Bad Advice Wednesday: Don’t be Stupid

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


One thing I’ve noticed about good writers, even the most demotic, even the most seemingly down to earth and simple-hearted, even (god help us), the raving right wingers: they’re pretty smart.  So that’s this week’s bad advice for writers: Don’t be stupid.


For example, don’t have the phrase “legs akimbo” in the first paragraph (or any other paragraph) of your short story, as a fellow hoping to work with me in private study recently did.   Because if you use the phrase “legs akimbo” in the first paragraph of your submission, I will stop reading.

Don’t walk up to me at a conference with my latest book in hand and say (as an earnest conference attendee did last summer): “How much did you pay to have this published?”

And don’t follow that up by telling me how much you paid to have your book published: a pretty penny, I know.

Don’t think your Amazon ranking is important.

And don’t use the Amazon ranking of one of my lesser titles as part of your introduction of me at a reading you are paying me a lot to give: like, I don’t know, 1,293,546.

Do know what “remaindered” means, and don’t congratulate me on finding one of my books on the “remainders” table out in front of Aphidistra Books in Chicago, a great store.

Don’t put a picture of yourself posing with a lion in the packet with your novel.

Don’t title that novel “Daze and Confused in the Savannah (Not the One in Georgia).”

Don’t take Amazon up on their scan anything in your independent bookstore and then buy it from us online and we’ll give you five bucks scam.  Five bucks?  Seriously?  You’d take that to help kill off your local bookstore?  What else will you do for five bucks?  Because I’ve got five bucks right here.

Don’t ask me at a reading in Wyoming how much I paid Philip Lopate for his incredibly kind blurb on Writing Life Stories.

Don’t think that you have to pay for blurbs (except in shame while asking, and gratitude later).

Don’t come cocking up to me at the Cape Cod Writers Conference six or seven years ago and say, “Why do you need an agent?  You couldn’t write it yourself?

Don’t send your perfectly good story to the New Yorker and then throw it away and delete the file when their intern rejects it.

Don’t come up to me after a heartfelt, exhausting talk on scenemaking that everyone in the room adored and say (while the applause is still ringing), “That was pretty slick.”

Don’t tell me my book was a good read, and that you enjoyed “reading through it.”

Don’t tell me you’re writing a fictional novel.

Don’t call your essay a short story.

Read a book.

Read another one.

Don’t submit your novel to me “for publication.”  I am not a publisher, but a writer.

Don’t spend several hundred dollars to take a weekend workshop with me only to leap to your feet halfway through a fairly mild discussion of someone else’s work to shout, “Who made you the big fucking expert?”  Specifically, don’t do this in Austin, Texas, in March of 2006.  You know who you are.

Don’t think or say that The DaVinci Code is a beautifully written book.

Learn how to use a comma.

Don’t believe that the reason your book, story, essay, article, hasn’t gotten published is that editors suck.  Unless it makes you feel better.

Don’t use the term “marketing” in relation to a story you’ve written and are holding up during the Q and A at a reading I’m doing in Ohio.  Don’t use the term “marketing” in relation to any story.

Don’t ask me how my book is doing.  My book is doing fine, thank you.  It was good when I finished it, and it’s still good now.

Don’t send me your manuscript with a note that says, “Dear Mr. Roorbach: Please read this at your earliest convenience.  It’s my memoirs and I know it’s going to be right up your ally.  No need to write up your critique.  A phone call would be fine.   I need to know soon because the deadline for the PEN prize is coming right up around the corner.”

Don’t say to me, “I read your book,” and stop there.


  1. Tommy writes:

    I like this one:

    “…not that that’s that bad.”

  2. Richard Gilbert writes:

    I like this from a student:

    I put my arm around my girlfriend’s waste.

    Well, I had a girlfriend like that once, I guess, but I wasn’t much better.

  3. Janine Winn writes:

    And proofread before you hit send.

