man writing in notebook

When people ask me for writing advice, I find that they have often carried certain writing “rules” with them from early schooling. When children are first learning how to write narratives or creative pieces, they are taught certain tricks to help them practice and expand their vocabulary as well as “grab the reader’s attention.” There is more focus on learning how to write sentences properly and less focus on writing sentences that are creative or interesting. Because all creative writing assignments vanished after about 7th grade, kids are never taught how to grow into a more mature storyteller and which “tricks” should be left behind.

Many high school writing techniques are also bogus. These strategies are usually focused on getting students to perform as well as possible on standardized tests. This may be useful at the time, but these methods fail students as they enter universities and the workforce. They are especially unhelpful for creative writers.

I made a list of some of the most common mistakes and misconceptions I see in creative writing. Most of these are quick fixes, so writers can implement them right away!

1.) It’s okay to use said… a lot.

Yes, “said” is boring. It is so boring that it’s practically invisible, and that’s what makes it great. Using “said” in almost every instance will not only mature your writing (you don’t often find people “bellowing” or “squeaking” quotes outside of children’s books), but it will encourage you to write more interesting and powerful dialogue. This leads me to my next point.

2.) Characters don’t have to talk like “real people.”

Dialogue is an excellent way to speed up a story. Readers do not expect (or want) dialogue that mimics the fluffy, cumbersome chatter of a real-life conversation. Short, meaningful quotes are good quotes. Every sentence a character speaks should move the story along.

Bad Dialogue (similar to a real conversation):
Sam: Hi Lily!
Lily: Hi Sam!
Sam: How have you been?
Lily: I’ve been great, what about you?
Sam: Great! I was wondering, are you free on Friday?
Lily: This Friday? I think so. What were you thinking?
Sam: I wanted to try that new Italian place. I think it’s called Luigi’s Palace? Anyway, are you down?
Lily: Of course! What time?
Sam: Would 7 p.m. work for you?
Lily: That sounds perfect.
Sam: Awesome. I’ll pick you up.

Good Dialogue (expedited conversation):
Sam: Free for dinner this Friday at Luigi’s Palace? I’ll pick you up.
Lily: Perfect.

3.) Start sentences with “and.” And “but.”

Writing a novel or short story is not the same as writing a term paper. Everyone knows that, and yet writers are squeamish about breaking the rules of academic writing outside of academic settings. So, by all means, start sentences with “and” or “but” or “also” or any other word you want. If it sounds good and adds to the mood of your story, go for it. It’s not imperative to only use complete sentences. Many successful writers regularly “break the rules.” Dare I say it, get creative.

4.) Not everything needs a color.

Long, eloquent descriptions can be nice. Readers love to be able to “see” their characters and the environment. However, this does not mean that every person and object needs to be illustrated in vivid detail. Colors can cause especially clumsy over-descriptions and can even detract from scenes.

Bad: Johnny thunked his blue coffee cup down on the brown table and grabbed his silver keys. “Let’s get goin’,” he said.

Good: Johnny thunked his coffee cup down on the table and grabbed his keys. “Let’s get goin’,” he said.

Stating fewer colors allows colors to have more meaning. It also can help draw attention to something that is out of the ordinary. For example, if Johnny’s keys were hot-pink, the color would be worth pointing out because it expresses something about his character.

5.) Bigger isn’t always better.

This is pretty straight-forward — longer words, sentences, and paragraphs won’t make your writing better. Short is good. People like to read effortlessly. Endless giant bricks of text filled with long, convoluted sentences and vocabulary cause readers to struggle and get bored. Don’t be afraid to use small paragraphs. They can be a relief for the eyes. Short sentences can pack a punch, especially when they are mixed in with medium-length or long, compound-complex sentences. Bigger can be better sometimes, but it is best to find a careful balance and give your writing some variation.

I hope you found these tips helpful! If you want to check out some of my creative writing, you can find it here on my portfolio website.