The problem with writing advice is that every writer is different. This leads to lots of advice being passed around, often with the type of reverence reserved for holy scripture, that may be of limited use, or at worst, incredibly harmful to a new writer. Following on from my Ten Most Valuable Writing Tips I’ve Received, I thought I’d share the ten worst. Again, this very subjective. I’m sure there will be one or two tips listed here that some of you swear by (or according to number 3, by which some of you swear). The best advice a writer can receive is to go with what works for you. The following definitely didn’t work for me.
Write what you know
This is an incredibly frustrating piece of advice. We have been blessed with a wonderful imagination yet when starting out as a writer you’re told to stick to what you know. How many wonderful works would never have been written if authors only wrote books based on their own experience? Whole genres would disappear overnight. Instead of “write what you know”, try “know what you write”. Go where your imagination takes you but make sure you’ve done your research. I have never cloned anybody, worked in data analysis or run a missing persons investigation (although I have witnessed mass civil disobedience at first hand), yet all appear in my novel Second Chance, and I’ve been complimented on its believability. To do this, I did plenty of research to ensure what I wrote was plausible within the world I created.
Join a critique group
Let me start by saying I’m not against critiquing itself, just against joining established critique groups when you first start out. I know there are many helpful groups out there but for a first time writer who is trying to find their feet, joining an established group may be too much, too soon. I’ve spoken to many writers who found the experience demoralising, and in some cases destructive. If you ask for a critique, those critiquing feel obliged to find fault, even if what you’ve submitted is perfectly fine. There is also a macho culture of offering ‘tough love”, to prepare writers for the submission process. Add group dynamics into the mix and the result can be turn from being a critique to just plain criticism. If you are a new writer who wants to improve their writing – and you should – my advice would be to find a mentor, join a class, use friendly beta readers or form your own critique group with partners you trust.
Don’t end a sentence with a preposition
I know this advice may be a mystery to many American readers but at school in England I was taught never to end a sentence in a proposition. To this day I still find myself mentally correcting conversations whenever anybody does it, yet it’s grammatical nonsense. This is not how people talk – or think – in real life. Re-arranging a naturally flowing sentence to fit this grammatical rule ends up producing something that reads unnaturally and will throw a reader’s concentration. Ignore.
Be unique and unpredictable
I don’t like this piece of advice, not because I want every book to follow the same formula. I like difference and I like to experience the new. The problem is, most writing won’t necessarily be unique and unpredictable to the writer themselves because they are the ones that are writing it. This can lead to all sorts of problems as they try to artificially add unique and unpredictable elements. I prefer Neil Gaiman’s advice: be true to yourself because out of the millions of writers out there, you are the only you. If a writer remains true to themselves and their characters, their writing will be unique and unpredictable.
Before you start, know everything about your lead character
It is true you need to know enough about your main character’s background and motivations to be able to give depth and realism in your writing. But do you need to know the name of their best friend at Kindergarten, or what they received from their parents for their seventh birthday? Unless you are writing about a woman battling to find the last remaining red-headed cabbage patch doll to give to her childhood friend who will otherwise kill her parents as revenge for a horrible birthday, I suggest you develop the information you need to know for your story and enjoy discovering new elements as they pop into your head during the writing process.
Try X to get in the writing mood
If you take your writing seriously, you need to be able to write when you can. We all have our little quirks – I like a cup of tea and some biscuits while writing – but looking to get yourself in the writing mood is the same as only writing when the muse takes you. The more you write when it is tough, the easier it gets. The more you wait for the right mood, the less frequently you will write.
Start with your character and go from there
This one is going to annoy all you pantsters out there but this piece of advice annoys me. Not because it doesn’t work for many writers but because it is put up as the way to write. And of course, there isn’t just one way to write. Before I start my first draft I need to know what I’m writing about and where it is going. Yes, I need to know about my characters, but I also need to know location, environment, external events and everything else that will have an impact on the story, and depending on the original idea, any one of these may come before the character.
Learn about what’s hot and what’s not in the industry
I’ve seen this a number of times and I think it’s codswallop. For a start it encourages you to write for money, which is never a good target as the majority of us will never have a runaway bestseller. Secondly, books take time to write so if you target a trend, by the time your book is published it may well be over. Thirdly, if your heart is not in your work, if you don’t love what you are writing, it will be obvious to the reader. Learn about how to structure a book so that it is commercially appealing by all means, learn what turns readers on or off (but again, reading trends come an go), but if you write the book you would like to read and forget about trends, there is a good chance others will want to read it too.
Find your voice
This piece of advice also goes hand in hand with “you’ll know when you find it.” It’s terrible advice, not because it isn’t important for a writer to find their voice but because it gives a new writer no idea what voice is or how you find it. I am sure there are hundreds of writers sitting out there as I type, sitting in the lotus pose and meditating in the hope of reaching the enlightenment of the voice. Much better advice is to write as you speak, or to write so quickly you aren’t consciously choosing each word.
