01 September 2022

A Loose Compendium of the Worst Writing Advice Ever

So I recently watched a video by Paul Davids,  a musician I follow on YouTube, with the intriguing title: "The WORST musical advice ever given." Davids, an accomplished musician in his own right, went to a trade show in Anaheim, and recorded a number of musicians, well-known and obscure alike, to respond to the prompt question in no more than thirty seconds. 

The results were pretty entertaining (If you have the time, go take a look. It's not very long, and wellworth your investment), and surprisingly not far off from some of the advice I received when starting out as a new writer. And that got me thinking: what would the responses to this sort of prompt be from writer types?

So I put it out there, and got a lot of interesting responses. I've posted them below, with attribution of at least the name of the writer giving the response, with more if I knew it/could find quickly. So let's take a look, and once we've worked our way through these responses, I'll top it off with my own take on "The worst writing advice I've ever received."

Here we go!


Worst for me? “NEVER EVER use exclamation points.”

I say, what about “Help. I’m drowning.” versus “Help! I’m drowning!”?

For sure, don’t overuse them, but sometimes they’re appropriate.

 – James W. Ziskin ANTHONY, BARRY, & MACAVITY Award-winning author of the Ellie Stone Mysteries. Finalist for the EDGAR, AGATHA, and LEFTY Awards.

Syd Fields in his screenwriting book says avoid bummer endings. And that killed humanist film making in the US per screenwriter/producer Kirk Ellis (John Adams, Into the West). And it wasn't just films that suffered, in my opinion.

 – David Corbett Recovering Catholic, NYT  Notable author of THE ART OF CHARACTER, six novels, dozens of stories, numerous scripts, and too many poems.

Show Don't Tell. In reality it should be Show AND Tell.

 – Robert Gregory Browne, Bestselling author of  the TRIAL JUNKIES series and the FOURTH DIMENSION THRILLERS. Co-founder and Creative Director at Braun Haus Media, LLC.

Over my career as a playwright, a few have suggested I end a play with a “button.” But I’ve learned how hollow those throwaway tags can feel. It’s better to leave the audience with an open loop (some mystery, a question) so they are still “activated” long after “end of play.”

 – Audrey Cefaly, Calicchio Prize-winning and Pulitzer-nominated playwright.

I did a whole presentation on this at @WCSUWritingMFA...but, basically, any "viral" writing rule is horseshit...there is only ONE rule..."does it work?"

 – Matthew Quinn Martin Author of the NIGHTLIFE series, and sometime screenwriter.

I was told early on to get a fall back job.  I disliked the advice and ignored it.  By my mid-20s I was making a living writing freelance, getting grants and being paid to write a feature film.  You cannot retreat if you have a fall back position.  Always go forward.

 – Richard Vetere Author of the novels THE WRITER'S AFTERLIFE and CHAMPGAGNE AND COCAINE. 

"Write what you know." Bad because it's so limiting, and destroys the joy of discovering and exploring worlds (or stories rather) that you don't know...yet.

 – Robert Alexander Wray, Marc A. Klein Award-winning playwright of over a dozen works, including LOOKING GLASS ELEGY and MELANCHOLY ECHO.

There is a great deal of bad advice on Pinterest. Some of the worst is never use big words, do not use adverbs or adjutives, keep all sentences to three words.

 – Art Rickard

You can’t edit till you finish a novel. I get why, but it’s just not my process and I lost time trying to do it this way.

 – Robin Lemke

Any writing advice that tells me I MUST do this or that - whether it's writing an outline, zero draft, or whatever. Leave me alone, I'll write my own way, thank you.

 – Marty Wingate

"Bad" advice: Any pressure or encouragement to plot/outline.

Reasoning: Outlining demotivates me, creates extra work that isn't useful to the process I follow, and (for me specifically) it removes some of the humor/zing/unexpectedness from my work.

 – Kate Baray

Worst advice ever: “Do as much research as possible before you write even one word.” For years, I wasted months on research before writing “even one word.” It was a way to procrastinate and we writers are experts at procrastination. When I finally actually started the writing, I’d often discover that because the plot wasn’t working or the characters didn’t come alive, I’d have to start all over, often not needing or using any of the material. In a workshop facilitated by Elizabeth George, she advised to FIRST spend time & energy on character development/exploration and plotting because readers connect with characters, second with plot, and lastly with the areas that need research. “Focus your time and energy on the actual craft of writing,” she advised, “and not the technical stuff.”

 – Shannon Walker

Write what you know. If that advice had been followed we'd never have had Tarzan, Conan, and many others.

 – Bob Napier

Any absolute rule. Never do prologues or flashbacks

 – Leslie Hall, writing instructor and author of the Kaitlyn Willis Roadsigns Mysteries

"Never use any dialog tag other than 'said'" pisses me off every time. "Said" is too narrow and bland for sarcasm, fury, pain, desperation, or fear.

 – Kat Richardson, author of the bestselling GREYWALKER novels.

Any advice that begins with the words "always" or "never."

 – J. R. Sanders

Two pieces of contradictory advice: 1. If you want to sell a manuscript, read what editors are currently publishing and write something like that. 2. Don't chase trends. By the time you write your story, the editors will be sick of it and switch to a new trend.

 – Thomas P. Hopp, scientist and author of such modern day disaster epics as RAINIER ERUPTS! and THE GREAT SEATTLE EARTHQUAKE.

"Spend more than your advance on promo." Bad, BAD advice. Took me years and cashing in an old IRA to pay it off.

 –Jeri Westerson, author of the Crispin Guest medieval mystery series.

Not me, but a friend was told by his high school English teacher to always use as many qualifiers as possible, that way no one can ever prove you wrong.

