11 Types Of Bad Writing Advice

This post, from Dr. Susan K. Perry, PhD, originally appeared on the Psychology Today site on 6/27/09.

All advice is suspect. I’m not suggesting you break all the so-called rules of creativity you’ve collected. Only that every tip can be counteracted with its opposite. And some advice is just plain bad for you. If interviewing 76 successful novelists and poets taught me one thing, it’s this: advice that one person swears by, another will find ludicrous. Here, then, are 11 types of advice to avoid:

1. Advice that limits your potential. An online student of mine once asked if what a famous novelist had written was correct, that if you’d left a novel unfinished for a few years, it was a lost cause. I reassured her that if her passion for the project was still there, or could be resurrected, she could pick it up again. One writer went back to a novel he’d put aside more than a decade before and was able to salvage parts of it. He’s now happily engaged with a new version of the project.

2. Advice that cramps your imagination. Some people would have you write only from your own point of view or about a group to which you belong. That’s too rigid. Credible stories and poems have been written from the point of view of the opposite gender or from some other time or culture that you couldn’t possibly know personally. Writing is about pretending.

3. Advice that insists there’s one way to schedule your creativity. Must you write every single day? If you don’t devote yourself to writing full-time, does that mean you’re not taking yourself seriously? Avoid any advice that starts "You MUST," or that feels like a punishment. Productive artists work out all sorts of schedules that fit in with the rest of their lives.

4. Advice that makes you feel bad about yourself. A young poet told me she’d felt devastated by the admonition a teacher once gave her to put her poems in a drawer for ten years before actually sending them out. She took the advice literally and was thoroughly stymied. In fact, that kind of advice plays into a paralyzing perfectionism. Usually a few days or weeks is enough to see your words through fresh eyes.

5. Advice that tells you more about the advisor than about your own work. A talented poet friend of mine showed some of her work, much of which tends to be about the darker side of dysfunctional family life, to a co-worker. The listener’s response was this: "Don’t you ever write anything about nature?" The water cooler critic in this case apparently thinks poems are only about pretty things.

Read the rest of the post, containing items #6-11, on Psychology Today.