Whether or not they want it, without ever having asked for it, writers of any ilk are constantly being bombarded with writing advice. So, whether or not you want it, without ever having asked for it here’s a tip to improve your writing: Ignore it!

But before you do, first make sure you understand the rules.

To not heed advice may show your reluctance to learn and improve; take from it what you can, that which you feel is useful. Test it out. If it doesn’t work for you, try something else.

“The trick with writing advice,” says author Janice Hardy, “is to look beyond the words to what the advice is trying to say, and apply it how it fits into your process.”

There is seldom a day passes that an article doesn’t appear somewhere in my inbox or online feeds advising me of what not to do as a writer.

The advice ranges from such things as ‘Ten Ways to Avoid Using Words’ through to “Really, It’s Really Very Wrong to Use Very, Really’.

Yes, both these are figments of my imagination but they help illustrate the kind of advice other writers like to dish out to other writers, no matter their field of writing.

Just google “Writing Advice” and you get some 322,000,000 hits. Yes, that’s right, some three-hundred-and twenty-two million results. Change the search parameter to “Writing Tips” and the figure drops to 200,000,000, an indication that writing advice-givers seriously outstrip the writing tipsters.

A similar search for ‘Should I use very?’ brings some 1,170,000,000 results while ‘Should I use really?’ brings about 737,000,000 pages to choose from.

The problem, however, is that many writers – particularly those just starting out or those who feel they cannot or do not write well enough – not only have to filter those hits to determine which of those multimillion sources they’ll turn to for advice but once there they read it and devour it as something akin to the Gospel According to… They adhere to that particular gospel without ever knowing, without ever learning if the advice is, well, very worthwhile, really.

Unfortunately for many aspirants and practitioners, not knowing if the advice is worthwhile stems from their not knowing the rules; only when you know the rules can you confidently break or rewrite them to your advantage.

And when it comes to advice such as “never use very” or “eliminate really from your writing” it is also handy to ensure your vocabulary is strong. For instance, most of those suggesting we not use ‘very,’ give examples and alternatives, but, the alternatives given lack context, thus failing the very people these advice-givers are theoretically trying to help.

An example: Instead of saying ‘very tired’ use ‘exhausted’. Well, okay, but I am not exhausted. Nor am I fatigued. I am just very tired. I am not drained or depleted of strength or energy, I just feel as if I need a well-earned break; to rest awhile. I still have the strength and energy to continue with whatever it is I am doing but that task will be better served if I rest for a moment.

The point is, whereas ‘very tired’ does literally mean someone is either ‘exhausted’ or ‘fatigued’ the nuance ‘very tired’ brings is slightly less strong in meaning, and if it’s what you intend then use it.. Now, were you to write ‘very, very tired’ then I would say: “Okay, let’s use ‘exhausted’ or perhaps ‘fatigued’ or even ‘dog-tired’.”

Another example of the never use and replacement advice can be seen in the advice, “replace ‘very bright’ with ‘dazzling’.” Okay, if something is shining intensely dazzling is the word to use. Yet in a different context, such as talking about a student who shows promise in his or her chosen field. Unless they are a genius it would be wrong to call him/her dazzling. The term ‘very bright’ indicates in a reader’s mind that the student is academically better than his or her peers, but not necessarily a genius, or even ‘brilliant’.

And yet another is to say someone – particularly a female – is ‘exquisite’ rather than ‘very beautiful’. Aside from most readers having an almost immediate understanding of someone or something being ‘very beautiful’ (although beauty is of itself subjective in an observer and fluid over time), to say something is ‘exquisite’ can convey a meaning stronger than you, as the writer, intend. Your character may not be lavishly elegant and refined or someone of ‘extreme or intense beauty’ they may merely be somewhat more attractive than another by comparison.

The point here is, while a writer should be looking for the best and strongest words to convey a picture, the reader is not so stupid as to not understand what we mean by writing ‘very tired or ‘very bright’ or ‘very beautiful. It is language they too would use in their daily dealings with people around them.

Language is your Swiss army knife

Never Say Never

Too often those offering advice use phrases like “you should never use” this or that word. Or “you should never begin or end a sentence with” this or that word. OR “you should never swear” in your writing. Every one of these “rules” has been broken repeatedly to terrific effect by top writers.

And then there’s the advice suggesting not to use adjectives or adverbs; advice which editor, author, and educator, Susan DeFreitas says is “generally good advice,” but adds,

 “…consider this line from Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses: “Below the knee, the hairiness came to a halt, and his legs narrowed into tough, bony, almost fleshless calves, terminating into shiny, cloven hooves, such as one might find on any billygoat.” There are six—count ’em, six adjectives in this sentence, including any, which is clearly unnecessary, and as such, clearly a point of style.

“Or this one, from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita: “…she stood, a few feet from me, and stared at herself contentedly, not unpleasantly surprised at her own appearance, filling with her own rosy sunshine the surprised and pleased closet-door mirror.” Two adverbs and two adjectives, two of which actually ascribe human emotions to an inanimate object.

“Language is your Swiss army knife, and you can’t do shit like this with just the knife and the corkscrew.”

And, according to Janice Hardy, “…blindly following the no-adverb rule and cutting every single one from your work will most likely produce a clunky manuscript. More work will go into avoiding a perfectly good adverb than in making sure every sentence says what you want it to say…If what’s on the page is working for the story it’s fine, even if it breaks a grammar rule…”

But she also suggests while words are capable of creating “stunning works of art” they also create “terrible messes when we use the wrong ones.”

Not everyone has the luxury of being able to afford or work with an editor; someone who helps resolve many of the problems writers face in getting their best work into the public arena. This is perhaps more so when you’re a blogger; writing from the hip so to speak.

Learning and knowing the rules means understanding when to use or not use certain aspects of our language, including intensifiers and modifiers. It means learning to use the right word/s to get the job done. It means understanding when you can safely ignore conventions. It means asking, “Is this okay here, or there?” rather than saying never use it here, there, or anywhere.

It means not being afraid to be very certain about the words you use, and why you want to use them, really.


This journalist and writer is available for hire.