Negative Writing Advice

Advice comes in two flavours:

  • what to do (positive advice),
  • what not to do (negative advice).

Positive advice is like being shown Edgar Rubin’s vase

… and being told you should look for two faces.

Aha, a revelation! Your eyes have been opened; your problems have been fixed.

Negative advice is like being shown the same vase …

… and being told it’s not a vase. Then the interpretation is up to you.

Yes, I did flip the image; yes, I added some black, some white. I not only changed my perspective, I embellished it—according to my imagination.

Negative advice is far more open-ended and sometimes it’s the only kind you can give with a degree of certainty. In particular, here’s Noah Lukeman, in the opening of his book The First Five Pages.

Quote: There’re no rules to assure great writing, but there are ways to avoid bad writing.  

Note, however, that avoiding poor writing is a necessary, but by no means sufficient, condition for producing great writing. Indeed, like with my vase example above, even after you’ve been told what not to do, your literary venture—in all its newfound gloss and glory—may fall short of a masterpiece. Just because you’ve been shown which way lies artistic hell, doesn’t mean you’ve found a ladder to the heavenly abode of your muse.

(It occurs to me: eight of the Ten Commandments are of the negative form thou shalt not.)


The framing idea of Lukeman’s book is to point out the pitfalls that might get a manuscript rejected after the first five pages. This is almost always a sufficient litmus test, so the reasoning goes, because if a writer can create a clean beginning, then by extension he or she should be able to uphold that quality throughout.

The telltale signs of subpar writing aren’t as self-evident as you’d expect. But, also, ironically not as helpful. The book focuses on the craft of writing (e.g. plot isn’t mentioned), and its power lies mostly in the healthful exercises Lukeman prescribes at the end of each section. It makes a good resource even for us casual keyboard-pressers.

Here are some of my favourite excerpts from Five Pages (statements about writing, advice, asides, and quotes).

  • When rewriting, pretend someone will give you $100 for every word you are able to cut.
  • Aim for complexity of thought, not expression.
  • Take a paragraph or section from your first five pages and reform it on the page as if it were a poem.
  • Writing is about contrast.
  • Practice conveying drama with silence.
  • When collected students sit around and put forward their interpretations, their way of looking at a text tells us more about them than the text; the text becomes a mirror, a blank slate onto which readers project their own state of mind. This is what keeps the best literature endlessly fascinating.
  • Other art forms, such as music and painting, force the artist to jump right in and create, but writing has a sly ability to allow its practitioners to dodge the artistic.
  • Ovid, the Roman poet, said one should wait nine years after finishing one’s work before seeking publication. Here lies the difference between someone writing for money and a writer.
  • If we were to stop and ask what best signals the proficient writer, the answer would be subtlety.
  • Usually how the writer views the reader is just a projection of how he views himself. The more confident he becomes about his own abilities, the more confident he will become about the reader’s.
  • At it’s best, setting itself becomes a character, interacting with the other characters.
  • [Pacing and progression] are like a spider’s web: tenuous, always ready to collapse, yet potentially strong, capturing and not letting go.
  • Readers like to work. They don’t want everything handed them—they want tension to be drawn out. … As Emerson said, “Treat people as if they’re real—because sometimes they are.”

But, I hear the clamour: all that’s nonsense without the plot, the driving idea, the … Lukeman’s got an answer for that too—and it made my day.

A great writer can produce an amazing piece of writing with virtually no plot at all.

No excuses then: go practice, go be great.

6 responses

  1. Quotes are from people you have read. I now have one from you; “Just because you’ve been shown which way lies artistic hell, doesn’t mean you’ve found a ladder to the heavenly abode of your muse.”
    I love that. Anyway when I taught English before I reached the legal age of stupidity, I used to tell my students that the reason we have to learn rules of writing is so that we know how to break them with effect. So I took the ‘never start a sentence with a preposition rule’ and set them an exercise to start an essay with the sentence, “……and then there was a terrifying sound.” And from that I got some of the best work they did.
    I wish I was still teaching because then I could use your blog posts as lesson plans and never have to work hard again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s kind of you to say—in so many ways.

      Speaking of starting a sentence with a preposition … A beautiful book opener from one of my favourite authors John Banville in “Infinities”: Of the things we fashioned for them that they might be comforted, dawn is the one that works. (It’s also the subject of one of my first posts—you may have already seen it. There I actually go through the exercise of trying to construct a better sentence with the same meaning, and fail. In that case, Banville’s periodic sentence was the ultimate solution.)

      Liked by 1 person

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