Monday, November 17, 2008


Anyone else feeling crippled by idiom upon axiom of dubious, seemingly contradictory writing advice?

“Yes!” they said loudly.

Don’t use too many adverbs.

“Yes!” they proclaimed.

Don’t use synonyms for “said.”

“Yes!” they said in a loud manner.

Be succinct.


Show, don’t tell.

“Yes!” There was a flurry of head nodding among the group.

“To be” verbs are clunky and slow down your action.

“Yes!” They nodded vigorously.

Don’t use too many adverbs!

“Yes!” They nodded with vigor.

Don’t forget the tension in your scene.

“Yes!” While nodding with vigor, they turned to see a tyrannosaurus rex stomp into the room.

Don’t spring unbelievable plot twists on your unsuspecting audience.

Vary your sentence structure, but don’t make sentences too long. Use interesting and varied language, but don’t use words that send your reader to a dictionary. Use dialogue to improve characterization, but don’t spend time on mundane conversations. Show details, but don’t bog down the story with unnecessary information. Provide back story to make your characters three dimensional—but don’t do it in the first chapter! Talk about weather; it creates ambience. Don’t talk about weather; it’s gratuitous. Use research to add veracity, but don’t put too much into the story. Show your writing to someone, but don’t show it to someone who likes you too much to tell you the truth. Write without revising. You’re not finished until you revise. Forget about your audience; write for yourself. Never forget your audience!

“Yes!” they proclaimed vigorously in a loud manner while they were running away from the fifty-foot-tall inner editor monster that was stomping on libraries and bookstores and the futures of every writer who ever thought “maybe I could . . .”

No wonder writer’s block exists.


  1. Well, since I was changing attachments on the cat-vaccuum anyway...

    That quote from eBear up at the top of the list on the sidebar? Here it is in context, which every aspiring author should print out and laminate and, if necessary, staple to their forehead. (The whole discussion is good, but that there is the keeper.)

    Also, I've been rereading Jim Macdonald's writing advice since I dredged up the link to it, and the thing he keeps coming back to, over and over, in response to questions about this or that minuscule point of received Thou Shalt Not wisdom, is: "Rule One is that you can do anything as long as it works."

    Now, these are both fierce and opinionated writers, with lots of their own ideas about what works and what doesn't (and at one point Uncle Jim says that his mutant power is making his opinions sound like facts), but they're also first in line to say that nothing you see in any collection of writing advice should be thought of as being written in mile-high runes of fire. And I should point out that they're both working writers making their living with words, so when they say "The only rule is that it needs to work," they're not just spouting decadent anything-goes dilettantism.

    I know you know all this, but I'm all about handing anyone who needs one a bigger stick with which to beat the inner editor into submission. Partly because mine is as mouthy as hell, and knows I'm exactly the kind of person who gets hung up on The Rules, and it sure helps me to know that I have the wisdom of seasoned professionals on my side.

    Also: You have permission to write badly. First drafts are always crap. Keep going, and fix it in the rewrite. And so on.

  2. (Also, read the whole piece that the Stephen Fry quote is from.)

    (I'm going to have to do an attributions post for these one of these days, aren't I?)

  3. I have really enjoyed reading through Jim Macdonald's writing advice.

    I think the reason I get hung up on the "thou shalt not"s is not so much that I believe them or want to follow them; it's that they're insidious and squirm into my brain, then resurface at inopportune times. Like, every time I write an adverb, I have to stop and think about it. Then I feel like I have to justify it. And only THEN can I move on. There's value in doing that later, but it really slows down the writing process.

    Frankly, there's only four pieces of writing advice that I truly believe in and try consciously to follow reguarly:

    1) Read a lot.
    2) Write a lot.
    3) Be precise.
    4) Omit needless words.

  4. You do such a good job of bringing the beast to life!

    Right now I'm having a great time writing badly. Being behind on my progress and coming up on a deadline can be so liberating!