One of the first things you learn as an Author is that everyone has writing advice for you.
And most of the advice is terrible.
It starts the second they find out you’re writing a book:
- “Write for the love of writing!”
- “Write for yourself!”
- “Follow your passion!”
- “Write when you’re inspired!”
- “Never write in a cafe!”
Those cliches sound like good advice because you hear them all the time.
But they’re all awful.
At Scribe, we’ve taught thousands of Authors how to draft, finish, and publish their book. They did it. They succeeded.
And they didn’t do any of those things.
These Authors we’ve helped aren’t some kind of mythical elites. They aren’t the chosen ones. They’re human beings, just like you.
If you’re ready to make it happen—if you’re ready to claim your own success—this post rips apart all that terrible writing advice so you can get back to what matters: finishing your book.
21 Common Pieces of Terrible Writing Advice
1. Write when you’re inspired
This is the worst piece of advice you can get as an Author.
That’s like saying you’ll go to the gym when you feel like working out. You might go once in a while, but you’re not going to get in shape. People who make working out part of their routine stay in shape because they go even when they don’t want to.
If you only write when you’re inspired, you’re probably never going to write. And if you do only write inspired (and rarely), you’re going to write about disjointed topics that don’t connect.
Why? Because inspiration doesn’t follow a plan.
Somerset Maugham said this about inspiration:
“I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”
Authors attributed with similar quips and routines include:
- William Faulkner
- Peter De Vries
- Raymond Chandler
- Ernest Hemingway
If you want to write a book, you must have a plan.
That means deciding:
- What time of day you’re going to write
- How long you’re going to write
- Where you’re going to write
- What word count you want to hit
And you have to put it on your calendar.
Then sit down and do it.
Also, we recommend giving yourself permission to write mediocre stuff. Every Author arrives at good writing through the valley of mediocrity.
Start by getting your ideas down, whether or not they feel inspired.
Don’t get me wrong: inspiration is great, and you should harness it when it comes. It’s perishable, and it’s valuable. So use it.
But you can’t rely on it.
You can’t only write when you have it.
2. Dive in and be scared later
Sure, if you want to set yourself up for crippling writer’s block.
It’s not that it’s ineffective. You can disassociate from your emotions and start writing. It’ll work fine for something quick—a blog post, maybe. Or an anecdote or short story.
But if you’re writing a book, those fears are going to catch up with you…and they’ll knock you right on your ass.
Writing a book takes a long time. You have to come back to it every day for months. And you can’t push fear away effectively for that long. It will eat you alive if you don’t address it.
How do we know? We’ve seen it thousands of times, with every Author we’ve coached.
I live it myself with every new book I write. I’ve written bestsellers, and I’m still not immune to it. No one is.
This is especially true with nonfiction. You’re sharing yourself. You’re putting your honest thoughts and ideas out there in a highly vulnerable way.
You’re far better off putting your fears and insecurities on the table and addressing them.
But you don’t have to solve that fear. When you’re writing something that’s worth writing, fear is part of the process.
It doesn’t ever fully go away. Because of this, you must deal with it by facing it. Every time.
3. Write for the love of writing itself, not for what writing might get you
This is excellent advice if you want to be a poor poet. For everyone else, it’s terrible.
I’m not saying it’s bad to love writing. If you fall in love with the process of writing and you can’t wait to do it every day, that will definitely help you write your book.
But it’s terrible advice to give an Author.
Why? Because you start thinking that if you don’t love your writing, you’re doing it wrong.
That’s simply not true.
By most people’s definitions, I’ve been wildly successful as a writer. But I might love writing 10% to 20% of the time.
I have a whole spectrum of emotions the rest of the time:
All of those.
So, the advice I would give is this:
The reason you write is to get something from your writing. There’s no other reason to write—at least if you want to publish what you’re writing.
If you’re writing a journal, with no intent to publish it, that’s great. In fact, it’s amazing. I keep a journal myself, but it’s not for the love of journaling.
I keep a journal because I get something out of that too.
