Welcome readers, to the fifth installment of Being a Better Writer‘s Summer of Cliche Writing Advice! That’s right, this is entry number five! For some of you, you know what that means, but there may be some newcomers here (as this summer series has pulled in a number of new readers) saying “Hey, what is this?”
It’s pretty straightforward, really. One thing you’ll notice as an author or even just as a fresh writer starting out is that once you openly declare yourself as such, advice just comes out of the woodwork. Everyone and their dog (and possibly their cat) just starts tossing advice at you that they heard … somewhere. Most of them probably couldn’t say where, or they’ll ascribe it to someone famous they’re fairly certain wrote a book. But they heard it, and they’ve been told it’s good advice, and when they hear that someone is planning on writing, well … they share it. They share all of it.
In other words, authors new and experienced often face a deluge of writing advice in the form of short, easily remembered phrases. Phrases that can quickly be read and repeated at a moment’s notice. Phrases that sound pretty helpful.
But are they really? That’s the real question here, and what Being a Better Writer‘s Summer of Cliche Writing Advice is all about. Are these short, simply sayings worth repeating? Are they useful to a new writer, or even an experienced one? Or are they the equivalent of a passer-by telling a mechanic to “check the brake pads” while they work on a transmission problem?
Each week, we look at a different cliche saying that writers hear constantly or see repeated online. We break it down, examine it, and see if it’s really worth listening to, acknowledging, and passing on … or if it’s something that does more harm than good, something that sounds good, but really isn’t helpful.
With that said, let’s get to it! And this week, we’ve got a classic to look over. This week, we discuss …
Don’t be boring.
Unfortunately, this is one of those moments in this series where I have to open with a pretty strong blast: This is bad advice. I know it may not look like it, and some of you may be wondering why I’m saying exactly that, but bear with me. Telling a new writer “Don’t be boring” is terrible advice.
Why? Because it’s like sitting down with a new driver, someone who’s never driven a car before in their life, and when they ask how to drive telling them “Don’t crash” and then shoving them into the vehicle and watching them try to make a lap.
Look, very few new writers out there are going to wander into the practice of writing without knowing that being dull and boring is bad. It’s not exactly a goal most consider a good thing. If they’ve been through public school, odds are they know exactly what boring is, especially if they had a wacky English teacher who used their position to shove their eclectic taste in books on them.
“Don’t be boring” is terrible advice. It’s like telling a football player that “the game revolves around the ball.” Or an actor to “remember that they are acting.” Or a scientist to “do science stuff.” You’re just telling them something that they already know. A new writer already knows that being boring isn’t good for their story.
What they don’t know is how to avoid being boring. Like in the analogy above, a new driver already knows that crashing a car is bad. It doesn’t take much of a cognitive leap to see that running a vehicle into a ditch is bad. So telling that new driver “don’t crash” isn’t exactly surprising them with something they didn’t know. What they’d rather hear, one would think, is some advice on how they might go about not crashing.
So it is with writing. We know we don’t want our story to be boring. Even the new writers know that. But what they don’t know is how.
That’s the problem with this saying. It sounds “smart” (depending on the crowd) but ultimately it isn’t because it doesn’t actually give the writer any sort of clue, guide, or path forward to follow its own “advice.” You tell a new writer “Don’t be boring” and they think “Well duh, now how do I do that?”
Naturally, the how isn’t something this saying gets involved in. Which, in the end, makes it utterly useless advice. Seriously. Don’t repeat this one at all. Unless, and here is the caveat, you’re prepared to talk about how not to be boring.
But … let’s be honest. Most of the time that is well out of the purview of the sort of folks that repeat this saying. I say most because I have sat down at panels and writing courses where this saying is brought up but with an ellipsis at the end, as the one talking immediately dives into a discussion on various things that can be boring and possible ways to fix them.
But on Facebook? Or Twitter? Or Tumblr? Not a chance. You’re getting the saying. A saying that is 100% worthless without any context.
Okay, we’ve beaten the meaninglessness out of this saying enough. It’s a saying you shouldn’t use unless you’re prepared to go into context. Well, this being Being a Better Writer … let’s go into some of that context! So you want to give a young writer advice on not being boring? Well, how do you do that?
