Become a Writer Today

Terrible Writing Advice: 20 Common Mistakes You Must Avoid

May 27, 2020
Become a Writer Today
Terrible Writing Advice: 20 Common Mistakes You Must Avoid
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Become a Writer Today
Terrible Writing Advice: 20 Common Mistakes You Must Avoid
May 27, 2020

I've collected lots of terrible writing advice over the years, from talks, seminars, courses, and books. It's easy to find good writing advice for self-publishing, writing a book, or earning more money as a freelance or  non-fiction writer.

But what about terrible writing advice? What type of advice should you avoid if you want to become a successful author or profitable writer?

This guide to terrible writing advice also includes some practical tips from one of my favourite writers: Ernest Hemingway.

Let's dive in.

Support the show (https://becomeawritertoday.com/join)

Show Notes Transcript

I've collected lots of terrible writing advice over the years, from talks, seminars, courses, and books. It's easy to find good writing advice for self-publishing, writing a book, or earning more money as a freelance or  non-fiction writer.

But what about terrible writing advice? What type of advice should you avoid if you want to become a successful author or profitable writer?

This guide to terrible writing advice also includes some practical tips from one of my favourite writers: Ernest Hemingway.

Let's dive in.

Support the show (https://becomeawritertoday.com/join)

Bryan:
Write perfect sentences. So it's impossible to write a perfect sentence. Your time is far better spent getting your work or your writing out into the world in front of readers and editors who can help you improve your articles or your writing.

Introduction:
Welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you'll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.

Bryan:
What's the worst piece of writing advice you'll ever come across or ever receive? Hi, there. My name is Bryan Collins and welcome to the Become A Writer Today podcast. And in this week's episode, I'm going to explain the 20 common mistakes every writer should avoid based on some terrible writing advice I've read or come across over the years.

Bryan:
Now, I've collected lots of terrible writing advice from books, courses, seminars and other teachers. It's easy to find lots of good writing advice, but it's even easier to find bad writing advice. So let's dive in.

Bryan:
Number one, write perfect sentences. So it's impossible to write a perfect sentence. Your time is far better spent getting your work or your writing out into the world in front of readers and editors who can help you improve your articles or your writing. A good sentence is often good enough. Years ago, I enrolled in a series of literary nonfiction and fiction writing classes in the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin.

Bryan:
And we all learned about what it took to write one true sentence. I took this message to heart and I spent too much time trying to perfect my sentences. That's part of the greater process, but only to a point, because I should have gotten feedback from readers and editors sooner.

Bryan:
Here's what you should do instead. Get into the habit of sharing early drafts of your work with a close group of beta readers that you trust. And that's an approach that I followed with previous books. A copy editor would help you fix sentences so they fit the publication in question. Remember a publication editor might rewrite that sentence that you spent hours perfecting.

Bryan:
Number two, listen to the grammar police. Many top authors break grammar rules all the time to relate to their readers. Irvine Welsh, the author of Trainspotting, for example, often uses inner monologues and dialect, which break lots of different grammar rules. A piece of writing, devoid of compelling imagery, stories, or advice isn't going to engage readers, no matter how grammatically correct.

Bryan:
The grammar police would probably cast to get me for this one, but don't worry about getting it 100% right. Putting grammar worries above style or above story is terrible writing advice. Instead, fix what you can and then move on. And unless it's going into print, you can probably fix it after the publication date anyway.

Bryan:
Number three, longer sentences demonstrate how intelligent you are. Classic works like Ulysses are full of rich sentences that stretch on for pages. So writers today, you should try the same thing, right? Well, no. Casual readers don't have a lot of time and attention. And unless you're writing literary fiction, you're probably better off breaking anything longer than a few sentences using formatting like bullet points, italics, or even the humble full stop.

Bryan:
If you're writing a book, consider emulating the style of thriller writers who use short, succinct sentences, because this approach will help you hook the attention of readers and keep them moving from one sentence, paragraph and page to the next.

Bryan:
Similarly, if you're trying to show off how intelligent you are by using non-multi-syllable words, you're probably going to alienate readers. Here's a piece of advice from Will Strunk and EB White a piece of good writing advice. They said omit needless words. And I take that to heart.