But don’t tell an Author, who’s trying to write and publish a book, to write only for the love of writing.
That’s what I call a luxury belief. Writers love telling stories. And snobby, elite writers love telling snobby, elite stories about their own work.
“I write for the love of writing.”
Not true. They write to make money or to raise their status among their peers.
You might love writing, or you might not. Either way, the love of writing isn’t the point of it if you’re publishing your work.
The point of writing and publishing is to create a change in the world. To create a change in other people’s attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors, or your own life.
That’s the real advice. It’s the advice that can energize a writer and transform a book.
You’re not writing for the love of writing–that’s just a bonus. You’re writing to create change.
4. Write with a dictionary & thesaurus on your desk
Do you need to keep a dictionary on your desk? No.
That was great advice in the 19th century. In the 21st century, it’s just stupid. We all write in word processors that have writing tools built-in. Spell check is automatic.
Besides, you should always get your work proofread. You don’t need a dictionary.
And you definitely don’t need a thesaurus. Seriously. Don’t even think about it.
If you’re going to a thesaurus, it’s to make yourself look smart. It’s not about helping the reader. Don’t use it. Ever. Not even Google.
Readers like simple words and ideas that are easy to take in quickly.
Readers don’t want esoteric, obscure drivel that obfuscates your conceptual propositions.
See? Sounding smart is annoying. It drives readers away.
I’ve been a professional writer for 20 years. I’ve sold millions of books. In all that time, I’ve only used a thesaurus for one thing: when I’m naming companies. Seriously.
If I’m helping a friend come up with a name or a pitch, and we don’t want to use a certain word because of a trademark problem (or some marketing and promotion issue), I’ll use a thesaurus.
When you’re writing a book, don’t turn to a thesaurus. The simpler and more direct your language is, the better.
5. Buy The Chicago Manual of Style & The Elements of Style
The only reason to buy these books is to set them on fire and throw them out your window.
Those books are shackles. They’re shackles that snobby, elitist writers try to convince other writers to wear.
I’ve met a lot of Authors. But I’ve never met one Author I like who also likes The Elements of Style (there might be exceptions to that rule, but if there are, I don’t know of them).
Here’s what you should do:
Write simply and directly, in your own words and voice. Invite readers to connect with who you really are.
6. Study the details of English grammar
Only do this if you want to be a copyeditor. If you don’t care about being a copyeditor, don’t bother.
Instead, do what I do. Hire a good copyeditor, and then ignore 50% of their suggestions because they don’t actually make the writing better.
Most copyeditors are just blindly following rules—and the rules aren’t even real.
I’m serious. There’s no such thing as a grammar rule. At best, there are only grammar suggestions.
Don’t believe me? Try reading Shakespeare in its original version.
That was only 400 years ago.
What we call ‘good’ or ‘correct’ grammar changes constantly. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either dumb or lying.
That said, if you want to come off with a certain status, or appeal to a specific audience, then, yes, you have to adopt the grammar of the people you’re trying to attract.
That doesn’t mean using better grammar. It means fitting in and speaking their language. Literally.
But you don’t have to study any of that.
Write in your own voice, with your natural grammar.
Let copyeditors and proofreaders worry about your grammar later.
Even then, you should ignore any edits that don’t make your writing clearer, more simple, and more direct.
7. Subscribe to blogs about writing / Read books about writing
Only do this if you want to fit in with annoying, snobby, elitist writers. I’m dead serious.
I started Scribe because most of the writing and publishing industry is shockingly elitist, and most of what they teach is bad advice that doesn’t work.
Why? Because they’re not really trying to help people. They’re just trying to sound impressive.
Remember, the only good reason to write and publish anything is to create a change. Nothing about reading books about writing—or subscribing to blogs about writing—is going to help you do that.
Can you learn to be a better writer? To be more clear and direct? To be more persuasive? Absolutely.
But I have yet to find a book about writing that’s a better use of your time than actually writing.
I’ve read many books about writing. Not one of them helped me become a better writer. That’s because the only way to learn how to become a better writer is to write.
