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The Nine Best Pieces of Writing Advice I Didn't Learn in School · 6:39am Sep 17th, 2016

The first thing you write will always be bad
I wish I had a professor or teacher just come out and say it. You can have a twelve step course to teach you how to code in C++, cook up a batch of applesauce, or calculate the optimum trajectory and force to kick someone in the groin. All of that can be repeated with very little margin of error, but that is because those skills are perceived by you and not others. They are based in hard science.

When you write something, it’s not for you. Of course, you may enjoy writing something, but once it is published on the internet or some other publication, it is viewed by a whole lot more than just you and the couple of editors you may have cobbled together. All of those practices with predicates, pronoun confusion, prepositional phrases, and genres are in theory great, but will do you little good in practice.

The basic problem can be summed up as such: you can be taught how to write, but you can’t be taught how to feel. The written word is a careful tightrope of exposition and emotion. Too much of one is a manual. Too much of the other is bland and pointless whimsy. This applies across all mediums. Not everyone reacts the same to comedy. Not everyone is scared by the same horror tropes. Not everyone has a sense of adventure and worldbuilding. Each and every genre requires an audience capable of appreciating them, but it also needs writers capable of understanding the mores, taboos, tropes, and narrative structures. You might see a joke in another story, and it makes you laugh. But why does it make you laugh?

You’re not just telling a story, but pulling on a reader’s strings. Each scene is a part of a sequence, and each sequence a story. Fanfiction is, first and foremost, entertainment. Something fun is going on, but you have to understand what will and will not push your audience into feeling emotional triggers. What makes them laugh or cry? What makes them feel scared or brave?

You will not master emotion without trial and error. No teacher in the world can teach you how to feel.

Advice that works for others will 80% of the time not work for you
Often when you see writers, professional or otherwise, in articles, you will see a blurb talking about their writing process. Anything Stephen King says is fascinating to me, regardless or whether I believe in it or not. Yet that is the trick, is it not?

It took me much too long to understand this particular topic. In fact, I’d say my belief in it came so gradually, I didn’t know I practiced it. People have different interests; I am an avid reader of fantasy and sci fi, but you will not catch me anywhere near the romance, nonfiction, or historical fiction genres. It all came from such a simple question, but it was utterly lost to me.

If people have different literary interests, and if these interests influenced their own developing writing style, how can a writer know what advice will improve their own literary techniques?

There’s an instinctual response at a young age to adopt what works for others. Perhaps you’re too slow at developing new stories or chapters, you’re stuck writing with a very narrow set of literary tropes and cliches and wish to branch out, or simply wish to refine our current skillset and do better. The case is not whether a particular piece of advice is true—I’m certain it works—but each mind is so different that there is no telling if it will work for you.

Often enough, you’ll love what you hate, and hate what you are really good at
I’m good at scripting epic fantasy, but I sure hate writing it. I always steered myself away from writing erotica, but by god, I’m awesome at it.

A muse can be a tricky thing, especially for longer novels and works that ascend from doorstoppers and into military barricades. I’ve found music to be a great help, but sometimes I get these little, cancerous seeds planted in my head that interrupt my mojo and prevent me from writing my current story. You may have gotten them as well. They are bothersome and you have something else to write before those seeds.

Write them down anyway.

This can be a double-edged sword. If it becomes something too common, you will never get anything done and will have an entire folder filled with half-complete ideas. If you don’t write anything down, well, you have one undoubtedly superb work ready, but what state is you muse in after ignoring all of those potential ideas and exhausting yourself ignoring them? Even if you are not liking what comes to mind, jot down some notes for future reference. Who cares if they are not original? You can sort that out later. Your mind might change somewhere down the line and that seed may sprout fruit. Embrace those stories.

...but manage burnout
Unless you go to school for journalism or an english literature degree, no english teacher will ever give burnout but a passing mention. Breaks are very important and while slower writers might need an exceptionally long time to get in the mood and write extensively, even they can succumb.

Most commonly, I’ve found three reasons to not write.

1.) Writer’s Block - The age-old bane of a writer’s existence. You’ve got the story on track, but now what? You’re drawing a blank and what to do. You’ve got your music cued and your desk is prepared, but the next scene is nothing but an empty page. What’s supposed to happen next?

2.) Burnout - An entirely different kind of curse. You may have made a lot of progress, or you may have made none. Either way, you’re so tired and a little upset that there’s little point in continuing. You’ve lost interest and need sleep to recharge, or just walk away because you need to deal with the anger or depression or lack of progress.

3.) Apathy - Undoubtedly the worst. You have one or more stories on the backburner. You have the day off from work, and everything is set. Before you even open the office door, a strange thought comes to mind? “Why?” Of all things, why? Why are you still doing this? Your story is either unloved or too long. Fans hate it, or perhaps you do. Worst of all, you’ve been in the biz for so long you just can’t bring yourself to care anymore. There are cures for getting back into the swing of things, but there is nothing that can bring you back to something that’s become an utterly despicable chore.