Bryan:
Number four, write for yourself. Some new writers believe they can produce pages of prose about whatever's on their mind, but then they get frustrated when nobody wants to read their work. Well, here's the thing. That's not writing. That's an exercise in vanity. Unless your name is JD Salinger, writing for yourself alone is terrible writing advice. The best writers always consider who their ideal reader is and how they can inform, inspire, entertain, or educate them.

Bryan:
So I encourage you to craft an ideal reader and speak to that one person rather than speaking to many. What are their hopes, dreams, fears, and frustrations. Keep notes about their age or employment, personal circumstances and so on. This profile could be a combination of interviews you've had with readers or insights that you've gathered from your research. But you should work your insights into your articles on stories.

Bryan:
Number five, ignore critical feedback. Many people tinker with their manuscripts for years early in the morning and late at night. They rework their writings endlessly without ever showing the results to anyone. And that's a tragedy because feedback from readers and editors will help you figure out what works and what doesn't work.

Bryan:
Instead, take this piece of good writing advice from Stephen King who said, "Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open." Yes, you might get negative feedback when you get to the rewriting process, but every writer does at some point. Whereas working alone on your writing for months on end is just a big writing mistake. So I encourage you to join a writing group, either in person or virtually and give them extracts of your work.

Bryan:
I was in a creative writing group for a few years and I shard good stories and bad stories. And yes, getting feedback was tough, but it helped me figure out what people enjoy reading. If you don't have a writing group near where you live, consider publishing your work online on a blog, or if you don't want to set up a blog, set up on Medium because it's a great place for nonfiction writers who want to get feedback from readers fast. Remember, consistency builds competency.

Bryan:
Number six, it's okay to write your book at the weekends. New writers and aspiring authors often believe they can produce a book if they sit down for hours on Saturday or Sunday afternoon after the working week. If you write a little every now and again, you'll find it far harder to craft your ideas, sentences on stories and to finish what you've started. On the other hand, if you turn up every day and produce just a little bit, just a few hundred words, you're far more likely to finish something you're proud of.

Bryan:
Instead of writing a little at the weekends, take this bit of advice from 19th century novelist, Anthony Troloppe. He Wrote an average of three, yes, that's right, three books a year by writing 250 words every 15 minutes between half five in the morning and breakfast. And he said this approach allowed him to produce over 10 pages of ordinary novel volumes a day.

Bryan:
Now, if that sounds like a lot, just consider writing 250 words a day, because you'll quickly find those writing sessions will stack up on top of each other. In other words, I'm encouraging you to craft a good writing schedule and stick to it.

Bryan:
If you decide you're going to write at half five or 6:00 AM for 30 minutes or after the kids go to bed in the evening, just commit for five days a week. And if you miss one day, don't miss the next day. Setting a writing goal will help you too.

Bryan:
Number seven, deadlines don't matter. If you're a nonfiction writer or a freelance writer, an editor will accept the occasional late submission. But if you're consistently late, you'll tarnish your reputation as a freelance writer that editors can rely on.

Bryan:
Instead, what I'd say to you is deadlines are your friends. So make friends with them. If you're the type of writer that ships their work on time, you're going to get more commissions and you're going to get paid. Use Google calendar and set two deadlines that one, based on whatever your editor expects and then set another one that's a little bit closer based on when you think you're going to finish. And that way you've got a margin for error if you missed the first deadline.

Bryan:
Number eight, writes across genres if you're starting out. Profitable writers, pick one genre or one niche and they focus on learning all about that genre or niche before they branch out into a new one. This helps them build their expertise and understand subject matter to their audience on even marketing the writing. By all means explore different types of writing on the side.

Bryan:
It could help you improve your style, but if you want to take your writing seriously and get paid, and yes, you deserve to get paid, avoid the mistake of spreading yourself too thinly across multiple genres and subjects. At least, the first.

Bryan:
I met the story consultant Robert McKee at a conference for nonfiction writers years ago when he told me, "Write what you to love to read." So I went home and checked my Kindle library and found I was reading mostly business books alongside some self-help. And yet at the time I was trying to write thrillers and science fiction. So I stopped writing those kinds of books and I wrote nonfiction instead. And within a few months my income began to increase.