Write the best work possible
The problem with this piece of advice is not that a writer shouldn’t try their best but that so many writers end up in a perpetual state of editing because they are trying to reach the unattainable: perfection. The hardest part of editing is knowing when to stop. The breakthrough for me came after see in Philip Pullman’s annotations of Northern Lights, one of his most famous works. Please click on the link. You will find images where he has completely shredded the well loved piece and rewritten large sections, not because it is bad but because he feels differently now to when it was written. Yet the piece he is editing has been published and sold in the millions. When editing, always ask yourself if you are improving or just changing. If you are just changing, stop editing.
So what about you? Do you agree with me? Are there any that I’ve missed? Or do you think I’m peddling nonsense? Please let me know. I’d love to hear from you.
You’re right on all counts, Lizzi. As for the old saw about never ending a sentence with a preposition, I think Sir Winston Churchill said it best: “This is arrant pedantry, up with which I will not put!”
I was very tempted to put that quote in my piece so I’m really glad you mentioned it. Thanks for dropping by!
PS Who is Lizzi? 🙂
Curses! Sorry about that–I’m reading & commenting on my iPhone, & sometimes it confuses the titles of the blogs in the WordPress app. If it’s any consolation, Lizzi is a lovely person too.
Then I’m delighted to be mistaken for her 🙂
I think that the value of a lot of these, like much writing advice, depends on how you understand and apply them. It’s good to make use of what you know to ground your writing, but not to be constrained by that. And as you pointed out with a lot of these, they can be useful but shouldn’t be treated as for everyone.
There’s a Twitter feed I think it’s called the worst muse – that contains hilariously awful writing advice – well worth checking out.
Thanks, Andrew. The point I wanted to make with this (and the previous post) was to not take the advice at face value but to understand the meaning behind each one and decide if it works for you.
Thanks also for the Worst Muse. I’ve had a quick look and it’s fantastic. I now have to resist the urge to spend the rest of the afternoon reading the feed 😉
I think you’ve hit your aim well there. It’s always good to challenge received advice.
Now I’m tempted to go kill time reading the Worst Muse too. Might distract myself with Texts From Superheroes instead – also amusing, but I’ve read most of it, so won’t get sucked in for so long.
Can’t agree with ending sentences with prepositions. Not sure where you came away with your opinion of the American educational system, but we Americans are taught this basic rule of grammar as well. Anyway, I feel you should rewrite a sentence to avoid ending it with a preposition, and if it seems awkward (a la Churchill’s example), rewrite, rewrite, rewrite until it’s not.
Also, I think critique groups are invaluable. I’ve only participated in one (back when I toyed with the idea of getting an MFA in Creative Writing, to add insult to injury to my English Literature degree), and you learn a lot about yourself and your writing. Even from the idiots who hate everything and make you endure their “epic” sci-fi novel that reads suspiciously like Star Wars fan fiction. (And your advice there is a little mixed, with you ending the paragraph by suggesting new writers form a critique group.)
And not sure how you can argue with “Find your voice.” (Wow, I may not agree with you on anything!) If a new writer has no idea what “voice” is let me suggest he/she put down the pen and pick up a book and read lots and lots until he/she has that “Aha!” moment.
I dunno. I’m looking through the list again and not sure if I would classify anything on it as truly horrible, except maybe that know everything about your main character thing, which, to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone suggest. The only reason why I think that’s bad advice is because it keeps you from writing. And that last one, because who doesn’t think they’re writing the best work possible always? It’s only when your sitting in that critique group and reading what you wrote aloud and you get a roomful of people raising their eyebrows (or worse, yawning) at what you’ve written that you realize, hey, maybe what I’ve written needs a little improvement.
Thanks for coming back with such a robust defence of some of these rules, Karen! Just to clarify something you said about my point on ending a sentence with a proposition, it wasn’t intended as a dig at the American education system. I’d been told (wrongly) that this rule wasn’t actively applied in the US. I’m happy to be corrected.
I think your comment proves what I said in my introductory paragraph, writing advice is very subjective because we are all different and what works for one person may not work for another. The critique group feedback which helped you improve your writing may have made another writer crumble. That’s why I don’t believe joining an established critique group may be the best thing when starting out. Having your work critiqued is important, but there are other ways of achieving this which don’t involve standing in front of strangers and being humiliated.
With most of the advice I’ve highlighted, it’s not about the intention behind it (which you have defended so well) but the way it is phrased. They make good sound bites but aren’t necessarily helpful on their own. This is why in many cases I’ve offered alternative suggestions which cover similar ground but in a way which was more helpful to me (because as I said at the start, this is very much a personal list).
