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Writing Advice—Listen or Ignore?

March 18, 2015 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified April 8, 2015

2015 Writing Advice Series

Listen or Ignore (Part 1)

Weighing the Advice (Part 2)

Behind the Advice (Part 3)

What About -ing Words (Part 4)

Related Articles

Smiling or Laughing Dialogue

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A reader at the blog recently asked how I would respond to a writer who wasn’t keen on listening to advice regarding a major problem in a manuscript. While I promised to address that issue in an article, I got distracted by doing an Internet search of writers and advice.

I have to admit that I was very much bothered by one blog post in particular, one post that unequivocally encouraged writers to ignore writing advice, to eschew learning the rules of the craft, and to simply write because that was all that was necessary.

While I’d argue that you could get something of merit out of almost all advice, I couldn’t see anything useful in that article. Certainly nothing productive. And I actually found it damaging. What was more disheartening were the comments that wholeheartedly agreed with the recommendation to not learn the ins and outs of the craft and to ignore writing advice.

And we’re talking not only grammar but the fiction elements as well.

Yet how can a writer expect to write without learning how to write? Experience is a teacher, true. But experience isn’t the only teacher. And experience isn’t always the right teacher for a particular lesson.

If the recommendations had been qualified in some way, maybe suggesting that writers write a first draft without worrying overmuch about rules, I could understand and agree with such counsel. Writers definitely shouldn’t be creating an early draft with an editor sitting on one shoulder, slowing them down and telling them not to use certain words, maybe even suggesting that an early draft must be perfect

But that wasn’t the thrust of the article. The advice—the very forceful advice—was to ignore advice from others because only the writer knew what was good or bad about his stories—no one else could judge the merits of his work. Readers of the blog post were encouraged to not bother to learn but to only feel as they wrote and to be guided by their feelings regarding their writing projects.

I’m sorry, but that’s garbage.

Yes, fiction is art, and writers need to be creative. They need to do their own thing and push boundaries. But writing fiction also requires skills. And skills can be both learned and taught.

In what other field would anyone advise others not to learn their job? We wouldn’t tell a surgeon not to learn anatomy and how tissue and organs react when someone slices into them. We wouldn’t tell doctors not to learn about bleeding, and those with knowledge and experience would certainly teach med students that patients could die from blood loss, so they must follow protocols and procedures.

Doctors learn about infection, they learn how body parts are connected, they learn about disease and injury and the ways the body can recover.

Doctors learn how all the systems of the body work together and how a change, even a minor change, to one system can affect each of the other systems and affect them each in different ways and to different degrees.

The same is true in fiction writing.

The elements are connected, and a change in one can cause changes in every other element. The writer who doesn’t know this is not only at a disadvantage, but he can end up creating chaos with a simple change, the effects of which could have been anticipated or known if he only knew something about how the elements were linked.

Such knowledge is readily available through books and articles, through classroom instruction, and through writing advice, rules, and techniques passed from one writer to the next.

Truck drivers learn the rules of the road and they learn how to handle their vehicles. Yet even if drivers have driven cars for years, they likely know little about driving a truck. Driving a truck requires different skills and knowledge. Anyone who thinks a loaded 18-wheeler can stop as quickly as a small car has no business being behind the wheel of that 18-wheeler. A driver new to trucks wouldn’t even know how to park a big rig. A new driver might not even be able to put a truck in gear.

I can see the rationale for encouraging an artist to be free to explore his art, but there’s no reason to tell him not to learn, not to get the best education he can. And there’s no reason for any artist to learn from scratch what others before him have learned and have willingly passed on. If there was no way to learn what others before us had already learned, with individuals gaining no knowledge beyond that which we learn through our own experiences, the arts would surely suffer. Each artist or writer would make the same mistakes others had been making for thousands of years. But we don’t have to ignore what others have already learned—the knowledge is there for using. And developing. And expanding on.

There’s nothing wrong with building on the foundations of those who came before.

Every art, every discipline, has a body of knowledge. And that knowledge is marvelous.

Musicians don’t have to devise new notes in order to come up with new songs. They learn to play and sing the same notes every other musician knows and still they’re able to use those to create their own music.

Painters learn techniques that have been proven. Even if a painter devises a new style, he still learns how to portray light in his paintings. He learns how different brushes and different brush strokes and different paints produce a variety of effects. He learns tricks for creating effects using different media.

And he learns this not only through trial and error, but through the knowledge and advice of others. Knowledge gleaned by others and passed to new artists can help them learn much faster than if they had to learn every bit of knowledge through their own experience.

The artist learns how to use his tools and then creates something new with them. He certainly doesn’t ignore what others have learned, both the positive and negative lessons—he learns both what works and what doesn’t. He learns why some options work and some don’t. Ignoring this knowledge would be foolish. Ignoring the depth and breadth of knowledge, acting as if such knowledge doesn’t exist, is unreasonable.

 

Judging Our Own Work

And I have to disagree that the writer is the best judge of her work. That’s simply not true for every writer.

The knowledgeable and experienced writer? Yes, she knows her strengths. But she still has weaknesses. And it’s likely she’s blind to those weaknesses. That outside eye is always helpful to point out weaknesses and even make suggestions to overcome such weaknesses.

