10 Standard Writing Tips and What's Wrong With Them


There’s a lot of writing advice out there from a lot of people who have experience in screenwriting or novel writing and such like - people who know what they are talking about because they’ve been there and done it. There are usually two problems with most of it:

i) It’s hard to apply. The advice, sound in itself, makes perfect sense while you’re reading it, but when you come to apply it to a piece of writing of your own, it’s still difficult to know exactly where to start.

ii) It doesn’t go deep enough. This explains i). The reason that new writers have trouble applying old writers’ advice is that the advice doesn’t go right down to the fundamentals of what makes a character or a story work. It begins to explain things from the outside rather than from the inside. Writing advice, even from the best writers, usually tells you what has been done, rather than how to do it. If you had built a house and wanted to explain to someone else how to do it, you would start with the idea of the house and work forward, through all the necessary and vital stages of putting the house together, not by standing outside and describing the roof, the walls and the windows. Sure, you can get a pretty good idea of what a house looks like from the outside view - but to build one you need to start differently.

It’s like that with writing. By all means, read great writers' advice about what made them great, but you’ll rarely find one who tells you about the process rather than the product. Below is a distillation of ten pieces of actual writing advice from successful writers and what they miss:

1. The first question you’re often asked to answer is ‘Whose story is it?’

The answer given is ‘the character you are most interested in’. And inevitably what follows is the corollary ‘the one the audience empathises most with’. One story = one protagonist, you’re told. That all makes sense, of course. So what’s missing? No one tells you how to make a character interesting, or why audiences or readers empathise with some characters but not with others. In other words, the underlying construction blueprints for characters that work are just assumed. If you’re a ‘good writer’, it is thought, then you will just know how to do this, like a magical ability.

2. Then we get into the standard follow-up question: ‘What emotional state are they in when your story starts?’

Here’s some controversial news: the emotional state of a protagonist at the beginning of a story has almos