Debunking Popular Writing Advice

Experienced writers often love to give advice to newbies, whether or not it’s solicited. However, there are some maxims where the original meaning has been lost over the years. Let’s look at three of them.

Write what you know

This is great advice if you already know a subject inside-out; for example, the banking system or nuclear physics. In which case, that knowledge can be used in your writing to add a touch of authenticity.

But the phrase is often misinterpreted to mean ‘write what you already know’. Rather, the intent of the advice is to encourage the writer to carry out research. Does your character want to go skydiving, or visit South Africa, or both? Once you know enough about a given topic, you can write about it with more authority.

Honoré Daumier [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Advice to a Young Artist by Honoré Daumier, c1865-68
Kill your darlings

This phrase has been attributed to many authors. A lot of people take it to mean ‘remove any phrase you especially like’. However, this only applies to phrases that you like but that don’t fit in with the rest of the piece. If you like it and it works, leave it in.

There is further confusion in the 1791 biography of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell, in which Johnson says:

I would say to Robertson what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils: ‘Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’ (Full text)

It is possible the word ‘fine’ had a different meaning in the 18th century. It otherwise seems rather strange advice.

Read On Writing by Stephen King

Many writers have been open about their process or daily routine, but few in as much depth as King. As such, his 2000 book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is sometimes held up as a gospel for aspiring writers.

However, you are free to ignore what he says about how to write, or indeed what any writer says. Someone I know rewrites as she goes along rather than having a definite first draft; I know of only one major author who does this. Similarly, a number of sources recommend keeping a bedside notepad for nocturnal ideas, but I don’t do this because ideas don’t come to me in bed.

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How to Write an Effective Complaint

Last week, I had cause to complain to my gym about the provision of a class. I found this relatively easy to compose because in my ‘day job’, I’m accustomed to handling complaints on behalf of a large organisation.

Using my experience of being on the receiving end, I’ve put together three general principles of effective complaining.


Regardless of how you feel, stick to the facts as much as possible

It is tempting to spell out exactly how angry or upset you feel, but an experienced complaint handler will look past any emotional language and find the facts of the case. If you consider that you must tell the organisation how you feel, keep it brief.

Here’s an example with too much emotion:

Your online system took three charges of £15 which meant I had to e-mail customer services and they put a stop on the order, so now my 86-year-old grandma will have to wait for her birthday present and I don’t know how long I’ll be waiting. It’s no good because now I can’t go and see her for another fortnight because I’m on holiday.

Now let’s focus on the facts:

I paid £15 for the item on 24 June, but I discovered your online system had taken this three times at 2:54pm, 2:56pm and 2:57pm. I e-mailed customer services. They put a stop on the order and advised me I would need to wait, but I don’t know how long. I need to find out because the item was supposed to be a birthday present. I’m disappointed because I regularly order from your company.

This version is more effective because we now know when the order was placed and that the customer is still waiting for the item.

No machine-readable author provided. Adam the atom assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
No machine-readable author provided. Adam the atom assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Ask questions of the organisation; don’t answer them yourself

If you want to find out information in your complaint, make sure you flag up your questions as clearly as possible. Consider this example:

Why do you charge as much for a cup of boiling water as you do for a coffee? I don’t know any other company that does this and I feel it’s down to greed.

The question in this version sounds rhetorical because it’s immediately followed by the customer’s own answer. It would be much stronger as:

Why do you charge as much for a cup of boiling water as you do for a coffee?

Or if you feel you need to add extra information, place the question at the end of the sentence:

I don’t know any other company that charges for a cup of boiling water, let alone as much as for a cup of coffee. Why does your company do this?

The two versions above send a strong signal to the complaint handler that this is a question to be answered.

If something is good, say so

Organisations like to hear positive reinforcement. If there is something great in an otherwise negative situation, it doesn’t weaken your complaint to point it out.

I always pop into your shop at lunchtime. It’s always busy, but only two out of the three checkouts are ever on. The staff are always helpful and friendly, but the lack of a third cashier causes long queues.

In this instance, the handler knows that the customer has nothing against the behaviour of the staff, only that there aren’t enough at lunchtime.


When you receive a reply, have a look at the wording, especially if the response is not the one you wanted. It will probably follow this structure:

Thank you for your e-mail. We’re glad to hear you enjoy shopping with us.

We would like to be able to put on all three checkouts. Unfortunately, due to staff illness, this isn’t currently possible.

However, we understand your frustration at the queues. As such, you might be interested to know that we intend to install self-service checkouts in the next few months in addition to the staffed ones we already have.

We have here a positive statement, followed by a negative one, capped off with something else positive. This structure acknowledges there is a problem but delivers the news in such a way that the customer shouldn’t feel too let down.

Passing the Microphone

I feel as though I’m giving you a cop-out entry this week because it exists only to link to other posts.

This is partly because I haven’t had much time; I’ve spent a lot of it on a new long-form piece. And it’s partly because another poet has put together some excellent advice that I’d like to share.

A microphone
A microphone. It seemed like the best picture to illustrate this entry. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A couple of weeks ago, Andrew Blair asked his friends what advice they wish they’d known before taking part in their first open-mike night. The advice he received – including mine – appear in his entry So…you want to do an open mic night.

Additionally, this seems a prime opportunity to dust off my own advice for speaking in front of an audience from earlier this year.

The Scribe at Night

One piece of advice often given to writers is to keep a notepad and pen by your bed to capture any ideas that occur overnight. So for years, I’ve duly kept said pen and paper but it didn’t work; I need physical movement to come up with ideas. At least, that was the case until a few weeks ago.
Lunar libration with phase2
I realise there’s nothing duller than hearing other folks’ dreams, so I’ll keep this brief. I saw an image of a woman called Magin – that’s Magin, not Maggie. She was in hippie-style clothes sitting next to a man in plainer clothes; both were eating ice cream. I can’t remember at what point I decided they were cousins, but on waking up, I realised there was a story there. I’m currently working through that.

Then on Saturday, I began a poem for a poetry group, in which I wanted to include the phrase ‘Young’s Modulus of Elasticity’ as it was part of the prompt. I discovered that was the easy part, and I was having some trouble completing the rest of the poem. I left it aside,  went for a long walk, and headed to bed on my return.

I must only have been in bed 10 minutes when I figured out how I might continue the poem. I spent the next hour drafting five stanzas in total, then I really needed to go to sleep.

But this doesn’t mark a change in the way I come up with ideas. These are merely two cases in nearly seven years of writing and they stand out because they’re unusual. In any case, I still need to finish these pieces and find out whether they’re any good.