My (Lack of) Writing Advice

Lots of writers put out writing advice on their social media feeds, which is cool and I’m glad for it. It’s not something I do, though, and I’ve wrestled with it a lot. There’s a part of me that thinks I’m not really qualified, that I’m not studied enough for that. Then again, I also know that impostor syndrome is a fucker so that’s not really what stops me.

The thing that stops me is how I feel like most writing advice sucks. Even the good advice.

Writing advice is almost always delivered as dos and don’ts and NEVERs. Don’t do prologues and epilogues. Don’t use -ly adverbs. Don’t use descriptive dialogue tags; just use “said” because it’s invisible. Never use passive voice. Don’t use multiple POVs in a single chapter. And always, always, you hear “Show, don’t tell.”

The trouble is, there are times when any and all of that shit WORKS. Y’know what? Sometimes telling really is better than showing. Sometimes passive voice is totally the proper voice. And yeah, “said” is invisible (like privilege), but it’s also characterless and dull and using more descriptive dialogue tags can do work. It’s all a matter of not over-using stuff and making thoughtful choices with your words.

One thing I will say as a solid rule: fuck literally everything about “Mary Sue” concerns. That bullshit started as sexist garbage and it hasn’t gotten any better with age. You want some “never” advice? Never give a fuck about someone’s opinions on a fictional work once they start calling characters “Mary Sue.”

But “be thoughtful and don’t overdo it” is boring advice. It’s not simple. It doesn’t fit into a tweet or a list of bullet points.

Almost all of my novels have prologues. Has that cost me readers? Would I be making more money if I didn’t use prologues or adverbs or flashbacks? Hell if I know. That’s the trouble with opportunity costs: sometimes they’re unknown. But at some point, you have to ask who you’re writing for, ’cause if you’re not writing for yourself first chances are you aren’t gonna tell the story you actually want to tell, and it’ll come through in your writing.

I may have lots to say about writing fight scenes or explicit smut scenes* or character death, but in the end, that’s all in the eye of the beholder, too. Some readers want a play-by-play. Some of them want that fight to be over in three sentences. Both of these positions are completely valid. That’s a matter of “who’s your audience?”

And I’m sure any number of writers can come along and tell me I’m wrong.

Before I started writing for a living, I taught high school history. Usually I tell students the only answer to any history question that is short AND true is, “It’s complicated.” At this point I kinda feel like writing is the same way.


*I’m happy to give all the advice I can think of on writing sex scenes or fight scenes if there’s interest. Turns out a lot of that advice applies to both.

9 thoughts on “My (Lack of) Writing Advice

  1. Jared Harris

    Some writers (e.g. Wen Spencer) talk quite a bit about problems they encounter while writing, and how they think about solving them. I find this kind of insight into the mind of a writer very interesting — not sure if it will be useful to me, but it *feels* useful and anyway is fun.

    In a sense this is “show don’t tell”.

    1. Elliott Kay Post author

      Totally fair! I would do that if I didn’t immediately tie myself up into concerns of how much I might be spoiling with such talk. 🙂

  2. zaolar

    Totally agree. If people feel comfortable as teachers they should teach, if they not, why pushing them that way? You are an author now, so you should concentrate on creating/writing/publishing. This is your job that earns you money. Besides even if free advice works for one person, it may not for other. You should do it only if you feel like it and totally ignore person that want to push you into it if you don’t. Up to you, mate and screw others.


  3. carl

    Hi Elliot – big fan of your poor man’s war series – 4 books now, I believe? I just can’t say enough how much I love the series – I’ve re-read it at least 4 times – probably more than that.
    Hey, I had an idea – I was reading book 2, when they have the assembly with adm Yeoh on the Los Angeles, where they mention seeing everyone with the LA Ship patch on everyone – and trying to imagine what that would looks like….

    then it occured to me, how amazing that would be to HAVE that patch. I wonder if you have looked into the merchandizing options for a series of Poor man’s war patches – the Los Angeles, the Joan of Arc, Risk Management, Archangel Marines, etc. They would make an amazing gift on Amazon or Thinkgeek.

    I realize something like that depends on a certain amount of Volumn. Frankly,it made me wonder, have you looked into a Sci Fi channel or netflix pick up? This story looks to be very popular, and it would be amazing to see it acted out. And last thought / question : Who would play Tanner? lol

    Thank you for reading my nonsense, and thank you SO MUCH for your awesome writing skill. The more I read this series, the more I like it. Great job, sir!

  4. Edmund Hughes

    Fantastic. The only thing this post needs is a mic drop at the end. And there is interest (at least from me) on whatever advice you have to offer on writing sex/fight scenes.

  5. Mathew

    Hi, I didn’t know where else to ask this because I do not have twitter, reddit, or facebook. In the slideshow of book covers at the top, there appears to be a picture of Molly from Good Intentions that links back to the first book. I was wondering if this was an alternate cover or commision and if there was a chance to see it posted somewhere in the future?

    Thanks for your time,

    P.S. – Love your books, I have been following you since your Lit days! Always glad to see people who got there start there become successful!! ^-^

    1. Elliott Kay Post author

      I don’t have any solo pics of Molly. I have one of Molly and Onyx together that I commissioned where they’re both waving wands. Onyx, however, is by herself on the cover of Life in Shadows. That might be the one you’re thinking of? I’m not seeing it as you are so I’m not sure. Sorry for that. I’ll try to figure out what’s going on with it.

      And thank you!

        1. Mathew

          Edit: Used Google Image Search! Found your post! It was in the Uncategorized Section.

          Thanks for the help,

Comments are closed.