David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Bad Creative Writing Advice

The Internet is full of bad advice for creative writers. Here’s just a small sampling of the nonsense you can find if you look for it.

  • “Show, don’t tell.” News flash: writing is telling. It’s a completely linguistic art form. There’s no showing involved, unless you’re writing illustrated books like Dr. Seuss or graphic novels like Neil Gaiman. The real distinction to be made here is between writing descriptive language (e.g. when your character is drinking whiskey from a canteen around a campfire) and dynamic language (e.g. when your character is fleeing from rampaging cannibals through the underbrush). Both forms have their time and place.
  • “Stay away from synonyms for the word said.” This is just plain creative fascism. People don’t just say things, sometimes they exclaim, declare, thunder, growl, rage, ejaculate, expostulate, or enumerate. A novel is not a play. There are no actors to give expression to your dialogue, so it’s your job as the author to describe your character’s emotional state when speaking her lines.
  • “Simplify your language.” Many people these days mistake novels for Hollywood screenplays. Hollywood screenplays are very much concerned with plot and keeping an audience’s attention. Screenplay writers like to condense things down to the smallest nugget possible to keep the film’s running time to a profitable 90 minutes rather than a money-losing 180. If you’re a novelist, you’ve got plenty of room to play with. Stretch out, relax, take your time, don’t rush things for someone else’s arbitrary notion of pacing.
  • “Don’t be too wordy.” Telling a writer that she’s using too many words is like telling an artist she’s using too much paint.
  • “Don’t use words in your writing that people don’t use in real life.” While it’s true that you shouldn’t pull out a thesaurus any old time and start plugging in multisyllabic words just for the hell of it, it’s pointless to confine yourself to the small subset of the English language that’s used in conversation. Novels are a stylized art form that aren’t necessarily supposed to reflect real life. They’re meant to be read, not spoken.
  • “Don’t be pretentious.” Writing is pretentious. Fiction writing doubly so. In fact, one of the definitions of the word pretense (according to my MS Encarta) is “make-believe or things imagined.” If you don’t believe that your imaginings are of great import to the world, then we won’t care to read them. If you don’t act like your imaginings are of great import to the world, then we won’t give any significance to them. (You should, however, recognize when seriousness about your work gives way to smugness or condescension.)
  • “Read your writing aloud.” I will admit that this tip can be helpful in many situations, especially when writing dialogue. But once again, remember that a novel is not a film. It’s not a radio play or a speech (or a blog post, for that matter). Some of our best living prose stylists (Richard Powers, Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth) write in sentences that are difficult to read aloud. Take the first sentence of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, one of the twentieth century’s great novels: “One summer afternoon, Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.”)
  • “Use the active voice instead of the passive voice.” Okay, this one is actually probably true. (Passive voice: “It was decided by the Democrats that John Kerry would be the nominee for President.” Active voice: “The Democrats nominated Howard Dean for President instead.”)

The ironic thing about most of these specious writing tips is that they work quite well for straightforward journalism. When you’re writing a piece of hard news, for instance, the object is much different: take the writer out of the picture, bleach out any hint of bias or subjectivity, work in an inverted pyramid structure so your editor can start chopping column inches from the bottom without giving it too much thought.

But when you’re writing fiction, the ground rules are different. Name me a novelist who writes without a hint of bias or subjectivity, and I’ll name you an unread novelist.

The same probably goes for bloggers, too.

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  1. tommyspoon on March 29, 2006 at 1:17 pm  Chain link

    “Don’t be too wordy.” Telling a writer that she’s using too many words is like telling an artist she’s using too much paint.

    Um, well, sorta. In my line of work (technical writing), wordiness is a sin. There is something to be said to the use of “spare” language. Quoth the pop tune: “Sometimes words get in the way…”

  2. David Louis Edelman on March 29, 2006 at 4:06 pm  Chain link

    Oh, definitely. I think that many of these tips are quite appropriate for technical writers (and business writers and press release writers and web writers and journalists and so on).

