WordBird Tips: Ignore This Stupid Writing Advice
Over the years, I’ve collected a lot of writing advice. Some of those tips have been good. These are not those tips. If you want to become a better writer, ignore these so-called tips any time you see them, no matter who you hear them from.
Don’t Use Italics for Emphasis
This is perhaps the most mind-boggling piece of advice I’ve seen in a while. Italics do literally nothing else in our language. Occasionally, you use them to spice up a header or indicate a different heading level—like a subtitle or something. In academic pieces, you italicize the names of books and stuff.
In writing—whether it’s fiction or non-fiction—emphasis is conveyed to the reader in italics, bold, or underline. Underline is actually just old shorthand for italics: In a handwritten piece, you’d underline the word you really wanted people to pay attention to. With the invention of the printing press, we got all fancy with our fonts and could make the type look different when we wanted emphasis. So we did that instead.
I’ve literally converted all of the underlining in some poor old sod’s manuscript to italics. Because that’s what publishers do.
Bold is generally less favored; italics is always your first choice.
So why would someone suggest not using italics?! The argument here is if you’re writing well, you don’t need italics. The reader should be able to hear the emphasis in the sentence.
Just like they can hear the difference between it’s and its, right? (Hint: There’s no difference in pronunciation between those two.) There are many, many, many ways to write a sentence in English—and many ways to put the emphasis on it, with each having a different meaning.
The point of anything we do typographically is to inform the reader. Using italics informs the reader where the emphasis is placed and removes all ambiguity about where it could be placed. Unless there’s literally no ambiguity about which word to emphasize, you are going to need italics from time to time—no matter how flipping good your writing is.
Don’t Use Adverbs
If we didn’t need adverbs from time to time, they wouldn’t exist. Is it true most people overuse them? Yes. Is it true you could probably pick a better word in most instances? Yes.
But they have their place and if you use them sparingly, with care, then there is no concern. Don’t excise them from your writing entirely.
Don’t Split Infinitives
This is an idiotic non-rule that some sap back in the 1700s decided should be enforced in English and we’re still arguing about it today.
The person who suggested this idealized Latin and thought the English language should be held to the same measuring stick. And since Latin doesn’t split infinitives, neither should English!
The problem? Latin infinitives are a single word. You literally cannot split them. English, on the other hand, uses two words to make infinitives: to be, to do, to make, and so on. Of course, just because you can split an infinitive doesn’t always mean you should—but when not splitting the damn thing takes more effort than just hacking it in half, go with the latter solution. Good writing is about clarity and conciseness, and if we have to bumble around with an extra five words because you don’t want to split the infinitive, it’s bad writing.
Why? It impairs readability and comprehension. It’s more difficult to understand longer sentences. Worse, it just sounds unnatural—which makes it harder for your reader to parse the sentence.
Just split the infinitive.
Don’t End a Sentence with a Preposition
To which someone (perhaps Winston Churchill, depending on your tradition) said, “This is the kind of nonsense up with which I will not put.”
Ow. My head. Churchill—or whoever actually said this—has a point. Going out of your way to make sure your sentence doesn’t end with a preposition (such as with, up, or for), is a problem. When you have to shuffle around words or add more of them just to avoid putting the word at the end of the sentence, it causes more problems than it solves. It makes it harder for the reader to understand what you mean, and it usually sounds ridiculous.
So stick your prepositions at the end of sentences.
Write What You Know
I don’t know what it’s like to be a demon, I’m sorry. I’mma write about ‘em anyway.
This one walks a fine line: When a member of a majority group starts writing about members of minority groups, it can be seen as “telling someone else’s story.”
I’ll point to Gord Downie, lead singer of the Canadian band The Tragically Hip. Downie was also an advocate for Indigenous rights in Canada. He published a book about the tragedy of Channie Wenjack, a little boy who ran away from residential school and died trying to get home. Channie froze to death by the railroad tracks in the 1960s. It sparked huge uproar.
Downie’s book was published and promoted by a major publisher. It’s a graphic novel, so he teamed up with a few artists. He brought lots of attention to the tragedy of residential schools and how Indigenous peoples have been treated in this country.
But Downie wasn’t Indigenous. So while the publisher is running around promoting the book and people are snapping it up because hey, Gord Downie!, we have to ask where the Indigenous retellings of this tragic tale—and others—are.
The biggest problem is that the white voice is the only voice we hear. We need Indigenous voices telling Indigenous stories. This is a mistake in gatekeeping: Publishers think only mainstream voices will be heard, that we need only one version of the story. There’s room for many, many more voices on the shelf. Gord Downie shouldn’t be the only guy with a publishing deal—but he should be the only white guy.
So “write what you know” isn’t great advice—although there’s some truth to the words when it comes to adopting a voice that is not your own. I’ve read great books about amazing female protagonists by male authors. It can be done. But it needs to be done less often than own voices and, in most cases, more sensitively.
Don’t Use Adjectives
If I could commune with the dead, I would haul up the spirit of Mark Twain and ask him one thing:
What the actual fuck.
Twain brought us the prequel to “don’t use adverbs” back in the 1800s, telling fellow writers not to use adjectives.
I maintain if we have a category of words, we probably need to use them every now and then. Adjectives describe things. “Round” is an adjective. I mean, you wouldn’t say “the round ball” (all balls are round), but you might say “the round man” and that makes a bit of a difference! Readers need some description to work with—a man is a man, but what does this particular man look like? Descriptions can clue us in to some things—if you mention this man has rough, calloused hands, we might imagine he does a lot of manual labor.
And we’re supposed to show, not tell, right? So wouldn’t it be better to suggest the man has callouses on his hands and let the reader imagine how he might have go them than to say, “He did a lot of manual labor”?
To be fair to Twain, he did live during the Victorian era and if you’ve ever read Victorian literature, you might have realized they had a thing for purple prose. (Also, nobody had any clue how to use punctuation. Fun times, Victorian-era English). So Twain’s advice isn’t necessarily unsound—it’s just extreme.
Use adjectives like salt or sugar on a meal: Add sparingly.
Don’t Use Thought Words
Chuck Pahlahuniuk is a polarizing figure. And his views on so-called thought words are just one of the reasons for it.
The author of Fight Club thinks you shouldn’t use thought words—words like think, realize, understand, wonder, ponder, and so on.
He has a point—but again, when we distill his position to one single sentence like this, we risk making someone an extremist. You probably can’t excise all the thought words from your writing—much like you need some adjectives and some adverbs and some italics.
You can keep them to a minimum, however, and that’s really more the point of the exercise here. Don’t overdo anything.