Writing Advice, Debunked: by Kit Alloway
Writers are always getting – and giving – advice. Some of it’s useful, some of it isn’t, and some of it’s downright weird. I had a cousin who advised me to “sell out as quickly as possible.” He was not a writer.
But some of the advice we hear most often isn’t as simple as it appears on the surface. Let’s examine a few of the most common.
1: “Don’t use adverbs.”Whenever someone tells me to avoid using an entire part of speech, I’m suspicious. After reading this in Stephen King’s On Writing, I spent a long time examining the adverbs I used and trying to figure out if I was doing something wrong, and I eventually identified two issues.
The first issue is overuse. Many writers try to increase the intensity of their writing by tossing an adverb in along every verb. It’s not necessary, and it will clutter up your sentences.
The second issue with adverbs is redundancy. Here’s my favorite example: “She whispered softly.” Could we not figure out that this character was speaking softly by the mere fact that she was whispering? Isn’t the lack of volume the defining characteristic of whispering? There’s no reason to use “softly” here. The same problem occurs with “He ran quickly,” or “I shouted loudly.”
That said, adverbs can play an important part when they provide unexpected or contradictory information. We assume that a whisper is soft, but what if it’s an angry whisper? In “She whispered angrily,” the word “angrily” gives us information we wouldn’t otherwise have assumed. The same goes for “He ran lazily” or “I shouted bitterly.”
In short, use adverbs! But don’t use a million of them, and try to use them in places where they give us new information instead of reaffirming an assumption.
2: “Write what you know.”On the surface, this seems like obvious, logical advice. It’s easier to write about something you know about, and you’re more likely to have authentic insight into something you’ve experienced. BUT…Where’s the fun in that?
I have two major problems with this piece of advice. One is that it’s very limiting. Life is only so long, and we have each only experienced so many things. The majority of them are things everyone else has experienced, too. If everyone followed this advice, the publishing industry would be putting out little besides stories about getting a basic education and working a boring job for little money. But we read because we want to experience things we’ve never done, to be someone else, or to see familiar things in a new way. Which is not to say that stories about blue collar jobs can’t be amazing (Moby Dick) or stories about going to school can’t be wonderful (Harry Potter), only that we can’t limit ourselves solely to things we’ve experienced, particularly in this day and age when it’s so easy to research things we’ve never done.
I think the intention of this advice is to encourage us to bring authenticity to our writing. Nothing is more powerful than authentic emotion. But our characters can have – and inspire – those kinds of emotions while doing things their author has never done.
3: “A real writer writes every day.”Well, maybe.
There are advantages to writing every day. Many of us are more productive if we stick to a regular writing schedule, and obviously the more often we sit down to write, the more we’re likely to get down on paper.
But for me – and many, many others – writing every day isn’t practical. Jobs, families, hobbies, and the unexpected all get in the way. In my case, the number one thing that stops me from writing every day is my health. I have fifteen to twenty migraines a month. Sometimes I manage to write in spite of the pain (I’m doing so now), but during most attacks, I’m in bed with a sleep mask on. Does this somehow make me less of a writer? No. What it makes me is adaptable. I’ve learned to sneak in an hour or two wherever I can, and on the rare day when I feel great, it’s not uncommon for me to write for ten or twelve hours straight.
Moreover, this advice ignores the fact that everyone works best differently. We each have to find what works for us. I need noise-cancelling headphones and music to block out distractions. My boyfriend, however, prefers to work in busy coffee shops. I like to sit on a comfy couch or recliner; Hemmingway wrote standing. Many of the teenage writers I work with prefer to write on their phones, something I can’t fathom doing. As long as you’re getting the words down, you’re doing it right. If writing every day helps you do that, great. If not, don’t sweat it.
4: “Kill your darlings.”The logic behind this piece of advice seems to stem from the idea that “your darlings” don’t fit into the rest of your writing. The “darlings” are lines or passages that stick out, either because they’re self-indulgent, unnecessary, or simply better than the rest of a piece.
