This week editor Ellen Larson shares her thoughts on the value of Top-Ten-Tips-Type lists for writers. Ellen has been a freelance substantive / content editor since 1987. She is the editor of the Poisoned Pencil.Ellen headshot small

And the Answer Is

So there’s an email sitting in your inbox with some variation of the subject line: This week I share my Tips on How to Create Vivid Characters (etc.). My tip of the week is: Avoid it like the plague.

I’m sorry to say this and by definition include my many friends and colleagues who are trying like hell to attract readers to their blogs. I know it sounds dismissive, and I truly have no desire to run down the efforts of hard-working and insightful writers. But the time comes when a girl has to tell the truth: If you have a certain amount of time to study writing process, don’t spend it reading the words of other writers.clowns

It’s not that the Top Ten Tip lists are badly done, or phone in. It’s just that what you’re getting is largely useless and often destructive. Because one writer’s process and approach are just not anybody else’s. Or anybody else’s.

Useful Tips from Writers

Not that there are not useful tips for writers. Here are some examples:

  • Tips on sizing book-cover graphics for various promotional uses.
  • Tips on how to set up a sales page for your book on Facebook.
  • Tips on using Track Changes
  • Tips on how to run a Goodreads Giveaway

But tips on writing technique? Not so much.

Context finger tips

There simply are no universal “tips”. No list of secrets that only the best writers have access to. For one thing, most tips related to process and technique are useless out of context. Moreover, some things are just not listable. I could create a list of Ten Weak Plot Devices That Cross My Desk Every Week, but that sort of material is probably better suited in a longer format.

Have you ever heard this tip: “Don’t try to horn in your backstory via dialog.” Easy to follow—what’s wrong with it? Well, for one thing, how much backstory are you talking about? Is it anathema to have a character say, “I’m from Iowa.” Here’s another one I know you’ve all heard: “Avoid the info dump.” But what does that mean? And doesn’t it seem to contradict the advice to keep the backstory out of the dialog? Because if we can’t write a paragraph of exposition, and we can’t give backstory in dialog, what’s left?

I was recently asked to put together a My Top Ten Tips for Writers. Even though I’ve been an editor for twenty-five years and have quite a lot to say about writing, thus meeting my own criteria for tipping, I passed. In fact I wrote this instead. That’s how much I don’t like to share what I’ve learned about writing out of context.

It Gets Worsewayne

You are familiar with the writer panels at writing conferences where the author talks about where she gets her ideas, creates her characters, or comes up with those zany plots? Unless I have read and enjoyed the books in question, I avoid those plague too.

Sure, a few words may trigger a thought that has meaning for your, but it is as random as a walk in the park* (and not as good for body and soul). Nor is there any correlation between the status of the writer and the value of the advice.

Don’t get me wrong. As a writer, editor, and student of literary theory, I am a serious collector of unique writing habits. I love to hear the many ways that narrative fiction can be written—the more iconoclastic, the better. What I don’t like, The Thing That Turns Me Off, is any hint that what the writer is saying about creating characters or plotting can or should be mimicked by other writers with the thought that this will lead to improved writing.

Maybe nobody else has this reaction. I don’t know. It’s obviously not a popular opinion. Maybe all the blog readers and conference attendees are well aware that writing process is highly idiosyncratic; that writing technique is best described by editors and academics because it is the rare writer who can describe her own technique, which is largely instinctual.

Look. If you like to read writing tips by your friends or by your favorite authors, knock yourself out. But please don’t think that you are receiving intrinsically valuable wisdom.


 *Some may quibble that there is nothing random about a walk in the park as a way to access the writing zone, where ideas run in rivers and characters bloom in the bright sun.large_TippingChart