A writer who doesn’t know his craft definitely isn’t the best judge of his work. A writer who doesn’t know how to write effective dialogue or doesn’t know there’s such a thing as ineffective dialogue  isn’t going to write effective dialogue. A writer who doesn’t know correct grammar or doesn’t care about it isn’t going to be able to communicate effectively with readers. A writer who doesn’t  know how cliches and repetition can dull a passage won’t bother to cut either from his stories.

The writer who doesn’t know how to include subtext, who doesn’t know what it is, won’t weave it into his dialogue. The writer who doesn’t see colors won’t include them in his descriptions. The writer who doesn’t know the importance of scenes is likely to include much more narrative summary and fewer scenes than is good for a story.

The writer who doesn’t understand the elements of genre isn’t likely to highlight or even include those elements in his story and will therefore write a story that doesn’t satisfy the genre’s lovers.

And these are just a few of a story’s elements. Can you imagine what kind of story is produced by the writer who doesn’t know the elements that are necessary for a successful story in a particular genre? Who doesn’t know how to manipulate those elements? Who doesn’t know how to rewrite to highlight the elements that will bring life to his story? Who was told that the rules for grammar and plot, character and dialogue didn’t matter?

The elements of fiction do matter. As do the rules for writing stories that readers can both follow and appreciate.

 

Exception

If we’re talking about someone simply wanting to give writing a go for the fun of it, for a challenge, then that individual doesn’t necessarily need to embark on a course of study in the writing arts. But how will the hobbyist even know what he can accomplish if he doesn’t learn anything about his tools and materials? If he doesn’t know which tools are available to him, he won’t use them. And if he doesn’t make use of the variety of tools, he won’t ever write a story that’s as full and rich as it could be.

Thus even those writing for fun and challenge would benefit from knowledge and advice.

And an individual who wants to be a writer, who actually wants to do it well, owes it to himself to learn the craft and to learn to use his tools.

As a carpenter uses a hammer for some tasks, a saw for others, and a drill for still others, so writers have different tools for different jobs. Tools have purposes, and if a writer doesn’t know the purposes of his tools and doesn’t have experience using those tools, what he creates won’t resemble a solid piece of fiction. Just imagine the carpenter using a saw for every task—what he builds won’t be put together as solidly as the construction put together using the proper tools for each job.

If you don’t learn rules and techniques, all the feelings in the world will get you nowhere. If you don’t know techniques for expressing feelings, if you don’t know which fiction elements can affect emotions in both character and reader, which writing techniques are best for displaying emotions, any attempts to express emotions or create them in the reader will be hit or miss at best.

A writer who feels as he creates or as he reads his own work is no guarantee that any other reader will also be overcome with emotion. There are techniques for creating emotions in the reader, and the writer experiencing emotions as he writes is not one of them.

 

Word of Caution

I’m fairly sure that most readers of The Editor’s Blog aren’t looking for advice that says you don’t need to learn how to write to actually write, but I will share this word of caution—be careful about the writing advice you listen to. Look for clarification if you need more information when someone shares advice or tips. Look also for verification from multiple sources. I’m not saying that multiple sources can’t all be mistaken, but if several sources promote the same advice, it’s likely that they, and you, are on to something.

__________________________

Do write creatively—yes, give us something new and different. But give it to us in ways that we can appreciate and understand. Write in a manner that allows us to follow your characters as they explore their worlds. Don’t stop us at the borders of your books because you refused to ask for advice on how to lure readers into a story, because you didn’t follow recommendations on how to hook readers.

And once we’re inside your story world, give us something to hold our attention. Captivate us with word choices and with plot and characters who entice. And then satisfy us by giving your story the ending it deserves.

Get yourself an education in both writing and fiction—then get yourself some experience in both—and use what you learn to write engaging and memorable stories.

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Afterthought—

My intention with this article isn’t to shame someone for their advice. But such harmful advice shouldn’t be encouraged or ignored, not when people actually think it’s helpful or worth following.

When you leave The Editor’s Blog, I want you to be encouraged and armed with knowledge. I want you to be ready to face your writing and editing with every tool and skill you need to master the task.

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35 Responses to “Writing Advice—Listen or Ignore?”

  1. Funniest thing about this is hat telling people not o listen to advice ”is” advice! Paradoxical indeed. Though I think one can learn something even from bad advice. It’s important to look at what you’re being told, think on it and decide for yourself it’s merits. You can’t just blindly do what ever you’re told to. So even bad advice like this has some place in the world.

    • Cillian, I was originally going to include dichotomy in my title for this article, when I’d been going to accentuate the need to both seek but also be wary of advice.

      And you’re right, there’s often a gem or two in even poor advice. But when the main thrust of advice is so far off, I hate to see writers caught up in it.

      • I think the gem in this advice is the fact that it’s self defeating and is a perfect example of something hat should be ignored! I reckon people who are a big enough egotist to not listen to advice (and by extension, criticism) will quickly find things not going their way.

