Advice has something in common with Schrödinger’s cat: until it’s examined, its status is unknown. In the case of advice, the question is if it’s any good.[*][†] On a regular basis, somewhere in my social media streams, I find the flotsam of writing advice swirling amidst other writing topics, inspirational quotes, and the obligatory cat photos. For this post, I decided to wade in and see what I could find. I trawled Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads.[‡] Then, I performed internet searches just to make sure I’d gotten a good sense of what’s available.
Much of what we’re advised about writing seems familiar after a few quotes. We should submerge ourselves in reading—read often and widely, particularly the works of celebrated authors and works beyond our own genre preferences. We need to actually write, write regularly, finish writing that piece, and submit our work for publication. It’s solid advice[§] that many repeat in their own way, so much so that it seems like an ever-expanding ripple in a pond. Here are few great variations on a theme:
If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. —Stephen King (GR)
Read all the time and keep writing. There are a million talented writers out there who are unpublished only because they stop writing when it gets hard. Don’t do that—keep writing. —Gillian Flynn
To be a successful fiction writer you have to write well, write a lot … and let ‘em know you’ve written it! Then rinse and repeat. —Gerard de Marigny (GR)
In writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration. Consequently there must be some little quality of fierceness until the habit pattern of a certain number of words is established. —John Steinbeck
Contradictions Ahead: Apply with Caution
People say to write about what you know. I’m here to tell you, no one wants to read that, cos you don’t know anything. So write about something you don’t know. And don’t be scared, ever.—Toni Morrison (GR)
The more specific writing advice gets, the more disagreements emerge. Here are four exemplary writing rules many of us have encountered at one point:
- Show, don’t tell
- Avoid adverbs and adjectives
- Write what you know
- Vary word choice
To understand the source of this discord, it’s useful to examine one so-called rule more closely: show versus tell. Mary Robinette Kowal indicates that showing “mostly applies to your character’s internal life, emotions and physical sensation,” when telling would prevent the reader from sharing in the character’s feelings and sensations. However, Susan Defreitas argues that “hot tears, a pounding pulse, and clenched fists can stand in for sadness, fear, and anger. But that…doesn’t actually show what this specific character is specifically feeling… you either have to relay the thought process giving rise to those emotions or you should have already set up some key bits of exposition.” Similarly, she observes that this advice causes writers to provide involved character backgrounds when simply stating a few choice details would have accomplished the same effect. To this list, Kowal adds uninteresting action, that is showing every move a character makes (regardless of its relevance) instead of summarizing and (again) achieving the same result. Still Defreitas’s framing this “rule” as bad advice stirs up dissent. Michael Neff states that “I’ve never seen SHOW DON’T TELL as a hard and fast rule that covers all conditions and circumstances. Obviously, one may need to ‘tell’ at such time a certain type of exposition needs to be artfully delivered and dialogue isn’t sufficient.”
Feeling swamped with conflicting messages yet?
Having delved into this topic, two things became clear. First, such advice is most often proffered toward beginner writers, something which both Neff and Defreitas acknowledge. Less experienced writers, still learning how to make their writing flow, tend toward verbosity. Second, much like all the items on this by no means exhaustive list, “show versus tell” suffers from either misapplication or strict over-adherence. It seems that the more novice writers may need a more precise understanding of the advice provided, as well as permission to view such advice as a guideline to learning how to better self-edit.
For Your Consideration: Personal Preferences, Specific Information, and Context
Yet, some writing advice resists categorization, especially when presented outside its original context. For example, several quotes by Elmore Leonard surfaced in my research, some of which other writers found objectionable.[**] When I specifically searched for his writing advice, I found an article that he wrote for the New York Times. The rules he shares are his take on how he chooses to remain invisible as a writer, something he acknowledges won’t work for all writers. And most of those rules include successful exceptions (albeit from other authors). So, it’s really about his writing aesthetics, which he offers should they prove useful to other writers, even those more visible writers.
Then there are writers whose advice seem to lack mooring without context:
When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand. —Raymond Chandler
Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college. —Kurt Vonnegut (GR)
In Chandler’s case, this isn’t so much writing advice as it was a tactic he resorted to using because of the demand for more action in pulp fiction tales. I suppose it serves more as a literary life saver than an advisable course of action. And then there’s Vonnegut’s opinion on semicolons. While his outlandish metaphor may leave one reeling, his advice reduces to a dislike of semicolons.[††] As Mignon Fogarty (Grammar Girl) reveals, his advice (when examined in context) is more hyperbole than a strict injunction: after all, Vonnegut uses semicolons in his fiction writing. Avoiding semicolons, however, is a stylistic preference (not a rule!) and, as such, can be ignored by those who love their usage. But in Vonnegut’s defense, his colorful advice for writing short stories ranges from his personal preferences, more general advice (eschewing suspense, which of course won’t work for everyone[‡‡]) to specific and rather good information on characterization (such as ensuring that characters want something, “even if it is only a glass of water”). Again, once the context is understood, the writer can decide whether the advice offered is applicable.
