How to Spot Bad Writing Advice: 6 Red Flags to Look For

How to Spot Bad Writing Advice

First of all, I’m not by any means the authority on what makes good or bad writing advice! Writing is an art. There are no rules in art, which means that writing advice, by extension, is highly subjective.

In my opinion, if it works for you, if it helps you improve and be happier with your writing, that’s good writing advice. If it hinders you, takes you down the wrong path, fucks with your creative process, causes more confusion than clarity, that’s bad advice. So when you’re sorting the good from the bad, go with your gut, and don’t let anyone bully you into their way of thinking, regardless of how credible, famous, or experienced they are. However…

If you’re a new writer, it can take a while to tell the difference between helpful (”good”) writing advice and unhelpful (”bad”) writing advice.

Remember that literally anyone can pose as an expert and offer writing advice. As a published fiction writer, professional editor, and writing teacher, I see a lot of writing advice floating around on Tumblr that I just don’t agree with. Figuring out how to sift through everything takes time, but here are some red flags to keep an eye out for:

Red Flag #1: Hard-and-Fast Rules

Bad writing advice gives hard-and-fast rules, and doesn’t allow for exceptions. It liberally uses words like always and never. (Example: “Never open a book with the weather,” “Always punctuate your dialogue like this,” “You can’t write a novel that’s longer than 100,000 words,” etc.)

Red Flag #2: “Because I Said So”

Bad writing advice often doesn’t give the reasoning behind the rules or guidelines it offers. It will tell you what to do but not why. Now, people don’t always have the time to write a super long post explaining the reasoning behind their advice every single time they share a tip (I know I don’t). But if you ask for clarification and they can’t or won’t give it to you, or they give you a glib answer, consider it a red flag. (Example: “Don’t start a book with a character eating a sandwich.” “Why?” “Just don’t do it/because you shouldn’t/because it’s stupid/readers hate it.”) Remember: “Because it’s boring/annoying/overdone” are not good explanations. WTF are you supposed to do with that information? Just take their word for it? How are you supposed to grow as a writer if you don’t understand the rationale behind the advice and just blindly follow one rule after the other, having no idea what the deeper logic is?

Red Flag #3: Ginormous Ego or Attitude

Bad writing advice can be snarky, rude, combative, judgmental, or defensive. Granted, some people don’t mind being talked down to, and I’ve seen some decent writing advice presented by people who have a huge attitude. But consider it a red flag if combined with anything else on this list. Good writing advice, in my opinion, is supportive, kind, and thoughtful. If you honestly want to help other writers, there’s no need to bring a huge ego into it.

Red Flag #4: No Examples

Bad writing advice often doesn’t give any examples of the advice in action. Again, see #2: Those of us sharing advice don’t always have the time to go into insane detail for every single post. But if you ask for actual examples of their advice in action and they can’t give any, beware. And be especially wary if someone can’t cite an example from a published book or story authored by a credible writer, if they quote from their own work-in-progress as an example, OR if they use movies as examples. I run across blogs all the time by unpublished writers who use their own work-in-progress or self-published book as an example. Now, some of these blogs are actually giving out good advice! If you really like and respect their work and there aren’t any other red flags there might not be anything to worry about. But otherwise err on the side of caution and be more trusting of advice that uses (or can provide if asked) quality, published work by experienced writers as an example.

Red Flag #5: Sales-y

Bad writing advice sometimes comes from people who are desperately trying to sell you something. Now, this is a fine line, as many good and credible professionals make their living teaching, editing, and giving writing advice. Often, those people have blogs with a wealth of information available, and they may mention their services or products from time to time. That’s is how I make my living, too. But if they sound like sensational, snake-oil salespeople who make wild, unrealistic promises (”Unlock the secret to writing a bestseller in only 3 days!!!!), run the other way.

Red Flag #6: Inexperienced

Bad writing advice is sometimes given out by inexperienced people. I’m not one of those snobs who thinks that only highly experienced, credentialed, professional writers, editors, and teachers can give good writing advice. But experience is something to consider, especially if another red flag is already present. How can you tell if someone is inexperienced? Well, for one thing, they have less experience than you! If they’re a writer, they probably haven’t been writing very long. They’ve learned just enough to trumpet a bunch of do-or-die writing advice from the rooftops, but not enough to learn that there are many and varied exceptions to every “rule” they share. If they’re giving feedback on your writing, their writing advice also tends to be prescriptive, which means that instead of trying to help you to write the story you’re trying to write, they slap on a bunch of writing advice cliches and call it good. (Example: ”You need more action!” “Where? Why? What are you talking about, specifically?” “Stories should have action!!! You need more action!”)

How about y’all? How do you weed out the helpful from the unhelpful with so much writing advice floating around out there? Anything you would add to this list?

Bucket Siler is a writer, editor, zine enthusiast, and the founding editor of The Literary Architect, where she helps fiction writers perfect their craft and polish their original stories. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, she has lived in New Mexico since 2006. Follow her on Tumblr or Facebook.

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