  2. MK says:

    Outstanding advice! I see this often in young writers. They are so eager to write and so infatuated with their own words that they bristle at the suggestion that it might be improved. The saddest part — for me at least — is that learning, honing my craft, and discovering new techniques is intensely interesting, and they are missing that part of the journey. Impatience and writing are not good partners. Your analogies are spot on. How to get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. Mastering the art of writing requires the same.
    Now a question: In this regard, do you think the opportunity to self-publish is a temptation too great for many writers who aren’t “ready for prime time,” so to speak?

    • MK, learning the craft and improving are wonderful endeavors on their own and can be memorable milestones. They are definitely part of the fun stuff writers get to enjoy. I love that aha moment—ah, that’s how you create that effect.

      The ability to self-publish is the proverbial double-edged sword. It’s a marvelous opportunity to get works out to the public that might never be seen. It’s a way to test the waters even, to see how a particular style or story might be received. But it can be embarrassing for the writer who releases a novel before its time, before it or the writer is ready.

      One obvious drawback of self-publishing is that some writers—perhaps many—not only skip having a publisher, they also skip the duties that publishers and agents have long performed. But books still need rewriting and editing and promoting. Some need a different focus. And some manuscripts need to locked away, never to be seen again.

      Publishers and their editors have long been derided as gatekeepers that block worthy writers and their stories from being published. They’re accused of not wanting change and innovation and the experimental. But while self-publishing allows books of differing qualities and styles to reach the public, that means that poorly written ones are available alongside great fiction and the reader often has no means to know what he might get when he purchases a book. No one wants to buy a book only to discover it’s actually a first draft and in no condition to be on a bookshelf, even if it’s a virtual bookshelf.

      Yes, a reader can read reviews. But we all know how reviews can be—are—slanted to either unfairly praise or denigrate a novel or the author.

      When books are published by a well-known publisher, readers expect them all to be of a certain quality in terms of the mechanics. Readers also often read by genre and they expect their genre novels to meet genre requirements. But a writer who self-publishes doesn’t necessarily meet either quality or genre requirements.

      This is a great issue to explore—we could probably debate about the pros and cons of self-publishing forever. And I admit I love the opportunity writers have to self-publish. At the same time, I wish I could encourage each writer that self-publishes to ensure that they also take on every task formerly done by agents and publishers, not only the one of putting a novel in front of the public.

  3. I agree. Writing advice must be viewed with the same critical eye as the rules of writing. The first step is to understand what is actually meant. Then decide if it applies in the case in questions. Lastly, decide if you believe it is valid for this case and whether or not is ought to be heeded.

    As for those who believe no one knows better than they do – they are narcissists who react the same way to other feedback they receive, too.

    • Yvonne, you nailed it with the word critically. We do need to read advice critically. Read it with enthusiasm too, especially if it moves us to try something new. But take the time to understand what is being said and suggested. And yes, test to see if the advice is for all situations and circumstances or only something in particular.

      We’ve all seen writers who’ve run with the advice to show but not tell, to never use the word that, to never write passive sentences. But such advice isn’t meant for every circumstance. We need to both show and tell; the word that has legitimate uses; and a passive construction is sometimes exactly what’s needed.

      Great points succinctly made.

  4. Discernment seems to be key in looking at whatever kind of advice we find, particularly if we’re searching for help. Just like looking at a tray filled with gems, we may see that some are totally worthless while others are priceless.

    However, to say that any writer should not pay attention to the craft of his or her particular genre is ludicrous. How would a writer know what he is creating/writing if he doesn’t know what its characteristics are?

  5. Barb says:

    Sometimes I wonder why writers (who argue with every suggestion) bother with beta readers or critique groups if they aren’t really seeking input or want to know “how the words are being interpreted..” I’ve come to the conclusion that some people are only seeking applause.
    And perhaps that’s why they don’t want to take classes, workshops, or do exercises. Those skill-developing events are hard and not based on “praise-only” comments. I think learning the craft makes me even more aware of all the things I didn’t know that I didn’t know.

    • Learning the craft is so very important. As you said, Barb, we learn things we didn’t even know we didn’t know. And that’s true in every field—there’s always more we didn’t know about. Lifelong learning is an adventure in itself.

      Learning to write and learning to write fiction go well beyond what most of us learned in school. While there are exceptions, I’m certain that most of us learned little about the fiction elements and how to put together a piece of long fiction. How many of us learned to write more than essays, reports, and short stories? Yet for writers, there’s no reason not to give yourself an education, especially when so much information is freely available.

      While some writers might be looking for the applause, I’m guessing that many more simply don’t know that there’s more to writing than what they already know. Anyone who got the reputation as a good writer in high school probably had little reason to go deeper into the mechanics and rules. And other than those who studied fiction in college or post-college programs, how many of those writing their first novels know what’s necessary for scenes, how to write dialogue, or even how to plot a novel?

      Most high school students learn something about protagonists and theme, but much of the core of the craft is passed over. And students may learn to read fiction, to analyze it, but how often, in how many school districts, are they actually taught to write long fiction?

      Thanks for the insights and discussion prompts. These topics could feature in articles of their own.