That’s it. There’s no other way.
You can’t get into shape by watching YouTube videos of people working out. You can only get into shape by moving iron. You have to do the work.
Writing is the same. You can’t learn how to write by reading about writing. You have to do it.
8. Write what you’re passionate about / Follow your passion
Writing what you’re passionate about could go either way, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish.
At Scribe, we tell most of our clients to focus on their objectives first—to ask themselves what they’re really trying to accomplish.
That’s because most of the time, writing about their passion won’t help them achieve their objectives.
I’ll give you a good example.
Adam Dailey wrote a book called How to Run Away from Home: And Bring Your Family with You.
Adam is a commercial real estate investor, and at the same time he was thinking about that book, he also had an idea for a real estate book. A really good idea. So he was debating between the two.
They were both awesome ideas, but those books were going to get him different things. We talked through it, and he decided he was really passionate about traveling with his family, and that’s the book he wrote.
It’s a great book.
But about a year later, he came back wanting to write the other one. He was getting tons of invitations to speak about traveling with his kids, when what he needed to grow his business was to talk about commercial real estate.
That’s the reality of nonfiction books.
If you want to bring more business to your company or raise your prestige in your field, you might have to write about what you’ve been doing for the last 20 years.
And you might not feel very passionate about it. You might even be bored with it.
I can’t tell you how many clients have come through Scribe who were excited about something that had nothing to do with their business.
We tell them, “You can write about that, but if you go down that path, there’s nothing down there except the joy of having written about it.”
And, hey, if you want to say, “You know what? I’m just really into this thing, and I want to write about it. And I’m cool with the fact that it isn’t going to help me in any direct financial way,” that’s awesome. Go ahead and write that book.
But let me also say this:
Many people use “passion” to avoid the book they should write but are afraid to write.
I’m currently working on a new memoir about my therapeutic journey, and I’ve avoided that one for a long time—with other projects and other books—because it’s a really hard book to write.
But it’s the one I need to write.
So, sometimes passion isn’t passion. Sometimes it’s really avoidance.
Instead of asking yourself what you’re passionate about, ask yourself what your objectives are. And ask yourself what book will most help the readers you want to connect with.
That said, if you’re choosing between 2 book ideas and they’re both viable, the one you’re more excited about is almost always the better choice. You’ll commit more to it, and you’re more likely to finish it.
What you’re excited about IS a marker on the path. But it’s not the only marker, and it might not be the most important one. In fact, it might even get in your way.
9. Write what you know
This is good advice if you’re thinking about writing a book on a topic that you don’t know much about. That’s usually a bad idea, and this advice gets you off that track.
Sometimes people come in and say they want to write a book about a topic like b2b marketing. But when we ask them what they know about it, it turns out they don’t know anything.
They want to be known as an expert in that field so they can coach people, but they don’t know anything about it! Obviously, we don’t work with those people.
So if you don’t know what you’re talking about, be very careful.
But here’s why this can be bad advice: you can learn something from writing a book.
You can use the process to learn about a field and then write about it from a new angle. Or you might write about the intersection of two fields that have never really been put together.
I’ll give you a good example.
A young guy came in who knew AI pretty well, and he knew sports pretty well. He wasn’t the ultimate expert in either one, but he knew a good amount about both. Let’s say he was operating in the top quarter in both of those fields.
At the time, nobody had written a book about sports and AI together. He knew those fields well enough to become the go-to expert on the intersection of the two.
He used the process of writing a book to learn more about both fields individually. He interviewed the top experts in each one. He collected that knowledge, put it together, and his book is fantastic.
But he wasn’t writing what he knew.
Not exactly. He had to learn a lot to write that book.
“Write what you know” can be bad advice if it keeps you from expanding your knowledge. If you’re 50 to 80% of the way there and want a book to push you the rest of the way, do it.
So, you don’t have to JUST write what you already know. That’s not always good advice. But most of the time, it is.
10. Believe in yourself
How could this ever be bad advice?