 – Larry Cebula

Senior year of college, "First Novels" class teacher: "You seem to be using humor to hide from true emotion." Almost ended me as a writer, took nearly twenty years to recover from.

 – Cornelia Read, author A FIELD OF DARKNESS and THE CRAZY SCHOOL.

"Get a real job."

 – Bill Fitzhugh, former radio comedian, DJ, and author of HEART SEIZURE, HUMAN RESOURCES, and THE ORGAN GRINDERS. 

"Write what you know." Makes for a very boring book.

 – Michael W. Sherer, author of the Blake Sanders thriller series.

"Write what you know." Should be: "Write what you know or can find out."

 –Ed Goldberg

Write what you loathe.

 – Michael Fowles

"Write better."

 – Justin D. Park

"Keep your day job."

 – Elizabeth Sims

"Write while you hold down a job." I wrote a little, but it wasn't very good because I have to do rewrites and "rethinks."

 – Marilyn Holt

"Write what you know."

 – David B. Schlosser

Last, but not least, I received the following from my old friend and fellow Sleuthsayer R.T. Lawton, who has been under the weather lately, and to whom I am wishing the speediest of recoveries. Too good not to share in its entirety! Thanks R.T.!

The worst writing advice I received, came from two different university English professors.

The first professor gave me a D in his creative writing class and told me I would never learn to write. Finding that I had other talents which would serve me well in a subsequent career, this final grade never appeared on my graduation transcript. Don’t ask.

As for the second professor, I had returned from my two years, nine months, twenty-nine days with the army, having been granted a sixty-day drop in order to go back to college. Shortly after arriving on campus, I took some of my war poems to the English Department and conversed with a professor. He read the poems and politely did not encourage me to continue in this endeavor. His point was made, so be it.

This does not mean my current published work is anything close to literary. Let’s just say it is commercially bent and that the two professors merely had a different view on the subject at that point in time as they looked down from their ivory towers.

It was about five years after graduation from university that I read a short story in a biker magazine, told myself I could do better and sat down to write. The process was longhand on a yellow legal pad with many scissor cuts and subsequent joining with Scotch tape, so that no two pages were the same length. The original cut- and-paste method. And, yes, I did hunt-and-peck the manuscript out on an electric typewriter before submitting by snail-mail. The biker magazine bought and published the story. I was on my way.

Had I taken the advice of those two professors, then I would never have had the pleasure of meeting at conferences, chaptermeetings, critique groups and readings all those wonderful people who write. A very interesting group. I would not have had over160 published short stories. I would also not have had the privilege of Edgar setting on my writing desk, nor of being nominated for a Macavity.

Work hard, learn and follow your dreams.

 – R.T. Lawton, Edgar Award-winning short story writer.


And how's that for a last word? 

Thanks to all who chimed in. And if you've got a good piece of bad writing advice, feel free to weigh in in the comments section below.

See you in two weeks!


  1. Interesting post. A lot of bad advice is based on personal preferences, I think. I dislike the advice that you can't use certain words or a limited amount of exclamation points. Hey, let me decide that! (Just read Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, and you'll be amazed how often he uses exclamation points!) I'll discover for myself what works best. The text must feel right to me. I'm a genre author, not a literary one.

    "Write what you know" would be a pretty lousy advice if you take it as "write ONLY about what you know." But writing about what you know is a good starting-point, then expand on it, and discover the world beyond your personal knowledge (and experience). It's the same with lies. The best ones incorporate truths and half-truths.

  2. Good stuff here. Great advice, R. T. – "Work hard, learn and follow your dreams."

  3. Brian, you gathered some nice information here. Thanks.

  4. Great column, Brian. You're so right. I once heard that if we wrote only what we knew, there'd be no such thing as science fiction. And a better quote: Write what you feel comfortable writing.

    Some of the worst advice I've heard is telling new writers to outline or not to outline. Everyone's different. And I like the quote that says to disregard "any advice that begins with the words always or never."

    Thanks for the insights!

  5. "Never begin your story with weather." Oh yeah? Well, I wrote a short-short called "Drifts" - published in AHMM, btw - in which weather was the murder weapon. So there.

  6. Yay, RT and Brian! Excellent article. (I added a ‘tips’ tag.)

    The advice I disagree with– for me– is about research. I may have a vague idea of characters and plot, but I like to dig deep into the research, immerse myself in the time and place of the story. I parachute into a strange place, learn the culture, and when I emerge, I usually have a story in mind. In my case, research isn’t procrastination, it’s time travel or distance travel. Where characters give me an idea of where to go next.

    A ComSci professor gave me a low med-term grade and a few pithy words (pithy rhymes with missy in this case). I was irritated, gritted my teeth, and went back to work. With some trepidation, I turned in my final project… and got an A for the course. He told me he deliberately goaded me because I wasn’t working like I should be. Smug bastard. 🤨 Okay, maybe he had a point.

    I no longer remember the author or title, but a European writer (English perhaps) wrote a classic set in Russia, a place he’d never seen. But he’d done his research so well, native Russians could find nothing to criticize.

  7. Most writing advice is bullshit. Anything from Hemingway or Norman Mailer, and (I'm sorry to say) Lillian Hellman, is nonsense from first to last. They have zero interest in helping you, they care only about their silhouette on the horizon of history.
    Two very helpful books are Stephen King's and Laurence Block's, the operative word being sensible. It ain't about inspiration, it's about the plumbing.
    Leigh: I was astonished to learn, when I met Martin Cruz Smith, that he didn't speak Russian. RED SQUARE turns on a trick of language. It convinced me.


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