Thursday, April 17, 2014

Rules for writers that shouldn't be rules

I've been meaning for ages to post on this (it's been a preoccupation of the WIP that's been keeping me away from this blog), but now I have the time at last I find that someone has already done it so brilliantly I don't need to. 

The title of the article, 'The Ten Worst Pieces of Writing Advice You Will Ever Hear (And Probably Already Have)' is a bit misleading, as its author Susan Defreitas makes clear that the rules she examines, such as Show Don't Tell, Don't Use Adverbs etc do have their place, which is with beginner writers making traditional beginner mistakes such as verbosity, over-explaining, failure to realise the texture of a scene, lack of grounding in reality etc (and also as general notions to go on keeping in mind to avoid such mistakes thereafter). She shows, however (with considerable wit) that such advice taken to extremes can turn writing leaden and unremarkable, and, with quotes from Salman Rushdie and Nabakov, that writers with skill may ignore it with equanimity. 'Language is your Swiss army knife, and you can’t do shit like this with just the knife and the corkscrew.' I particularly like her words on cutting:
...beginning writers tend to be verbose. We can’t tell the difference between an essential detail and an inessential one. We’re like golden retrievers romping through Storyland, and pretty much every damn thing we see is a squirrel. 
But push this advice too far, and again, you’ll get stuck writing mediocre fiction. Because sometimes the things that don’t work are actually important. They don’t work not because they’re the wrong things, but because they’re the hard, ambitious, at-the-very-edge-of-what-you-even-know-how-to-say-things, and the only way to land them is to dig deeper, work harder, and sometimes even (god help you) add rather than cut.
There's an underlying implication in the article that these rules are indeed being taken too seriously and too widely, and it's a sense of this that made me want to blog about it too. I do come across a lot of writing that seems in thrall to 'show don't tell' and in dire fear of making any statements about feelings or motives, and is either weighed down with over-elaborate, clogged and seemingly mechanical external detail, or simply too stark, either way leaving us without a sense of the emotion, or, as Defreitas says, 'the thought processes giving rise to that emotion.'

Do read her article.

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