I’ll tell you how.
It’s bad advice if you use it to substitute belief for action and preparation. If you do that, you’re going to fail.
This is related to the people who will tell you to only write when you’re inspired. Professionals don’t say that. They make writing a habit. They make a plan and stick to it.
They don’t depend on inspiration for their success.
Similarly, a professional writer would never tell you JUST to believe in yourself. Belief without any real effort backing it up isn’t functional. It doesn’t work.
If you go through our free Scribe Book School and you do the work, if you have the knowledge to write a book, if you make a plan and stick to it, AND you believe in yourself, that’s fantastic.
But if you don’t know anything about anything—if you don’t do the work and you just believe in yourself and that’s it—nothing’s going to happen.
Belief is one part of a whole set of things you need to do. Not the only thing.
11. Start a blog. Talk about your process, share your experiences, publish sections of your work.
If you feel inspired to do this as you write your book, that’s great, do it.
The only reason this is bad advice is that it’s stated as if you have to do it. That’s just not true.
The vast, overwhelming majority of writers don’t do this and are still very successful without it. So don’t feel like this is an obligation.
In fact, it can be a hindrance. You can create a lot of problems for yourself by talking about your book while you’re in the middle of writing it.
You can create a lot of expectations, walk yourself down holes, or get yourself in blind corridors. It can create issues.
It gives you other things to focus on that take you away from your book. You’re learning how to use WordPress, writing blog posts, and trying to build an audience instead of writing your draft.
It also puts your book idea out in the world before you’ve finished writing it. And you can’t copyright an idea.
Other people might not be able to use your exact words, but they can use your ideas.
So don’t do this unless you feel inspired to do it, and it’s the type of thing you want to do.
12. Read as much writing as you can in your genre (the kind of books you want to write)
Again, it depends.
I actually tell people not to do this. Here’s why:
If you’re an expert in your field, you’re often better off coming into your book fresh (at least for your rough draft). That way, you don’t know what the rest of the field thinks is (or isn’t) important, or what the field assumes to be true. Thus, you can come in with a new angle.
Plus, you’ll often do a better job of connecting to your readers if you don’t make all the same assumptions everyone else is making.
Of course, this is very contextual. It depends on how much knowledge you already have. If you’re writing in a field you don’t know a ton about, you need to read as much as possible.
But if you know your field well, don’t go buy a dozen books on Amazon and get stuck in the same traps every other thinker in your field already fell into.
Instead, read only the minimum amount necessary to know what the general consensus is in that field. Read just enough so you can position against that, with something new and different, or diverge in the ways you’re going to diverge.
But you don’t need to have exhaustive knowledge before you start writing. In fact, it often holds you back.
13. Writing is more about the journey than the destination
If you’re lucky enough to fall in love with the process of writing, then you’re almost certainly going to finish your book. That aspect of this idea is really good.
But here’s the problem: a lot of people will use it as an excuse not to think about their reader. Or they use it as an excuse to not think about how the book is going to fit into their lives and help them.
They love the journey, but they end up writing books that don’t do anything for them.
This is the kind of advice that sounds great until you really stop to think about what it means.
Sure, loving the journey is a great way to finish a book. But you need it to be the right book—the destination matters.
And plenty of people hate the journey.
You might not want to sit down every day and write another 250 words. But if you take that journey anyway, you still end up with a finished book.
So don’t fall into the trap of thinking that writing your book is about writing your book. It isn’t.
It’s about the finished product and what it does for your life and for the reader’s life.
14. Publish your work online, even if it’s not perfect.
This advice is the very definition of “It depends.”
When you finish your vomit draft, don’t publish it online. That would be a disaster. You’ll look bad, and you won’t help your reader.
You need to edit your work.
That said, you don’t need to edit it endlessly. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
Perfection is an unattainable goal. In fact, believing in perfection as a concept—and exhausting yourself trying to pursue it—is a sign of profound emotional conflict.
Don’t put that burden on your book.
