Linda Maye Adams

Soldier, Storyteller

Writing Mis-Advice Reported as Facts #2


This is the second part of some of the writing Mis-Advice I’ve heard all over the years. The scary part about all of these is that sound absolutely reasonable if you don’t dig deeper. Check out Part I.

  1. All description is boring.

Usually when I heard this one, it was accompanied by another piece of advice “Get rid of the boring parts.” I think it probably comes out of doing writer’s exercises, description is taken out of the context of the story and character. So all you’re doing is describing something like you’re doing homework.

Worse, writers repeat this mantra in critiques. A few years ago when I was doing reviews, I read a book where the writer said in the back he’d made changes at the recommendation of his critique group. It was really obvious they’d told him to take out the boring descriptions (in a fantasy where descriptions are part of the world building!), instead of telling him to work on his descriptive skills.

Description is only boring if it’s written that way.

  1. All writers need developmental editing

This is a recent one I’m hearing. Developmental editing is treated as if it were a one-size fits all thing for indie writers. It’s also the most expensive of all the editing choices, and, in my opinion, is essentially a paid critique.

It assumes that you don’t know how to write and need to be told how to fix it.

Think about how that infantilizes the writer. If I do something at work, I don’t send it to my boss to make sure I’ve done it right (not to mention my boss would have utterly no time to do her work!). So why on earth would I pay someone to tell me how to fix my story?

But some of this came out of the early indie stories where people were throwing up stories without even proofreading. Everyone starting saying, “You need editing,” and few thought that they might just need a copy edit to clean up the typos, grammatical errors, and style issues.

All I can say is try the copy editing first.

  1. Don’t use passive voice, usually based on using the word ‘was.’

This one’s always puzzled me. Are writers really writing in passive voice THAT much? Or are writers misidentifying it because “was” seems like an easier way to “identify” passive voice? I remember a writer using one of these programs that identified was as being passive voice, so he removed ALL the instances of it. Like it or not, was is an important word. It helps sentences make sense!

In my opinion, you have to work to get passive voice in the story. It doesn’t even seem like fiction would lend itself to passive voice as well.

Seriously, would you write the following in a story:

My breakfast was eaten this morning by the cat.

Or would you write something like:

By the time I got out to the kitchen, the silver tabby cat had jumped on the table and was lapping up the milk from my cereal with quick swipes of a pink tongue.

  1. No dream sequences.

Another one that comes out writers doing it badly. Dream sequences are often used by writers to info dump backstory they can’t figure out how to get into story proper. Why is that if writers do something badly, everyone says, “Don’t” instead of “Learn how to do it right”?

I remember asking other writers on a message board what would make up a good dream sequence. They admonished me that it was a Really Bad Idea, and then started backing slowly away like I was catching. No one even wanted to try it. At all.

Kind of sad that writers are limiting themselves. I’ve seen some wonderful dream sequences in books, wonderful because they added another level of characterization to the main character. It’s a given as a potential topic for science fiction. Star Trek—The Next Generation has done in twice, one great, one not. Anyone remember the Deanna cake?

  1. You can’t break the rules without knowing the rules first.

I saw this one on message boards, and really, really hated it. The problem was that there was no actual answer to this. There’s no rule book for writing fiction, no definitive source that everyone must go to so they can write fiction. Everything is just opinion.

Rules are a safety net. They make people feel better. But we’re not filling out forms to a picky bureucrat’s standard. We’re creating stories, and sometime the rules are the worst thing for that. Sometimes it’s important to try breaking the rules, if it means learning something new, or seeing how something doesn’t work.

I had to write all these out so I could be aware of all everything I’d heard over the years. These pieces of mid-advice were one of the reaosns I had to stop reading message boards cold turkey. Way too many writers repeat everything as if it were precious treasure that must be used, instead of thinking on their own. Even knowing that some of these really weren’t true, I found some of them creeping into my writing anyway, like the description one.

8 Comments

  1. True for all of it. With number four, I distinctly Raskolniov’s dream in the first part of Crime and Punishment. It added a lot not only to the character, but also the theme and the Russian background. Do all dreams work–no! Like you said, they have to be done well.

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    • Laurell K. Hamilton had a really great one in one of her first three books, which then turned into major disaster when a zombie broke in and tried to eat the character.

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  2. I actually come across examples of passive voice in published novels all the time. As a little mental exercise for myself, I like to pause for a moment and think how I would change it to active voice. Often it seems as simple as using a stronger verb. However, I do think it’s probably impossible to remove all instances of the word “was,” so it’s perhaps not always the best indicator of passive voice. But I do treat it as a signal to at least take a closer look at what’s going on in my own writing.

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    • It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s often treated as if it is. Sometimes passive voice is the right thing for that place in the story.

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  3. Pearl R. Meaker

    The active vs. passive voice is one of those things I just don’t get. When presented with examples to show the difference I usually 1) can’t tell the difference or 2) prefer the passive voice example.

    I guess I’m just weird. LOL

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    • All you need to do is read government writing or listen to a politician. Both are infamous for passive voice — it’s a way of avoiding responsibility. Like “Mistakes were made.”

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      • Pearl R. Meaker

        Hahaha! Which still sounds perfectly alright to me. Hahaha Maybe I’ve just heard too much of it my whole life. 😉

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  4. livrancourt

    I don’t often use passive voice construction, but I always make an editing pass specifically to look for the word ‘was’. I have two reasons for that: with so many verbs out there, I don’t want to use the same one 500 times (or more!) in a novel, and I often find editing to get rid of ‘was’ will result in tighter, more specific sentences.

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