Misunderstood Writing Advice

With NaNoWriMo in full swing, you know I’m thinking a lot more about writing than travel and crafts and cooking. I mean, really. Who has time for DIY when there’s a novel to be written in 30 days? I meant to get to it earlier than this, but, well, here we are.

If you follow me on Facebook, you may remember an article I shared on showing vs. telling. You can find articles on this topic just about anywhere, but this particular article presented everything in a different light: namely, by saying that showing and telling are both important and must work in tandem.

It got me thinking about other misunderstood, misused, and abused pieces of writing advice. So although I try to talk about my experiences more than general writing advice – who am I, an unpublished nobody, to dole out advice on craft and the publishing business? – today I want to talk about four common but misunderstood pieces of writing advice.

Show, don’t tell.

I won’t go into too much detail about this one, because the article I shared is fairly comprehensive and includes good and bad examples. But! In case you don’t feel like clicking an outside link, here’s a quick summary of the most important points.

Telling is sometimes necessary.

Doing a time skip? Time to tell. Need to get some vital information across quickly? Time to tell. Telling should be done in short bursts, when you need to say something quickly and don’t need to dramatize it.

Showing can be overdone, especially in description.

“Defamiliarizing the familiar” – have you heard that phrase? It’s sometimes a good thing, especially in poetry: looking at something familiar in a new way. However, it can get annoying quickly when you describe common items in bizarrely minute detail in an effort to “show.”

The bad example from the article was about someone pouring milk into coffee or tea. Instead of saying, “she poured milk into her coffee,” it said something like, “she watched a stream of creamy white flow into blah blah blah.” Too detailed. Boring and somewhat confusing, especially since the entire example read this way.

Verbs ≠ telling.

Has this happened to you? You write a sentence like, “she poured milk into her coffee,” and an overzealous someone highlights it and says enthusiastically, “Show, don’t tell!!!”

I have news for you, friends. Verbs do not inherently equal telling. You can say, “She sprinted. She slammed the phone down. She slapped him.” These sentences are simple and don’t go into detailed description, because they don’t need to. This doesn’t mean they’re telling. This means you, the writer, understand that strong verbs like “sprinted,” “slammed,” and “slapped” give readers a clear mental image and get the character’s feelings in that moment across, no extra fluff needed.

I’m a fan of language and poetry. But as a reader, I can’t stand it when fiction writers think they need to defamiliarize the familiar when it comes to verbs. “Her fist connected with his face.” For the love of God, just say she punched him.

Write what you know.

If “show, don’t tell” is the most common piece of writing advice, “write what you know” is probably the most misunderstood. You know how that goes, right? People try to claim you should only write about experiences you’ve had personally.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never faced a firebreathing dragon with nothing but my wits and a short sword to defend me. I’ve never attended a school of witchcraft and wizardy. I’ve never survived alone on Mars, hunted down the people who kidnapped my daughter, or solved a murder mystery as a civilian who annoys the police but gets to work with them anyway.

If we only wrote the physical experiences we knew, entire genres would not exist.

There are two great ways you can take this advice instead.

Write what you read.

When you’re widely read in a genre, you’re familiar with the conventions, the cliches, reader expectations, what’s been done before, what’s been done well, what’s been done poorly. You know a lot about the genre, which means you’re better prepared to write it. If you only read romance, you should give existing fantasy novels your attention before diving into fantasy. If you only read sci-fi, you should give existing dramas your attention before writing a drama. Just one of the many reasons writers should also be readers.

Draw on your emotional experience.

Write what you know, emotionally speaking. You’ve been sad. You’ve been angry. You’ve been betrayed, anxious, happy.

(At least I hope you’ve been happy.)

Use those things! Rely on your emotional experiences when it’s time for your characters to get emotional. How does it feel to be stupidly, blindingly happy? How does it feel to drown in anxiety? How does it feel to be so depressed you don’t want to do anything? And what do you do when you feel that way? Consider actions, body language, facial expressions, diction, and tone of voice, how one feeling affects these things differently than another. Use what you know about emotion to bring your characters to life.

Start with action.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a first chapter in want of readers must be in possession of an explosion. Except: no, actually. Not every story needs to begin with bombs, a highspeed chase, or the icy breath of death. If I were to reword this particular piece of advice, I’d say, “Start with interest.”

  • “In a hle in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” (The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien)
  • “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of Number Four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” (Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling)
  • “Once when I was six I saw a magnificent picture in a book about the jungle, called True Stories.” (The Little Prince,  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Richard Howard translation)
  • “Once upon a time, a girl named September grew very tired indeed of her parents’ house, where she washed the same pink-and-yellow teacups and matching gravy boats every day, slept on the same embroidered pillow, and played with the same small and amiable dog.” (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Catherynne M. Valente)
  • “When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.” (The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins)

All the first sentences I chose as examples are from bestselling novels, and there’s a reason for that. Look at how these popular published authors began some of their most famous works. Not one of them starts with what you might call “action,” except in the blandest sense of the word. In fact, they all start off in places that seem fairly ordinary at first glance. But there’s something there to capture readers’ interest: an unfamiliar creature, a humorous or foreboding tone, or an anecdote about something that seems unimportant but later ties into the story.

Notice that none of these stories tries to trick you with a gimmicky prologue, either. There’s no Dark Lord smiling grimly as his legions of doom drilling in the rain, no villages afire, no tragic death of someone important to the main character. Not one of these stories has a prologue, and not one of them begins with “action.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with action! Just be aware that starting off with it works better for some genres than others.

(It also works better for later books in a series, when readers already have a sense of the main character.)

If you do start this way, make sure you back it up with some information about the immediate setting and character. You want your reader to have a question that grabs them from the outset, but that question shouldn’t be “What the heck is going on?”

Don’t use big words.

Okay. I get this. Thesaurus overload? Annoying. And often stupid, because people try to spice up their writing with words they’re not really familiar with, which can end like this.


It is absolutely a terrible idea to try to infuse life into your writing by thumbing through the thesaurus for synonyms of the words you naturally use. For one thing, your vocabulary’s probably the least of your troubles if people are bored with the story. For another, you end up with off-kilter sentences that don’t mean what you wanted.

original: “I love you,” he whispered.

thesaurus victim: “I love you,” he muttered.

Can you feel the difference between these two sentences? “Whisper” and “mutter” both mean to talk in a low voice, but “mutter” denotes irritation. In fact, if you look at the dictionary – rather than relying solely on your thesaurus – you’ll see that the definition is “to say something in a low or barely audible voice, especially in dissatisfaction or irritation.” If that’s not what you meant, this word doesn’t work here.

That’s the problem with thesaurus overload. It’s better to stick to your natural lexicon and use words you know inside and out.

That said, you can always improve your vocabulary through extensive reading. You can also use a dictionary alongside your thesaurus to make sure the nuances of a synonym match your intended meaning.

If you already have an extensive vocabulary, if “big words” come naturally, why shouldn’t you use them? Don’t stretch just to include them, but don’t be afraid of them, either.

Don’t get me wrong: rules are important. You can spend all the livelong day pointing at famous writers who have broken them, but you still need to know the rules. In fact, you’ll be better equipped to break them if you know them inside and out first.

But! You also need to know that rules have their limits. Otherwise, you’ll drive yourself mad, trying to write about retail work because that’s the only thing you “know,” figuring out how to start you story about retail work with “action,” and reining in your natural vocabulary. It’s okay! Rules are important, but they’re not absolute.

And they might not mean just what you think anyway.

One thought on “Misunderstood Writing Advice

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s