I’m an American who went through the American educational system and I see nothing wrong with ending a sentence with a preposition; especially if it helps the sentence make sense and keeps it from sounding stilted. I think so many writing rules were made up hundreds of years ago by guys who thought they knew how everything should be. Things change. Times change, and what worked then, doesn’t work in today’s literary world. Though, I do hope good grammar usage never gets old. 🙂
Language evolves over time and those that love language either embrace those changes or look to protect the language they love. Most of us are in the middle, clinging to those rules we like while letting go of those we see as unnecessary.
Hey Lizzi (?),
I loved this! Thank you for reminding people of what really matters and what does not. Unlike Karen, I agree with you on every count. However, I always tell people to find their voice as short for “be true to yourself instead of trying to sound like X, Y, Z writer whom you admire”.
Thanks, Nicholas. As I mentioned in my reply to Karen, often my issue isn’t with the sentiment of the advice but the way it is presented – your point about “find your voice” being a good example.
Karen and I have a history of disagreeing on things but I like her all the more for it. She is honest, heartfelt and can often persuade me to change my mind. She also has a great blog, which I highly recommend you take a look at 🙂
You’re making me sound like this horrible belligerent person, which I really am not. I’m just American. 🙂
And I would return the compliment to your blog. I follow a lot of self-published authors on WordPress and unfortunately, so many of their blogs turn to one self-promoting post after another. I’m always happy to read your posts and find something to argue with you about 🙂
Ha, ha! I’m clearly too subtle in my self-promotion.
This was great! People are entitled to their opinions, but you did very well to annihilate some of those so-called rules that I struggle with, not because they are not valid, but because they don’t make sense in every given situation. That cripples a lot of writers into believing they are no good when they are really terrific. I’ve seen it happen. You should KNOW the rules, but be willing to break them when necessary to achieve your story.
Thank you! I’m glad you found the post useful. There has been some robust defence of some (in fact most) of these rules, which I can’t disagree with as in each case these feelings are very personal. I just wanted to show that some of this advice, or the way that it is presented, isn’t universally helpful.
I think Andrew hit the nail on the head. The advice isn’t bad or good, it’s how you apply it. Because we are all at different stages of our writing journey, different advice resonates with us at different times.
The preposition advice is always a hot topic! Most sentences can be rewritten to avoid the preposition. Most. Some work fine with the preposition at the end. I try to revise any sentences I create that end with a preposition, but if I double and triple check the sentence and it feels natural, sometimes I leave it that way. I do avoid double prepositions at the end. There’s an inherent danger in saying, ‘Hey, this advice was the worst advice ever. Ignore it!’ We lost out on growth. If I can work a little harder and revise most of my sentences to avoid the preposition, I’ve grown into a better writer. Why wouldn’t I want that?
Find your voice to me says to experiment. It says to play with different styles and genres. And by doing those things, I will discover my strongest voice. I’m not sure why that’s not good advice. I think we should experiment.
Thank you so much for your comment. In my defence (always a bad way to start a reply, I know), I did say these were my personal opinions and many people may disagree.
To take your last point, what you have described is excellent advice. People should be encouraged to play with different styles and genres until they discover their natural writing style. This is much stronger and more informative than “find your voice”. In most of the above points, it is less the principle I disagree with, than the way it is communicated. My lesson is perhaps I should have communicated that sentiment a little better in my post 🙂
You did warn us they were your personal opinions :). Now what would be interesting is to re-visit this post every year and see if your views change as you walk through your own writer’s journey. Perhaps you’ll remove some of these and add some new ones, or perhaps they’ll stay the same. I think that would be fascinating. It almost makes me want to write a list of advice I don’t agree with and do the same thing :).
You have a deal. I promise to look back at this in a year’s time and see if my feelings have changed (please feel free to pull me up if I fail to do this). I look forward to reading your list 🙂
So many people like rules, don’t they, hence the immeasurable batallions of books and online posts giving advice about anything and everything. And lists. Don’t we love lists? (Not me.)
And I think your two posts, while appearing to conform to these two memes, is actually designed to get us questioning received wisdom (much of it conflicting anyway) and thinking critically about how to achieve what we want. In other words, the opposite to a do-it-by-numbers text book. Good on you!
Thank you, Chris. I’ll let you into a secret. I used the list format because I knew it would attract people to the blog, and I have been deliberately provocative (although I believe in all that I’ve written) because I do want people to question the received wisdom. It’s only through questioning and discussion that we learn (this theme also gets a mention in Second Chance) and progress, both as individuals and as a community (in this case, the writing community). It’s a pleasure to hear from you as always.