  6. Deborah says:

    Another great post. I’m reminded of my childhood opinion of abstract art; that anyone could do it. When I learned something about technique and artist merit, I could see the quality of good abstract art. Someone had to be first to invent new artistic schools or we’d still be seeing only romantic and classicist paintings. But, those artists who made the leap, who broke the rules, first learned their craft and then stretched it.

    • Deborah, I agree that knowledge of craft enables us to be so much better at creating than if we relied on creativity alone. We need both sides, the freedom and the rules, the constraints and the limitless possibilities.

      I might have to go back and check out some abstract art, however. I admit that while I know there’s skill involved, I still sometimes think that some of it looks like the work of children at play. And that may be the point the artist was trying to make, showing the simplicity and joy of a child through the painting.

  7. Kazy Reed says:

    This is very fitting for me. When I started writing with the intent to be published, I figured, I’m just going to write for me. I don’t have to follow rules or learn anything new. I’m just writing to create an entertaining story. Then, when a friend helped me go over a manuscript to submit to publishers, she pointed out several ways that I could improve my work, tighten it up and really make it shine. Turns out I had a lot to learn, and it definitely made me a better writer.

    • Kazy, I think many writers go through the same experience. As soon as we see the difference between the before and the after—what we produced before we learned technique and what we’re capable of after some training—we know we could never go backwards. A little bit of learning goes a long, long way. And when we see what we’ve learned in action, that reminds us that there’s always more.

      I love this art/craft/field of study. Creating fictional worlds and the characters who inhabit them, polishing the stories, and sharing knowledge about writing and editing has got to be the best job in the world.

  8. Haydee says:

    Let’s face it, not many people like to receive critique. I, myself, have been guilty of getting defensive on a few occasions. However, unless you are a prodigious writer, I’d suggest you get feedback on your work. Receiving critique has made me grow as a writer and as a person. I’ve been writing for over 20 years, but it wasn’t until 12 years ago that I mustered the courage to join a writers group. I loved writing stories and felt I had a knack for it, but I knew there was something amiss.
    When I first read one of my short stories in my writer’s group, I got nothing but praise. I felt encouraged. Life was sweet. The second story I read was also praised, I was on cloud 9. Two stories in a row….Wow, Was I or wasn’t I da bomb? But then a lady said, “there are too many adverbs”. Some people jumped to my defense, claiming it was perfect as it was. “Don’t change a thing,” they said. When I got home that night, the adverb comment kept bothering me. I re-read the story and could now see all those adverbs glaring at me. The lady had been right. But where did that leave me? I didn’t know how to write without adverbs. I decided to do research. However, finding a simple solution wasn’t as easy as I first thought. Some books suggested replacing the adverbs with a strong verbs, but that didn’t always work. There was a lot more I needed to learn. I began to do research on line; read lots of books on writing; join online groups and other face-to-face groups; I attended workshops, and writers’s festivals; I did a writing course… My writing is better now, but I am in no way perfect. I still need other people’s feedback. I’m very choosy about the feedback I get, though. I do know my writing and I know what’s best for me. I don’t take the advice if I don’t feel it’s suitable for my story/writing, regardless of how prolific or knowledgeable a person giving me the advice is. By the same token, I don’t dismiss advice just because it comes from a newbie or a person with little craft knowledge. I have learned a lot from all sorts of people. Just yesterday, I asked my 13-year-old to give me feedback on an excerpt. She suggested I take out an extraneous sentence and I did it and the part reads better.

    • Haydee, you’re right that we can learn from almost anyone. And not just those who can teach us about “writing” issues. Science facts help the sci-fi writer, motivational theories from psychology can help all writers, and almost any topic can be useful for editors—you never know what you might need as you write and edit.

      And I agree that solutions are not always simple or easy. But they’re usually out there somewhere.

  9. SteveLowe says:

    Well… there’s advice, and there’s advice. Having experimented with several editorial consultants, I’ve found all of their advice wanting to a greater or lesser extent, and wouldn’t consider working with any of them in future. The problem is, the so-called modern ‘rules’ of creative writing can not only feel (and read) counter-intuitive, but some of them actively contradict each other. An example would be the one cited above, about cutting adverbs.

    One consultant advised me that it’s better to use a stronger verb than an adverb. Fair enough, I can see an argument for that (though, as already mentioned above by Haydee, that doesn’t always work). And here’s where that ‘rule’ clashes directly with another one so beloved of modern publishing: “Only use ‘say/said’ as a dialogue tag”.

    Now I just couldn’t believe that one when I first heard it; mainly as it followed the one about ‘using stronger verbs instead of adverbs’. I mean, if, in the course of any other human activity, a stronger (one could say ‘more imaginative/expressive/descriptive’) verb is suitable, then why-oh-why would anyone think it suitable to restrict the author to the single dialogue tag: ‘say/said’?!? Not only is that about as unimaginative/inexpressive/non-descriptive a dialogue tag as possible, but using the ‘same’ tag a dozen times a page (several thousand times a book) must surely be as mind-numbing for the reader as it is for the author?!?

