The craft of writing involves learning the rules of grammar, developing a broader vocabulary, learning how to develop characters, build worlds etc., etc. Most of us don’t have the money to embark on an MFA program in writing. Instead, we educate ourselves as well as we can.
Even if you have an MFA degree, you could spend a lifetime learning the craft and never learn all there is to know about the subject. We join writing groups, buy books, and most importantly, read. We analyze what we have read and figure out what we liked or disliked about it. Then, we try to apply what we learned to our work.
Most writing advice is good because it reinforces what we need to know about the craft, and simple sayings are easy to remember. They encourage us to write lean, descriptive prose and craft engaging conversations.
The same advice can be bad because it is so frequently taken to extremes by novice authors armed with a little dangerous knowledge.
- Remove all adverbs.
This advice is silly. Without descriptors, you can’t show mood, atmosphere, or setting. Remember, not all adverbs end in “ly,” so use a little common sense and don’t use unnecessary adverbs.
I am a wordy writer and a poet. I love words in all their many shapes and forms. I know readers like lean prose, so I work to trim it, sometimes more successfully than others. In the second draft, I use the global search (find option) to look for each instance of ‘ly’ words and rewrite those sentences to make them more active.
- Don’t use speech tags.
Well, that makes things pretty confusing. Who said that, and why are there no speech tags in this nonsense?
- Show, Don’t Tell. Don’t Ever Don’t do it!
We’ve all experienced intensely painful feelings, such as fear, sadness, and anger. If you have shared your work with a writing group, you have been admonished to show these emotions rather than saying, “Joe grew angry.”
You can see their point. So, you sit down and rewrite your scene graphically: Joe snarls, cheeks going hot, brows pulling together, eyes glaring, lips curling in a sneer, and fists clenching. Edith sits hunched in on herself with drooping shoulders, downturned quivering lips, shaking hands, nausea rising, and tear-streaked cheeks.
Maybe that much detail is necessary, but maybe it’s not. Set that scene aside and come back to it later. Then look at it with fresh eyes and decide what will be enough to show their emotions and what is too much.
An avalanche of microscopic showing can make your characters seem melodramatic and sometimes cartoonish. Truthfully, that much physical drama doesn’t show a character’s emotions. What is going on inside their heads?
You must either relay the thought process that led to those physical reactions or lay the groundwork with some crucial bits of exposition.
- Write what you know.
Your life experiences shape your writing, but your imagination is the story’s fuel and source.
- If you’re bored with your story, your reader will be too.
You have just spent the last year or more combing through your novel. This is another example of silly advice that doesn’t consider how complex and involved the process of getting a book written and published is. I love writing, but when you have been working on a story through five drafts, it can be hard to get excited about making one more trip through it, looking for typos.
- Kill your darlings.
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. We can’t be married to our favorite prose. When a paragraph or chapter we love no longer fits the story, we must cut it, save it in a separate file, and move on.
However, cutting a passage just because you like it is stupid. Maybe it does belong there—maybe it is the best part of that paragraph.
- Cut all exposition.
BE reasonable. Some background information is essential to making the story understandable to a reader. How, when, and where you deploy the exposition is what makes a great story. Hold the deep history back – like a magician, only produce the backstory at the time and place where the characters and the reader need to know it.
Good advice taken to an extreme has become a part of our writing culture. This is because all writing advice has roots in truth.
- Too many descriptors can ruin the taste of an author’s work.
- Too many speech tags can stop the eye, especially if the characters are snorting, hissing, and ejaculating their dialogue.
- Too much telling takes the adventure out of the reading experience.
- Too much showing can be tedious and is sometimes visually revolting.
Our task is to find that happy medium between too much and not enough. Our voice and writing style reflect our thought processes and the way we strive for balance.
When we first embark on learning this craft, we latch onto handy, easy-to-remember mantras because we want to educate ourselves. Unless we’re fortunate enough to have a formal education in the art of writing, we who are just beginning must rely on the internet and handy self-help guides.
Something to remember: most readers are not editors. They will either love or hate your work based on your voice, but they won’t know why. Voice is how you break the rules, but you must understand what you are doing and do it deliberately. Craft your work so it expresses what you intend in the way you want it said. So, the most important rules are:
- Trust yourself,
- Trust your reader.
- Be consistent.
- Write what you want to read.
We can easily bludgeon our work to death in our effort to fit our square work into round holes. In the process of trying to obey all the rules, every bit of creativity is shaved off the corners. A great story with immense possibilities becomes boring and difficult to read. As an avid reader and reviewer, I see this all too often.
Great authors work to learn the craft of writing and apply writing advice gently. Their work stays with the reader long after the last line has been read.