Reblogged this on Archer's Aim and commented:
Insightful thoughts on advice – re-blogging on Archer’s Aim
Thank you for the re-blog and the kind words. i’m glad you liked it 🙂
And thanks to you as well, keep up the good work
I love it! A confident anihilation of some of those ‘Holy Grail’ tenets of so-called writerly wisdom. There’s nothing wrong with taking advice of course, but there is far, far too much of it about! I agree with everything you say, particularly the grammaticals, with one exception..
I will defend the ‘write what you know’ principle, if only on the basis of my own experience. I knew I wanted to write, but had no idea where to start. It was ‘write what you know’ that led me to penning a story about people on a singles holiday. It was ‘write what you know’ that underpinned both my main character’s personality and traits which everyone seems to enjoy, and the most sinister of my characters (yes, him too, but that’s a story for another day). One must move beyond ‘write what you know’, and I will, for sure, with my second novel. But for me, it was a valuable springboard to writing anything at all.
Thank you, Jools, and that’s a very good defence of ‘write what you know’. My issue with this piece of advice is that it is too prescriptive. “If you are unsure what to write about, start with what you know and broaden from there” is a good piece of advice, ‘Write what you know’ isn’t (at least, not for everyone).
Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog….. An Author Promotions Enterprise! and commented:
If you look carefully, you’ll get TWO great articles for the price of ONE 😀
Thank you, Chris, both for the re-blog (my stats are exploding) and the kind words. As always, you provide such great support to us writers. You’re a treasure.
Welcome Dylan 😀
Dylan, I agree with everything you say. This is very enlightening. Be yourself and do your own critique is the best way to describe it. Beta readers are also useful and they can be writer friends with constructive advice and suggestions. This helps with looking at your work from a different point of view. They are usually right and the advice works.
Thank you. I am a great believer in both providing and receiving honest feedback as a way to improve your writing, as long as it is constructive. I’m not a fan of group critiquing, because of the danger of it being dominated by some individuals and the likely occurrence of groupthink. Sending your work out to a number of individuals and collating that feedback is more enlightening.
Fortunately, nobody gave me any advice when I started writing way back in 1969. I was inspired by Tolkien and I started writing, based on a lot of knowledge accumulated through a solid educational background in literature, and I decided I could do it. I wrote my million words and I’ve scrapped nearly all of that early stuff. But I never felt constrained by anybody else’s rules except my own.
Hi Lorinda, thank you for dropping by. My love of reading came from Tolkien (first with the Hobbit, then Lord of the Rings) back when I was very young. One of the joys of learning to write today is that you can find a lot of support as a writer. The down side is that it can be both overwhelming and contradictory. The approach you took – gain a solid grounding and then learn through doing – has a lot going for it.
I totally agree with you Dylan.
As a seasoned writer, I find the best way is to ignore ‘advice’ and go with what you are comfortable with. As for all the forums and critique groups, don’t go there. Why? Because they are usually populated by what I call armchair critics, as well as the more aggressive pedants and grammar nazis. These are people to be avoided at all costs, no matter whether you are ‘seasoned’ or a newcomer to the world of words.
Trends? No one I know follows them. Leave that nonsense to people with no brain, who need to be dictated too about every facet of their lives.
I think it’s wonderful that there are so many writers willing to share advice with other writers. My problem comes when it is either prescriptive, or delivered in vague soundbites that leave a novice writer confused. I am fully with you when it comes to critique forums or groups. There are some incredibly supportive groups out there but I’ve heard too many horror stories not to question the general consensus. Thanks so much for dropping by 🙂
My pleasure 🙂
Too many rules stunt your expression. Band on post.
Thank you! Sorry for the late reply but for some reason your comment ended up in my spam folder.
Thank you That’s been going on for over a week now. Sorry. Contacted WP; results meh. Others can’t find my comments at all. 😮
In my response I meant to sand BanG on…not band on post.
An interesting set of worsts, Dylan.
I stopped going to my creative writing group after a couple of years – it was very useful to get me back to writing again, to submitting something every week for group discussion and to get feedback but I got bogged down with the rules and mechanics of writing as suggested by the tutor.
For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts:
I think some rules go in trends – hence, few adjectives and no adverbs (where would Dickins be if he’d stuck to this crazy rule?).
Prepositions I’m afraid I agree with – to me sentences sound clunky if they end with one. (Old fashioned).
Write what you know. Well, it makes sense – imagination can be heightened once we can ‘see’ a setting or have an understanding of the situations we are writing about. The imagination kicks in when we have to deal on the page with those situations.
I‘m not sure I know everything about my lead character but I have a pretty good idea of what they are like and how they would react in a given circumstance. I also always know my ending so that I can write to it – I don’t always know how I’m going to get there and for me, that’s where the fun is in the writing.
