Worst advice I got as a beginner was…

cut, cut, cut. 

Let me explain. I got the writing bug. (And it wasn’t anything like the tick my hubbie just pulled from scalp. I know. Ew.)

I researched. I wrote the story.

Then I stumbled across some great advice on websites. You know, the list of words to avoid (seemed to, just, started to, actually…) I gasped and then scrolled through my manuscript like a crazy woman to free my writing of those words. Those websites were a terrific help.

But, when it came to revising, the big piece of advice plastered everywhere was cut, cut, cut. I couldn’t see anything to cut, so I went to query. No surprise, my early attempts were rejected.

I couldn’t cut, cut, cut because I underwrite. I still do. I didn’t have pages and pages of description, unneeded dialogue, or rambling inner thoughts to trim. I still don’t. When I’m done with a first draft, I have to read through and mark the places to flesh out, add more internal thoughts, add some description, add details…

So before you cut, cut, cut – first you have to figure out if you overwrite or underwrite. Sure, my first work needed major rewriting, but I couldn’t see that then. What beginner can?

When you were starting out, what was the biggest piece of advice that either misguided you or you totally didn’t get until later?

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28 Responses to Worst advice I got as a beginner was…

  1. The Alliterative Allomorph April 28, 2010 at 6:20 am #

    I underwrite too. I just write the basic gestures and dialogue and then flesh it out later. I think that’s probably the best way to for me because then I know I’m not writing (well hopefully) unnecessary material.

    Bad advice? Um, well I didn’t get enough of it. I was clueless to structure and show vs tell. So my first ever draft was an incomprehesible mess of consciousness. 🙂

  2. Sara April 28, 2010 at 7:59 am #

    hmmm… the most misguiding thing? I honestly can’t think of anything! But you know, I think it’s because I read SO much and realized that there was a ridiculous amount of contradictory information out there, that I ended up just going with what I wanted to do anyway. lol.

  3. Trish April 28, 2010 at 10:34 am #

    I once gave one of my manuscripts to a school teacher. She curled her nose up and said there was far too much dialogue on the first page.

    I couldn’t be bothered top explain that it was a chapter book for beginner readers. She should have known that. I was worried at first, then I went home and looked at all the chapter books in my collection. I’m glad I didn’t listen to her. My critique group had helped me with that book for over a year.

    Didn’t you, Laura?

  4. Laura Pauling April 28, 2010 at 11:13 am #

    AA – Not enough info can be a problem too!

    Sara – There’s always contradictory info out there. That’s good you did your research! 🙂

  5. Laura April 28, 2010 at 11:58 am #

    Hi Trish – Um, yeah. I might have. We’ve all come so far since a couple years ago on CC!

  6. Tina Lee April 28, 2010 at 12:48 pm #

    I am an underwriter too. At least in the necessary things. Although I can sure write a circuitous sentence. In which case I need to cut, cut, cut!

    You always have wise advice!

  7. Cate April 28, 2010 at 1:03 pm #

    The worst advice….

    I’m hedging here because I think this is both the BEST and WORST advice I’ve ever received.

    Something like: “Focus on your first three chapters. If they don’t zing, your novel won’t sing.”

    It’s TRUE if you are editing… but it isn’t helpful if you are in the writing stage. If you are like me, it means you are having a hard time getting deep into the novel because you are worrying so much about whether you began in the right spot.

  8. marcia April 28, 2010 at 1:50 pm #

    The worst advice I ever read (eons ago, in either The Writer or Writer’s Digest) was from someone who said a writer needs to quit their day job and go for it, because once you come home exhausted at the end of the day, you won’t write. I didn’t do this, but I DID use it as an excuse for remaining underemployed.

  9. Laura April 28, 2010 at 1:51 pm #

    Tina – My whole first manuscript needed to be cut. Cut, cut, cut in itself is good advice, but so many times it’s not really explained! And now when I look to cut, cut, cut is when I have my final draft. Then I can see that sometimes the beginnings and endings of scenes can be trimmed. Or the thoughts are repetitive…etc.

    Cate – Yes, that is definitely a rule for when you are revising. Same with cut, cut, cut.

  10. Laura April 28, 2010 at 2:22 pm #

    Marcia – Wow! I don’t think anyone would advise that today. And there are many mom writers and working writers that write at night or during lunch break or naptime. Go for it, is good advice. But not quitting your day job. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Sherrie Petersen April 28, 2010 at 2:22 pm #

    I’m the same way! I always end up adding to my first draft because I write very spare, not enough description.

  12. Laurel April 28, 2010 at 2:26 pm #

    Sometimes the “show don’t tell” can be really overdone. You have to be selective! Not everything that happens to your characters is worthy of being dramatized. I’m learning to mix in some narrative summary scenes to speed up pacing–they’re kind of a blend of telling and showing quickly.

