• Alyssa Rogan

My Take on Common Writing Advice

You heard them all the time in high school or Writing 101 classes--"common writing advice." But are they really all that common and are they actually helpful? If so, why do we hear from people that we need to break them, rewrite them? Here's my perspective of what to make of common writing advice.

Write everyday

This one makes me cringe, which is ironic, considering I write nearly every day. Why wouldn't I want to write every day? That's the question. The advice almost implies that I wouldn't want to--that writing is a chore, a checkmark off my list. Something to get over with.

People who love writing don't need to be told to write every day. Now, if you're just starting out, I can see how this would be helpful. It helps one to be self-disciplined. The more you write, the better you'll get, presumably. However, I also think it puts the emphasis on quantity instead of quality. As I shared in my post about NaNoWriMo, I'm not as motivated to write this project. I'm a little bit bored and not quite emotionally attached to my characters. I'm realizing right now as I write this that it may be because I'm putting myself on a strict schedule, which is something I've never done. Just because you're generating more words than usual it does not necessarily mean you're getting better. It also does not guarantee that you're having fun.

Which is more rewarding to say? I wrote every day this week even when I didn't feel like it, or I wrote when I felt like it and actually enjoyed it? It's the difference between writing a thousand mediocre words versus one hundred good words.

That being said, writing every day isn't nearly as important as figuring out what motivates you to write. Intrinsic motivation and passion for your project will take you far further than a strict, everyday writing schedule. If you love writing, you'll probably write every day because you simply cannot help yourself.

Write what you know

This is one I plain don't agree with. If I wrote what I knew, I'd write the same book in a different order. The characters would all be manifestations of myself with different names or eye colors. Think about how self-indulgent it is to write only what you know--to write only from personal experience. You're basically saying, my life is so interesting, I need everyone to know about it. Then, I need to go on telling this same story in one hundred variations because frankly, no type of story outside my personal experience is worthy of my time.

What fun is that?

Plus, there's almost nothing you can't know, so why stick with the same boring stuff? This is one reason I'm thankful I live in the age of the internet. It makes researching so much easier and the work so much more rewarding. It also demands that you tap into your compassion. You can't write a compelling story about someone different than you without empathizing with them on a real, human level. It doesn't work. You'll only come off disingenuous, ill-informed, and apathetic.

So go ahead. Write that character who has a different gender, age, race, or religion than you. Write compassionately and do your research.

Avoid Adverbs

This is one I tend to agree with. It can make your prose really wordy, redundant-sounding, or downright distracting (I'm looking at you, J.K. Rowling). Nine times out of ten, you can find the right verb you need to bolster the sentence because a strong verb beats an adverb any day. Adverbs also mean that you're probably telling instead of showing (more on that later).

Now, I would never tell you to stop using adverbs cold turkey. Sometimes they're just necessary for description or setting the tone, and sometimes they're just too fun to resist (I mean, go back and count all the adverbs I've used in this post and see for yourself...fun, right? I'm a fun person).

Interestingly, this talk about not using adverbs does seem to be contemporary writing advice. Jane Austen, for example, was quite fond of adverbs, as were Herman Mellville and Virginia Woolf. Their writing styles probably is not viable for a modern market, but there's no reason you can't admire their style and learn from it.

Show Don't Tell

This is probably one of the most important pieces of writing advice you could master, and let me tell you: it's not easy. Personally, it took a long time for me to wrap my mind around this concept and properly execute it.

When you tell a story rather than show it, what it really means is that you're telling readers how to feel. If your story is evocative and engaging, if your characters are flawed and fleshed out, you don't need to tell readers how to feel about it. The story will speak for itself.

It also means you're telling readers exactly how characters feel, which is boring to read about. It leaves nothing to the imagination and communicates that the author does not think the reader is intelligent enough to discern characters' feelings.

So, how do I know if I'm telling my readers how to feel? Good question. It all comes down to word choice. Several adverbs and adjectives are the culprits, and I would generally try to avoid words that identify the emotions themselves, i.e. happy/happily, sad/sadly, angry/angrily, etc. Instead, describe emotions using body language, actions, and dialogue.

Now, ignore all this advice

Writing rules are arbitrary. They're meant to be broken as soon as you know them forward and backward and upside down.

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