Bryan:
So download the Kindle app to your computer, or take a look at your bookshelf. See what's in your library, see what you enjoy last and ask yourself what bores you, what excites you and what you love to read and how that can afford what you write.

Bryan:
Number nine, write lots of books and articles and do it all at once. Many good or prolific authors like James Patterson are able to juggle multiple complicated writing projects and publish many books a year. If you're a new writer and you try to mirror their approach, you're going to make a big mistake. Writing multiple projects is a distraction and it will dilute your attention on resources.

Bryan:
And you're probably limited on both if you're a new writer, because you're balancing your creative career with perhaps a day job. Patterson and Cole have a team and even co-writers who help them and they're doing it full time. New writers on other hand, have other competing demands, and they've got to balance writing with learning the craft and so on. What's more, if you write many different things at once, you're going to delay that feeling of accomplishment that comes when you hit publish, or when you reach the end.

Bryan:
So avoid trying to write half a dozen freelance articles, two books and creating an online course at once. Believe me, I've tried to do that. Instead just pick one creative goal for the next three months and focus on that. If you're going to write a nonfiction book say no to that course that you're going to create. If you're going to start a blog, say no to those freelancing opportunities that have just come up.

Bryan:
If you're looking for a little bit of help, I do have a course called The Efficient Writer which can walk you through all of this. This specific course is at becomeawritertoday.com.

Bryan:
Number 10, write and edit at once. Multitasking won't help you become a more prolific writer. And I'm not talking about the type of multitasking where you're typing away and you've got your Twitter clients open and Facebook or Instagram or when you're looking at your phone and you're also working on your manuscript. What I'm getting at is when you're writing a difficult first draft and you're then reading back through your sentences, then you're saying to yourself, "That sentence isn't quite right. I'm going to change it. Or that story hook isn't quite what I was going for. I'm going to rework it."

Bryan:
If you do this, you're going to get into rewriting and editing, and writing all at the same time. And it will confuse you. Instead, work on your first draft doing one writing session and edit that draft doing a separate writing session because you engage different parts of the brain.

Bryan:
First thing, I like to write in the morning and edit in the afternoon. You don't have to follow my approach, but do consider how you can separate these activities.

Bryan:
Number 11, forget about style. If you fire up your word processor, sit down, and bang out a couple of hundred words, that should be enough to publish, right? Well, you might finish that article or book chapter, but what are you going to do with an editor that you want to appeal to says, "You didn't read our guidelines"? Putting your preferred style first is terrible writing advice. Instead, it's far better to read the style guide of the publication you want to write for in advance.

Bryan:
Use the language they prefer like consider how they format published works. For example, one publication I write for on Medium prefer a sentence case headlines, whereas another one likes title case. Getting that wrong is a sure fire way to get rejected.

Bryan:
A few years ago, I wanted to write for a high profile writing website online and I spent a while on my pitch and I sent it over to them. When I didn't hear back after a few weeks, I couldn't understand what I did wrong. And then I went back and I found their guidelines and I found I misread them because the guidelines said I need to include a secret password. Yes, that's right. A secret password in my pitch to prove that I'd read the guidelines. I hadn't done this so no wonder the editor rejected me.

Bryan:
So if you're going to pitch a publication, pay attention to the tone of voice, how they use first person versus third person, issues like sentence case and title case, their idea word count, preferred subject matter and so on.

Bryan:
Number 12, story doesn't matter. Information and facts from history are kind of like salt and pepper. They add flavor to your work, but if you overdo it, you'll put readers off because most readers don't get that emotional about facts. Instead, compelling stories form the heart of good writing, and that's hard to get right.

Bryan:
Such stories should persuade readers and help them remember what you wrote long after they reach the end. I've struggled inserting personal stories into my work over the years because I've worried about what people will think. It took me a while to figure out the problem isn't what people think, it's getting their attention in the first place.

Bryan:
Now, it can take a lifetime to master storytelling and it's something I've struggled with and it's something I still study. So the thing that I'm doing at the moment is keeping a library of personal stories in the journals that I can pull ideas from when I'm stuck and also maintaining a notebook or swipe file of what are stories that come across during my research. I'd also recommend a book story by Robert Key.

