Writing myths: The reasons we get bad advice

Depending how writing advice is motivated, it can be more or less helpful, and myths about good writing often begin with good intentions. Good writers look past good intentions to get good results, though, and this article will help you find these good results by showing the reasons behind common pieces of misleading writing advice.

Look below for our entries on writing myths, which each explain a myth, why it can be safely dismissed, and what is useful about it.

Types of writing advice

Descriptive advice

The least forceful and dogmatic type is descriptive advice, which simply describes how people use language and leaves you to craft your own writing practice.

The motivation here is to show you how language is commonly used and understood rather than to tell you how to use it. This kind of advice is not always useful if you’re looking for quick and simple answers, but it rarely, if ever, propagates bad writing advice.

People with a deep interest in learning about writing conventions are well served by this kind of advice, and most “usage dictionaries” take this approach.

Prescriptive advice

The bulk of misleading writing advice comes in other forms, the prescriptive and the provisional. Prescriptive writing advice argues, often forcefully, that a certain writing choice is “the right one,” while another writing choice is “the wrong one.”

The motivation is to tell you the best way to write rather than to show you all the different options you have as a writer. Prescriptive writing advice affords writers quick and simple answers, and this efficiency is its virtue; but once in a while these quick and simple answers are poorly justified.

Furthermore, good writers sometimes break even well-founded grammatical rules, suggesting that we should be cautious about any “proper” or “best” way to write.

Provisional writing advice

Provisional writing advice is usually given in the early education of writers, and it consists of rules that help a writer begin the learning process.

Much of what you’ve learned about writing early in your practice will continue to help you; some of it will hold you back, however.

It’s important to question the rules you’re taught early in your writing practice, since some of them were to serve as only as temporary crutches, which you can now cast away.

A list of myths in writing advice: Safely dismissing bad advice

Common writing advice that is nevertheless misleading originates, on the one hand, with prescriptions for writing that are poorly justified but persist for other reasons (cultural reasons, for example), and on the other, with provisional writing advice, meant only to help writers grow rather than to provide rules to be followed in a more advanced writer’s practice.

The following is a list of common writing advice that can remain safely unheeded.

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