Writing Tips Are Just Suggestions

There’s a lot of very rigid writing advice out there: never do this, always do that. And there’s a lot of receivers of advice who take points too literally, like those who listen to criticism of purple prose and think they’re being told that description is bad, full-stop. And there’s a lot of people who ask questions starting, ‘Am I allowed to?’ or ‘Is it okay if?’ as though they’re glancing around a dark alley for cops ready to pounce on writers who do the wrong thing.

Unnecessary adverb! Ten years in writing gulag, bucko!

Whenever you read advice, mentally insert a ‘this is what works for them/that context/that genre/often but not universally’ disclaimer.

The first times I tried to write a novel, I got stuck around 9000 words. A big part of why was that I’d tried to plan in detail, as many sources tell you to do. It held me back from letting the characters follow their own internal logic – they were too bland, too deterministic. Eventually I didn’t know how to drag them from one chapter to another, and the whole thing derailed.

It wasn’t until later, when I read Stephen King’s On Writing, that I really realised plotters vs. pantsers or Gardeners vs. Architects was a thing. I adjusted my approach, and it worked.

But this doesn’t mean that plotters are wrong! And I don’t agree with everything said in On Writing either, not because I know better than Stephen King, but simply because I am not him. He may find that ‘2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%’, and you may too, but I don’t, and that’s fine.

There are no ironclad rules – only general principles, guidelines, and suggestions. You’re allowed to try anything. Understanding why things are generally done a certain way will make the times you choose to ignore or subvert them more likely to be successful, but what you do with your own laptop, pen, charcoal stick, or quill dipped in centaur blood is entirely up to you.

You’re allowed to tell things rather than show them, use exposition, use dialogue attributions other than ‘said’, take days off, use adverbs and prologues, include dream sequences, describe narrators when they look in the mirror, and anything else you can think of. Just use your judgment.

But wait, I thought that show-don’t-tell-

The reason these rules exist isn’t because they’re universal constants. It’s because they’re often helpful, and because they counteract some common bad habits.

Show-don’t-tell is a very useful guideline, as are the ones about not being too expository, not making every dialogue attribution a different crazy verb to inject fake drama where well-written dialogue with an unobtrusive ‘said’ works better, and the one about adverbs not being used where a more specific verb or subtext could be used instead.

But there is also a place for anything anyone will tell you to avoid. That place is where the venn diagrams ‘I wanna do this’ and ‘that worked’ overlap. If a trope or technique is cringy 99% of the time, that means it sometimes isn’t.

If you try it and it doesn’t work, you will not be arrested.

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8 thoughts on “Writing Tips Are Just Suggestions

  1. Oddly, I’m right in the middle of exactly all of this. Learning the rules — so I can break them. The latest is posted here: https://anonymole.com/2018/09/01/writers-log-1846/
    (I’m a schizophrenic blogger)

    Sometimes, the craft seems so deep and broad that thinking one can learn enough to feel as if one has achieved an author’s sense of success — is beyond me. Learn all of THIS? And have to create quality story on top of it all? Sheesh.

    Liked by 2 people

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