Bad Writing Advice explained

There’s a bunch of aphorisms about writing that started as good, pithy advice in part of someone’s lecture. Then they got pulled out of context and then misapplied.

Write what you know

  • What people think it means: People think this means that authors should stick to subjects they have personal experience with.
  • What it actually means: When you don’t know a subject, such as what it’s like to live on Mars, you extrapolate from your own personal experience. Never lived on Mars? No. But I have walked in a dusty place and seen the clouds of dust kick up around me. I’ve worn thick winter gloves, and know how hard it is to pick things up. I’ve been far away, without the ability to call home. When I combine what I know, with research, writing what I know can make a story more compelling.

Show, don’t tell

  • What people think it means: People think that it means that you have to write every single moment of the story in excruciating detail.
  • What it actually means: It mostly applies to your character’s internal life, emotions and physical sensations. “He felt angry because the man kept talking. He thought about stabbing him, but upon consideration, thought that would be messy,” reports on your character’s state instead of allowing the reader to experience it along with him. This has the effect of distancing the reader from the character.

    “His jaw ached as he ground his teeth together. That asshole would never stop bragging. Joe slid a hand down to his knife and gripped it. Later. He could use it later.” You know what? That’s still telling. All of writing is telling. What is different is that it gives specific sensations that your reader can experience with the character, creating more of a sense of immediacy. BUT there are times when telling is exactly the right thing to do. Unless it is important to the story, we do not need to experience every moment of a character getting out of bed and getting dressed. “He got up and got dressed” is telling, not showing and that’s perfectly okay.

Raise the stakes

  • What people think it means: People think that it means that they need to make things worse for the character by adding in more explosions and threats.
  • What it actually means: You do need to make things worse for the character, but raising the stakes refers to the character’s personal stakes in the situation. It’s not so much about the external circumstances as how much it matters to the character. For instance, an insult that goes straight to the heart of a character’s self-doubt can be just as much of a stakes raiser as introducing an evil overlord. Raise the personal stakes for the character.

Edited to add:

Kill your darlings

  • What people think it means: Delete the thing you love best in your manuscript. (Seriously, I’ve seen people take it that way.)
  • What it actually means: Just because you have written a beautiful turn of phrase, scene, or character, doesn’t necessarily mean that it belongs in the story. IF it is getting in the way of the story, even if you love it, sometimes you have to cut that bit. Sometimes, but not always, it’s appropriate to kill your darlings.
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41 Responses

  1. Pat J

    I’ve always loved Joe Haldeman’s response to “Write what you know”, paraphrased here from memory:

    “‘Write what you know’ is a solemn and totally false adage that explains why there are so many mediocre novels about English professors contemplating adultery.”

  2. Larissa

    I was taught in college to write what you know, which is something I disagree with (depending on what you WANT to write) and I love how you point out how bad that writing advice is! Did JK Rowling write what she knew? No-unless of course, she’s been a secret wizard this whole time. I understand what they mean by the term “Write what you know” but I think that it needs to be incorporated with other writing terms, especially for those who want to write fantasy, sci fi, etc.

  3. Amanda J

    I use some variation of “Show, don’t tell” in my writer’s group, but only ever for sections that are primarily emotional, which I guess means I’m on the right track.

  4. Jesús Couto Fandiño

    I always thought the point of “Show, dont tell” is to avoid that kind of book in which you are told that character X is a devious manipulator, but never see them doing anything shady, or that character Y is a tactical genius, because everybody says it in the book, not because you actually see them do anything… basically, you get a list of stuff that everybody in the story tells you is true, but you never see any reason for it.

  5. Hayley E. Lavik

    ‘Show, don’t tell’ messed me up for a long time. The product of a few bad critique groups in the early stages of learning. Took me ages to really trust my own judgement, even when I knew it was bad to take literally.

  6. Irina

    Now please do “kill your darlings”!

    Seriously, we had a writer visit in high school and the writer (who I admired boundlessly at the time, and still do but not as boundlessly) said both “write what you know” and “make it up”.

      1. Irina

        Wow yes. (I have thought I ought to take it that way: “I love this so it’s probably bad, better delete it preventively”).

