Terrible Writing Advice: 21 Common Mistakes You Must Avoid

Terrible writing advice

I’ve collected lots of terrible writing advice over the years from talks, seminars, courses, and books.

It’s easy to find good writing advice for self-publishing, writing a book or earning more money as a freelance or nonfiction writer. 

But what about terrible writing advice? What bad advice should you avoid if you want to become a successful author or profitable writer? 

This guide to terrible writing advice also includes practical tips from one of my favourite writers: Ernest Hemingway.

Let’s dive in.

Prefer to listen? Hear the podcast episode here:

1. Write Perfect Sentences

It’s impossible to write a perfect sentence. Your time is better spent getting your work out into the world or in front of readers and editors who can help improve your articles, posts and creative work.

A good sentence is often enough.

Years ago, I enrolled in a series of literary nonfiction and fiction writing classes in the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin. We learnt all about what it takes to write one true sentence. 

I took this message to heart, and I spent far too much time trying to perfect my sentences. 

Sure, that’s part of the creative process but only to a point. I should have gotten feedback from readers or an editor sooner. 

Good Advice

Get into the habit of sharing early drafts of your work with a close group of beta readers you trust. That’s an approach I followed with previous books. 

A copy editor can also help fix sentences so they fit the publication in question. Remember, a publication editor might rewrite or cut that sentence you spent hours perfecting.

2. Listen to the Grammar Police

Many top authors break grammar rules all the time to relate to readers. Irvine Welsh, the author of Trainspotting, for example, relies on inner monologues and dialect.

A piece of writing devoid of compelling imagery, stories or advice won’t engage readers, no matter how grammatically correct. 

The grammar police will baulk at me for this one, but don’t worry about 100% grammatically correct writing. Putting grammar worries first is terrible writing advice. 

Fix what you can and move on. Unless it’s going into print, you can address an overlooked grammar error after publication.

Good Advice

I use Grammarly almost every day to find and fix errors in my writing and to identify weak language and instances of the passive voice. 

When I’m working on something longer, I send the article to my editor who fixes mistakes I missed.

For lengthy projects, like a book, I budget for different types of editors and a proofreader every time.

In short, use a combination of software and editorial feedback to find and fix common grammar mistakes.

3. Longer Sentences Demonstrate Intelligence

Classic works like Ulysses are full of rich sentences that stretch on for pages. 

Impressive? Yes. Easy to read? No. 

Casual readers today don’t have a lot of time and attention. Unless you’re writing literary fiction, you are far better off to break up anything longer than a few lines.

Use formatting tricks like bullets, italics and so on.

If you’re writing a book, consider emulating the style of thriller writers who use short, succinct sentences. This approach will help you hook the attention of readers and keep them moving from one sentence, paragraph and page to the next.

Similarly, showing off your vocabulary with multisyllabic words is a common writing mistake. They’ll confuse or bore most readers.

Writing Tip

Give it up for Will Strunk and E.B. White. 

In Elements of Style, they wrote, “Omit needless words.”

Now, you can use software inspired by his writing principles, and it’s free. 

Paste extracts of your work into Hemingway Editor, and this software will identify adverbs, adjectives and other elements for removal. It can also help you find and fix a clunky turn of phrase. 

4. Write for Yourself

Some new writers believe they can produce pages of prose about whatever is on their minds, then they get frustrated when nobody wants to read or publish their work.

That’s not writing, it’s an exercise in vanity.

Unless your name is J.D. Salinger, writing only for yourself is terrible writing advice. 

The best writers always consider their ideal reader.

Good Advice

Crafting an ideal reader will help you speak to one person rather than many.

What does your ideal reader want? What are their hopes, dreams, fears and frustrations?

Keep notes about your ideal reader’s age, employment, personal circumstances and so on. 

This profile could be a combination of different readers you’ve spoken to or insights you gained from surveys. It’s a live document that you update over time. 

Work the answers into your article or story.

If you’re freelance writing, ask the editor if they can share more biographical info about the publication’s readers.

5. Ignore Critical Feedback

Many people tinker with their manuscripts for years early in the morning or late at night. They rework their writings endlessly without ever showing the results to anyone. That’s a tragedy because feedback from readers and editors will help you figure out what works and doesn’t work. 

Take advice from Stephen King, who said, “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.” 

Sure, you may get negative feedback, but every writer does at some point. Working alone without help is a bigger writing mistake.

Good Advice

Join a writing group either in person or virtually and give them extracts of your work. 

I was in a creative writing group for several years via the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin.

I shared good and bad extracts of my short stories and literary nonfiction with members. Reading aloud my writing extracts and listening to frank feedback–”That’s terrible Bryan, here’s why…”–helped me get over worrying about what people think.

Consider starting a blog or writing on Medium too. 

Sharing your work in public will help you discover what readers engage with and ignore. It also encourages writing regularly.

Consistency builds competency.

6. Write at the Weekend

New writers and aspiring authors often believe they can produce their first book if they sit down for a few hours one Saturday or Sunday afternoon.

Write a little every now and again, and you’ll find it far harder to craft your ideas, sentences, and finish an article or story. 

On the other hand, turn up every day to produce a few hundred words, and you’re far more likely to finish something you started. 

Nineteenth-century novelist Anthony Trollope wrote an average of three books a year by writing 250 words every fifteen minutes between 05.30 AM and breakfast. He said this approach, “allowed [him] to produce over ten pages of an ordinary novel volume a day.”

Writing Tip

Years ago, I’d trouble sticking to a writing schedule. So I got a wall calendar and pinned it near the desk where I wrote.

After writing, I put an X through that day’s date. This helped me track my progress visually and stick to a writing schedule for the first time.

