Writing Anti-Advice: where to get writing advice and how not to take it

Some writing advice is not for you, and some should be ignored completely

If you have just started writing fiction, then you’ll likely fall into one of two groups:

  1. People who don’t take advice and just start writing
  2. People who read up on something for a long time before beginning
  3. People who don’t readily please dichotomies

In either case, sooner or later, you’re going to encounter advice.  I tend to fall into Group 3, where I start doing something and read a hell of a lot about it at the same time (well, at different times during the day).  What you’ll find in fiction writing is that there are a lot of rules, most of which have to do with style.  Style is the words you use and how they are laid out in sentences, paragraphs, and so on, instead of what you are talking about, which is content.  Most of the advice you’re going to find is rules about style, and they usually go something like this:

  1. Never use “then,” “that” or “very”
  2. Never use adverbs
  3. Don’t use passive voice
  4. Use Oxford commas
  5. Show, don’t tell

There are a lot of them, and people repeat them like the Ten Commandments.  There’s also a lot of inspirational advice, meant to get you going, and prove that you can do it, you can write a novel!  You’re a good person after all!  It was the inspirational advice that got me writing total nonsense on Twitter with the hashtag “#writingtips.”

Most writing advice is about style, which is easy to teach

Stylistic advice is not wrong, and much of it comes from credible sources like Stephen King, but I noticed that after I started breaking these rules my writing was improved very hugely.  Except for that sentence and the next one.  Then I noticed that the most important thing about writing was not style but content.  If you follow those rules closely, your writing will be terrible.  This morning I read September Fawkes’s blog, where she discusses when to break these rules, and I thought it was time to give my own anti-advice.

Consider the audience

The first thing to consider when reading writing advice is to consider the audience: the audience for most writing advice you’ll find in bookstores and libraries is for people who have never written anything, except maybe in the second grade.  Most heavily stylistic writing advice is for people who don’t regularly put sentences together.  If you’re like me and you compulsively put sentences together, you’re going to have figured out a few things about style.

Replace “never” with “don’t overdo it”

The rules about adjectives, adverbs, and intensifiers (like “very”) for instance, are for cases where you might overuse them.  Some people put an adverb at the end of every sentence, and that interrupts flow and gets repetitive.  You’d notice it if you read it out loud.  I suggest you have a few kids and read a few book series with them.  You’ll notice the author’s stylistic tics.  I know J.K. Rowling and Rick Riordan’s stylistic problems and eccentricities, and you’ll notice your own when you read your work out loud.

Read a dictatorial book on style, then read a good book and see how much those rules are worth

Simply reading the advice and then reading a really good book will show you how valid these rules are. I read On Writing and then read The Gunslinger and the rules are thoroughly broken all over the place, but the writing is still great. Mr. King might disagree with me about that, but what’s important is that the story is still there, and is not obscured by his use of adverbs.

Study content, not style

Actually you can learn how to tell a story

Orson Scott Card points this out in several places.  Most advice deals entirely with style, and very little with content.  What’s actually hard, so hard that some people say it can’t be taught, is how to tell a story, or rather how to structure a story.  You can absolutely learn how to tell a story by studying great stories, starting small and formulaic, and trying to do it yourself.  Tell stories to your kids or your friends.  Note their reactions.  Study Shakespeare, fairy tales, classic literature and epic poems, and your favorite authors, outline a story, and write one.  Focus on the content, and fix the style later.  My experience is that if you focus on the story you’re telling and not how many adverbs you use, you’ll know exactly what to write.  Having a good plot laid out may even fix whatever stylistic problems you think you had.

Consider the advisor

Get your advice from authors you trust

The last thing is that this is the age of the internet, and writing advice is multiplying like crazy, just like advice for everything else.  You have way more information at your fingertips than you’d have in the age of microfilm, and you had to go to a library for that.  People who are not at all credible are giving writing advice all the time on the internet: the only barrier to entry is knowing how to use a computer.  Some people are good teachers and haven’t published a book, but I would rather get my advice from John Gardner, Orson Scott Card, Stephen King, and Brandon Sanderson, than from somebody who’s good at making Youtube videos but hasn’t published a book.  You’ll notice that with the exception of King, those authors tend to focus on content, not style.  And for actual information, as opposed to just inspiration, I suggest Writer’s Digest and Writer’s Digest Books.  They are consistently more informative than books from other sources, and other magazines.

My favorite books

The best books focus on content, not style.  Some of these are not strictly writing books, but are still really good at getting at the structure of a good story.

  • Williams, Joseph.  Style: The basics of clarity and grace.  The antidote to Strunk and White.
  • Egri, Lajos.  The Art of Dramatic WritingA classic playwright’s guide.
  • Knight, Damon.  Creating Short Fiction.  The classic guide to writing short stories.
  • Gardner, John.  The Art of Fiction.  The author of Grendel and one of the great critics of New Fiction lays out the important parts of telling a story, and the different forms it can take.
  • Hills, Rust.  Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular.  I particularly like his treatment of how to create suspense.
  • Card, Orson Scott.  Writing Science Fiction and FantasyA guide to specific genres and how to handle their content, exposition, and culture.  I once dismissed this book with “what is it going to teach me that I can’t get from a general book on writing?”  I was wrong.
  • Gerke, Jeff.
    • Plot versus CharacterHow to make a good plot with fully-developed characters.
    • The First Fifty PagesHow to introduce your characters and the world they live in.
  • Campbell, Joseph.  The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  I was reading this, havin’ a cup of coffee, minding my own business when a guy walked up and said “Hey, are you a writer?  Me, too.”  That should tell you how important this book is.
  • Jung, C.G. et al.  Man and His Symbols.  The classic work on the psychology developed Carl Jung, this book is like a decoder for the symbolism inherent in myth.  A good companion to Joseph Campbell’s work.
  • Shakespeare, Bill.  The Complete Works of Shakespeare.  Duh.  Even the worst of the plays are masterpieces.  Notice how often Shakespeare got his story ideas from other sources, but he told them in a unique way with characters that he developed.

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