  7. Mark Fuller Dillon

    “Style… is not — can never be — extraneous Ornament. You remember, may be, the Persian lover whom I quoted to you out of Newman: how to convey his passion he sought a professional letter-writer and purchased a vocabulary charged with ornament, wherewith to attract the fair one as with a basket of jewels. Well, in this extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation, you have something which Style is not: and if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.'”

    — Arthur Quiller-Couch, ON THE ART OF WRITING (1916).

  8. Eruch Adams

    Thank you for this! Having been subjected to the dime-a-dozen “Absolute Rules of Writing” for the last few years, it’s refreshing for people to bring some sanity to the discussion of “guidelines”.

    To this list, I would add the headings that require balance as opposed to absolute rules of exclusion:
    1. “Don’t use Adverbs”
    2. “Having your POV character convulse every paragraph or two helps remind the reader their emotional state”
    3. “Don’t use Italics for thoughts”
    And all the things that have gotten overused by some and driven other, apparently, crazy.
    These things can be true, but absolutes are rarely a good idea.

    The real key is finding the balance, and alas, no guide yet written can teach that, exactly. I suspect one has to get a feel for it, like playing an instrument. There’s only so much you can learn from reading about music.
    But hopefully the words written and spoken aloud responds to ear and heart like the a violin. At least you know when you do it wrong…until that chord strikes when you’ve it right.

  9. Beth Pratt

    The one that makes me crazy is “Raise the stakes”. It’s especially bad in screenwriting circles.

    I would like to never ever again have to read or see something in which the stakes have been raised by, for example, the serial killer targeting a main [typically female] character or the [typically female] family member/close friend/love interest of a [typically male] main character.

    I also prefer not having the stakes be Life And Death unless it’s a very particular kind of story. I like my stakes to be more emotional and less explosion-y.

  10. Raissa

    You don’t necessarily need to kill your darlings, just send them into a foster home until you can find the right home for them. Many a great line or scene in an early draft by my creative writing classmates and me has been excised because it didn’t fit but turned up in another work where it fits much better.

  11. Erica

    Thanks for the entry. I think the true meaning of show don’t tell gets hashed over more than all the other pieces of writing advice put together, and at some point, someone will throw up their hands and say, “But it’s all telling anyway.” I think you did a good job of addressing this, while making it clear why some says of doing so are still more evocative.

  12. Suzanne Warr

    Soo with you on these! I do content edits for writers as a freelance and for a small publisher, and one of most crippling things I see is that writers have taken the advice to ‘show, don’t tell’ so far that they’ll only show action and dialogue, with no hint as to what the character is feeling or what their motivation is. Makes the story really bland! lol

    Thanks for this, a great reminder for all of us!

  13. Mark Richards

    “Show, don’t tell” is strange advice to me. You are telling a story, after all. Every bit of showing is also a bit of telling. And anyway, telling is important too. I can show you a piece of rock on my mantle. But unless I tell you that it’s a martian fragment brought back by the Viking mission, you will have no reason to care about it. Really, you should strive to show AND tell. Too little of either and the story can suffer.

  14. Daniel Hatch

    Daniel Hatch So that’s what “write what you know” means. And here I went and filled my head with rocket science and history and psychology and politics and spent two years sailing into the North Atlantic for five weeks at a time and visiting foreign ports and a lifetime in journalism finding out how things really work. And you tell me NOW that I could have made it all up?

      1. Daniel Hatch

        Too late. All that stuff goes into the book I’m working on right now. The only thing made up will be the aliens. And the spaceflight. But Pittsburgh, Manhattan, and Lagos will all be real. (I haven’t been to Lagos, but I read their newspaper online.)

  15. Shannon Haddock

    Thank you for this, especially the explanation of “kill your darlings”. I’d never read it explained anyway except what you say under “What people think it means” before, so it had always seemed like utterly stupid advice.

  16. Susan Kroupa

    Great piece. Loved “All of writing is telling. What is different is that it gives specific sensations that your reader can experience with the character, creating more of a sense of immediacy.” Controlling that immediacy is part of setting the rhythm of a book, with some sections hot and others cool.

  17. Jenny Milchman

    One of my favorite authors, Lee Child, said words to the effect of, “If a character has brown eyes and dark hair, just say the character has brown eyes and dark hair.” It’s become my favorite answer for SDT.

    Thanks for the post!

  18. Sally

    And sometimes your darlings are worth fighting for and nurturing.