    “It’s because the dialogue-tag ‘say/said’ disappears on the page and doesn’t register in the reader’s consciousness, and so doesn’t distract them from the story,” was the reason my (ex-) consultant gave for this new ‘rule’. “That’s absurd,” I countered, “and it directly contradicts the ‘rule’ about using stronger verbs for ‘every’ other activity on the page. Think about it: Not only is it as boring as hell to read ‘say/said’ a dozen times a page – and I can assure you that having to read ‘say/said’ that many times would stick-out like a sore thumb in *my* mind (if nobody else’s) and certainly distract me from the story being told, but it’s so damned lazy and unimaginative a way to write! I mean, if the dialogue-tags (or any other verbs) an author uses aren’t meant to ‘register’ in the reader’s mind, then why the hell bother using any in the first place? If *any* word isn’t intended to make the reader think about it (on some level) then why write it? Who in their right mind wouldn’t consider a more imaginative/ expressive/descriptive dialogue-tag (like cried, begged, ordered, simpered, demanded, growled, agreed, disagreed, accused, whispered etc etc etc) a better use of ink than having the stultifyingly soporific ‘say/said’ hammered into their head several thousand times a book?

    So some modern writing ‘rules’ are not only daft, but make other rules look daft in the process, because they contradict each other. And in any case, when you look at the classic authors of the past (and many best-sellers of today, too) many of them don’t write anything like the way the ‘rules’ dictate that new authors should write today.

    For anyone who doesn’t believe that, try looking at some of the seminars/discussions on the ‘Writer’s Digest’ site. For example, Lee Child (who, the last time I checked, was making a comfortable living as a writer) trashed several of the modern ‘rules’, confirming that he doesn’t use them (and nor did great writers of the past).

    I tell you all… it just leaves me feeling completely numb about who we should all believe in any of this :-(

    Steve

    • Steve, you mentioned some of the very same topics I’d been thinking about after posting this article and reading some of the comments. In fact, some of what you said sounded just like advice I’d recently given someone. But it turns out that that advice was in the follow-up article I’d been working on. I’ll link to that here—maybe some of that information will be helpful. But after reading your comment, I began a third article regarding advice. I hadn’t imagined there was so much to the topic, but obviously there’s a lot to consider.

      I’ll link to the third article when I finish it. The second is here, Weighing the Advice.

      But the short response is that some writing advice isn’t meant for some situations, there are always exceptions to every bit of advice, and there is probably an answer for every story problem or weakness. The hard part is discovering which advice is suitable for any particular need.

      ———-
      Thanks for joining in; I appreciate hearing about your experience. I’m sorry the manuscript consultants weren’t able to put together useful advice for you.

      • SteveLowe says:

        Hi Beth,
        Thanks for replying. Frankly, I’m pleasantly surprised you did, as my last comment could have sounded like a rant against *all* modern advice. And while it may not have been quite that, it was still a crie-de-coeur about the inconsistencies & (apparently blatant) contradictions in modern writing-rules. eg The above contradiction (at least, to my scientifically-trained, consistently logical, way of thinking) between being told to use stronger verbs for describing 99% of all human activities… but not for ‘dialogue’.

        But while I’m willing to acknowledge that some (perhaps many) other book readers may have a problem with reading anything other that ‘said’ a few thousand times a book as a dialogue-tag, I can only say that – personally – I honestly don’t (and nor do I understand why others apparently should).

        I believe I made a similar previous point over the modern moratorium on ‘head-hopping’. There again, while I can accept that others may be honest in their claim of having a problem with it (and that’s why they don’t like reading it) I simply don’t. In fact, I’d personally much prefer to read a bit of ‘head-hopping’ now and then, to enable me to get inside the heads of a few other characters in addition to the principle one. And when all is said and done, one of (a steadily increasing list of) my ex-editorial consultants did actually admit to me that – not so very long ago – writers were ‘head-hopping’ all over the place. So evidently, writing ‘rules’, are a bit like the fashion for skateboards or flaired-trousers: they come and go; then come back again!

        But if our modern writing rules can be seen to be as despotic and fleeting as fashion in clothes or children’s sports, then, frankly, how much value should really be placed on them? Won’t the advice be completely different again in a decade or two?

        But on the subject of dialogue-tags, I honestly cannot (and probably never shall) understand why dialogue-tags should be treated any differently than all other verbs. Speech is a human activity, just like any other, and it’s surely appropriate to let the reader know *how* something is being said, as that adds depth/volume/character to the words. To my way of thinking, it lifts them off the page. It makes then come to life. It does for dialogue what ‘showing’ does for every other human activity. And if we’re not to be allowed to use adverbs any more (despite all being taught to use them in school – I wonder, now, what on earth they’re there for) then, okay, stronger verbs are required. So why not stronger verbs for dialogue-tags? Or is the problem which some other people have that any stronger a verb used as a dialogue-tag feels (to them) like using an adverb up alongside any other kind of regular verb? I don’t know… that’s not a rhetorical question. I’d like to understand why other people don’t seem to ‘read’ things in the same way that I do.