I think telling a new writer to find their voice is ridiculous – it puts too much pressure on the novice to listen for that rather than just get on and write – but actually the voice appears somewhere along the line and you discover a style of writing you are comfortable with. It might take years but the practise along the way can only supply you with lots of fodder to file away and bring out again later to either use as is or to re-work.
We’re all different, rules work for some folk – and I have to say that I do think there is a formula for successful writing, especially for things like short story submissions. It’s whether you want to compromise your own style and go with those rules that patently work or whether you plough a lone furrow. I prefer the latter to be honest which is why I’ll never be rich from writing! 🙂
And you probably don’t start your sentences with a conjunction either? 🙂
Well, I might. But probably, on balance, not. 😉
Either that or you will become very rich for being the first to break the mould. What’s interesting about your comment is you’re naturally interpreting the rules based on your writing experience and turning them into truths that work for you. The problem is inexperienced writers don’t have that luxury of knowledge. That’s why I wanted to include some well known rules that didn’t work for me, to say it’s alright to question them. Thanks so much, as always. It’s lovely to hear from you.
It’s always alright to question EVERYTHING, I reckon. Otherwise, how do we ever learn?
I can’t argue with any of those. I think you’re spot on. I did start with writing what I know, and I guess I still do, but I go well beyond that, particularly with each new book. That, of course, requires lots of research, but with the Internet at our fingertips, there’s no excuse not to get things right. Or as close to right as we can. That doesn’t mean we can’t embellish or make things up–it’s fiction, after all–but everything should be rooted in believability. Or at least plausibility.
I still find it difficult to end a sentence with a preposition though. It’s tough to let those rules go… (But I try to.)
Thanks, Carrie. The whole “not ending a sentence with a preposition” really is a difficult one to live by. 😉
Reblogged this on Author P.S. Bartlett.
I agree with all of them. I loathe petty rules and trendy fashions.
I’ll explain them all to my authors when I’m editing, but then it’s their choice. Adverbs? Fine. Descriptions? Fine.
Too many caps, not so fine. Downright errors in punctuation, errr, grrrrr.
When I write about writing, I try and tell people to keep it simple, and not get bogged down by rules and advice and creative writing courses. And going through a zillion alpha and beta readers strikes me as a total waste of time. But again, I recognise they are a current trend within self-publishing.
Writers should have the courage of their convictions. Either they are good or they aren’t. No amount of rule following or critique groups will make them better.
Thanks for your comment. It’s great to have an editor’s perspective. The last point of my previous post to this was “it’s all about the story”. Do what works best to tell the story. I personally find using a select group of alpha readers is good in identifying plot holes, inconsistencies, poor characterisation and unintentional areas of confusion caused by the author knowing the whole story, but I wouldn’t want them to tell me how to write. Thanks for dropping by 🙂
You are the third person today to tell me ‘thanks for dropping by’. In terms of rules, I might consider adding that one to the list, it’s quite dismissive.
I’m sorry if it came across that way. It wasn’t intended to be dismissive, just thanking you for noticing and commenting on my blog.
Not your fault. Just the third in a row today and it was starting to rankle. Maybe I’ll make a blog post out of it (no names). Seriously, it was a good and valid post. Authors should be able to have freedom of expression.
Love this! Although I did just join my 1st critique group, partly because I’m new to the area & chicken to start my own. We’ll see what happens…
I’m sure it will be fine. What is it they say, forewarned is forearmed?
Reblogged this on Sleepy Book Dragon and commented:
Agree entirely with this.
In reference to the first point, whilst completely valid, I prefer the advice, write about what you would like to find out more about. Every story I have written has resulted in me learning something new.
That’s a great piece of advice! Thanks for sharing:-)
Thank you! ^^
Mr. Hearn, as a (mostly) self-taught writer, I agree with both the content and the overriding premise of your article. Am I a hypocrite because the link to it was posted in my online writing group?
On a humorous note, in the blog content and at least one other comment, you (erroneously?) nagged on a rule about ending a sentence with a proposition. How would that work for my old friends at Deer Park in Cirencester if they couldn’t shout, “‘ave some o’ that!” after scoring a goal on the recreation fields?
I have always tried to follow the ‘write what you know’ ethos, mainly because what I know comes from reading a large number of books when I was young, living in the Middle East for ten years as a grown up, and – lately – having an affinity for Google. I would argue that, these days, it’s easy to write on just about any subject with a good search engine and a healthy dose of discernment. Still, I will always have an affinity for writing Arabian Nights-themed fiction because of ‘what I know.’
Thank you for this well-written encouragement!
It was posted on your writing group’s site? They sound like my kind of writing group 😉
Thank you for such an erudite response. It’s good to know football is still being played in Cirencester (I always thought rugby was more popular).
I don’t see an issue with ‘writing what you know’, especially if you have lived an interesting life. My problem comes when people take the advice as “only” write what you know.
