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.