        Personally speaking (though I ended-up working as a chemist in the drugs industry – as it’s a better living) my English teachers all through school thought I’d end up as a writer, as I seemed to have a natural aptitude for it.
        These days, though, I find that the ‘English language’ which I learned to read and write with in school feels more like it’s become ancient Greek, or something equally hard to fathom, and I’m being told that nobody in the modern publishing industry can understand a word I’m saying anymore…

        But then, when modern Man Booker prize winning novelists can produce historical novels set 500 years ago, yet written in present tense (Hilary Mantel), or write ‘stream-of-(un)consciousness’ novels that make ‘Ulysses’ seem positively intelligible by comparison (Will Self), then it begins to feel like I’ve woken up one day and suddenly found myself in the Twilight Zone or something. Which might be good inspiration for sci-fi authors, but it doesn’t do much if you just want to tell a meaningful story from the ‘real’ world (if such a thing even still exists anymore… I tell you all, I’m honestly beginning to doubt it)!

        Steve (desperately clinging onto what he used to think was ‘reality’… and the good writing of the past)

        • Steve, yours is truly a cry from the writer’s heart. I don’t mind folks coming here to rant.

          I can say that stories feel different today because they are different. We are an audience different from those of 50 or 100 or even 150 years ago. And it’s true that with dialogue tags, readers did accept a different format a century ago. But readers aren’t the same. And styles change in everything, not only in fiction.

          We started discussing the dialogue tag topic not long after this article came out. Check out the article on Smiling or Laughing Dialogue. We touched on some of these very same issues.

          As for contradictory advice, I’m guessing most of it is only seemingly contradictory. That is, it probably fits some circumstances and conditions while other advice fits other conditions. This is why writers and editors need to dig into advice to see what it’s really saying, and if it’s not addressing the issue they need it to address, they need to look for other advice that does fit.

          I still need to finish up that third article on advice, but it’s but an enjoyable topic to explore. And there’s so much more we could talk about regarding advice.

          I hope you keep writing, no matter the obstacles. And I suggest you give some of the advice that comes your way a tryout. Who knows what you might produce? Simply trying out some of the various options might open up new avenues you’d never thought of going down. You may discover something that heightens your writing strengths while at the same time helping you eliminate your weaknesses. And that would be a great result for simply trying out something new or seemingly contradictory.

          I wish you great writing.

          • Steve Lowe says:

            Hi Beth,
            Firstly, I appreciate your attempts to explain some of the contradictory & dogmatic modern (how modern, exactly, I’d like to know :-) writing ‘rules’ (both on this thread and associated ones). Though I have to say that your more measured approach is not one I’ve experienced from the editorial consultants I’ve worked with. For example, on this silliest of rules: “Only use ‘said’ as a dialogue tag”, my most recent consultant returned my first 6 chapters with every one of my dialogue tags deleted and replaced with ‘said’. When I asked why, she replied that “You don’t want to write a dialogue tag that gets noticed by the reader. ‘Said’ just disappears.” To which I replied, as I mentioned above, that any word a writer puts on paper which is ‘not’ meant to register in the reader’s consciousness (at least, on some level) is a waste of ink, so why write it in the first place. And then, of course, some modern writers try to avoid the question, altogether, by not using dialogue tags at all…

            Anyhow, while we’ve already had various opinions expressed about the validity or applicability of this “only use ‘said’ ” rule, that remains, of course, only half of the argument. So I thought it might be instructive if we looked at how much (or even if) this ‘rule’ is actually used in practice by modern (best-selling) published authors (which, of course, is what we all aspire to be, no? :-) So what I’ve done, is conduct a little random survey of some recent novels from the shelves of my local library, by authors named from A to M, and extracted the dialogue tags used from the first few pages where direct speech begins. This ought to be a real test of which dialogue tags actually get published in practice, and show us all whether we should be following this ‘said’ rule at all (or not) as aspiring writers, n’est ce pas?:

            Martin Amis: “The Zone of Interest”, 2014, p.2-3: said, said, said, said

            Iain Banks: “The Steep Approach To Garbadale”, 2007, p.4-5: said, asked, said, offered, said, suggested, agreed

            Gillian Bradshaw: “Island of Ghosts”, 1998, p.2-3: whispered, demanded, exclaimed, asked, replied, said, agreed, said, said, screamed, shouted, said, replied

            Bernard Cornwell: “The Winter King”, 1995, p.5-8: said, responded, said, demanded, lied, cackled, said, said, said, said, asked, said, explained, growled, began

            Patricia Cornwell: “Flesh And Blood”, 2014, p.6-7: asks, ask, says, reply

            Clive Cussler: “The Mayan Secrets”, 2013, p.3-5: muttered, shouting, said, called

            Jeffery Deaver: “The Kiss Of Death”, 2012, p.10-11: asked, asked, reassured, asked

            Pamela Evans: “Harvest Nights”, 2010, p.1-2: complained, said, declared, said, commanded, lectured, replied, suggested

            Sebastian Faulks: “Vintage War”, 1999, p.1-3: shrugged, said, enunciated, ‘he raised his voice’, called

            Rosie Goodwin: “Whispers”, 2011, p.1-2: urged, pointed out, said, told, warned, said, said, scolded, shivered

            Graham Hancock: “War God”, 2014, p.3-5: said, conceded, mumbled, added, said, bellowed, begged, complained