It’s been a pleasure to meet you.
So much I agree with here.
1. I like to append, “If you don’t know it, get to know it!” Like you mentioned, this is where research comes in.
2. Part of using a critique group effectively is knowing when to take advice and when to ignore it. Not all critiques are created equally.
Great article Dylan!
Thank you! I’m glad you liked it. You make a couple of great points, especially your first. Even if your writing is based in a world you’ve made up, you need to research or develop the world enough that you can write about it credibly.
I agree full-heartedly!
One of the ones that drives me bonkers is the “find your voice” one. I put myself through a bit of angst trying to figure out my voice, until I realized something very important — your voice finds you. It is that thing that makes your writing distinctly yours, and it isn’t something to seek out and craft and create, it’s something to discover as you go, it will shine through your work.
I’m one who tends to not follow the “rules” (when it comes to writing at least)… I think some of it boils down to the fact that I really taught myself the craft. By the time I got to “creative writing 1” in high school it was pretty clear to myself (and the instructor) that I didn’t need the instruction they were giving — I’d learned from writing, rewriting, and lots and lots of reading.
And your voice finds you only when you relax into your natural writing style, which is hard to do when you’re constantly analysing your writing in your search for your voice.
Reblogged this on Writing for the Whole Darn Universe.
I choose to write what I know because I know I can represent it somewhat well, having lived through certain things. There is something to be said about authenticity, which, depending on the content, can fall flat if it’s clear an author hasn’t done proper research or is making stuff up. That’s not to say it’s impossible to write what you know AND have an imagination, though.
Hi Beth, please don’t get me wrong. I’m not against authors writing what they know. Some of the greatest books ever written were based on an author’s experience. In fact, I doubt there has been a book written that doesn’t contain an something an author has felt, thought or witnessed at some point in their lives. My dislike for this advice is when it is used as a limiter, and writers believe they should be restricted to only writing what they know. Thank you so much for such a thoughtful comment.
Thanks for another great post. All so true. My local critique group in the UK is so elitist and exclusionist that anyone wishing to join has to submit material to prove their worth. Unbelievable.
Now that’s friendly, isn’t it? I’m with Groucho Marx on this one. “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”
One hundred percent behind this. Creative arts have guidelines, not rules. The most innovative artists out there are people who broke the rules and took a new direction.
I’m not talking art for arts sake, but following too much advice stifles the innovator within us.
Thank you. I think guidelines can be very useful, and the thinking behind many of the pieces of advice I’ve highlighted is very good, for some authors in some situations. If that was clearer, many of these would and should be in people’s top 10 favourite lists.
Trying to make blanket rules over creative endeavors is quite unsuitable.
One of the reasons I love to write is to delve into things I DO NOT know. The process of discovery through the thoughts and actions of my characters opens my mind to new possibilities, new stories, and a wonderful sense of accomplishment when I complete a book. The only thing I do know for certain is how to spel.
I’m with you on this. One of the reasons I write is to explore ideas, using my characters to examine them from all perspectives. This might sound a bit dry but a character’s belief system (in the broadest sense) is a great source of conflict and tension, and at the same time you learn something new.
PS Great gag. 🙂
Most of these, if treated as inviolable rules, are easy traps for timid aspiring writers who feed on procrastination under the excuse of “getting it just right.” Even successful writers have their “I’m not really very good” struggles; but they know that you can’t sell what’s never good enough to show.
On the other hand, there are the stubborn “I do it my way and it’s not my fault if the world never recognizes genius” types who are all too eager to point out that this classic writer didn’t know his history or that bestselling author has all her characters “whine” or “roar” instead of “say” things–implication being, if they can do it and succeed, why shouldn’t I be allowed to? Because success isn’t a matter of following more rules than you break, or of copying what worked for someone else, or (definitely) of proving your own superiority; it’s a matter of being able to communicate in a way that resonates with readers’ emotions. Those who can do this may or may not “follow the rules” as well, but they never make them top priority.
What a great comment. I think the really good authors have to view their work honestly but also pragmatically. The honesty will always drive the author to learn and improve, with what is right for the story being the central driver, rather than what’s right for the author’s ego. At the same time they need to be pragmatic in realising that nothing is perfect and you eventually have to let the work go.
The bit about critique groups nearly made me pee my pants. I did join a group, but after my first book was out. Several times I took my alloted 12 pages to meetings. The same people would make the same “types” of critiques. There are two gents with degrees in English, who seem to always, and with everyone, slam the poor newbies. In time I realized what was happening, and solicited advice from the most helpfull members before or after meetings. I still take pages to put in the open forum, but I use the reactions of the members in different ways. The two old codgers are my “Reverse Baromitor.” If they hate something, I leave it in. If they love something, I prepare to rewrite. The strangest, and funniest thing I found was that None of the harsh members have yet to publish Anything, even self-pub. I think a critique meeting, might, be a good thing for first time writers, but, only to observe. (Just because>) I end sentences like that TO.
