Don’t Say Said: The Five Stupidest Bits of Advice People Give Writers

Writers and artists, it seems, receive more outside advice on their craft than any other sort. From suggestions on ideas for a story to tiny things they liked or didn’t like in our last works, people are more willing to give their two cents to us than to a street beggar. Some of it is legit, some is advice that can be recognized as quotes from other writers, and some? Well, some of it is just ridiculous.

The Five Stupidest Bits of Advice People Give Writers

advice

1. Don’t Say Said

This is probably the most prevalent of dumb suggestions. The idea behind it makes sense, which makes this advice so much more dangerous. The idea is this: instead of saying said, you should use a word with more meaning and emotion behind it. A stronger word.

One source even turned the suggestion into a poem:

dont say said

I’ll admit, it’s cute. But it’s still bad advice. More often than not, you don’t want a stronger word than said, for two reasons: one, because the tag could become distracting. You shouldn’t have to tell us if he spoke slowly or rushed or “grunted, growled, sniveled or snarled”. The words you use, the dialogue itself, should be enough to tell us that. If it doesn’t, then you need to tweak the dialogue, not change the tag. And two, using too many strong tags will make your work seem overdramatic. Real people aren’t constantly wailing and crying and growling and screaming and whooping their words. Sometimes, people just say things. So should your characters.

2. Force Yourself to Write…

…even when you don’t want to. This is one I’ve heard even from teachers and professionals themselves, and they’re half right. You should make yourself write everyday, even if you don’t want to. But you shouldn’t work on the story, poem, or novel you’re currently trying to get published when you don’t have the inspiration or ideas for it. Instead, step back and write about something else for a while. Whether it be to fiddle about with another project or just to write about something that happened that day, I find it best to try and write a minimum of one hour a day. But trying to work on your main project even when you don’t have anything to add to it is a bad idea. Not only will you most likely have to go back and scrap everything you just wrote, this is a surefire way to kill your muse and could result in just one more failed novel that will never be finished. Don’t force yourself. Inspiration will come back on its own, usually within a few days.

3. Write What you Know

This is probably the most obviously supid advice that I constantly hear. Of course we can’t just write what we know; if we did, where would fantasy or science fiction stories come from? Instead, remember this: the best lies are the ones rooted in truth. You don’t have to write from life or write what you know. Instead, do research about what you’re working on — if you’re writing a crime novel, you had better learn at least the basics of blood spatter and CSI techniques — and from there, lie. I recently wrote a story from the point of view of a seven year old girl adopted by gay men. Now, I’m a 23 year old transman raised by divorced but very straight parents. Obviously, I don’t know from personal experience what this is like. However, I remember what it was like to have my childhood values tested and proven wrong, how it felt to be separated from my father upon my parent’s divorce, and I did a hell of a lot of research into modern adoption and foster care. In the end, I’ll say this instead: you don’t have to know what you’re writing when you start, but you had best be sure you know it by the end.

4. Write How you Talk

Okay, first thing first. Being autistic, I don’t talk much, making this particularly useless advice for me. As such, I might be biased, adding this to the top five. There might be worse advice out there that I haven’t gone over yet. Nonetheless, this is one that I hear a lot, and one that I’ve dealt with personally as an editor. I’ve had a few people who, upon receiving my revisions, told me they were going to keep everything as it was, because that was how they talked. Okay, fine. You can do that, but only if the entire story is about a tale that some old guy is telling his grandkids around the fire, and so the entire thing is framed in quotes. Otherwise, you need to write how you write, not how you talk.

Almost everyone has a different writing voice than their speaking voice. It can be frustrating because often it will take a while to find your voice as an author. Once you find it, though, it’s worth it. Writing how you talk has its own issues. First of all, we repeat the same words over and over when we’re talking. If you’ve ever had to give an impromptu speech or explain something off the cuff, then you know what I mean. We end up feeling like a broken record by the time we’re a dozen sentences in. Reading a paragraph with the same words in every sentence will bore the reader, guaranteed. And secondly, using too much slang in our writing can be a bad thing, especially if we’re writing it in third person. Colloquial language isn’t a bad thing at heart, but having the narrator of a story say like every other sentence or misuse literally will look unprofessional and will thoroughly ruin one’s hopes of publication.

5. Never Show, Always Tell

This is good advice 99% of the time. However, some people take it too far. Most things should be shown, yes. You shouldn’t tell us your character was scared, you should show us the way his heart rate picks up, the way his arms come up on their own to stand between himself and the source of his terror. Good, great. Please, show us that. However, there are some things that can just be left up to summary and still be okay.

For instance, say your character is a 25 year old living in New York City. Now, say they were born in a small town down south. This is, of course, important to the story; it makes your character who they are. However, say you’re writing a short story about this character, no longer than three thousand words. Are you going to devote five hundred of those to showing us the town they grew up in and the stables they worked at and how her mother carried strict country values? No, of course not. Instead, it can be mentioned by another character, or can simply be told to the reader: “being a small town girl at heart, she often found herself slightly startled by the openness of her new roommates, the sort which seemed valued by cityfolk as being straightforward but which she knew her mother would have simply called disrespect.”

You have to decide for yourself what is important enough to be shown and what should instead be told. If I was to cut it down to the simplest terms, anything happening in the present or in flashback should be shown, and anything from the past can be told. Of course, there are exceptions, so you’ll have to judge for yourself when the time comes.

bonus

Write Like No One is Going to Read it

While yes, I can see how this is meant to take away some of the stress and fear of writing, it is nonetheless a really stupid idea. If I wrote like no one was going to read it, I wouldn’t have to put in half of the information because it’s already in my head. Beside that, if you write like no one will read it, how are you supposed to know who your audience is? Writing has to be done very differently if you’re aiming a book for pre-teens versus writing it for adults. Better advice: write knowing that no one is going to read this draft. Don’t be scared to make mistakes, because they can all be fixed. First draft is just to get it all on the page. Editing comes after.

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