    Back in the days when dinosaurs ruled the earth, and fanzines came on actual paper, I once agreed to all an editor’s changes except one word. Though I disagreed with several of them, I said I’d give in if she left in that ONE adjective that she hated.

    Yeah. When the letters of comment came in, guess what _every single reader_ mentioned favorably. They thought it was perfect, true to character, LOL, vivid. I danced the dance of YES!!! She had the good grace to admit I was correct.

    And I agree with Joe Haldeman. We wouldn’t have ANY SF/F. Or much horror. Or any superheroes. Or globe-trotting action. Or serial killers. Or books set in the past beyond living memory. Or Billionaire Sheik’s Secret Babies. (Um, well…)

    Perhaps some people would be content to live in a world without hobbits, Lost Worlds, Jedi, and Iron Man, but not I.

    And what of dear Jane and Vincent? La! It is not to be borne.

  19. Vicky Lorencen

    I cannot “tell” you how much I appreciate this. Much like sex, writing is such a cerebral activity. What’s going on in your gray matter matters. If you switch that off, it shows. Thank you for reminding writers to think about the advise they hear instead of blindly following it.

  20. Micah

    Amen to this. The write what you know rhetoric is always the one I find particularly annoying when its meaning is misconstrued. I mean really, how boring would it be if every writer only ever wrote what they knew. Like Einstein said, imagination is better than knowledge.

  21. jcg goelz

    There is a heckuva a lot more to showing than just what’s going on inside the characters. Descriptions can be very telly or very showy, depending on how you do it.

    And often, a better option than a quick “tell” of exposition is to skip it completely. You don’t need to tell the reader that the character woke up the next morning, just start the next chapter as he’s riding down the trail.
    In other words, don’t show or tell, just move on.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      I think you’ve missed the point that both are perfectly valid forms, depending on the nature of the story. Skipping things is also perfectly valid. The problem lies in believing that one must show everything all the time.

      1. jcg goelz

        no, I got that. I just didn’t agree that telling was mostly about what was going on inside the character. It also applies to all description.

  22. Brian Switzer

    Show don’t tell drives me crazy. I follow a blog wherein the blogger critiques the first page of novels that desperate souls have sent in. His favorite red pencil line is ‘a bit telly’. Honest- three or four times, every post. I think he, and a lot of people that use the phrase, uses it in a way that should be interpreted as ‘I have nothing of substance to add here but feel obligated to say something that makes me sound wise’.

    Thanks for the great post.

  23. G3

    Gotta say this, something that kind of drives me nuts are these “writing tips” or “advice” blogs.

    But, I’ve come over here a few times now, and you really seem to cut through the junk. You provide quality – and there’s so much to publishing – it’s painful to think people out there are living and breathing and suffering over some of the advice on the web.

    You don’t have to swear like Wendig to be great. Or terrorize children like Lehane. Or beard like Rothfuss. Tell Stephenie Meyer she isn’t doing it right. Or Cormac. Or Palahniuk. Just be yourself. You’ll be happier that way.

    Anyway, cool piece. Thankya.

  24. Mark Murata

    “BUT there are times when telling is exactly the right thing to do.”
    Thank you. I once wrote a scene with Odysseus screaming. But I had to tell the reader why he was screaming, otherwise it was ambiguous.

  25. Chuck Shingledecker

    “That’s still telling. All of writing is telling.”

    OMG! Thanks you, Mary! I’m SO glad you pointed this out. I admit, the “show don’t tell” thing confused me for years because no one actually explained what it was they actually meant. All I ever heard was “show don’t tell” and I just don’t “get it.” My brain would not process the sagely advice. I ended up writing ridiculous stuff like quivering hands, Jello, or flowers moving in the wind. I wrote about characters breathing, and what not. And people still says “you’re telling.” I was like . . . wut???

    I really, truly didn’t understand until I read something that either David Farland or OSC (I can’t remember for sure): all writing is telling. But “showing” is “dramatized telling.” THAT made sense to me. Because all writing IS telling. And that’s what I wasn’t comprehending.

    For me, “show don’t tell” was the worst writing advice I’d ever gotten. IMO it’s the one piece of advice that needs to die! I now use the phrase dramatized telling.

    I especially like your addition (and you said this at WXR13) that sometimes plain “telling” is precisely what you want. It’s okay. Made a big difference for me.

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