Bryan:
Number 13, outlines suck. When I was writing nonfiction or when I get into nonfiction, I didn't spend much time in outlines. I started in the middle and moved backwards or forwards because this was an approach that worked when I was writing fiction. But it wasn't efficient. I was thinking through the act of writing and that's useful for literary nonfiction, but not if you're wanting to write something instructional or a blog post or a series of freelance articles.

Bryan:
It's far better to write your idea down on a single index card and outline it using bullet points, far better to use a mind map, far better to know what you're going to write about before you sit down to write.

Bryan:
Number 14, write what you know. It's easy to write what you know. It feels comfortable. It feels good. Because if you're an expert in the chosen topic or niche, it's a lot of work to break into different ones. But here's the thing. When you've been doing it for a while, writing about what you know could get boring.

Bryan:
Your writing then becomes staid and you are going to miss out on something exciting. So give yourself a little room to experiment. If you've been writing a while and you're starting to earn an income. By all means work within your chosen genre because you got to pay the bills. Well, explore it. Try playing with the conventions of your genre over the reader's expectations. Keep a list of questions to ask before you start on a big project. Questions like what do I want to learn about? Who can I speak to about? How can I share what I've learned about and so on.

Bryan:
Number 15, write with pen and paper only. This is probably a controversial piece of writing advice. As I know many writers like using pen and paper. It liberates creative thinking in a way that digital tools can't. And yes, there is a time for pen and paper, particularly for exploratory writing or for diving deeper into your thinking. Or even if you're just getting overwhelmed or distracted or your wifi is not working.

Bryan:
But if you want to earn a living from writing, you need some good writing software and you need to spend time learning how to use this software like Scrivner for books or Vellum for self-publishing. Software for writers is easier than ever to use today on understanding how to turn your ideas into something that you can actually publish online and sell will help you launch your writing career. So spend a little time learning Scrivener or how to use WordPress or how platforms for writers like Medium work.

Bryan:
Number 16, learn to type so you can write faster. I learned how to touch type when I was around 15 in afterschool classes, and I took special pride in being able to knock out 50 and 60 and even 70 words a minute without making many corrections or errors. Typing is a useful skill for writers, but learning the basics of QWERTY typing isn't the fastest way to write.

Bryan:
Sure, you'll be able to produce more than picking out the letters with your fingers on the keyboard. But here's a little fun fact. The QWERTY keyboard is actually designed to slow down because it's based on old mechanical keyboards, which jammed if writers press too many buttons at once. Yes, learn to type, but know that you can reach a ceiling in terms of how much you're going to be able to type in an hour.

Bryan:
If you really want to skyrocket your writing, your output, I'd say to you spend time learning how to dictate. And that's an approach that I've been following over the past few years and it's helped me increase my writing dramatically. What's more, dictating can also help you with your writing in pain. If you've got RSI or repetitive strain injury, or if you've got issues from sitting down all day like sciatica, which I had a few years ago. And again, mastering the art of dictation is something that I cover in my course, The Efficient Writer.

Bryan:
Number 17, stop and learn the basics. Ernest Hemingway who is one of my personal writing heroes said, "We're all apprentices in a craft where no one will become a master." And I liked that because it gets into the idea of writing being a lifelong pursuit. So take art from him, writing like karate, painting or composing music is a pursuit. You can spend a lifetime studying and never master.

Bryan:
Part art and part science, it's a skillset you're going to have to spend a lifetime refining. And you always come across new ideas and new ways to tell stories, to connect with readers and move them emotionally. So rather than thinking, you understand what good writing is accept that learning never stops. What courses could you take to improve your skillset?

Bryan:
Over the past few years, I've taken writing classes by the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and Steve Martin via Masterclass. And I've also studied cup writing and I've also taken a number of courses in how to write emails. That's right emails. These writing teachers have all taught me how to think about writing in different ways. And I also regularly read books about the craft delving deeper into topics that I want to learn more about.

Bryan:
I recently finished a series of books on memoir by Mary Karr. And that's something I'd recommend checking out as well. The Art of Memoir is the book you should look for on Amazon. I tried to set aside 30 to 60 minutes every day where I can spend some time learning about something about writing or related to writing in some way.