    I guess my point is that these rules shouldn’t necessarily apply to *fiction* writers. Different audience, different message, different style.

  3. Barbara Washington on July 15, 2006 at 3:22 pm  Chain link

    How should construct sentences or paragraphs of someone talking on the phone.

  4. David Louis Edelman on July 15, 2006 at 4:42 pm  Chain link

    Barbara, I’ve always just seen it done as one long monologue punctuated with ellipses (…) to denote when the person on the other end of the line is speaking.

  5. Gwen on August 10, 2006 at 2:41 pm  Chain link

    Re: passive voice:
    Strunk and White claims that “Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard.” (“There is” isn’t in the passive voice. And “can be made” is. Ironic? Just a little.)
    People seem to think that just because some instances of passive voice (notably “X was done by Y” when the emphasis is on the doer, not the receiver, of the action), the passive voice is always bad. It isn’t. There is a time and a place for both active voice and passive voice.
    Simple rule: if you’re putting the emphasis on the object of the action, put it in passive voice (useful if you’re trying to keep a certain POV in third person, but another character is doing something to the POV character), but if you’re putting the emphasis on the doer of the action, it goes in active voice.
    “It was decided by the Democrats that John Kerry would be the nominee for president” is better as “The Democrats decided that John Kerry would be the nominee for president” (and better still as “that they would nominate John Kerry for president”) because “It was decided by X” is awkward and, yes, unnecessarily wordy when “X decided” is possible.
    To take one famous document for examples: Sure, “that the Creator has endowed them with certain inalienable rights” works, but “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” puts the emphasis where it belongs, on the men among whom governments are instituted (the men among whom they institute governments?). “All men are created equal” should be what, exactly?
    So when the agent of the action is either unknown, or multiple (“blog posts, articles on grammar, grammar textbooks, grammar books not meant for grammar classes, editorials, English teachers, and just about everyone else have all demonized the passive voice recently” vs. “the passive voice has been demonized recently” if you’re not trying to convey that a lot of people have demonized it recently but rather that it has been demonized at all), what’s wrong with the passive voice?
    (It’s not weak-sounding, either, or wishy-washy, or anything that the word “passive” tends to connote in this phrase: see for instance a passive-voice analysis of Churchill’s descriptions of war at http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003414.html.)
    The passive voice myth should also be filed under “bad but well-meaning creative writing advice.” It holds true sometimes (and I have seen plently of people misuse it), but overall, it’s unhelpful to the point of being harmful when people bend over backwards to avoid making that “mistake.”
    -Gwen.

  6. David Louis Edelman on August 10, 2006 at 3:45 pm  Chain link

    Thanks for this, Gwen. You’re right, the passive voice is “demonized” too often when it should merely be mildly discouraged.

    I’m a writer who likes to write long, complex sentences with lots of dependent clauses and extraneous adverbs. So using the active voice, for me, often has the added benefit of cutting the sentences down to a more easily digestible size.

  7. Emily on September 13, 2006 at 1:01 pm  Chain link

    ohhhhh. . . I thought the explanations were the nonsense found on the web. The tips are pretty good. I am a creative writer and I teach university writing, and if i used ejaculate/exclaim/whisper/breathe in long, convoluted, murkey, complicate sentences, you, dear, reader, might think that I thought a little too highly of myself and be turned away from the execellent prose of a many-lettered woman of exceptionalism.

  8. Clifford on June 4, 2009 at 1:14 am  Chain link

    Your clearly speaking to fiction writers. However, what would you recommend to those involved in the social sciences. Specifically, cultural anthropology which uses ethnography as it primary method of interpreting the human experience, followed by the use of some sort of social theory. I tend to lean toward the idea that anthropology is more of a humanity in which it reads the lives of people like one would read a text. That is, a text that is read as people write it.

