When I first got into writing, I admit, I fell for the old “write what you know” scam. I fell for a lot of those kinds of scams — otherwise knows as writing tips. The bad advice hiding behind such good intentions. The stupid things some authors say to each other.
So, let me start by saying that all of these bogus writing tips I’m about to cover have a place. They do. But the moment an author takes one of these well-intentioned tips and creates a blanket rule to apply to every piece of writing they go from being helpful little tidbits to gigantic piles of no.
Write What you Know
Let’s start with one of the most shared writing tips: write what you know.
Okay… write what you know is meant to help you develop realism. If you have a character with PTSD, you should probably know something about what it’s like to live with PTSD. If you’re writing a parenting book, you should probably know a thing or two about parenting.
Unfortunately, so many authors use this advice to avoid writing. They write within their own culture because “write what you know” dictates that they can’t write from the point of view of a different culture. They write within their own gender because “write what you know” says you can’t write from the point of view of a different culture. Imagine if authors actually lived by this restriction, the effects on our literature?
The truth is, write what you know doesn’t mean write what you already know. It means get off your butt and learn something if you need to before writing anything ignorant.
Don’t add Contemporary References to your Fiction
I admit, when I am writing contemporary pieces, I do try to avoid including certain references from pop culture. The thing is, when I read a book that is 15-20 years old and I come across a pop culture reference I don’t understand, it pulls me out of the story. And not in a good way. I don’t want to have to look something up in the middle of a story just to understand what’s going on.
However, not all pop culture references are so obscure that they will leave your readers feeling confused. Is your character watching Harry Potter on television? Then go ahead and add that to your novel! Using these types of references adds authenticity to your novel, and readers will appreciate the connection. It’s true that it may date your novel — but that’s only important in certain contexts:
- If you’re writing a period piece, you probably want to make sure the dates all line up.
- If you’re writing nonfiction, you probably want to make sure your book contains the most up to date information, and appearing out of date is a good way to kill your book.
- If your fiction book contains absolutely nothing of interest except those dates.
Now, one thing you may want to stay away from in your story is the use of brand names. I’ve seen some authors offer advice such as “say Chevy Silverado” instead of “large pickup truck” because readers can picture the Chevy Silverado more easily than they can a large pickup truck. I whole-heartedly, absolutely disagree. I hate seeing brand names in books (unless, of course, it’s an important piece of information). But that’s probably more personal preference than an actual rule.
Never use Sentence Fragments
Pfft. If you read through more than a couple posts here, you’ll see I’m a big fan of sentence fragments.
And single line paragraphs.
Sentence fragments are especially useful in fiction when trying to evoke a sense of urgency, fear, or confusion within the reader. There is nothing more frustrating to me than reading a novel and coming across a scene where the character — despite fighting for his or her life — has time to notice the intricate details of the wood trim along the walls.
Normal people don’t have the spidey-sense necessary to notice things like that while trying to fight off attackers. They barely have the wherewithal to jump over that glass coffee table on their way into the kitchen to grab a knife. If they’re really lucky, they won’t knock over the entire wooden knife block while trying to yank out that bread knife.
Stop using Said as a Dialogue Tag, it’s Boring.
“Shut up,” I said.
That’s right. I said it.
I hear this advice being shared all the time: use more exciting words like “barked” and “growled” and “whined.”
Listen, unless your characters are all dogs, there is no reason to stop using the word said as a dialogue tag in favor of any of those others. No reason, that is, other than occasionally denoting tone. That’s it. Put your thesaurus away — I will fight you on this.
Nothing will frustrate me faster when editing a book than seeing dialogue tags flipping from one to another to another. It yanks me out of the story in a negative way.
You see, dialogue tags help keep track of who is saying something — but that’s pretty much it. Aside from differentiating between when someone is whispering or yelling, dialogue tags disappear into the background. Most readers don’t even register them — they’re so caught up in what the characters are saying and doing. Until you change that word. Once you start with the opine, replied, answered, retorted — you start muddling the story. Your readers start paying more attention to those tags than they do to the actual dialogue.
And that is never a good thing.
I should note that yes, I do realize this is a relatively controversial topic within the writing community. And yes, I do realize there are dozens — maybe even hundreds — of other editors out there who would tell me I’m crazy and I don’t know what I’m talking about here. Well, guess what — it’s my blog. They have blogs with their own advice. This is mine.
Bottom Line is This:
The most important voice for you to listen to is yours. There is no such thing as a blanket rule that will work for every book in every genres. No advice that will fit every story. Write your story. And when you’re ready to send that story off to an editor, if your editor brings up one of these issues then discuss the pros and cons and how much it changes your stories to implement their advice.