Bryan:
Number 18, write without a plan. New writers often face the problem of sitting down at their desk and wondering, what now? They don't have an idea about what to write about or unsure of where to start. They waste precious writing time before or after work trying to get into a state of creative flow. And flow is that moment when you're so focused on what you're writing, but all sense of time and effort just fades away.

Bryan:
But it's hard to get there if you're distracted or you don't know where start. And I faced this problem for years. If you're engaged in exploratory writing or journaling, it's okay to see where your hands takes you or the mind leads. But this approach isn't necessarily conducive to a profitable freelance writing or blogging career.

Bryan:
Instead, I'd take this advice from Ernest Hemingway. Yes, Ernest is here again. He said, "I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well and that I refill at night from the Springs that fed us."

Bryan:
In other words, he stopped off writing when he had an idea that he could pick up on tomorrow. He stops when the going was good. He would even stop in the middle of a sentence. And this is a good tactic if you are struggling about writer's block or you find it hard to get into a state of creative flow when you sit down at your desk because sometimes one creative idea is a springboard into the next one. So leave yourself a prompt, make things a little easier for yourself so you can pick up from where you left off.

Bryan:
Number 19, it's impossible to make a living from writing these days. Yes, I know there's a recession and many people buy into the idea of the penny-less starving artists. They also don't like mixing, working on their art with earning a living. But here's the thing, writers have lots of opportunities for earning money today even if they're starting off. Opportunities that writers didn't have 20 or 30 years ago thanks to the internet.

Bryan:
You can always self-publish, start a writing or freelance writing career. You can find a writing job. You can publish on Medium. You can turn your books into courses. Under the relatively competent nonfiction writer can start earning a few hundred dollars a month on Medium right now today. So if you feel like you deserve to get paid, avoid treating it like a hobby. Instead, treat like a business. Treat it like a professional pursuit that deserves your time, attention and respect. You don't need to quit your day job either to do this. You can start a side hustle and that's something I've talked about previously on the podcast.

Bryan:
And finally, 20, marketing and writing don't mix. Many new writers feel icky when somebody starts talking about promoting their ideas or stories or gasp, marketing. I know I felt that way years ago. Artists don't have to worry about self-promotion because the work should stand for itself, right? Well, you do if you want to eat.

Bryan:
A blogger has got to attract website traffic. A freelance writer has got to find clients and other has to sell their books. Not promoting your work is a surefire way to avoid getting paid. And you don't want to get paid, right? Look, even Malcolm Gladwell has to promote his work. It seems like he found success early on easily, but he spent his early part of his career struggling to earn recognition.

Bryan:
His first book, The Tipping Point didn't sell that well when it was published at first. So Gladwell spent two years promoting the book via tours, talks, speaking events and interviews. He promoted it bit by bit until it became the success that it is today.

Bryan:
And he said, "The book didn't do well at first. I got it into my head and I kept touring and I kept giving talks about it. It might revive. I basically did endless promotions for two years.

Bryan:
And even today, Gladwell spends hundreds of hours talking and emailing other writers and readers about his ideas that he wants to use in future books. And while he's speaking, he engages his audience's reaction to figure out if what he's writing is interesting or boring, and if it's appealing to his ideal reader to his audience. He also uses arguments from his readers to inform his work. In other words, he's combined marketing with the creative process.

Bryan:
So there you go, 20 pieces of bad writing advice with some takeaways about how you can avoid each one of them. Remember, it takes practice and dedication to the craft. It takes a willingness to learn from more accomplished writers and authors, and to accept frank feedback. Every writer makes mistakes and comes across terrible writing advice from time to time. But successful ones get past these problems and they get back to us. They give the readers what they want.

Bryan:
So if you want to build your career as a profitable successful writer, you can start today. And finally, if you've enjoyed this podcast episode, please rate the show or leave a short review on the iTunes store because it will help Become a Writer Today podcast, and I'd really appreciate it.

Bryan:
I hope you enjoy this podcast episode. If you did, please leave a rating on the iTunes store. And if you want to accomplish more with your writing, please visit becomeawritertoday.com/join and I'll send you a free email course. Thanks for listening.