There’s lots of advice out there about writing and about how to be a better writer. Weather it’s about formatting or about the craft, most of the conventional wisdom is just plain bad. Here are my top five, numbered for the sake of clarity but in no particular order:
Number One Piece of Bad Writing Advice: Two Spaces After Punctuation
For reasons that are now unfathomable to me, American children are still taught, beginning in grade school, that they must always space twice after sentence ending punctuation. Why? For what earthly reason? After high school, especially if they go to college, they have to learn how to break that habit very quickly. No books are written with double spaces after periods, question marks and exclamation points. Newspapers aren’t typeset that way. No manual of style recommends it save for APA (and it does only for drafts).
Using two spaces after punctuation is a throwback to a time when typing was typing on a manual typewriter and not keyboarding on a modern computer. It’s from a time when machines were typeset to print by hand and weren’t digital. Double spacing at the end of a sentence just isn’t necessary anymore. It’s not old school, it’s outdated.
Number Two Piece of Bad Writing Advice: Use a Topic Sentence for Each Paragraph
Aside from my blog posts, most of my writing for public consumption is fiction. As an indie author though, I read a lot of eBooks on writing, publishing and marketing. Some are great, most are mediocre and some are just plain bad. While the advice in all of them tends to be useful, it’s the prose and the formatting that make most of the books mediocre or bad. With the truly bad ones, their fault is typically that they’ve been written by authors whose native tongue isn’t English and not proofread or edited by an English as a native language speaker or they’ve been slapped together from various data points in a day or so and not proofed or edited at all.
The mediocre books tend to have a different problem; their authors like to start every paragraph with a topic sentence. They tell you what the paragraph is going to be about and then they tell you again in different words. Reviewers often note this as an author seeming to try to beef up word count or page count. I think it stems from training like the punctuation issue in point one. American children are still taught to write using topic sentences in school. It makes things easier for elementary school students to understand but it makes for a choppy reading experience for adult readers.
Number Three Piece of Bad Writing Advice: Write What You Know
Okay, on the surface, this isn’t horrible advice. Your best early writing comes from subjects you know well, especially if you’re writing ‘how to’ non-fiction or other informational articles, posts and the like. But, if every writer stuck to writing only what they know about now, the non-fiction universe would be halved and we’d have no fantasy fiction or science fiction and most other forms of fiction would suffer greatly. Do your research, stretch your mind and your writing muscles and write what you want to write.
Edited 7/14/15 A fellow author, Nat Russo, was interviewed 7/13/15 by Erica Ellis at Ink Deep Editing. He had an interesting take on this same piece of advice.
Number Four Piece of Bad Writing Advice: Start with the Ending
Fiction writers are often advised to only begin writing when they know how a story is going to end. They’re told to outline and have that outline work toward that ending. As with topic three, that isn’t horrible advice on the surface. It’s great to have a plan because it keeps you on task and the story focused. The flip side is, it isn’t a horrible faux pas to not have any idea about how the ending will go before you begin to write.
Writing a novel or novella is a weird animal. You’ll be chugging along and suddenly an idea will pop into your head that takes you in a whole new direction. A new character half way through may significantly change the climax of the story. You might dream up something for your main character to do or say or somewhere for him to go that you hadn’t even thought of when you were laying out the plot and that could change everything.
It’s good to have some idea how you’re going to wrap everything up but, even if you do, it’s possible that ending will change before you get there. It’s not the end of the world when it does.
Number Five Piece of Bad Writing Advice: Short Fiction is In/Novels are Tops
Depending on what blogs and sites that you read or what day of the week it is, some ‘expert’ is positing that short stories and/or other short fiction like Novellas are the top sellers on the eBook market. They pound out there to anyone who will listen that people are reading on their phones and other small devices now and that time is precious; they just aren’t buying or reading full length novels. They point to non-fiction sales as evidence of this because readers, especially eBook readers, like their non-fiction short and to the point. Apples and oranges, I say.
Other experts point out that readers of short stories and novellas often feel short changed by what they paid for and how much they paid if it was anything short of a couple of hundred pages. They cite statistics that seem to anoint full length novels as the true reader preference. For my own part, I’ve had emailed comments and reviews about all three of my novels that are each near or over 70,000 words and 180 pages where the person commenting or reviewing felt what they’d read was too short.
Some readers prefer short pieces, some prefer long ones, some like to mix it up and some will read anything a favorite author writes, no matter the length. Write the story that you want to write. Ignore the ‘experts’.