used one line of clean telling to ground the reader so the real story could begin right away.
Telling becomes a problem when writers use it to skip over interesting details that the reader wants to know. It also creates distance between the reader and the character’s experience. Or it dumps piles of uninteresting backstory on readers.
Better advice: Showing is usually better than telling
In most cases showing is preferred to telling, but the writer must use his/her best judgment to decide when telling better serves to story.
Want to know more about turning showing into telling?
Part 3- Alternatives to…
These lists are all over Pinterest. Usually, they are just masking another problem.
Alternatives to “Said”
Flashy dialogue tags are the worst. For nearly every instance where a dialogue tag is needed “said” will suffice. You want your dialogue tags to disappear on the page, not draw attention to themselves. Flashy tags pull attention away from your dialogue. This is not what you want.
The two primary tags are “said” and “asked.” These two will vanish on the page, and you never need to worry about overusing them.
The secondary list of acceptable dialogue tags contains words like shouted, whispered, mumbled, muttered, etc. Notice these are all things you can do while speaking. You can’t actually spit dialogue or hiss it. Using one from the secondary list is acceptable when the dialogue cannot carry the complete meaning alone. Consider:
“Jerk,” she said.
“Jerk,” she muttered.
“Jerk,” she shouted.
Here the true meaning of the dialogue isn’t conveyed without the tag. Notice how the tag changes that meaning.
Alternatives to “Look”
If you’re overusing look, simply changing the word to something else isn’t going to fix the problem. First you must identify the verb’s function.
Linking verb- She looked tired.
Overuse of looked in this context may indicate too much telling. Simply changing “looked” for “appeared” isn’t going to fix the problem. Instead, show the reader the visual clues the main character used to reach that conclusion. For example:
She rubbed her eyes with the back of her hands and yawned.
Action verb- She looked at him.
If you’re overusing looked in this context, then it has likely become a word crutch, or a meaningless beat in your dialogue. Decide why she is looking at him. What does she notice? If it’s important, focus on that, if it’s not, cut the line. When you are constructing your Motivation-Reaction units in dialogue, any part of the reaction can be the beat. This includes involuntary physical responses, internal thoughts, or physical movements.
Alternatives to “went”
Overuse of “went” likely indicates too much telling. If you are using it in a transition, you may not need it since you likely would have established where your characters were headed in the previous scene. Again, this is where context and intention matter. A thesaurus isn’t going to fix an underlying structural problem.
These are just a few examples of the worst offenders, but there are plenty of others on Pinterest. If you stumble across these lists, use your best judgment.
While most writing bloggers have good intentions, some are unwittingly giving out incorrect or incomplete advice. Anyone can publish on the internet. With any advice you read, make sure you verify it against trusted sources, test it out for yourself, and see if it works for you. Identify sites you trust and always use your best judgment.
Did you find this article useful? Please share with other writers on social media.