And the Rest Depends on the Recipient
Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong. ―Neil Gaiman (GR)
You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write. ―Saul Bellow
Much of the remaining advice that I read bridges numerous topics, such as dealing with criticism, the revision process, sources of inspiration, and lifestyle choices for writer—all of which I left unaddressed because I realized that most writing advice (even advice that doesn’t specifically address writing like lifestyle choices[§§]) depends on its recipient. And it’s with that I find my conclusion. Unless it’s outright facetious non-advice or literal nonsense, most writing advice has potential to resonate with another writer. Our understanding and application of the advice in question may be imperfect but that doesn’t diminish its value . Writing is highly personal; we won’t all find Leonard’s advice on adverbs useful or Bellow’s revision remarks explicable without its context.[***] So where does that leave us? We must think carefully and choose wisely for ourselves. And most importantly:
Don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously.—Lev Grossman (GR)
What’s your favorite writing advice? Share it in the comment section below. Also, sign up to receive the latest Sequence’s newsletter to keep current with the latest posts.
[*] Which is at least better than being dead or alive, as is the cat’s case.
[†] And that’s before we consider whether said advice is wanted or unsolicited.
[‡] Quotes obtained from Goodreads are marked (GR); all others are linked to their specific sources. The Goodreads quotation page is in my reference list.
[§] None of us would be writing without first reading. And if you want to write, sooner or later you must put words on a page.
[**] “Never open a book with weather” makes James Bells’s list of writing advice to ignore. It seems a bit unfair, since Leonard’s article addresses some of these concerns.
[††] A preference he shares with Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy also dislikes exclamation marks.
[‡‡] Notably suspense writers.
[§§] Suggestions include wrecking your life (Jerry Stahl) or not having children, which Zadie Smith admirably rebuts here.
[***] Still looking for the context for midnight writing…
Works Cited and Consulted:
“Bad Writing Advice from Famous Authors.” Flavorwire. N.p., 19 Jan. 2013. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://flavorwire.com/364797/bad-writing-advice-from-famous-authors
Bell, James Scott. “5 Pieces of Writing Advice You Should Ignore.” Jane Friedman. N.p., 07 Aug. 2016. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. https://janefriedman.com/writing-advice-to-ignore/
Charney, Noah. “Gillian Flynn: How I Write.” The Daily Beast. The Daily Beast Company, 21 Nov. 2012. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/11/21/gillian-flynn-how-i-write.html
Defreitas, Susan. “The Ten Worst Pieces of Writing Advice You Will Ever Hear (and Probably Already Have).” LitReactor. N.p., n.d. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. https://litreactor.com/columns/the-ten-worst-pieces-of-writing-advice-you-will-ever-hear-and-probably-already-have
Forgarty, Mignon. “Vonnegut’s Famous Semicolon Advice Was Taken Out of Context.” Quick and Dirty Tips. N.p., 08 Aug. 2016. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/vonneguts-famous-semicolon-advice-was-taken-out-of-context?page=1
Flood, Alison. “Cormac McCarthy’s parallel career revealed – as a scientific copy editor!” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 21 Feb. 2012. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/feb/21/cormac-mccarthy-scientific-copy-editor
Furness, Hannah. “Motherhood is no threat to creativity, author Zadie Smith says.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 12 June 2013. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/10116709/Motherhood-is-no-threat-to-creativity-author-Zadie-Smith-says.html
Kowal, Mary Robinette. “Bad Writing Advice explained.” Mary Robinette Kowal. N.p., 31 Oct. 2014. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://maryrobinettekowal.com/journal/bad-writing-advice-explained/
“Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How to Write a Good Short Story.” Open Culture. N.p., n.d. N.p. 10 Apr. 2015. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://www.openculture.com/2015/04/kurt-vonneguts-8-tips-on-how-to-write-a-good-short-story.html.
Leonard, Elmore. “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 15 July 2001. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/16/arts/writers-writing-easy-adverbs-exclamation-points-especially-hooptedoodle.html
Neff, Michael. “Top Ten Worst Pieces of Writing Advice.” Algonkian. N.p., n.d. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://algonkianconferences.com/TopTenWorstWritingAdvice.htm
Popova, Maria. “9 Books on Reading and Writing.” Brain Pickings. N.p., 17 Sept. 2015. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/01/09/best-books-on-writing-reading/
Popova, Maria. “How Steinbeck Used the Diary as a Tool of Discipline, a Hedge Against Self-Doubt, and a Pacemaker for the Heartbeat of Creative Work.” Brain Pickings. N.p., 12 Aug. 2016. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/03/02/john-steinbeck-working-days/
“Quotes About Writing Advice (676 quotes).” N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2017. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/writing-advice
Shepherd, Jack. “30 Indispensable Writing Tips From Famous Authors.” Buzzfeed. N.p. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. https://www.buzzfeed.com/expresident/writing-advice-from-famous-authors?utm_term=.htxAJxWMY#.arXJkAVmw
“When in Doubt, Come When in Doubt Have a Man Come Through a Door with a Gun in His Hand.” Quote Investigator. N.p., n.d. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/03/31/gun-hand/