On Terrible Writing Advice From Famous Writers

Any writer has certainly come across a lot of advice on the Net, which supposedly should improve their writing. In this case, recommendations by acknowledged authors always seem more reliable and credible, however dull they may occasionally be. Do they spawn so much interest because they are really worth it or solely due to the authority of the famous people?

As practice shows, much of the advice is not applicable in real life and can even have a detrimental effect. In this article, we tried to figure out what advice you should avoid under any circumstances. Find some of the least helpful ones below.

On semicolons in writing

Kurt Vonnegut hated semicolons, calling them completely meaningless and comparing with “transvestite hermaphrodites”. Although he’s known for one of the biggest masterpieces of his time – Slaughterhouse Five – his statement concerning semicolons was at the very least unreasonable.

First and foremost, semicolons have a purpose. If you happen to be a fan of thorough descriptions and long passages dwelling on one subject, the semicolon is the most convenient way to highlight logical parts of that sentence.

Why not divide the sentence into several ones instead? In some cases, this will deprive the description of emotional power and completeness. Yet, always choose the approach on a case-by-case basis.

On limited number of words in a sentence

V.S. Naipaul wrote that a sentence should not contain more than ten or twelve words. Well, even the sentence above doesn’t follow this rule and doesn’t become incomprehensible because of that. If you feel that you simply cannot stuff the thought into the artificially created limit, don’t. We understand that some topics for descriptive writing require more than this limit.

A better rule to follow is to assess the readability of the sentence after you’ve written it. How to do that? Have someone read the long sentence out loud. If they stumble or lose the train of thought in the middle, the sentence needs simplification.

The golden rule is to use a new sentence for every new idea. If the idea is too complex, create a separate paragraph to explain it in detail. This way, you won’t need to compromise meaning for readability.

On shorter descriptions

American novelist Elmore Leonard advised not to go into long descriptions of places and things. However, such advice doesn’t always work in real life. Just imagine depriving James Joyce of his detailed descriptions of Dublin in Ulysses. The book would probably get twice shorter. An author always has his own vision of a place he describes.

Thus, it’s simply arrogant to insist upon one’s style of writing. Everyone’s got their own ideas and shouldn’t necessarily comply with someone else’s opinion on that.

The common issue, however, is that not everyone understands the main reason for writing. If we’re talking about news format or business materials, dwelling on certain descriptions may really be inappropriate. However, in a case of longer formats of writing, such as novels, thorough description of surroundings can be part of the style. Getting rid of it is not only inadvisable but can even be harmful to your creative purposes.

Thus, it’s paramount that you understand your goals before getting down to writing. After that, you’ll be able to adjust your style to match your target audience and purposes you set.

On thinking process

David Hare once put it: “Write only when you have something to say.” The phrase may seem like a sensible idea at first. However, it appears that the writer is trying to put everyone in his shoes. Hare may process everything that is going on in his mind, think about it carefully, and only then put the ideas on paper. Nevertheless, it doesn’t have to work with everyone this way.

Donald Barthelme, on the contrary, said that when starting to write, a writer doesn’t know what to do. Many find inspirations in the working process, so the primary task is to start free-writing, putting every idea on paper and only then edit and proofread it. If everyone waited to have something to say, there probably won’t be so much communication. So rather than writing for the great idea to come, it’s much more sensible to start your stream of consciousness that will eventually lead somewhere.

On children

Richard Ford once argued that a writer shouldn’t have children to be successful. Fortunately, many others have already criticized the argument. Zadie Smith, for example, wrote that it’s simply absurd to think that motherhood may somehow threaten creativity. Moreover, many other acclaimed writers have stated that children actually contributed a lot to the quality of their writing. Parenthood is a great experience that could enrich one’s writing, making it fuller and even more credible in some cases.

The problem, however, is that Ford does insist on his stance so much. When you read quotations of famous people, the power of their influence makes you believe that what they say is correct, while everything you thought before is wrong. Not to follow such terrible advice blindly, you have to learn to trust your natural instincts and intuition. Don’t let anybody spoil your inherent talent with dull advice.

Summing Up

Writing as a process is a special activity that cannot be understood fully. Someone needs to deprive himself of any distractions before coming up with something worth sharing. Others, on the contrary, may look for inspiration in their surroundings.

This makes the whole idea of universal advice given to writers non-sense. Even if there are some basic recommendations that are applicable in most situations, the number of exceptions may be equal to cases, in which they would work.


Thus, a really useful piece of advice would be for you to listen to yourself and practice. Writing itself will help you improve better than any of the recommendations of acclaimed authors and famous people.

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