Why I’m Tired of Advice

I’ve a suspicion that there’s no set of people in the world more anxious to give each other advice than writers. Oddly enough, there’s also no set of people more anxious to slavishly follow other people’s advice.

Now, before anyone readies the rotten tomatoes, let me add that I’m convinced most of it is given with the best of intentions and taken in good faith. That doesn’t prevent me, however, from saying that most if it is bullshit. And that’s because people are far too quick to lay down Incontrovertible Rules that Must Never Be Broken – never mind that they’re frequently contradicting each other.

Let’s have a mini-rant. Ready?

 

Writing Advice Atrocity #1: Adverbs are the root of all evil

This is one of those that keeps cropping up in the writing world, Because A Famous Writer Said It. Adverbs should NEVER be used. Let’s get something clear right at the outset: we all know perfectly well that sweeping statements are just begging to be contradicted, because how can a single dogmatic statement ever apply to all cases, under all circumstances?

I am perfectly ready to admit that a weak verb followed by an adverb is a poor way to express oneself. He/she ran quickly is a drab alternative to he/she sprinted or dashed or charged or any of a number of more exciting verbs. But at other times, an adverb is the perfect way to make a subtle alteration to the meaning, or interpretation, of a sentence – especially a line of dialogue. Excise them all? Atrocious thought.

It’s interesting to note that it’s always writers who criticise each other for using adverbs. I feel just the tiniest whisper of suspicion that readers, for the most part, Do Not Care.

 

Writing Advice Atrocity #2: “Said” is the only acceptable verb to use with dialogue.

Same issues as above. What’s really wrong with “replied” or “shouted” or “whispered” or even “spat” or “snorted”? Imagine if all books never used anything but said. Imagine of none of them used adverbs either. Shudder.

This is another one of those lines that originated with A Famous Writer. Let me state for the purposes of clarity that I don’t know, and rather doubt, whether the original source actually intended for these rules to be Laid Down As Law For All. One of the many offences committed by Advice is its tendency to be taken up by others and promptly (adverb) distorted and then exaggerated out of all proportion.

 

Writing Advice Atrocity #3: YOU MUST HIRE AN EDITOR.

I write that in capitals because I frequently (adverb) encounter it in capitals. It’s a trifle alarming.

What I do think is important in all areas of life – not just in writing – is to try to be honest with oneself about one’s own limits. Many of us can write very creditable novels but do a less sparkling job of editing and proofreading them. In which case, it is undoubtedly (ADVERB) advisable to hire an editor before thinking about publishing. But if you happen to be a good editor as well as a good novelist? What’s to stop you? If you’ve got a few good test readers to check for those blunders we all fall into, then great. Doing your own editing isn’t going to break the world. No… really, it isn’t.

Want to hear the most fatuous thing I’ve ever heard in connection with this rule? Here it is:

“It’s insulting to professional editors to think you could do their job as well as your own.”

Zuh…

Let it be henceforth set down as an Immutable Law that to be multi-skilled is a crime against one’s fellow man. Let no individual ever presume to be capable of more than one single thing in this life, or your presence on this Earth shall be strongly (ADVERB) objected to. And Rightly (ADVERB!) So.

 

Writing Advice Atrocity #4: YOU MUST HIRE A PROFESSIONAL COVER ARTIST.

As with the above, this one is mostly (…) directed at aspiring self-publishers and is, therefore, mostly (there’snohopeforme) written in screaming capitals.

I love professional cover artists, because I am Crap (yes, with a capital C) at art. I couldn’t produce a good cover if my life depended on… oh wait, that’s a cliche which is also Proscribed. Anyway, I can’t do covers, so I get someone else to do them. I rather doubt, though, that every other writer in the world is the same as me. If you can produce a good cover for yourself, then why the hell not? It amazes me that people seem to lose sleep over this stuff. And you know, people talk a lot about the Supreme Importance of professional cover art, and I’m not unswayed by this attitude because I myself am much impressed by great covers. But plenty of books with bad covers seem to sell fine, so who knows? Maybe there’s more in the world than my own point of view. Astonishing thought.

I could go on, but WordPress is currently counting my 786th word and I promised myself I would stop writing 1000+ word posts because someone somewhere said it’s better to be brief on a blog. Having already soundly broken the widely accepted (and widely repeated) 500 word maximum rule, I’ll finish the rest of my ranting in a quiet corner.

