How to find value in common writing advice
When I was studying Creative Writing at university, my lecturers directed us to Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. If you don’t care to click the link, it’s basically 10 pieces of advice that every writer should follow if they want to be better at their craft.
It includes the usual suspects: never use adverbs, avoid prologues, never use a word other than ‘said’ in dialogue, etc etc.
We’ve all heard this advice and variants of it time and again from people we respect, people we don’t, and just about everyone in between. Quite often, and understandably, these nuggets of advice are met with frustration, and I think it comes from one of two reasons:
The advice isn’t explained properly so it’s taken out of context.
The advice is written as an overzealous absolute.
There’s a lot to untangle in writing advice, so I’m going to take a few of the most common ones and pull them apart.
Ready? Let’s go.
Show don’t tell
The initial knee-jerk reaction people have on hearing this advice is something along the lines of ‘Sometimes I have to tell and showing everything leads to wordy novels’. That’s true. Sometimes, ‘telling’ is useful and, in a few cases, better than ‘showing’.
But what does this advice really mean? What is it actually telling us to do? There’s a beautiful quote that I think sums up the value of it very well:
‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’ – Anton Chekhov.
It’s not demanding that we show the reader everything. It’s asking us to evaluate what we’ve written and see whether we can show instead of tell. Because isn’t seeing the moonlight reflected in a piece of broken glass more beautiful than reading ‘The moon was shining’? Isn’t it better to see a character blush and tuck their hair behind their ear than to be told that they’re shy?
This piece of advice isn’t a commandment. It’s encouragement, a challenge. You don’t have to take it, but you don’t need to hate it, either.
Write what you know
Oh boy, this one. This one gets a lot of people’s goats.
It’s perhaps one of the most misunderstood pieces of writing advice I’ve come across. People seem to think it means they can’t write outside of their own experiences, which is incredibly limiting. But this isn’t what the advice means.
My writing friend, Emma Potter, has explained this one a few times in the best way it can be done:
‘In my experience, people only find “write what you know” limiting because the advice has been taken out of context. It doesn’t mean you can’t write about things you’ve not experienced. It means 2 things:
1. Your own experience will make your writing hit home more.
2. Write about whatever you want, but you damn sure better do your research!
Want to write about dragons? Go ahead. Just make sure you know all there is to know about your dragons. Because if you don’t know, your readers sure as hell won’t.’
Agatha Christie wasn’t a detective, but she certainly did her research well enough to make her stories convincing and enjoyable. JK Rowling wasn’t a witch, but she knew everything about the rules of her magical world well enough that we understood it as readers.
Another writer on Twitter, offered a good rephrasing of this advice that might limit how often it’s misunderstood. Instead of ‘Write what you know’ let’s try to ‘Know about what you write’.
Write every day
I’m including this one less because it’s misunderstood and more because taking it at face value can be more detrimental than most of the other nuggets of wisdom.
Some people cannot write every day – and that is perfectly fine. Maybe you have kids, or mental health struggles, or physical ailments, or deadlines at work. There are any number of things that can prevent a writer from getting words down.
Why I take issue with this advice is that it ladles guilt onto an already fragile creature. Writers are, by their very nature, overburdened. We have heck knows how many characters fighting for attention in our head and we spend half the time trying to remember which voice is our own. We’re juggling three different worlds, two magic systems, and a slew of emails we dare not look at in case they’re all rejections from agents or bad feedback from betas.
We already run ourselves down on a regular basis, flipping chaotically between thinking we’re Gods of the Written Word one hour and then unworthy of ever being able to hold a pen again the next. We do not need more guilt on top of this.
Write when you can. Even if that means giving yourself a break of a day, a week or a month. The time you spend not writing can be just as valuable as the time you spend at your desk. Remember that, and do not let any other writer who’s lucky enough to have the time to write daily, make you feel guilty for being different.
Start with action
This is another misleading one because many writers assume it means that you should drop the reader into the middle of a conflict from the first paragraph. The problem with doing this, however, is that the reader has no connection to any of the characters. They don’t know the MC well enough yet to care what happens to them.
What this advice really means is to start with some energy. Something a little more exciting than pages of world-building and character introductions. It’s encouraging the use of Chekov’s Razor, whereby you cut the throat-clearing almost every writer opens a first draft with.
Don’t use adverbs
This is another one that rubs a lot of writers the wrong way, mainly because it’s written as an absolute. Thou shalt not use adverbs!
Some adverbs are fine. Peppered here and there, they are not going to put a reader off. But this advice isn’t for those who use adverbs sparingly. This is for the newer writers who use them far too much – and we were all that new writer at some point.
The good kind of adverb
‘She sighed heavily/wistfully.’
This is allowable because the way a person sighs can express what they are feeling. A wistful sigh is very different to a heavy sigh. The distinction that the adverb offers is valuable and, while it could be re-written to eliminate the adverb, it’s not necessary.
The bad kind of adverb
‘He quickly ran across the room.’
This one is less allowable because while ‘quickly’ tells us how the character is running, it would be far stronger (and use fewer words) to say ‘he bolted’ or ‘he raced’.
Passive voice is bad
Passive voice gets bashed all the time. See what I did there? A bit of cheeky passive voice works sometimes.
Much like the advice about adverbs, this is less for the people who don’t use passive voice regularly and more for those who can’t stop using it. Lots of passive voice slows down the pace and, more often than not, increases word count.
Take a skim through your WIP and try to spot the passive voice. When you do, see how it works in the active. Does it improve the pace? Does it reduce your word count? Does it sound better? If the answer is yes, you know what to do. If the answer is no, then it’s fine to leave it – but at least you reviewed it first!
Learning to evaluate writing advice
One of the issues surrounding writing advice is that it’s often referred to as ‘rules’. Rules suggest rigidity. They need to be followed.
Well, here’s something for you: there are no ‘rules’ for writing. There is only ‘advice’. And advice is subjective. A bank can advise you on how to spend your money but you don’t need to do as they say.
I started this piece by mentioning Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. I’d like to end on Orwell’s Six Rules for Writing and I’m going to quote them in full because it isn’t a long extract:
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
I want to highlight that last one. These rules can be broken. You can write whatever you want in whatever way you want. You can ignore advice or follow it to the letter.
What I do want to point out, however, is that before you can break the rules, you have to know them. Remember when you were a kid and your parents told you not to talk to strangers? When you’re grown up, you have to talk to strangers a lot, but by that point we’ve learned how to identify the ‘safe’ strangers to talk to. As kids, we don’t have that level of judgement so the warning is necessary.
The same applies to writing. When we’re starting out, we have a harder time understanding how many adverbs is too many or which can be upgraded. So these rules are helpful guides. But when we’ve developed our craft, our instincts are sharper.
So before you dismiss any writing advice that rubs you up the wrong way, consider it first. Don’t take it at face value. Explore it. Try to understand why it exists to begin with. You don’t have to follow it, after reflection, but at least you’ll be making a more informed decision.