It’s a good thing to pummel through the obstacles and write again, but even Batman wears down sometimes and wonders if it’s worth it anymore. Take breaks, enjoy life outside of the written word and beans of Java, and don’t shackle yourself to something that you might end up hating.

Manipulate your audience. They’ll thank you for it. Just don’t take it too far.
I always thought writing was straightlaced and simple. There are so many help guides and techniques. The three-arc storyline is a staple. The problem is, sooner or later, one of your characters needs to talk.

Why is that important? It’s because of a little writing device called foreshadowing. A character’s senses paint a picture and this is carried over to your audience.

Picture this in real life. Two people get in a verbal fight. Who is correct? That’s impossible without context, sure, but even if you did have it, what constitutes a “win condition”? This is usually a binary win/fail, but life, and as a result, books, rarely follow that template. People can have weak arguments, but still be right. The best option can have a horrible drawback.

Why is that important? Conflict. Stories have conflict of some kind, be it an enemy or an idea. Your characters perceive facts and theories and come up with ideas on how to progress. Do they join the resistance or not? You have to telegraph these things in advance to your readers. This is a good skill to master. It can also be a trap for hackneyed and boring writing.

The sultan jumped as his most trusted and loyal viser stumbled through the great oak doors.

“My liege! I come bearing–”

“Not now!” he retorted. His eyes returned to the scroll he’d been scanning for hours.


“Leave us!” And like that, the viser left without a word, a fearful look directed towards the scroll that was lost on the sultan.

Don’t do this.

Some of the best plot points are delivered when your readers don’t know they are there. Hide them in comedy; they won’t know it when important pieces of information slip right by under the guise of a joke. Don’t have this massive arrow pointing at a sentence that just screams “THIS WILL BE IMPORTANT LATER. SEE THIS LINE? YOU’LL REMEMBER IT LATER.”

It’s boring. Yes, it’s still foreshadowing, but now you’ve called attention to it and your readers see it coming. Good foreshadowing occurs when readers catch it in hindsight or during a second read. It’s shoddy and inferior writing when you include lines or scenes of dialogue that are there to manipulate what your readers think first, and whether it should actually be there second. Take it too far, and playing it straight becomes the surprise because your readers think so little of you.

This applies to even general emotional scenes. Yes, your characters are happy or sad or frightened. Don’t force those emotions on readers. Don’t hold up your other sign that states “THESE PEOPLE ARE SAD AND SO YOU SHOULD FEEL SAD.” That comes back to the oldest and most ancient piece of writing advice: Show, don’t tell. Don’t make people feel things they don’t feel. They have to experience it with the characters, not in spite of them.

That’s the bad side of things. The good side is, of course, foreshadowing can be a very powerful tool. The trick, not the trap, is when you lay out details for a reveal and your audience doesn’t immediately get them. Don’t call attention to your foreshadowing. Let it slip by like any other piece of dialogue. Once that time comes and that scene you’ve built up comes to pass, your audience will be in awe of you because you’ve laid the pieces in front of them and they only now put the pieces together. It’s a truly great weapon. Don’t squander it.

Perfection does not exist
What is perfection? What do we want? Why do people do what we do?

These are questions that have been asked for so long that we’ve long forgotten the source.

I am also one who has not listened to this particular lesson. I’ve gone through scenes and scenes over again to make them perfect. What’s the best way to nudge your audience into going through the roller coaster of emotion for your romance novel? How do you show the grand, epic scale of adventure?

Horror and comedy stories are notorious examples. It’s impossible to force people to laugh or be scared when all they are looking at are words on a page. If they don’t feel it, they won’t show it, and the purpose of your story is utterly lost. That being said, don’t fall in the mental trap of sculpting a masterpiece at every turn. Write it down, and write it now. You can always go back and trim the pieces and snip the fat, but understand that what you want is impossible. You will not please everybody. Start with pleasing yourself. Do you like it? Fine, start with that. Send it to an editor. Do they like it? If yes, you have something to work with.

Don’t shoot for the stars right out of the gate. The magnum opus is one and a million, but you can’t summon it. Let it flow. Let it come naturally. When it is out there, let it be judged. Yes, the vast majority of stories in the entire world are forgotten and shoved out of the public conscience after time. But there are those you meet, great readers and friends, who will remember you and what you’ve done. Even when you’ve put the quill down and closed the book for the last time, if you are still remembered by those fans, to me, that is all you'll need.

The Flashpresent
You know what a flashback is, don’t you?

Of course you do. It’s the time-honored tradition of expositing for an event or person. It’s been done thousands of times.

And chances are they’ve all been done wrong.

Think for a moment. What’s a flashback’s purpose? To do as I said, and exposit an event or person? Break it down even more. Exposition.

It depends on a wide variety of factors, but a flashback is best used to enlighten. It shares several close ties with exposition, but there are a few semantic differences. The former is used to help readers understand what a character is thinking or feeling. The latter is an infodump.

Structurally, when should a flashback occur? When a character is thinking or a particular memory or person? If no person in the story is involved, why should a flashback occur? Why is a memory given to readers out of the aether?