Don’t feel constrained, though. The rest of you still have 500 words of free ranting space to go, so make the most of it. Any other dogmatic writing rules to share with us? I’m all ears. (cliche)

PS This blog post is late, which also breaks the Blogging Law of the Fixed and Predictable Schedule. I can only apologise. I was busy… writing fiction. A lot of it. I know there’s no better way to kill my career than to vary my posting schedule (People have Said So), so I don’t know what possessed me.

 

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  • http://www.eldrumherbs.co.uk Ali

    Ohhh you catty, sarcastic so and so! :D Your mini rant had me laughing out loud, nicely done. Oh, and can we assume that (ADVERB!) is your new version of swearing?

    The professional editor line is a bit on the ridiculous side really – talk about a stupid way to justify WHY you should spend a small fortune hiring an editor instead of trusting your own judgement and that of talented friends and family… funny old world, isn’t it?

    I’ve no idea why you have to have a rigid blogging schedule. My blog posts are all over the place – sometimes three or four in a week, sometimes none for two weeks, and those who follow my blog don’t seem to have a problem with it! It’s called ‘Having a Life (TM)’. Those who don’t really should try it sometime. I hear it’s supposed to be fun. (end sarcasm.) :wink:

    • Charlotte

      I suppose you could say that suppressing my dark side is an ongoing struggle and sometimes it gets away from me.

      To be fair I’ve never heard any editor use that most fatuous of lines – which isn’t to say they haven’t, but as a species certainly cannot be blamed for that piece of idiocy.

      The blogging schedule… well, I don’t know either. Some believe it to be really important for retaining an audience. Given how many ways there are to be informed when one’s favourite blogs are updated, I’m dubious ;)

  • http://www.elenaransley.net ellie

    Well said! a rant is always perefctly acceptable when it is completely justified!

    • Charlotte

      Thanks Ellie! An occasional rant is, I think, good for the soul.

  • http://pearwood.deviantArt.com Steven Tryon

    A splendid rant, Ms Charlotte. Your books do have quite print-buyable cover art, and are quite acceptably edited.

    Your blog is fun to read.

  • http://kathleenlourde@msn.com Kathleen Lourde

    Charlotte, once again you’ve written a wonderful blog! I loved it. Good job. You should submit this to a carnival so more writers can read it.

  • http://darcknyt.wordpress.com/ DarcKnyt

    Bravo, Ms. Charlotte. Once again your brilliance irradiates the writing universe. Seriously, this is fantastic.

    I do, however, think new writers should seek to cut out all (yes, ALL) adverbs ending in -ly to assist their verbs until they have stronger vocabulary options. Then they can become a normal part of the writer’s repertoire again.

    The one which doesn’t get mentioned enough, in my mind, is adjective use.

    Nevertheless, you’re outstanding and this is among your best blog posts. Fantastic in every aspect.

    • Charlotte

      Aww, thanks Darc. You’re good (or bad?) for my ego.

      I think you have a good point – as an exercise, removing all adverbs could be really useful.

  • http://darcknyt.wordpress.com/ DarcKnyt

    OH, and I say what I do about adverbs and new writers from my own (horrible) experiences, and found it greatly (HA!) helped me to do those exercises (eliminate adverbs/adjectives entirely [snicker!] for a time.)

    But as you so eloquently (we’re on a roll) pointed out, to each their own. :)

  • http://www.amandamyre.com Amanda

    Hi! I’ve been reading your blog for a while, and loving it.

    I think advice given to writers is often directed at beginners, and that seems likely to be true of the types of advice you’ve ranted about. It’s great to vary your sentence structure and use strong, appropriate words instead of weak ones. If you have a lot of practice at doing so, you have no need to obsessively cut out your adverbs. But if you don’t know what you’re doing, maybe it’s not a terrible idea to think about which adverbs you might want to cut.

    The one I agree with the most is the advice to get an editor. I’m guessing there are a lot more people who think they are capable of editing their own work than there are people who are actually capable of editing their own work. So it’s true that IF you are capable of editing your own work, you should feel free to do so – but should you trust your own judgment regarding your editing abilities? Maybe. Maybe not.

    Also, I wonder if writers are particularly susceptible to advice simply because writing is so very open-ended and subjective. You can arrange the words any way you want, so self-doubt can become a major problem. If you’ve got simple rules to follow, then you have a simple way to evaluate your work (along with a convenient basis for snobbery).

    • Charlotte

      Hello Amanda, thank you for reading and commenting.

      I’m sure you’re right that it’s directed at beginners, but to my mind that’s half the problem. I feel quite strongly that newer writers, suffering from self-doubt and unsure what they’re doing, need encouragement and help, not restrictions and admonitions and exaggerated rules that Must Be Followed.