            Conn Iggulden: “Emperor”, 2013, p.2-5: said, murmured, said, said

            Howard Jacobson: “Zoo Time”, 2012, p.3-5: ‘one of them had wanted to know’, enquired, challenged, told, ‘was her jubilant reply’,

            Beth Kerry: “Because We Belong”, 2013, p.1-3: said, reminded, said, said, said, murmured, ‘she managed between kisses’

            Donna Leon: “By Its Cover”, 2014, p.2-3: said, asked, asked, asked, asked, asked, said, added, began

            Valerio Massimo Manfredi: “The Last Legion”, 2003, p.4-5: said, observed, asked, replied, said, nodded, concluded, answered

            So there we are, not an exhaustive list, but a representative one, nevertheless. Due to my scientific background, I wanted us all to be able to examine some actual evidence about what published authors do in practice before drawing any conclusions. I’m afraid that all the erstwhile arguing about whether we should be paying any attention to this ” ‘said’ only rule’ was a little too rarified for my liking :-) And as I hope everyone can now see, this ‘said’ rule is certainly NOT one that is respected by the majority of modern authors. And while there is just one writer in the above list (compiled at random) who sticks rigidly to the rule (for the first few pages, at least) the vast majority do not; instead they employ a wide and healthy variety of dialogue tags. Which is actually all that I’ve ever done in my own writing, and all that I’ve ever suggested anyone else should do, either. Obviously, I use ‘said’ as a dialogue tag occasionally, when something is being said which does not involve any specific emotion on the part of the speaker. I also use it as part of a healthy variety of dialogue tags – for the same reason that I use all the others – so that the reader won’t get bored by having to read the SAME damned dialogue tag a dozen times on every page (& several thousand times a book).

            The ‘summing-up remark’ I’d make is this: We’re blessed, in the West, by being able to write in the English language, one which has a larger vocabulary than any other language (mainly because Britain was invaded by so many other races/ethnicities in the last few millennia and we’ve incorporated their lexicons into our own). Consequently, if there are SO many synonyms in English for the dialogue tag ‘said’, then for goodness’ sake (ladies & gentlemen of the jury) let’s honor them all by using them, shall we? :-)

            So in conclusion, my advice to anyone else on this (very informative and useful) site of Beth’s who are aspiring authors (like me) is that, if you WANT to get published in this modern environment, you should definitely ignore the “only use ‘said’ as a dialogue tag” rule, since no currently published authors listed above (except the ‘odd’ one – and believe me, he IS a very ‘odd’ writer) seem to use it.

            Next week (if there’s time) I may also publicly demolish some other annoying modern writing ‘rules’, such as my least favorite ones:
            ‘Show don’t tell’ (with the implication being: ‘most of the time’), ‘Stick to a single Point of View throughout the entire story’ (which is another one my most recent editorial consultant attempted to make me use – but was forced to admit that my story is designed for dual protagonists, and that’s how it works best). And other non-sensical ones alluded to recently, such as: ‘Never use semi-colons’ (they’re a part of English punctuation, and just because kids are no longer taught to use them in school, these days, that does not mean they have lost their function or should be ignored in good writing) or ‘Never use adverbs’ (what’s WRONG with adverbs, anyway… we were ALL taught to use them in school, so there’s no excuse for them to be ignored, this time :-)

            Regards,
            Steve

          • Steve, you certainly did your homework here. I picked up a couple of books off my dresser and looked for dialogue tags in the first pages. In two books, there were almost no tags at all for quite a number of pages. The dialogue was light in one, but the other simply didn’t have tags. Both of those books were mysteries, and the style was sufficiently sparse that tags were unnecessary—there was no problem figuring out who said what.

            I think you nailed one of the issues with dialogue tags when you mentioned synonyms for the word said. Unfortunately, many of the verbs used for tags are not synonyms for said—they are simply action verbs. Some of the actions can be achieved with the mouth, which, I’m guessing is why some writers use them for tags. I touched again on tags with another article. There are so many issues to consider, pro and con; I don’t think that we’ll be able to solve the differences for all writers and critics, even if we talk about all the possibilities.

            As for semicolons, I’m with you. Though you don’t want to overuse them because they do stand out, I see nothing wrong with them. (I covered semicolons in an article.) The same for colons. The book I’m reading now must have used the colon a dozen or more times in the first 60 or 70 pages. All legitimate uses too. But I did notice them. Yet that may be because I’m working on some punctuation issues and punctuation is on my mind.

            I’ve covered show and tell a handful of times too. Both showing and telling are necessary.

            A great discussion on all these topics. Thanks for sharing your concerns and some possible solutions.

          • Steve Lowe says:

            Hi Beth, Oh, glad you appreciated my contribution :-)

            As it happens, I don’t have time to publicly demolish the ‘Show don’t tell’ rule, today (maybe next week…:-). I find it notable that you actually describe the topic: ‘Show AND tell’, which (as with the other writing ‘rules’) is a far more even-handed, circumspect – and less liable to enrage aspiring authors – handling of the subject. Obviously, we reasonably-minded people accept that writing needs a mixture of showing AND telling (just as dialogue needs a healthy variety of imaginative, descriptive & expressive ‘tags’ to give colour, life & emotion to the words). However, the unfortunate experiences I’ve had with creative-writing guides (books & websites) or editorial-consultants are partly because they espouse a wording of the rule as: ‘Show DON’T tell’. Which, of course, imposes a whole different emphasis on the ‘rule’ (rather than an actual dichotomy, which is what it is).

