Ill-Advised: Five Overrated Writing Tips (And More Helpful Versions Of Them)

Every now and then, when my creative streak is being particularly uncooperative, I Google for things like ‘tips for writers’ or ‘how to write better’ and scroll through the thousand and one bullet points that pop up. You know, just in case one of them helps me see the light, or at least points me towards the door that might lead to the corridor at the end of which there’s the possibility of light.

And at first glance, it seems like there’s all the light-seeing wisdom one could ask for. You have advice from editors, advice from copywriters, advice from writing teachers, and of course the classic bits of advice from famous writers that get circulated as squiggly text boxes with fancy borders.

But among all of this, I see a lot of the same stuff come up. And I do mean a lot.

Now in some cases, the universally accepted stuff is the right stuff. Most people recommend exercise, for instance, as part of a healthy lifestyle, and it’s true – you do need exercise (it’s an entirely different matter that you need Nutella pancakes more). But sometimes, tips just get circulated over and over and people assume that they’re universally true, whereas if you look a little closer, you see that some of those just aren’t that helpful. Either they’re too vague, or they’re too binding, or they’re too specific. Good writing advice, in my opinion, should be something that provides direction for writers without tying them to anything that they can’t reasonably do on a regular basis. And unfortunately, a lot of the tips shared in the search results for ‘how to become a good writer’ come under this category.

And as the owner of a blog about writing advice for literary fiction, I couldn’t sit by and not respond.

So here are five of those over-circulated writing tips, ones you’ve probably encountered a hundred times, along with more helpful versions based on my experience as a writer and what I think would have more effective results.

Tip #1: Know your character in and out

A lot of writers say that to bring characters to life in a story, you need to know everything you can about them, which means investing time in character biographies. Problem is, you might spend ages working out the details of Character X, only to realise you don’t need around 90% of that information. If your story is about a girl who wakes up in the debris of a plane crash, for instance, you probably don’t need to know the ins and outs of the last test she failed or what she likes to order at McDonald’s – unless those details are integral to how your plot plays out.

More helpful version

Add character detail to bring aspects of your plot to life. For instance, the girl in the plane crash might see charred body parts, which reminds her – gruesomely – of the time they overcooked her burger at McDonald’s last Labor Day. That’s a vivid bit of detail that also tells you a little more about the girl and her life before the crash, but it also has direct relevance to what’s happening in the plot.

Tip #2: Write what you know.

I think this was originally a Hemingway quote, but it’s spread across the Internet like a virus. The typical interpretation of this is that when you’re starting out, write about things that you’re familiar with, like characters similar to yourself or your close circle, or locations like the ones you grew up in. Which is okay, but that’s not a story in itself. Evolving as a writer is all about trying new things. By steeping yourself too much in the people and situations you know, you risk limiting your imagination in terms of where the storyline can go.

More helpful version

Borrow details from people and places you know to add colour. Maybe someone eats their food as fussily as your mom does, or the protagonist is invited to give a talk at a school that looks like the school you once attended a debate meet at. This helps to make those aspects of your story feel more vivid – because they are people and places you have actually seen – but also leaves you free to take your story any place it needs to be.

Tip #3: Have a writing routine.

A lot of writers advocate having a set time and place for writing every day – the idea being that the sameness of the ritual will, over time, jolt your brain into creativity each time you sit down. However, while your brain will certainly be trained into thinking ‘hey, it’s story time’ (Pavlovian conditioning much?), guaranteeing the actual creative output is a whole different ballgame.

More helpful version

When you are in the mood to write, have a ritual in place that you can implement immediately. For me, that ritual is – grab my notebook, write out either the first few lines or an outline of what’s in my head, make coffee while thinking about what I plan to write next, and then come back and write at a stretch, usually somewhere quiet like in the studio or on the balcony. Writing down the first few lines or points is an essential part of this – if I were to start by making coffee, I risk getting distracted by other thoughts. With something down on paper, I can let my thoughts run along that direction and get myself a nice brew in the process. Be sure to have a ritual that’s easy to execute at once, and preferably one that accommodates other people who might be living with you (for instance, if my husband needs the studio, I can go out onto the balcony so that we both have our space).

Tip #4: Write every day, no matter what

Just as our muscles need recovery time after workouts, our creativity needs rest days too. I’m personally not a fan of the whole daily writing goal approach (listen to my podcast episode on the word count fallacy for more), largely because there are certain days when I am all ‘written out’ (probably after a late-night session the day before) and I genuinely need a break. And I know that if I try to write, what I write will be meaningless.

More helpful version

If you’ve decided to write on a certain day, go through with it. All of us have times when we like to procrastinate with our writing even if we have a plan for it, simply because writing is hard. And it’s true. It is hard. But what’s a helluva lot harder is dealing all night with the guilt of having wasted the day despite knowing that you could have written some good stuff if you’d only taken the effort. So make yourself sit down, open the page, and write the first few lines. It’ll just get easier from there.

Tip #5: Just write

These are perhaps the two words that I am most triggered by 😁. While I understand the philosophy of writing what you can in the moment and not getting crippled by overthinking, I have found absolutely no utility in squeezing words out of myself when it just won’t happen. Once again, if you’ve listened to my podcast episode, you know why – TL;DR version, think about trying to make lemonade out of a hundred-year-old-lemon.

More helpful version

When you have something worth writing about, write it down immediately. We often let go of great ideas because we don’t immediately note them down – don’t do that. Open up the Notes app on your phone, grab a piece of paper, record a voice note, anything that works in the moment. Make as many notes as you can about what’s in your head – sentences, character details, bits of dialogue, potential endings, anything. That way, when you have the time and will later for a longer writing session, you have everything you need to get started.

I’d like to clarify that I am by no means being prescriptive, and one or more of these five over-circulated tips may actually be tips that you personally find useful. My main grouch with them is that many writers and writing websites keep parroting these bits of advice without trying to go further into the nuts and bolts of it, or without allowing for the erraticism inherent in creating art. I believe in a writing lifestyle that embraces individual differences and fluid routines while emphasising on as much high-quality output as possible, which is what the reworked versions of these tips should help you achieve. And of course, if you’ve got even better versions of them or brand-new tips that have worked miracles for you, go ahead and share in the comment section. I’d love to learn from you!

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