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.
- 1. Write Perfect Sentences
- 2. Listen to the Grammar Police
- 3. Longer Sentences Demonstrate Intelligence
- 4. Write for Yourself
- 5. Ignore Critical Feedback
- 6. Write at the Weekend
- 7. Deadlines Don't Matter
- 8. Write Across Genres (If You're Starting Out)
- 9. Write Lots of Books and Articles Simultaneously
- 10. Write and Edit at Once
- 11. Forget About Style
- 12. Story Doesn't Matter
- 13. Outlines Suck
- 14. Write What You Know
- 15. Write With Pen and Paper Only
- 16. Learn To Type So You Can Write Faster
- 17. Stop When You Learn the Basics
- 18. Write Without a Plan
- 19. It's Impossible To Make a Living From Writing
- 20. Marketing and Writing Don't Mix
- 21. Writing Is Too Hard
- Avoid These Writing Mistakes
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Compelling stories form the heart of good writing, and that’s hard to get right. Such stories persuade readers and help them remember what you wrote long after the last page.
I struggled with inserting personal stories into my work. I worried what my boss would think if I wrote about drinking too much in my twenties. I worried about what my mother would say if she knew I was writing about sex.
It took awhile for me to figure out the problem isn't what people think, it's getting them to read my work in the first place.
Advice About What To Do Instead
It takes a lifetime to master storytelling, and it's something I've struggled with.
Keep a library of personal stories in a journal that you can draw from when you're stuck.
Maintain a notebook or swipe file of other stories you find during the research process. Consider it a personal history of your research.
Even if you don't use them in a current article or book, they may prove handy later.
Having a system is more important than how it works.
Also, check out Story by Robert McKee. It covers topics like common story tropes.
13. Outlines Suck
When I started writing nonfiction, I didn't spend much time on outlines. I started in the middle and wrote backwards or forwards.
It wasn't efficient. I was thinking through the act of writing. That's useful if you're engaged in literary nonfiction or freewriting.
However, if you want to produce multiple blog posts, articles or a book, you’re far better to note a single idea on an index card alongside a series of bullet points explaining how you're going to elaborate.
Similarly, many good writers engaged in worldbuilding outline their plots in advance so they can track what happens, for example George Lucas of Star Wars fame.
Keep index cards and a pen and paper on your desk. Use these before you start writing. Take these with you while out for a walk if you're dictating and refer to them when unsure what to say.
Alternatively, if you'd like to use software, try Dynalist. Mind maps are a good alternative too.
14. Write What You Know
It's easy to write what you know. After all, if you feel like you're an expert in a chosen topic or a niche, it's a lot more work to break into another area.
However, writing what you know gets boring eventually. Your writing can become staid, and you could miss out on something more exciting. Give yourself room to experiment.
By all means work with your chosen genre, but explore it. Try playing with conventions or your readers' expectations. Keep a list of questions to ask before you start on a big writing project.
- What do I want to learn about…?
- Who can I speak to about…?
- How can I share what I've learned about…?
15. Write With Pen and Paper Only
This is a controversial piece of advice, as I know many writers enjoy using pen and paper. It liberates creative thinking in a way that digital tools can't.
There's a time for pen and paper, particularly for exploratory writing or for diving deeper into your thinking.
But if you want to earn a living from writing, give good writing software a try too.
Software for writers is easier than ever to use. Understanding how to turn your ideas captured with pen on paper into something you can publish may help you start your writing career.
Scrivener can help with long-form writing projects, whereas apps like iA Writer and Byword are useful for writing short articles. Similarly, Vellum can help you master the art of self-publishing. If you're going to start a blog, learn the basics of WordPress or try Medium.
16. Learn To Type So You Can Write Faster
I learnt how to type when I was 15 years of age via after-school classes.
I took special pride in knocking out 50, 60 and 70 words a minute without making many corrections or errors.
Typing is a useful skill for writers. Learning the basics of QWERTY typing will help you produce more than picking out the letters with your fingers.
However, here's a fun history fact:
The QWERTY keyboard is designed to slow typists. It's based on old mechanical keyboards, which jammed if a writer pressed too many keys at once.
Yes, learn to type. But know that you'll reach a ceiling in terms of how fast you can write. Take time to learn dictation too.
Advice About What To Do Instead
Dictation is far more efficient than typing. And you don't have to worry about repetitive strain injury (RSI) or writing in pain.
