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Parse Writing Advice

September 20, 2017 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified September 20, 2017

While recently answering questions for an interview, I found myself wanting to qualify half of my answers, pointing out exceptions to rules and noting that some advice might not be applicable at all times. So I thought I should address the issue here as well.

Not all writing advice is good advice, but even the best advice doesn’t always fit every circumstance.

So if you read advice counseling you to cut the use of adverbs, that advice probably doesn’t apply to the two dozen perfectly placed adverbs—the only adverbs—in your 90,000-word manuscript. Adverbs can be overused, but you might not overuse them.

Show don’t tell is advice that’s been abused, and yet some beginning writers do need to know how to show if they’ve only been telling. On the other hand, many writers already know how to show. Some may instead need advice on knowing when to tell in place of showing or when to show in place of telling, but a blanket show don’t tell may not help all writers. And for everyone, understanding the differences between showing and telling is much more important than following advice that says show, don’t tell.

When you read or hear advice, or when you’re actively searching for writing advice, push past the first answer and the shortest answer. Determine the conditions or situations for which the advice is intended and look for conditions or situations that would nullify the advice.

Consider which circumstances and conditions might be necessary for a bit of advice to be beneficial. Consider circumstances that might might not fit the advice.

 

Considerations

Genre is one issue to consider as you parse advice.

For example, when you read that creative dialogue tags aren’t recommended in place of said, keep in mind that some genres allow and encourage a wide variety of dialogue tags.

The location of the text in the story—in the first chapter, at the midpoint, or in the climax—may factor in to your decision to apply advice. Location of text in a paragraph or sentence may be a factor as well. So you may not include the same setting details at the end of a story that you’d include at the beginning, when you’re first describing your story world. You may not put the same kinds of words at the beginning or ending of a paragraph that you’d put in the middle of the same paragraph.

Advice about not using participial phrases too often to start sentences might be perfect advice for a writer who uses that construction often, but it would be bad advice for the writer who hears the advice as “never use participial phrases to start a sentence.”

Advice about not providing too much setting description—through the first-person viewpoint of a character running for her life—near the end of a story might be poor advice for the opening pages of a story told from the viewpoint of an omniscient narrator.

My suggestion about advice is pretty straightforward: understand that some writing advice is specific to situations, genre, setting, and style.

 

Exceptions

There are exceptions to every rule and to all advice. Not every rule fits every circumstance, every story, or even every fiction element.

Analyze the advice. Look for exceptions and for conditions that limit the scope of the advice. Go deeper than headline-style advice; investigate the reasons for the advice before you run with that advice and apply it everywhere.

I’ve already mentioned a few considerations, but let’s look at a list of them. Keep in mind that these are considerations for solid and widely accepted advice. Bad advice should be ignored. If you’re not sure what advice and which rules are good and which are bad, keep researching the rule, the advice, or the topic. You’ll eventually get a sense for what’s worthwhile and what works under certain conditions. If you delve deep enough, you should also find exceptions and the rationale behind exceptions.

genre—advice might be specific to one genre

style—style choices might trump the best advice

impact—you might go against advice on purpose to create an impact

competing rules—you might have to break one rule in order to keep another

variety—too much of even a perfect thing can be too much—use variety in your choices

fiction vs. nonfiction—maybe the advice isn’t meant for fiction

location in the story—location does matter; advice on speeding the pace will likely not be applicable on page 1

surrounding words—the simplest word might be the best choice, but maybe that word has been used multiple times in the same scene and the second choice might prove to be the best choice

character personality—some characters don’t know grammar, so their speech and thoughts can break grammar rules

effect—some advice may be intended to created a specific effect;  if you want a different effect, you’ll need different advice

There are no complex rules in this article. Just the suggestion that you look beyond the basics of writing advice and writing rules. Search for the rationale behind a rule. Search for situations when following blanket advice wouldn’t be appropriate.

Don’t limit yourself to memorizing rules; gain an understanding of what’s behind a rule. Learn why one choice doesn’t work, or learn why one choice might be the better choice given the conditions of a scene.

edit well #2 83797AA0F48D684CBAC54FBF163B9699

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8 Responses to “Parse Writing Advice”

  1. Often, a ‘how-to’ guru attaches a well-known writer’s name to the piece of advice they’re dispensing, as if that makes it absolute. The quote then goes viral and the advice is seemingly cast in stone.

    I don’t much care. Some of the information is helpful, but if it doesn’t feel right …

    Thanks for debunking the one that demonises all adverbs!

    • Paula, I definitely advise restraint with adverbs, but a blanket policy against their use makes no sense; they do have a purpose. One of the problems with adverbs is that they’re easy to use and thus easy to overuse.

      What I love so much about writing is that there’s no simple how-to formula. We’ve got to try different approaches, try different mixes and balances of the elements to create the effects we want. And then our stories are different from the stories of every other writer, different from the last stories that we wrote. Creating a different story each time is the fun and the challenge of writing.

  2. John Johnson says:

    I read your blog as an RSS, but I find what you say as valuable. Today I write to say as someone 15 years in that it rang very true, for me. I have a dozen books on writing and another dozen on grammar, then I have blogs and online material guiding writers.
    To what end? I write for myself, I no longer publish or try. I write because when I self edit I often wipe my eyes from the obnoxious tears the simple fragments of some long ago scene in my mind now placed on paper can bring forth.

    • John, if you’re affected by your writing, if it touches you, that piece of writing has achieved at least one purpose. Not all writing is meant to be read by others. Yet when we do want to share our writing with others, the rules and advice are there to help us communicate. Balancing the emotions and beauty, the depth, of what we’re trying to say with the limitations of grammar and punctuation can be tough, but when we succeed at communicating the beauty or power of a piece of writing with others, the results are beyond satisfying.

      Whether you write for yourself or for others, enjoy it. There’s so much we can gain from reading, from experiencing story or memory or poetry in the written word.

      I’m glad you stopped in and shared some of your personal story.

  3. Dear Beth: Thank you for this entry in your blog. It is a good reminder for me as I
    can drive myself crazy trying to apply rounds of advice to my work. It reminds me
    to take a step back and look at my vision, my voice, my characters and apply all advice thoughtfully and carefully. Again, thank you. Anita

  4. Phil H says:

    For every problem there is a solution that is simple, elegant, obvious and wrong. Write your story in the voice you choose and let the chips fall.

    One for the books as well. The “said rule.” Not only is it stupid after a question, albeit often used by rich and famous authors, it makes for cardboard conversations. I’m not one for dialogue tags, but said is one boring, sad, looking at lonely rule. Please, don’t read that as open season on flowery dialogue tags. He muttered loudly, at no one in particular, and wiped a hint of drool from his chin like a Silver Alert looking for a place to happen.

  5. Lynda Dietz says:

    This is a great post. I try to make sure people know the general rules while using the common sense that says, EVERYONE’S BOOK WILL BE DIFFERENT BECAUSE EVERYONE’S WRITING IS DIFFERENT. One size doesn’t fit all, whether it’s genre or guidelines.

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