            And the relative amounts of show/tell surely depend on genre, too.
            One of my earlier consultants wanted me to use more ‘show’ – in the same way that Jane Austen did. Yet I had to explain to her that Jane Austen – thought she WROTE 200 years ago – was writing a contemporary novel for her own early 19th c. peers. Therefore, she could afford to get away with only ‘show’ since her peers would understand all her cultural references, as they were contemporary. Just like us writing about the Internet, today. But if – as in my case – you write a historical novel set millennia ago, then you are going to have to be given the latitude, as a writer, to employ a bit more ‘tell’ in the way you introduce features of life which no modern reader is familiar with (and – unless they’re ancient historians or archae-ologists – won’t even have ever heard of, before :-)

            Anyway, for all those – like me – who are fed up with being brow-beaten by the modern publishing establishment into believing that all these modern ‘rules’ are set in stone (rather than being negotiable), here’s a quote I recently heard from the French composer, Claude Debussy: “Works of art create rules; rules don’t create works of art.”

            (Did you like his usage of the semi-colon, there, Beth :-)

            Regards,
            Steve

  10. Beth — The advice one writer gave to ignore writing advice misses the point of good advice. Like I’ve said before, listen to the advice given, then decide if you can, or if your willing, to use it. Most advice is meant to be helpful, and the writer can learn from it. The non-helpful advice can be ignored, so Do be careful about the writing advice given to you.

    It’s true that you are the writer of your story, but you may be too close to it, therefore your judging of it may be ineffective.

    Lastly, Do know your craft, or at least strive to. It is, I think, a life-long process.

    • Frank, study of the craft is indeed a life-long process. We change, the readers’ needs change, interests change. So even if we were able to learn it all (and I seriously doubt that’s possible, simply because writers have different interests and would have no reason to learn some aspects of the craft), some components are ever changing and evolving.

      I think that original writer who prompted my writing of this article feels the way many beginning writers do, that those who give advice either seek to change the stories of others to match their own insights and ways of seeing the world or don’t understand the first writer’s very personal viewpoints and style.

      But as you said, most advice is intended to be helpful. Other writers and anyone else sharing advice isn’t out to tear a writer down—they’re simply trying to build the manuscript up. And quite simply, you have to point out what doesn’t work in order to get rid of it. You have to point out what does work too, however. So there are always two sides of advice.

      And I fully agree that writers can be too close to see their stories clearly. Thus the advice to step away for weeks before tackling rewrites and edits.

      Thanks for adding to the discussion.

  11. Steve Lowe says:

    Hi again, Beth,

    I’ve been thinking about what you said on semi-/colons, and how they ‘stand out’, as it’s the same argument which the (less even-handed or enlightened than yourself) commentators give for “not using any dialogue tag other than ‘said’.” I’m afraid (and I’m maybe beyond any help from anyone, here) that I cannot understand the entire problem with this. As I commented, above, it is a mystery to me why words/punctuation (of any kind) should be desired by some ‘not’ to ‘stand out’.

    Let me explain: My latest consultant claimed that she didn’t want to read any other dialogue tag that ‘said’ as that might ‘trip the reader up’ or ‘make them pause’. But then, for the same argument to be advanced for ‘not using semi-colons’ is rather contradictory (as with many of these writing ‘rules’. Because the whole point of a semi-colon is that it is makes the reader take a pause somewhere in length between a comma and a full-stop. Thus, someone like me, who has a lot of information to give the reader, and who writes long sentences :-) can use semi-colons to split those sentences up into something less unwieldy; while at the same time, allowing the writing to flow more continuously than if I wrote like Lee Child (for example) who uses sentences of rarely more than five or six words. And to me (and hopefully the reader) longer sentences split by semi-colons are easier to read without pausing too long between them (or getting ‘tripped up’ by short, ‘choppy’ sentences which don’t flow into each other naturally) than getting halted every few words by a full stop. I only mention that as my English teachers all through school complimented my writing for being ‘fluent’ precisely because my sentences are not of the short ‘choppy’ kind… :-)

    Regards,
    Steve

  12. Ken says:

    My experience has taught me that everything in writing (or rather story telling) is a balance. I have worked with 3 editors (one briefly on the first part, one developmental and one line editor) on my current project, and they all told me different things, though sometimes they hit the same notes. They all had their strengths and weaknesses, so I had to pick through it all and decide what best served the story. I started with the default position that they had a valid point, yet in some instances I simply disagreed. I ran it by my fiancee (not one to hold a punch) to see if I was right or off my rocker. The point is that ignoring everyone is stupid, but listening to everyone will drive you crazy. People have different opinions and are different kinds of readers. My critique group was the same way. Writing and story telling are all about balance.

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