Monday, July 30, 2012

Writing 101: Not All Tips Are Good

When you're a writer, there's always room for learning. It's always good to expand your knowledge, and it's never a bad idea to look up information even on the basics of writing to brush up on your grammar, punctuation and wordcrafting skills. But there's something important you need to know if you go looking for ways to improve your fiction: not all tips are good. Sometimes, the writing advice you find isn't necessarily stuff you should always follow. 

Come Again?

It might sound strange coming from me, considering the nature of my blog, but it's true: not all writing tips you find should be taken to heart. In looking around the Internet, I've found more than a few that I just plain don't agree with. 

Bad Tips

In fact, there are an awful lot of bad tips out there. If you attempt to follow every single one of them, you might end up with a book that's so cautiously written it won't make you happy. Remember that you aren't writing to please writing bloggers who think they know better. You're writing for you, and with that in mind remember these writing tips that you can simply ignore: 
  • It was a dark and stormy night... 
Some writing experts suggest that writers never begin a book with the weather. It's classically considered to be one of the biggest writing mistakes -- and I disagree. You know which book begins with the weather? The Bell Jar, for one, and The Secret History, for another. I mention them because they were ranked as two of the "10 Best First Lines in Fiction" by The Guardian. Other books that open with the weather? Orwell's 1984 and George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones.
  • Tagging dialogue
I read a tip where one writer stated that no other verb than "said" should be added to dialogue tags. Meaning that, at the end of most of your sentences, you should have nothing more exciting than "he said," "she said," "Sheila said," and so forth to denote your speakers. Do you want to read that book? Of course not. Just throw this tip out the window right now.
  • Adverbs
Adverbs are really just adjectives, descriptive words, with -ly tacked on at the end. In one tip I discovered, the writer cautioned authors against using adverbs with dialogue tags (she said sadly; he whispered gently). So if you follow all these bad tips, not only will your book be stuffed with he said and she said, but you can't even pretty it up by adding angrily to the end if you like.
  • Exclamation point!
For some reason, some bloggers and writing critics seem to hate exclamation points. One tip I read said that writers should have no more than three per 100,000 words. They must be joking!
  • Regional speech
Ever tried o read Pygmalion or Gone With the Wind? If you do, you'll notice  that regional dialects are depicted (in the case of the former, London cockney, the American Deep South in the latter) and that makes them difficult to read, at times. An actual line from Pygmalion: "Wal, fewd dan y' de-ooty bawmz a mather should, eed now bettern to spawl a pore gel's flahrzn than ran awy atbaht pyin." It looks and reads like ancient Greek, but verbally the line reads a bit like this: Well, if you'd done your duty by him as a mother should, he'd know better than to spill a poor girl's flowers than run away without paying -- only pretend I'm saying it in very broad cockney. Clearly the way it's written is confusing, so there's something to the idea that writers ought to avoid it, but regional language is a big deal in some books. It's the entire premise of Pygmalion, in fact, and without it the story wouldn't make a lick of sense.

There are already lots of rules in writing, and you can't possibly follow them all. Some writers, in fact, are well-known for breaking them. Lewis Carroll simply made up words for his books, and we still use some of them today. Emily Dickinson peppered her poems with punctuation that editors hated, and her style is considered to be definitive and delightful by critics today. Some writing tips are good, and it's always worth it to expand your knowledge, but you should never attempt to follow them at the risk of cramping your own writing style. Each writer has a voice that's unique to them. Don't stifle it by playing it safe and trying to follow everyone else's advice...not even mine.

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  1. I hate regional speech in books. Makes things so hard to read so often. My reason for disliking it is that I have dyslexia. It's hard enough to read regular English, when you have to deal with dialects, regions, and speech impediments as well everything goes out the window and my brain shuts down with a migraine.

    Great post, as usual.

  2. I really couldn't agree more. If you try to follow every piece of advice, you won't get any writing done in my opinion. Learn the rules by all means, but learn when it's arguably better to break them.

    When it comes to writerly advice I have only one piece of advice: only follow that advice which resonates with you in your gut.

  3. Thanks for sharing that, Ariel. I never thought about that particular complication before.

    Thanks for the advice, Joe! Great tip.