Writing advice for people who hate writing advice

A lot of people take writing advice way too seriously. It’s like they think if they just read Stephen King’s On Writing enough times they will be able to click their heels together and make bestselling novels appear out of thin air. They want some sort of magic formula. They want to know the RIGHT way to write a book.

I’m kind of too far at the other end of the spectrum though. I feel that writing is such a personal thing that I don’t want someone else telling me how to do it. I know that sounds stupidly stubborn, and that’s because I am stupidly stubborn.

So here are a few pieces of writing advice that I’ve come across and actually liked:

By zombies

Everyone always says you aren’t supposed to write in passive voice but no one is very good at explaining exactly what passive voice is or how to avoid it. That was until a college professor by the name of Rebecca Johnson came up the the “by zombies” test. Basically, if you can add “by zombies’ to the end of your sentence, you’re writing in passive voice.

For example:

Passive – She was overwhelmed (by zombies)

Active –  The zombies overwhelmed her

It’s a good little trick for finding weak sentences in your story so you can replace it with something a bit more engaging.


“If it sounds like writing I rewrite it” – Elmore leonard

Look, its great that you’re proud of that paragraph and all. You’ve put in some really great adjectives and thought-provoking metaphors. I bet you’re even imagining hipster girls getting this awesome quote tattooed on their back someday.

But maybe you’re not looking at this the right way.

This story isn’t supposed to be about you. Your attempt to show off  is only going to distract the reader from the story and make you look like a wanker.

The writers who get away with lyrical prose do so because they make it look effortless. If you’re trying really hard to impress the reader, the desperation will show.

You gotta play it cool. Don’t ever let them see you break a sweat over your words. Don’t let them see you at all.


Chuck Palahniuk nails ‘Show Don’t Tell’

Like the passive/active rule, people love to say “show don’t tell” without really elaborating on what that means. It doesn’t mean you have to show every little detail in every little scene. What it’s really about is showing emotions. Chuck Palakniuk has explained it better than anyone else in this essay.

In six seconds, you’ll hate me.

But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.

From this point forward – at least for the next half year – you may not use “thought” verbs.  These include:  Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use. 

The list should also include:  Loves and Hates.

And it should include:  Is and Has, but we’ll get to those, later.

Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write:  Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”  Instead, you’ll have to un-pack that to something like:  “The mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave.  Never his.”


Maybe you will find this advice helpful, as I have. Or maybe you will just scowl and  say “screw you! You don’t know me! You can’t tell me what to do!”

Either response is valid.


3 responses to “Writing advice for people who hate writing advice

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