  13. Stina Lindenblatt April 28, 2010 at 2:40 pm #

    I do both. I overwrite with needless words or with telling, but underwrite with description. And sometimes I overwrite with the showing, and realize it would be better if I just told.

    (ps I never use spoilers in my book reviews, but sometimes it is hard to know just how much to say without ruining the ending. Hence my rather cryptic review last week. Thanks for your comments. )

  14. Laura April 28, 2010 at 3:19 pm #

    Sherrie – Glad I’m not the only one!

    Laurel – Show vs tell can be confusing for beginner too. But you definitely don’t want to show everything. And telling isn’t evil.

    Stina – That’s how my very first draft was – sentences filled with deadwood and not enough details. 🙂

  15. Laura Marcella April 28, 2010 at 4:11 pm #

    I can’t think of any bad advice. I enjoy reading craft books on writing, but I only use what works for me. I don’t think there’s really *bad* advice out there- you just have to know what’s applicable to you and your writing process. And it seems that’s what you’ve done, Laura! Good tip for realizing if you’re an underwriter or an overwriter before ruthlessly cutting. I’m an overwriter so cutting is essential for me!

  16. Paul April 28, 2010 at 5:02 pm #

    I both underwrite and overwrite. My revisions ofen involve cutting a lot of the old and writing a lot of new words. Sometimes I intentionally overwrite as a way to discover more about my character or story.

  17. Laura April 28, 2010 at 5:57 pm #

    Laura – I guess it’s not really bad advice, it’s more not-explained advice. 🙂

    Paul – I still don’t overwrite, but I do end up cutting scenes that aren’t needed. And I always tighten my writing when I revise.

  18. Ansha Kotyk April 28, 2010 at 6:24 pm #

    The cut, cut, cut was the worst advice for me, because like you, I underwrite. I thought something was wrong with me… that I didn’t know how to write if I was the only one on the planet who needed to add instead of cut. Until I came across a published writer’s website where she detailed how she fleshed out her drafts. It was such a relief!

  19. Andrea Vlahakis April 28, 2010 at 6:59 pm #

    I also underwrite, but when I first started out I would start the story too far back, like a wide-angle shot, instead of dropping the reader into the story then weaving in what was important to the plot. So one of the best pieces of advice I got was to cut all the opening background and get right to the story.

  20. Jayde Scott April 28, 2010 at 7:44 pm #

    Fantastic post, Laura. It’s amazing how there’s an emphasis on the need to cut, when in fact many publishers will ask for more description, more thoughts, more colourful language. While craft books are fantastic in that they teach a writer the basics of good and bad writing, in the end establishing a personal voice that engages a reader and truly works is what will get a book published.

  21. Karen Strong April 28, 2010 at 9:05 pm #

    Another underwriter checking in. Yes, if anything I need to “add, add, add”.

    I think like Laurel, one of things I first learned was the infamous “show, don’t tell”. But sometimes you do have to do that, you can’t just show, show, show.

  22. PJ Hoover April 28, 2010 at 9:54 pm #

    I started off as a huge overwriter, so for me, cutting was what it was all about. And it felt great and made such a difference!

  23. Laura April 29, 2010 at 1:06 am #

    Ansha and Karen – Good to know there are other underwriters out there!

    Jayde – Interesting comment. Might be worthy of a post on Friday!

    Andrea – I agree, me too. By not starting focused in, it meant more rewriting than it did cutting.

    PJ – I feel better knowing that the cut cut cut advice helped someone out there!

  24. Robert Guthrie April 29, 2010 at 5:07 am #

    “Show don’t tell” messed me up for years. I was a major underwriter, afraid of saying anything directly & instead making readers guess what I was getting at. As an uptight, stiff-upper-lipped New Englander, I needed extra help finding my voice.

  25. Creepy Query Girl April 29, 2010 at 6:56 am #

    Great post! I think I’m going to have your problem. With my first MS, the ‘cut cut cut’ was great- I had overwritten it by about 50k and I’m proud to say it’s down to 104k, which is more reasonable than 140k. HOwever, with this new book I just finished,- my style is completely different. It’s character and dialogue driven with small patches of select description plus I’d like to see it go from 50k-60k. So cutting I will not. Maybe replacing?
    As for bad advice..Hmn- I think the hardest thing is knowing who to listen to about certain aspects. Some people help. Others don’t.

  26. Laura April 29, 2010 at 12:18 pm #

    Robert – show vs tell is another biggie that can mess up beginners. Not a bad rule, just hard to fully comprehend.

    CQG – Good luck adding words! I must say it’s probably easier to find way to cut words than add words!

  27. Heather Kelly April 29, 2010 at 2:09 pm #

    Laura–just pulled a deer tick from my husband’s leg. Oh, the beauty of living in New England in the springtime!! Now I feel them crawling over me…

    I overwrite. Kind of. I get into descriptions. I need to work on dialogue. I don’t know that I need to cut when I revise, but I need to tighten. Cinch in at the waist. I think this is an interesting post.


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