      To consider the example of editing. Right again: lots of people are oblivious to, for example, all the typos in their manuscripts. I’ve recently come across a few authors whose readers and reviewers have repeatedly pointed out problems like that, but the author has shrugged, declared them “minor issues” and gone merrily on regardless. That’s a shame, because it damages the potential of those books. But what’s the alternative? If they’re open to suggestion they’ll respond to that by fixing the issue, in which case there’s little harm done. But if they’re happy to ignore what their readers have said, then they’re also happy to ignore the advice of other writers. I fear that the people who most need that kind of advice are frequently (not always) the most likely to discount it.

      The people who do take all this advice to heart are the ones who are unsure of themselves to begin with. In such cases they often try to take ALL this type of advice and adjust their doings accordingly – because they’ve been made to feel that the consequences of not doing so would be disastrous. But there’s so much writerly advice floating about, much of it dispensed in a woefully uncompromising, dogmatic way, and a lot of it is contradictory. That’s as likely to bring a new writer to a standstill as to help them to improve, because no matter what they do they end up feeling like it’s WRONG!

      My frustration, then, is not so much with people giving or taking advice as with the way in which it’s done. I wish writers could be a bit less severe with each other, stop laying down commandments for each other and be more open to differences. As it stands, I think that the people who really need it at may or may not listen anyway, and the ones who are listening are as likely to be harmed as helped by it. Therein lies the problem.

  • http://www.amandamyre.com Amanda

    “I think that the people who really need it at may or may not listen anyway, and the ones who are listening are as likely to be harmed as helped by it.”

    I can only imagine you’re right about that!

  • Ryan Blake

    Hi Charlotte, your mini rant is equally understandable, entertaining, and useful.
    You’re right about the bullshit. However, I think that someone who gives advice that is sensible does exist:

    William Safire (the author of the New York Times Magazine column “On Language”)

    1. Remember to never split an infinitive.
    2. The passive voice should never be used.
    3. Do not put statements in the negative form.
    4. Verbs have to agree with their subjects.
    5. Proofread carefully to see if you words out.
    6. If you reread your work, you can find on rereading a great deal of repetition can be by rereading and editing.
    7. A writer must not shift your point of view.
    8. And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction. (Remember, too, a preposition is a terrible word to end a sentence with.)
    9. Don’t overuse exclamation marks!!
    10. Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long sentences, as of 10 or more words, to their antecedents.
    11. Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.
    12. If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
    13. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors.
    14. Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
    15. Everyone should be careful to use a singular pronoun with singular nouns in their writing.
    16. Always pick on the correct idiom.
    17. The adverb always follows the verb.
    18. Last but not least, avoid cliches like the plague; seek viable alternatives.

    Hope this can sheer you up at least a bit!

    http://tinyurl.com/7kkhvfu

  • Ryan Blake

    Ops, I meant cheer you up!? :roll:

    • Charlotte

      Haha, but Ryan, I thought “sheer you up” was a perfect ending. It made a nice job of illustrating the point. You did it deliberately really, didn’t you?

      That is a handy list, I’ll agree, though I don’t love all the items on it. Ending sentences with prepositions, for example, and others… following that kind of advice -too- closely leads to the kind of schoolroom English writing that’s quite far removed from the way we generally speak and read, and it can make one’s fiction sound like an English essay. But many of those tips are spot on.

  • Milord

    I am tired of estrogenous bitches! Why does every woman- my wife, my 2 daughters, my six sisters, my mother and all of their friends think they are qualified to tell me what to do? The very fact that I have survived their nagging for 55 years should tell them I can handle myself without their constant nattering!

  • http://www.spinwerds.com Lucia Spinwerd

    Hi there Charlotte,
    I have just stumbled upon your blog, and this particular article in particular caught my eye.

    I consider myself to be a beginner, so it’s just like me to follow some bad advice ;) But now that I’ve read all of the above, I’ve decided to follow my heart.

    Thank you for sharing and the many laughs this has brought me.

    Please escuse the grammar ;)

    • Charlotte

      Hi Lucia! Thank you for the comment. I think following your heart and being yourself can get a person a long way – and you’ll have fun in the process. What kind of fiction do you like to write? Best of luck with it =)

  • http://nmwritersbloq.wordpress.com Nisha

    OMG, I use adverbs all the time! I think I’m in love with them actually. He hE :mrgreen:

    But seriously, there are waaaaay too many rules out there. I’m editing at the moment and thinking of all these rules makes me anxious, which is probably why I don’t like editing too much.
    Imagine if every single writer employed every single rule out there? Reading books would be like torture…

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