Craft a good schedule and stick to it. If you decide you’re going to write at 6:00 a.m. for 30 minutes or after the kids go to bed, commit for five days a week as a trial. 

If you miss one day’s writing session, try not to miss the next day. A natural writing process will emerge if you’re consistent.

Setting a writing goal helps too.

7. Deadlines Don’t Matter

An editor will accept the occasional late submission, but consistently late work will tarnish your reputation as a freelance writer. 

Your editor has a publication and other good writers to manage too. Ignoring their priorities is terrible writing advice.

Avoiding this writing mistake, in turn, will help you land more profitable gigs. 

If you’re a nonfiction writer, deadlines are your friend. Respect them, and you’ll demonstrate you’re the type of freelance writer who ships on time and deserves to get paid. 

Good Advice

Use Google calendar to manage your time. 

Create one entry based on a deadline that your editor provides for a freelance writing project. Then create another earlier deadline so you have a margin of error when life inevitably happens.

Try managing your time like an entrepreneur, and you may be surprised by the results.

8. Write Across Genres (If You’re Starting Out)

Profitable writers pick one genre or niche and focus on learning that before branching out into another. This helps them build expertise and understand subject matter and their audience.

By all means, explore good types of writing on the side. It could even improve your style. But if you want to take writing seriously and get paid, avoid the mistake of spreading yourself across genres and subjects, at least at first.

I met the story consultant, Robert McKee, at a conference for nonfiction writers. He told me:

“Write what you love to read.”

I checked my Kindle library and found I was reading mostly business books alongside some self-help. Yet at the time, I was trying to write thrillers and science fiction. 

So I started writing those types of nonfiction articles instead, and my income increased within months. 

Writing Tip

Download the Kindle app to your computer or go over to your bookshelf. Examine the books in your personal reading library and determine what you finished and enjoyed. 

What types of authors and genres from today or history do you gravitate towards? What types bore you, e.g., thrillers, science fiction, self-help? 

Identify the conventions of these books. Use your reading material to inform you about what to write next. 

I like perusing notes, quotes and sections of books I enjoy as inspiration and research. 

If you’re a nonfiction writer or blogger, use this approach to consider your preferred articles and blog posts. Self-knowledge may help you find better, more profitable ideas.

9. Write Lots of Books and Articles Simultaneously

Many good or prolific authors, like James Patterson, juggle complicated writing projects and publish multiple works per year. If you’re a new writer, this approach is a big mistake. 

Writing multiple projects is distracting and dilutes your attention and resources. Patterson and his peers have a team (and even cowriters) who help them, and they’re writing and publishing full time. New writers, on the other hand, are probably balancing the craft with another job.

Mirror Patterson and his ilk, and you’ll delay getting feedback from an editor or readers. You’ll also postpone that feeling of accomplishment that comes after shipping something or pressing publish. 

Good Advice

Avoid trying to write half a dozen freelance articles, a book draft and create an online course at once. 

Pick one creative goal to focus on for the next three months. 

If you want to write a nonfiction book, say, “No,” or at least postpone any other opportunities that distract you from this creative project.

On the other hand, if you want to increase freelance writing earnings by at least $500 a month, concentrate on pitching editors or building your presence on Medium. Books and courses can wait.

If personal productivity is still an issue, my course The Efficient Writer walks through how I balance writing for Forbes, running, Become a Writer Today and my other work. 

10. Write and Edit at Once

Multitasking won’t help you become a profitable or prolific writer. 

I don’t mean having your word processor open alongside Twitter or Facebook. Yes, efficient writers avoid social media, the news and their phone while working, but you already knew that, right?

I’m referring to writing a first draft and editing it at the same time. I used to try to finish articles and improve my sentences at once, and it was a horrible, inefficient way of working. That way of writing took me hours to finish anything publishable. 

Both activities engage different sides of the brain and context switching is just confusing. By all means take out needless adjectives and adverbs but not while writing.

Good Advice

Allocate one part of the day towards writing a first draft and allocate another part of the day towards editing or research. 

Separating these activities into different parts of the day may help you focus. 

You don’t have to write in the morning or edit in the afternoon or evening like me. 

When you’re writing a first draft, put your editor cap away. Don’t worry about mistakes or typos. And when you’re editing, work on the manuscript in front of you only. Forget everything else.

11. Forget About Style

Fire up your word processor, sit down, and bang out a couple of hundred words without considering where it’s going to be published. 

Sure, you may finish the article or book chapter, but what will you do when an editor says, “You didn’t read our guidelines.”

Putting your preferred style first is terrible writing advice.

Far better to read the style guide of the publication you want to write for in advance. Try using language they prefer and consider how they format published works.

For example, one publication I write for on Medium prefers sentence case sub-headlines, while another prefers title case. They’ll reject freelance writers who break these rules. 

Similarly, a blog post is unlike a book chapter. It’s fine to break up a blog post with paragraphs breaks, bullets, italics and formatting tricks. The same approach can ruin a book chapter though. Always consider what your finished work will look like when it’s published.

Good Advice

Before pitching a publication, search the website for terms like “style guide” and “write for us” or “writing guidelines.” 

Several years ago, I wanted to write for a well-known site for freelancers. They ignored my multiple pitches. 

Much later, I reread their guidelines. The editor buried this instruction, “Writers who want to apply should include this secret word in their pitch: Maserati.” 

I didn’t include it. No wonder I was rejected. 

It’s also a good idea to find out the name of the editor of the publication, so you can personalise a pitch. 

Pay attention to:

  • Tone of voice
  • First person vs. third person
  • Sentence case vs. title case
  • Ideal word count
  • Preferred subject matter

12. Story Doesn’t Matter

Information and facts from history are kind of like salt and pepper. They add flavour to your work, but overdo it, and you’ll put readers off. Most readers don’t feel emotional about facts.