  9. Tim on January 30, 2010 at 5:06 am  Chain link

    @Emily
    That was actually a terrific example of how to use all of those things in order to emphasize a point. I thought that Edelman supported his claims very well, especially the one using Pynchon as an example, whereas you, Dear, managed to contradict yourself with a blanket statement founded on a weak argument. To each his own, I suppose.

  10. Aric on March 1, 2010 at 1:03 pm  Chain link

    Although I disagree with much of Emily’s disagreement (I thought the initial post was brilliant), I do think that “ejaculate” is a poor word choice to describe anything but actual ejaculation. Of sperm. In orgasm. There are many other words, with different and more specific connotations, from which to choose: eject, thrust, toss, jettison, and hurl, for example. In general, too many adverbial dialogue tags become obtrusive for me as a reader, especially when used with terse dialogue.

    “I disagree,” she chortled.
    “I really don’t care,” he huffed.
    “Well, you should,” she whined.

  11. Michael on February 10, 2011 at 1:10 pm  Chain link

    Missed the forest for the trees.

  12. Kris on February 27, 2011 at 4:42 pm  Chain link

    @Emily: Before you teach your next university-level writing class, please review the proper use of commas. “You, dear, reader, might think…” should have one less. Please don’t make me tell you which one; you are supposedly a “many-lettered woman of exceptionalism”. Also, please don’t fall back on the tired old “I was typing quickly and missed a typo” excuse. Anyone who is teaching writing ought to know the value of proof-reading as well.

  13. […] An article on which writing advice to avoid. http://www.davidlouisedelman.com/writing/bad-writing-advice/ […]

  14. Kyla on January 20, 2012 at 10:32 pm  Chain link

    I love this post! I hear these recommendations a lot, and I sometimes wonder whether or not I should completely agree with them. In some circumstances, they hold true, but people should realize there comes a time to break every rule. But only if it’s for the good of your writing, of course.

    Thanks for this great article. This is going on my writing articles to re-read list, and I might even link to it from my blog. Have a great day, and happy writing!

  15. Sarah Bee on March 21, 2012 at 1:10 pm  Chain link

    I don’t think tip 4 is accurate. Artists can certaintly use too much paint. It doesn’t matter what your craft happens to be, overkill is overkill and you have a true masterpiece on your hands only when there is nothing left to add and nothing can possibly be taken away.

  16. Andy on August 3, 2012 at 3:18 am  Chain link

    Hmmm. well I disagree. 1. You missed the point. It is better to describe a beautiful day then to say “The day was beautiful… moving on.”

    2. Yep, you really should. This is kind of a subset of #1. Instead of saying “No,” she yelled or “No,” she exclaimed. How about “Her fist slammed against the table, “No!” Said is supposed to be more like punctuation anyway. If it can’t be understood that she was yelling by the context you “showed, didn’t tell” then your writing is lazy. Fix it.

    3. This is more stylistic than anything, it’s really up to you.

    4. See: #3.

    5. I’ve never heard this one before but I don’t agree with it either. You any word you want unless you’re using it in dialog and it sounds unnatural, silly, etc.

    6. You are using a very broad definition obviously not intended by the original tip. Writing can be pretentious, it can be pedantic, it can make you think “ ewch …” when you read it. “Characterized by assumption of dignity or importance.” And i would add “an undeserved” behind “assumption.

    7. It’s like using an outline. Do it if it helps. Don’t if it doesn’t.

    8. The passive voice is dreadfully dull and should be used sparingly.

    Conclusion: Most of these tips are great if you understand them, which I’m afraid the original poster did not…

  17. Andy on August 3, 2012 at 3:20 am  Chain link

    Spelling and other errors in my above comment. Sorry, but my point is still valid :)

  18. David Louis Edelman on August 3, 2012 at 2:39 pm  Chain link

    Andy: Sorry you didn’t care for some of my suggestions. I think I understand all of these points just fine, but we can just agree to disagree on how effective they are.