Your experience is exactly why I’m not a fan of critique groups. It’s great you’ve found a way to work through the ‘idiosyncrasies’ but many authors find this type of experience demoralising or worse. I think the idea of a reverse barometer is one every author should use 🙂
Dylan, a fantastic post as always. I love all of your points, and agree with them wholeheartedly. “Know what you write” is such a great way of putting it that I am going to have to steal it. 🙂 I think the issue with a lot of the tips out there is that they are non-specific on how to implement them (which you touched on nicely in your post). I’ve read a lot of things on what not to do, but I rarely find useful and practical tips for the opposite – what should I do? “Find your voice” is mind-boggling. I have a voice, thank you, and I started developing it as soon as I learned how to talk, never mind write. It continues to grow and change direction without any special effort on my part. And there’s no such thing as your “best work possible.” The trick is to know when you have reached “enough,” otherwise you’ll be forever chasing a perfectionist dream.
As for ending sentences with prepositions and all other similar grammar “rules” that have changed over time, I think people’s preferences are largely based on what they learned in school during their day. I went through school at a time where grammar was not a focus of the curriculum, so I’ve come to a more formalized understanding of it relatively late in life (on my own terms). Maybe that’s why I am more of a descriptivist when it comes to language use. I learned grammar from doing lots of reading. And hey, there are worse ways to learn. 🙂
Steal away, Sue. After writing it I started to wonder whether I’d made it up or read it somewhere myself, so feel free to use it. I’m particularly against the advice “find your voice”, not because the principle behind it isn’t true, but because you read it everywhere and in itself it tells you nothing. I’m more cautious with grammar rules. Most rules are there for a very good reason and should be used. The only exceptions are the ones, as you say, that have fallen out of use as out language has adapted and changed. The use of who and whom is another. I understand which to use when, but unless I was writing dialogue for a very formal, possibly older character, I would rarely use whom because it’s another way to throw most readers out of the moment.
Yes, who vs. whom is another interesting one. It’s like that saying about needing to know the rules so you know when to break them. Ultimately we’re writing for our audience, and our target readers will dictate how we construct our language.
When I did learn about the history of grammar I found it interesting that most of those “rules” that are in dispute today were created in the Victorian period, when the grammarians of the day wanted to model English after Latin because they felt Latin was superior. This is why we ended up, for example, with the idea that you can’t split an infinitive. There’s no way to split it in Latin because the structure of the language prevents it, but in Old English it used to be split all the time. So this “rule” is not based on usage in any way, but on the opinion of a handful of academics that ended up permeating through our educational system. And yes, I am a geek. 🙂
Wow! Thanks so much for the tips–very helpful! I’m wading through the same ocean of writing rhetoric in the blogosphere and beyond. I’m critiqued by writers group members/writers retreat attendees for things that won’t matter in my case, because I won’t be querying tougher-than-nails NYC editors about my manuscripts. I find my voice and use it in my writing, only to be told I’m too descriptive/flowery, or people don’t really talk/think that way, or I need to change this or that or some other thing because… I’m told to read So-and-so’s book to learn how to really write well, so I do. Actually, I only make it through the first chapter, as I’m not interested in hard core crime (or whatever). But then I do make an effort to write more like So-and-so, but that gets frustrating, because I don’t think like So-and-so. And then I waste more time in re-writing and editing, rather than just writing the story, to please the critics who really don’t know much more than I do.
It IS very confusing. One retired NYC writer/editor did tell me, Jane Austen, William Faulkner and H.L. Mencken, AND William Shakespeare and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle broke the “rules” at times–and they were best-selling authors.
I’m also discovering “writing” blogs that not only dribble nonsense, but the so-called writers obviously have tons to learn themselves (clue: they aren’t published) and haven’t earned the right to give writing advice. For instance, I was told to avoid using the word “was,” and to write in a more active rather than passive style. So that’s something I’ve been working on for about a year. Then I read Stephen King’s book “On Writing,” and guess what–he uses the word “was,” because sometimes “was” just fits. And “was” tends to remain invisible, as does the word, “said.” Invisible words are appropriate in certain settings, especially when the story needs to flow, and the writer doesn’t want the reader to get bogged down with “creative” or poetic language. I’ve heard, don’t use a word more than once in two pages of text. Yet there are times when the repetition of a word or phrase in a similar sentence pattern can add emphasis at a critical point in the narrative, to prove a point or cause the reader to stop and take notice. Then there’s the idea of constant action to grab the readers’ attention… Although our stories should be page-turners, not everyone wants to read page after page of non-stop, death-defying, edge-of-your-seat next-to-impossible stunts. Some readers want to read about believable characters who handle life’s ups and downs in a way that inspires or entertains or prompts us to think or just lifts us out of our own conflicts or mundane-ness for an afternoon. The “Bloomfield” series and Jan Karon’s books are perfect examples.