    • Bill writes:

      Or don’t hit send at all… But don’t you love that, I don’t know, twenty years ago that phrase would have meant nothing?

  4. Janine Winn writes:

    My add: Know how to use paragraphs. Don’t look to newspapers for guidance here; they don’t. (and Henry James paragraphs in his later work drove me nuts.)

    • Bill writes:

      Typos aren’t stupid, and neither was Henry James. I had a big Henry James phase while I was working construction–needed that refinement after sweating pipe and packing cast-iron drain hubs all day… We still used lead toilet flanges, fer heaven’s sake, talk about stupid…

  5. Noah writes:

    do you have any idea how hard it was to get that lion to sit?

  6. Tommy Taylor writes:

    I’m a (god help you) raving right-winger, and Charlene “Legs” Akimbo is a friend of mine, I’ll have you know.

    • Bill writes:

      But you’re a drummer, too, so at least I know you don’t vote for people who want to outlaw dancing! I’m not afraid of Legs, not much!

  7. malcolm bates writes:

    Well, there go all my conversation starters, fuck you very much. What’s left?

    How’s your prostate doing?

    • Bill writes:

      Oh no, it’s the guy with the box of latex gloves under his arm–he comes to every reading. Don’t you mean prostrate? Or no, that means lying there akimbo. Here’s another one, which I saw in a newspaper article the other day: “His hair has turned jet white.”

  8. monica wood writes:

    A little too much starch in your undies this morning, Bill?

  9. George de Gramont writes:

    Back in 1960, I visited my ex-college roommate Jim Linebarger from Texas who was now an English Teacher at Georgia Tech & attended his Class.Suddenly a Student yelled “I used to know English before I took this Class”. And even more suddenly,Jim (ex football player in College) grabbed him & bodily threw him out of the Class. Yes, there are a lot of MORONS out there.

    • Bill writes:

      In fact, the Moron Society (Dumbsa) has protested this post, and a large number of them are marching in front of my neighbor’s house!

    • Jim Linebarger writes:

      Mon ami deGramont! You’re still alive and still funny as hell. I am retired from teaching and no longer bodily throw students out of class, but sure do miss those good old days. Write me on email. I’ve got lots of stories to tell about the past 45 years. My eyesight is nearly gone, so I can’t proofread to catch the typos that I used to punish students for. And sometimes I end sentences with prepositions. And srite fragments.
      Jim Linebarger

  10. Lisa Romeo writes:

    Love these. Feeling a bit snarky myself this morning, a few additions.

    Don’t say you “finished writing” your book when you typed the last page of the FIRST draft yesterday.

    Learn how to use punctuation in dialogue.

    Don’t say, during a nonfiction workshop, that you like another writer’s piece because you “can relate”.

    When you recieve your manuscript back from me, with the detailed and specific editing suggestions, margin comments, and thoughtfully prepared, single-spaced multi-page critique you paid me to provide, don’t call me later that day and say, “now what”?

  11. John Jack writes:

    Don’t be smart either, or don’t show smarts too obviously anyway. Readers like to feel smarter than what they read. Make them feel dumb, like the joke’s at their expense, they’ll want to see the writer receive a due comeupance and will deliver the coup de grâce if given a shot. C’est la vie d’escritur. It is the life of wrting. Finding a happy medium for an audience niche.

  12. Lea writes:


    I don’t know how it’s possible, but you just keep getting funnier! How did I miss the moron in Austin??


  13. Dinty writes:

    Dammit Bill!

    That $40 I paid you to blurb my last book, “Dazed and Confused in Athens (But Neither in Greece nor Georgia),” I want that back!!

    Can you call your agent and tell her about my new book?


  14. john lane writes:

    I heart “Don’t put a picture of yourself posing with a lion in the packet with your novel.”

    And you forgot, “Don’t say in that your book was ‘nominated’ for a Pulitzer Prize or a National Book Award unless it was on the short list.”