To Prescribe or Not to Prescribe: My Unsolicited Writing Advice

Parrish September 11, 2018 on the campus of Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, PA. (Photo by Emma Ricci-De Lucca ’21)

There is no one way to write. End of sentence. Fullstop. The level of self-righteous prescriptivism within the realm of writing frustrates me to no end, and in my experience as a writer, absolutist advice is oftentimes the worst advice of all. In fact, absolutist advice isn’t advice at all, but rather, a command, as if to say, “You have to write in a certain way to let me justify my own beliefs about the proper way to write.” To express my frustration at literary prescriptivists, I compiled this list of the five best and worst tidbits of writing advice that I’ve ever received. (A bit hypocritical? Maybe.) Of course, not every piece of advice will suit every person’s writing, but following the good tips and maintaining a level of skepticism for the bad ones has allowed me, personally, to develop my craft.


1.       Alternate between the lengths of your sentences.

See this paragraph? The sentences alternate between long and short, and as a result, it flows like a smooth jungle river. Alternating between sentence lengths keeps writing readable and engaging. Too many overly-lengthy sentences in a row bog down the true potential of a piece, and too many staccato sentences can become distracting. If used variably, lengthy and staccato sentences can emphasize and deliver a uniquely structural punch to ideas.

2.       In academic writing, avoid softening words like “seems” and “appears to be”.

A life-changing revelation for me was when I realized that in academic writing is one of the only times that you get to tell people what to think. Softening words, such as “seems” and “appears to be” weaken the force of arguments by adding an undertone of doubt. Instead of softening your own words, just assert your claims! You’ll sound more confident in your own ideas.

3.       Use “to be” sparingly.

“To be” is a verb of unquantifiable utility. Making use of action verbs in its place, however, sharpens up a piece of writing without having to exert an excessive amount of effort. Replacing “is” and “was” with action verbs adds a deeper level of description to a sentence without sacrificing any conciseness. This deeper level of description, of course, is attainable through greater attention to precision with regards to any part of speech. Replacing “to be” just provides a good jumping-off point.

4.       Zoom in and out.

Writer’s block. The two words, together like that, in rapid succession, make me grimace. It’s impossible to avoid hitting writer’s block at some point, but some of the best advice I’ve ever received is to think of creative writing in three “zooms.” The first zoom is an objective, broad view of a scene’s setting and features. The second zoom is a more intense, but more personal, view of a scene. The second zoom includes conversation between characters, smaller-scale events, etc. The third zoom is an extremely subjective point of view, such as elaboration on an individual’s hidden thoughts and feelings. After having hit writer’s block and reached the end of a narrative path, finding a way to transition between zoom levels can bring a piece back into perspective. It’s not a catch-all fix to a ubiquitous struggle, but in my personal experience, keeping the zooms in mind has helped me to reestablish a course of action with my writing.

5.       Go ahead and write.

This advice is perhaps the most simple and obvious of all tips listed here, but maintaining a constant level of motivation when writing is a chore. But the only way to improve as a writer is, unfortunately, just to keep. On. Writing. No writer starts out writing masterpieces. First drafts rarely, if ever, live up to their potential. You can always rewrite a poorly-written paragraph or page, but you can never fix a piece that doesn’t exist to begin with. So go ahead and write! Learning to write well is a long-term investment, but you’ll be thankful that you did.


1.       Don’t use adverbs or the passive voice.

Some of the most common writing advice is to avoid adverbs and the passive voice at all costs. My personal theory is that instructors oftentimes give these bits of advice to budding writers so that they can avoid developing an overreliance on either tool. If adverbs and the passive voice were truly useless, however, they wouldn’t exist.

2.       Less is always more.

Despite the insistence of (usually) white men who drink whiskey, smoke cigars, and want to be reincarnated as Hemingway, minimalism doesn’t inherently trounce full-bodied expression, and vice versa. People often insist that minimalist writing is the best writing, and that everyone ought to emulate the Hemingway’s trademark brevity — but what if you don’t want to write like Hemingway? Not everyone is suited to every style of writing, and frankly, if everyone employed a minimalist writing style, then reading would get pretty boring pretty fast. Don’t be afraid to explore!

3.       Don’t use sentence fragments.

As with adverbs and passive voice, I theorize that writing instructors steer away new writers from starting sentences with “and,” “but,” etc. to avoid them developing an overdependence on sentence fragments. But sentence fragments, like adverbs and passive voice, can be a wonderful way to emphasize thoughts and jazz up a piece of writing. Starting off a sentence with a coordinating conjunction requires moderation and thought as to placement, but when properly done, can add excitement and enthusiasm to any piece.

4.       Show, don’t tell — or any other advice about the correct manner in which to write.

There is no correct way to write, and the all-too-often-repeated adage of “Show, don’t tell!” makes me roll my eyes. Books are a unique medium in that the words and the personal connection with the reader allow for explicit explanations and observations. While the art of subtlety can prove a helpful tool, there is more to effective writing than tasteful imagery.

5.       Don’t write.

The antithesis of my favorite piece of writing advice is, of course, my least favorite piece of writing advice. In Joseph Epstein’s now-famous 2002 New York Times Op-Ed “Think You Have a Book in You? Think Again” annoys to me to no end because of its central thesis: that people shouldn’t even try to write books because most books are bad, anyway. To suggest that most books (and, by association, writers) are intrinsically bad is nothing but dismissive for the sake of dismissiveness. So go ahead! Write anything you want! Despite the insistence of the world’s Epsteins, there is nothing ignoble about writing for the want to have written something.

It’s a fact of life that not everyone possesses a natural aptitude or ability for everything. While writing personally brings me a deep sense of reconciliation with the world, I know that writing doesn’t bring the same peace to everyone else. Writing, as with any other skill, requires practice and patience. Even for seasoned writers, there always remains room for refinement and improvement. In the same way that not everyone carries an innate passion for visual art or dance, not everyone will love writing. But I believe that everyone, and I mean everyone, regardless of passion, can learn to write well.


Anatole Shukla '22 is a senior from Fort Wayne, IN. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of The Phoenix.

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