After a few months of practice, a writer can increase their output by five- or ten-fold per hour.
17. Stop When You Learn the Basics
Ernest Hemingway said, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one will become a master.”
Take heart from him.
Writing, like karate, painting or composing music, is a pursuit you can spend a lifetime studying and never master.
Part art and part science, it's a skill set you can spend years refining. You'll always come across new ways to tell better stories, connect with readers or move them emotionally.
Rather than thinking you understand good, or even terrible, writing, accept learning never stops.
Set aside time for reading books about the craft, taking courses and getting feedback.
These teachers helped me think about writing in different ways. I regularly try to read books about the craft, delving deeper into topics I don't know much about like copywriting or writing persuasively.
Right now, I'm diving into The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr.
I try to set aside 30-to-60-minutes for this type of learning each day and put what I come across into practice.
18. Write Without a Plan
New writers often face the problem of sitting at their desks and wondering, “What now?” They don't have an idea to write about or are unsure about where to start. They waste precious writing time before or after work trying to get into a state of creative flow.
I faced this problem for years.
If you're engaged in exploratory writing or journaling, it's ok to see where your hand or the mind leads. But this approach isn't conducive to a profitable freelance writing or blogging career.
I had this problem until I read this advice from Ernest Hemingway:
“I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and that I refill at night from the springs that fed it.”
He liked to stop when the going was good. After a challenging morning's writing session, Hemingway left off writing in the middle of a sentence, so he'd know where to pick up the following day.
This is a good tactic if you're struggling with writer's block or find it hard to get into a state of creative flow each day.
Draining the well doesn't mean holding back something from the finished piece though.
Sometimes using one creative idea reveals the next.
Rather than writing to exhaustion, consider how you can stop. Leave yourself a prompt. Give yourself breathing room to restart tomorrow.
But also work on the assumption that the muse or your subconscious will reveal new writing ideas. Writer's block will pass!
19. It's Impossible To Make a Living From Writing
Many people buy into the idea of the penniless starving artist. They don't mix working on their art with earning a living.
However, writers have lots of opportunities for earning money today, even when starting off.
You can always self-publish, start a freelance writing career, or find a writing job if you need to get paid. Any relatively competent nonfiction writer can earn a few hundred dollars a month from Medium.
If you feel like you deserve to get paid, avoid treating writing like a hobby. Give this professional pursuit your time, attention and respect, as I explain in this short video on the Become a Writer Today YouTube channel.
Don't quit your day job just yet. Instead, try starting a side-hustle as a freelance writer, blogger or nonfiction writer.
This guide covering side-hustle ideas for creatives explains more.
20. Marketing and Writing Don't Mix
Many new writers feel icky when somebody starts talking about promoting their ideas and stories or, gasp, marketing.
Artists don't have to worry about self-promotion right? Well, they do if they want to eat.
A blogger must attract website traffic. A freelance writer must find more clients. An author must sell their book on Amazon and other stores. Not promoting your work is a surefire way to avoid getting paid to write.
It seems as though author Malcolm Gladwell found success easily, but he spent his early career struggling to earn recognition.
Malcolm Gladwell’s first book, The Tipping Point, didn't sell well at first. So Gladwell spent approximately two years promoting his book via tours, talks and speaking events. He promoted his book until it became popular.
“The book didn’t do well at first…I got it in my head that if I kept touring, and I kept giving talks about it, it might revive. I basically did endless promotions for two years.”
Even today, Gladwell spends hundreds of hours talking with and emailing other writers about ideas he wants to use in his books.
While speaking, he gauges his audience’s reaction to figure out what was interesting or boring. He also uses arguments from his audience to hone the quality of his works.
21. Writing Is Too Hard
Many new writers feel like they'll never live up to the success of other top authors of best-sellers like Stephen King or JK Rowling. The thing is these writers have been at it for years.
You can only see the tip of the ice-burg. They also had to start somewhere and often had help along the way.
Everyone has to write their first blog post, article or book. You can learn far more from a public failure than a private attempt at perfectionism.
Avoid These Writing Mistakes
So how do you avoid bad writing? It comes from practice and dedication to the craft. A willingness to learn from more accomplished writers and accept frank feedback about your work helps too.
Every writer makes mistakes and comes across terrible writing advice occasionally. Successful ones move past these problems and get back to it. They give their readers what they want.
Avoid the writing mistakes above if you want to build your brand and become a profitable, successful writer.
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