So sorry for such a long response, but your post really hit a nerve. Thanks again!
Thanks you for such a great comment. For me, there is a lot of confusion out there between how to write well (getting the basics right) and how to write commercial fiction (writing in a style that sells well – according to current trends). On top of that you have the situation where most academic writing courses channel their students to write literary fiction, whereas most online advice talks about genre fiction. It’s no wonder people are confused!
There’s a piece of advice that worked well for me (as mentioned in my previous post) that might work for you. Write the book you would like to read. Don’t worry about commercial appeal, write something you like and are proud of.
Wow! That is all of the creative writing advice I got in school– ever! I mean the bad stuff. That ‘find your voice’ thing *drove me nuts*. Mostly because no one could actually DEFINE what a voice was, or show me how to “see it”. *headdesk* If I asked what they meant, too many times, they punished me by making me read Hemingway. Only one teacher said, “You don’t need that! You have a voice. It is loud enough already.” 🙂 He was one of my favorite teachers.
“Find your voice” drives me crazy too. The principle behind it is true (write in a way that feels comfortable and natural to you) but I’m amazed so many people repeat the phrase parrot fashion but when asked what it means can only say “you’ll know when you find it”. The only way to find your voice is to write without worrying about voice.
Reblogged this on The Worlds of Tarien Cole and commented:
I like this list MUCH better than I do any list of things TO do. I can’t agree more on the utter uselessness of joining established critique groups. In my experience, you get one person saying, “You describe too much,” another ‘You didn’t describe enough,” and then they spend an hour arguing over that. Find people you trust, and show them your work. The exception proving the rule is Scribophile. If you can afford that site, it’s very useful to join.
Beyond that, there is much useful crushing of canards in this article. Heartily endorsed.
Thank you, both for your kind comment and the recommendation. I still think sending your work out to beta readers you trust, who look at it independently and give you constructive feedback, is much more useful than a critique group. If they say the same or similar things, you know to listen, because they are doing it without the influence of peer pressure or group think. If only one comes up with an issue, or you have two or more contradicting each other, you know it’s more a case of taste which you can choose to follow or not.
That’s how I see it too. Plus Beta Readers are more likely to coalesce around the target audience of your book, rather than being a random group of people who may or may not even know the genre conventions you are writing in.
Hi Dylan, I’m a bit late to this post because I was out of the country for a couple of months. Great post, as usual. At one time or another I’ve heard each of those points presented as gospel. And I have ignored them all at one time or another.
For example, I will admit I’m a bit of a grammar stickler, but there are times when one just has to break the “rules.” I try hard to avoid ending sentences with prepositions (mainly because I think it sounds clunky), but in dialogue I often do it purposely. After all, that’s the way people speak.
As for trends, I gave up on the notion of following them a long time ago. In fact, it was at the height of the fantasy wave that I started writing my science fiction trilogy, because I knew the pendulum would swing back some day. (And once we started getting into the vampires, werewolves, and zombies, it was pretty clear that fantasy was burning itself out. 😉 My feeling is that writers should strive to start their own trends.
Finally, fascinating point by Sue Archer on split infinitives. I never knew! I just may have to start splitting them…
Hi Jim! Thanks for your comment. Yes, the longer you write the more you realise either certain rules don’t work for you or they have been presented so badly you’re missing the real meaning behind the stock phrasing. I agree with you completely about dialogue. Use contractions, mess with the grammar and write as people speak.
I freewrite in what I call “snippets”- little pieces of disconnected ideas that when I begin to stitch things together, form characters, plots, twists, etc. I never worry about where I am headed, what my voice will be, who my characters will be at the early stages. I let the ideas drive the story forward. In the “working” phases – editing, continuity, etc – I change hats, and often switch back and forth as I go. This works for me, but I don’t presume it will work for anyone else. Dialogue was the hardest for me at first until I decided to just let go of outside conventions. I actually highlight each characters’ dialogue in colors when I start editing so I can work on making each character have their own voice – sometimes slightly different, sometimes decidedly colloquial. My only rule – write it so it reads like people talk. That gives you a lot of latitude. I don’t begin to seriously rewrite my draft until I fall in love with my characters – then I cut, streamline, recheck facts, plot continuity – not because I am concerned about the book, but because I want to be true to my characters. As for “what’s hot” – my waitress this morning is hot. That is good enough for me!
I saw this on your annual report and thought I’d take a look. I don’t know how I missed it when it came out– it’s a great post!