A flashback—flashpresent—should only be used when a person is involved, and when the readers can directly relate or empathize with. Syd Field explained it best: “The flashpresent is anything we see the character thinking and feeling in the present moment, whether a thought, dream, memory, or fantasy, for time has no constraints or limits.”

Your not just helping readers understand what is going on because you need a good reason for the flashpresent to be there. After that, you need to tie it to a specific person. Lastly, you need to touch on the ephemeral nature of thought and the mind. After all, someone’s mind is turning back the pendulum of time, and the mind can go to the past, present, or future.

Plagiarism vs. Inspiration
I’ve heard it said on more than one occasion that nothing is original, and perhaps that is true. We all borrow from different sources, from authors we like, to ideas we praise. A bunch of rebels fighting an evil empire where technology can do anything?

You think I’m talking about Star Wars? No, I’m talking about Flash Gordon. Or it might be Eragon if technology is switched with magic.

You’ll see allusions to Greek mythology most commonly. Shakespeare himself has had his stories retold in various contexts and methods countless times. A book on my list to read is called Dorothy Must Die. Lovecraft’s type of horror is so popular that it is one of the titans in the genre that is spotted a mile away.

So where do you cross the line? Where does inspiration or even admiration cross the line? Here’s what I’ve adopted.

You like a story and want to make something new based on that exact concept. It’s ripe with material. You’ve completed your story. How do you know if it’s plagiarism or not? That’s not the question you should be asking at all.

Is the most enjoyable part of that scene/story/character the part that you had absolutely nothing to do with?

Granted, this is a question best NOT asked by yourself. Send it to an editor with a full disclaimer concerning what you’ve done either before or after they’re read it. It depends on both how you want them to view your story, and keeping your editor in the mindset of someone who hasn’t read your story before. Or perhaps someone who’s read the source material but not yours.

If your editor comes back and said that the best part is this guy from that other story, scrap what you’ve done. Yes, it’ll hurt, but there comes a time as the King himself put it, even if it breaks your heart, kill your darlings.

You will fail
You may get out of the game before it happens.

It may happen on the first try.

At some point, be it your writing style, a plot point, or even your story itself, you will make a mistake. Something doesn’t come out right or it’s something that should have been checked out by an editor long in advance.

It could be a big problem, or a little one in the grand scheme of things. Regardless, your mind might very well zero in on it. It will not drop it, it will not forget. Even months or even years later, perhaps after everything was solved, some impulse begets that memory and you wince at having to remember something best left forgotten.

I have no advice for you. I didn’t get advice on how to react to complete and utter failure. Perhaps good advice for this is the unicorn of written myths and legends along with the perfect and time-honored story. It is something that may happen, or it may not. What readers see are words on the page, not the person writing them. There is little need to feel empathy for words in a book. It’s just a book.

And all the advice in the world can’t pick you up from feeling that kind of weight.

Comments ( 8 )

Note on the last parts:
Failure is inevitable. Think not of it as something to be forgotten, or a shame that one must hide, but an experience. Think on that day you wrote those words that hurt so hard. Laugh at your own naivety, that you thought it was good, and be happy that you are no longer that person any more.


Such great writing advice here. Thanks for sharing. :twilightsmile:

Cripes man. Can I at least choose the 20% of this good advice that'll actually work. Cause damn that apathy one is needed lol.

On a more serious note, I buy quite a lot of it. Writing has always been a throwback to most people even before they've realized they enjoy it so much. But writing, to me, continues to be one of the most difficult things you can do in spare time since you can love your work all you want but that aint gonna make the others. Posting it up take mounds of courage, makes me smile when that new story section is still flooding with content.

Step 10: Git Gud

Interesting blogpost Journeybro, despite the overly click bait title XP

I almost quite altogether. My first fanfic ever stopped at about 20,000 words before I removed it. I reposted it later on when I started writing about ponies, but the stats were absolutely miserable. I got a total of two comments and, if memory serves, forty views. I quit writing for about four years until I got back into the swing of things here. All it took was reading two stories.

It's a strange thing for me. I've written just a hair shy of half a million words, and yet I'm still trying to nail down my identity as a writer. I don't think I'll ever get something published, but even these drabbles have me curious about why I do what I do. I have adventure and horror and can point that this is mine, but I can't select something and say "This is me."

Call writing a learning experience that doesn't end until you day or it's just I'm still lost on what the hell I'm doing.


I'm still trying to find my place as well. I tend to bounce around a bit when it comes to genre but I haven't found something yet that just sticks.

4227278 It's always funny when I think about when I "quit". My first fanfic was actually a Final Fantasy Tactics one. Went on for about 60k and then I just stopped. Never really wrote anything but I couldn't stop getting ideas. Though it might mean something but never really went further. Then I joined here on my b-day and continued to "quit" while reading loads. Then I somehow wrote something this year. I think I'm still "quitting" but I don't quite wanna say I'm done yet. Like I haven't said everything I could lol.

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