It’s true that sometimes, as creators, we want to hold onto what we’ve created, even if our creations don’t function well within a piece. It’s true that we must be merciless editors. But the way this advice is phrased, the peculiar use of the word “darlings,” seems to suggest that there’s something wrong or misguided in the passages we love, simply because we love them so much. Like much writing advice, there’s a subtle masochism here, a suggestion that writers and the act of writing must be tortured, that truly great work can only arise from a butchering of the soul.
Well, forget that. Try to be objective while editing. Think about whether or not each part of your story, each scene, each line, functions as part of the whole. But don’t cut things you love just because you think that suffering is necessary to the creative process. It isn’t. And don’t assume that because one line is better than the others, it somehow sticks out too much and needs to go. Gogel’s “The Overcoat” contains one sentence that runs 282 words and is so astonishing in its scope, insight, and readability that it towers above the rest of what many think is the finest short story ever written. It would have been a tragedy to cut that sentence because it stuck out too much.
5: “Show, don’t tell.”Of all the writing advice I’ve been given, this is the piece I hear the most often. It’s also the piece I ignore most often.
What does it mean to show? When people say to show instead of tell, usually what they’re trying to say is that a writer has described instead of demonstrating. For example, writing, “Alan had a roving eye,” isn’t nearly as effective as including a scene in which Alan ogles a waitress in front of his wife. Obviously the latter is going to cause a much stronger emotional reaction in the reader.
Where I take issue with this advice is in it universality. Is Alan a main character? Because if not, we probably don’t need to spend half a page describing him and his obsession with the waitress. Depending on what his function in a story is, it might make the most sense to say that Alan is a horny fellow and leave it at that. One of the mistakes I made in my early writing was over-developing side characters. By “side,” I don’t mean supporting. I mean servers, cashiers, delivery people, and anyone else my characters bumped into.
Let’s go back to Alan. Maybe he is a main character, and maybe he and his friend Bill, the narrator, are having lunch with Alan’s wife, Sue. Since Alan is a major supporting character, it’s a good choice to show him acting on his roving eye instead of just saying, “He wanted to look at everything in a skirt.” So maybe we write, “I nudged Alan, who was staring at our buxom waitress.” Showing instead of telling works for Alan. But what about the waitress? If this is the only sentence in which the waitress is going to be mentioned it doesn’t make any sense to waste an entire paragraph with, “I nudged Alan, who was staring at our waitress. Her brunette hair swung behind her head in a perfectly spiraled pony tail, drawing attention to her long neck . . .” A one-word descriptor will suffice for our waitress.
This advice breaks down when it comes to pacing a story, too. Do we want to describe time passing between scenes? We can write twenty pages about a character getting ready for a big date – cleaning his car, showering, shaving, dressing, driving – or we can write, “I rang Kelly’s doorbell at seven o’clock on the dot.” Editors love to cut unnecessary scenes.
Ultimately, the only good advice is the advice that works for you, the advice that helps you through a tough scene or inspires you to return to work. It’s a good idea to know the rules—but only so you can break them.
ABOUT THE BOOKDreamfever by Kit Alloway
Finding out that she is the True Dream Walker hasn't gone at all the Joshlyn Weaver would have expected it to. The only special gift she seems to have is an ability to create archways, which really isn't that special. In addition to her inability to connect with the Dream, she has also started having nightmares that are so terrible she can't tell anyone about them. Not even Will.
Just when Josh thought her life couldn't get any more complicated, the lost dream walker princess returns to claim her parents' right to the throne, right as the Lodestone party threatens to take control of the government during the upcoming Accordance Conclave.
With the clock running down, Josh must rely on not only her friends, but also her enemies, to stop the radicals from taking power and controlling the Dream. But how can she expect to save everyone else when she's struggling to pick up the pieces of her own shattered life?
Purchase Dreamfever at Amazon
Purchase Dreamfever at IndieBound
View Dreamfever on Goodreads
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Website | Twitter | Goodreads