There’s a LOT of ground between “just publish it” and “it has to be perfect.” There’s a mile between those two ideas. Find your fit somewhere between them.
For most Authors, the best time to publish is after your editor thinks you’re ready, but before you think you’re ready.
Whoever’s helping you put your book together will almost always think it’s ready before you do.
Wait until they think it’s ready, but don’t try to wait until you think it’s ready.
You’ll overthink it and overwrite it, and you’ll change things that were great because you don’t feel ready (and you’re just stalling).
Once your editor says you’re ready, trust them and take the plunge.
15. Dream big, execute small.
If what you take from “dream big” is to do the best thing you can? I’m with you.
But if you expect one book to turn you into Oprah or some urban fantasy billionaire with a Hollywood love interest, that’s where things go sideways.
Don’t go into it thinking you have to write the biggest book possible to appeal to the biggest number of people. That’s a mistake.
Most Authors are far better off going after niche, targeted audiences that they can help in some uniquely qualified way.
This is true for the book about the intersection of sports and artificial intelligence. It’s an excellent book, and it’s targeted at a very particular niche audience.
That kind of targeting drives success far more effectively than “dreaming big.”
16. Slow down and work on your craft.
This is generally good advice–unless you take it a certain way.
It does NOT mean that you should overthink your writing.
Writing is just a way to get information from your brain into other people’s brains. The writing itself is never the point. The message is the point. And the result of the message is the point.
The change you want to make is the point.
Slowing down and working on your writing is fine in the editing stage, but the only reason you’re doing that is to make sure the message is clear.
It’s for the reader. It’s not for “your craft.”
17. Pay more attention to details
This isn’t bad advice, but be careful not to get lost in those details.
A lot of people who have perfectionist tendencies can get lost down that rabbit hole. Most of the time, the small details don’t matter.
Again, this advice is very contextual. If you tend toward rushing to get projects out the door, it’s probably a good idea to spend more time on the details.
But don’t agonize over them either. If you tend toward perfectionism, know when to stop.
18. Do not attempt this act alone.
I fundamentally agree with the idea that no one should write a book alone. That’s absolutely right.
But you don’t have to have a massive team or duplicate an entire traditional publishing imprint.
Don’t buy 8,000 books, read 17,000 blog posts, and try to learn the entire publishing industry inside and out.
But don’t try to do it all by yourself either.
19. Establish a relationship with potential readers/Start your email list as soon as you can
Sure. If you feel like you want to do this and it’s something that makes sense for you, go for it.
But don’t feel like you have to create your own YouTube channel, build a huge presence on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Snapchat, and every other social media platform in the world.
You don’t have to do any of that. Plenty of Authors find tremendous success with their book without doing any of that.
20. Join a writing group
You can join a writing group, and it can help you. But whether or not this is good advice depends on the group.
If you’re going to join a writer’s group, you need to join one that’s moderated by someone who’s a better, more accomplished writer than you are.
Bad writers make for bad writers groups.
And I mean “bad” in a very particular way. If someone has a great vocabulary, that doesn’t make them a great writer.
In fact, it’s probably something they have to overcome.
Literature degrees? Most writers with writing degrees have a hard time getting over themselves long enough to become good writers.
What you want in a moderator is someone whose writing is clear, direct, and engaging.
When they write something, you can’t stop reading it. You go to check out a sentence or two of their book on Amazon, and you look up two chapters later.
That’s a good writer.
If you’re looking for a good writing group, you’re welcome to try ours (I think it’s the best out there, but I am very biased).
But whatever group you choose, just make sure the person leading it is a good writer and a good teacher. They don’t need to be Stephen King, but they need to be better than you if you want to get anything out of it.
21. Engage in writing exercises
The only way to get better as a writer is to write. That part, I agree with.
But random “writing exercises” won’t help you. Especially if you don’t have anyone to read your results and help you improve.
If you’re looking for a way to improve on your own as a writer, try pasting some of your writing into the Hemingway App, and see what it tags.
It’s not perfect, but if you want your writing to be more clear and direct, it’s a good place to start.