A good starting point I always consider is to ask them who they think their reading audience will be. This is a question that pulls double-duty, because it makes them stop and think about who may read it (because at the end of the day, no matter what you are writing, “everyone” is not a realistic answer) but also invites the question of “what are you writing that will not be boring to those people?
For example, my books are boring to people who don’t like complicated plots and lots of character development before getting to the action. I know this because I’ve gotten low reviews from folks stating exactly that. They don’t care about characters, they don’t care about careful Chekhov’s Guns, they don’t want a lot of building suspense and careful worldbuilding. They just want characters to hook up and/or start fighting. They’re there for action of some kind, and they don’t want build-up or care about the logic behind it. Again, I know this because I’ve been left reviews saying as much. They find what I write boring.
But then there are the readers that are my target audience. The people who want to know what the character motives are, what drives them, why they act the way they do. They want to know what the world is like, and try to figure out what the Chekhov’s Guns are, and see all of this come together in a massive pile-up of mystery, action, and reveal. And that audience loves the stuff I write. Again, knowledge gained from the same source: they tell me.
So the very first step in asking yourself how to keep your work from being boring is to ask yourself who your reading audience is, and then what they like that keeps stories interesting to them. Your story can have the most skillful prose in the world, be packed with interesting characters and moments, but still be dull and boring to people who aren’t looking for the strengths you have on display.
Sands, I read someone’s one-star reviews for Dune and Starship Troopers a few weeks ago tearing into them for being boring. Why?
Because neither of them had wild erotica and smut. That’s right. No crazy erotica, so one-star review. Seem petty? Well, admittedly it sure felt like it, as this reviewer seemed to be making it a goal to read every major or classic Sci-Fi story they encountered and then leave them with angry one-star reviews about how they didn’t have enough sex. Worse, they didn’t actually say that, they just complained about how “poor” they found the book. Only looking at the few books they rated well gave away what they had found “lacking” in the others.
But their pettiness aside, they were reading extremely well-regarded works and absolutely hating them because they didn’t deliver what they wanted to read. And the same can be said for any reader: If a book doesn’t deliver something that you like, you’re going to struggle to find it entertaining. In other words, it’ll be boring.
So ask a young writer what their audience will find exciting about their work. What’s going to keep it from being dull to those who want to read it? Does their “audience” find action exciting? Mystery? Romance? Drama? This is a bit like asking them what genre their story will be and then asking them in turn how well what they’ve written fulfills those elements.
Now, this isn’t the only way to “not be boring.” But it’s a solid start. By acknowledging those elements of your read that readers find exciting and checking to make sure that they’re implemented, a work is brought one step closer to appealing to that audience.
This isn’t the end-all though. It’s just a starting point. Which is again where this saying of “Don’t be Boring” breaks down. Poor pacing, for example, can kill an otherwise good story, even if it has all the genre elements the readers like. Flat characters or flat action can stop a story dead in its tracks. Even mechanical stuff like tense, point-of-view, or basic errors can drag a story down.
If you’ve noticed that each one of those bits is a juggernaut topic, each of which has seen multiple entries on this site, well … yeah. They are. Each one of these is a vast undertaking, any one of which failing can result in a story being “boring.”
Which again, makes “Don’t be boring” really poor advice. You might as well say “Writing is writing” because it’ll have the same meaning and be about as useful (read: useless) to the young writer just trying to start out.
So yeah, “Don’t be boring” is terrible advice unless you’re prepared to follow up with some advice or guidelines to clarify what you mean, or maybe offer some real advice on actual pitfalls and common traps. “Don’t be boring” is a bit of “advice” that isn’t, a refuge of “I want to appear useful so I’m going to say something that really should be obvious.” We shouldn’t ever use it without being prepared to go further in depth.
Or at the very least we should make it a statement someone could actually make use of. Something like “Focus on your audience. What they want needs to be in your story.” That’s still light on content, but it’s vastly richer than “Don’t be boring.” It actually gives the receiver something to focus on, a point to look at and work toward, even if it is a bit nebulous.
So yeah, of all the bits of cliche advice we’ve talking about this summer, “Don’t be boring” is easily one of the worst. Unless you’re prepared to dive into an explanation about it, just don’t use it. Ever. Find something else to say that’s a bit more useful to all those writers out there.
Good luck. Now get writing.
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