    And don’t sweat the spelling and grammatical errors.

  19. Lucy on September 4, 2012 at 12:53 pm  Chain link

    I think there should be no absolutes when it comes to writing. Of course care should be taken over structure and certain conventions should (almost) always apply, but making rigid prescriptive announcements about how things should be done just puts the fear of God into new writers. Ultimately fear stifles creativity. I think it’s good someone is speaking out against some of the received wisdom that does the rounds regarding the fiction writing process.

  20. Josh on October 2, 2012 at 9:06 pm  Chain link

    Thank you! Since high school I have been roundly criticized for being “too flowery” and using words that “most people don’t understand.” I always wondered what would have happened if writers like Fitzgerald had taken that adivce!

    Also to the people poo-pooing the article because it doesn’t translate to technical or editorial writing, look at the title of the article.

  21. Milo Latte on October 21, 2012 at 1:38 pm  Chain link

    When I read what your said to the part about not using synonyms for said I said “YEAH” right out loud, I was so happy.

  22. ern on November 3, 2012 at 7:22 am  Chain link

    In the end, all such rules must be subordinate to the primary purpose of writing: communication. The best way to write something is the way in which it conveys your intention most clearly. If that means using the passive voice, etc., then so be it. These rules may be good as a guideline, but knowing when it’s appropriate to color outside the lines is part of learning to be a better writer.

  23. cjolin on December 31, 2012 at 10:22 pm  Chain link

    Well, I don’t agree with you regarding the word said. Said tends to be invisible, putting the importance on what’s being said. Better to use strong dialogue, than flowery attributions. I think there’s a time to use exclaimed or commented, but said is king.

  24. Nick Bradvica on January 11, 2013 at 11:26 am  Chain link

    This was relieving as a novelist! Thanks! I guess I’m not doing it wrong after all. I had great fears that I was “going against the grain” on most of these issues, but now I feel a bit smarter! Nice article!

  25. NF on March 1, 2013 at 12:01 am  Chain link

    Every single part of this article is at best arguable, and most of it is just incorrect. You missed the point of the things you were “debunking”, which are actually things taught in college courses on fiction writing. I could argue against every point you made, but I’ll just suffice it to say to anyone reading this to disregard this nonsense.

  26. David Louis Edelman on March 1, 2013 at 8:40 am  Chain link

    NF: To each his/her own.

  27. fred on August 21, 2013 at 2:11 pm  Chain link

    Name one journalist who writes without bias? That they hide their biases is part of the problem. A bias towards facts alone is still a bias.

  28. Worst Writing Advice Ever, EVER! | Jennifer L. Hotes on November 17, 2013 at 2:49 am  Chain link

    […] From a fun blog post by David Louis Edelman, bad writing tip number three is, “Show, don’t tell.” He says, “News flash: writing is tellling. It’s a completely linguistic art form. There’s no showing involved, unless you’re writing illustrated books like Dr. Seuss.” Mr. Edelman makes an excellent point, though I appreciate the sentiment behind, “Show, don’t tell.” To peruse the rest of his post click here.  […]

  29. jessie on March 18, 2015 at 1:15 pm  Chain link

    “Don’t be too wordy.”

    Actualy when anoter auther knows their stuff about what being too wordy actually is falls into such mistakes as:

    the the, to to you know or when the word to isn’t need in a sentence, for example. This advice i think works best for an auther that has a finished book they are revising. And that they need to hit onto a set word count. As for you writers, make a note of what’s pointed out and look for it later. It’s imop a waste of time looking for that stuff so early in a 1st or even 10th draft, do to the fast that with each edit/revision the story changes.

  30. jessie on March 18, 2015 at 1:17 pm  Chain link

    Excuse my typos. I tend to write backwards, (or rather letters become backwards at times.) any was those are my thoughts.

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