The Danger of Writing Advice From Industry Professionals

Yesterday, a literary agent on Twitter stepped into a big pile of Twitter poop. One assumes this agent meant well. He, the agent who shall remain nameless as he has since deleted his tweet, popped on with a bit of intense, over-the-top writing wisdom (“wisdom”) that said, paraphrased, cut out all of the adverbs and adjectives from your book. All of them. Every last one of those little motherfuckers — axe ’em. They are ill beasts to be put down.

My response, was of course, to go even bigger:

DELETE ALL REFERENCES TO PLACE AND TIME IN YOUR BOOK. ALL OF THEM. GET RID. YOUR BOOK SHOULD FEEL TIMELESS AND AS IF IT IS FLOATING IN THE NETHERVOID.

DELETE ALL NAMES IN YOUR BOOK. EVERY LAST ONE. PURGE THEM. NAMES MARK US AS INDIVIDUAL BEINGS AND TRUE STORYTELLERS KNOW THAT WE ARE ALL ONE TERRIBLE, NAMELESS ENTITY.

PUNCTUATION IS A CRUEL VIOLATION OF THE SACRED WHITE SPACE OF THE PAGE, AND TO SUMMON READERS YOU MUST ELIMINATE ALL PUNCTUATION. BE SHUT OF THESE HUMAN, FLESHBAG NEEDS. YOUR READERS WILL THANK YOU IN DREAD ULULATIONS

SOON YOUR WORK WILL BECOME TRULY SUBLIME. YOU WILL HAVE CUT OUT THE FAT. AND THE TENDON. YOU WILL HAVE BECOME RID OF THE RUINED MEAT OF EXISTENCE. THE BOOK MUST BECOME ONLY BONE. SHARP, HEART-KILLING BONE.

REMOVE ALL WORDS FROM YOUR BOOK. GET. RID. OF. WORDS. THE BOOK MUST BECOME A SERIES OF GRUNTS AND ANGRY GAZES. THAT IS HOW YOU WRITE A BESTSELLER. YOUR BOOK IS A DEFIANT, WORLD-CLEANSING WIND. IT IS THE GASP OF A DYING GOD. THE FLASH OF A STAR IMPLODING.

And of course, that’s all very bad advice.

It’s very bad advice because there exists this occasional movement toward severe austerity cuts inside fiction, as if every bit of prose should be cut down to the bone, and then the bone whittled to a spear that can be thrust cleanly through the reader’s heart. There’s nothing wrong with austerity in prose, if it’s what you seek and if it’s what the story demands. There’s also nothing wrong with adding fat to the prose in the form of descriptive language. One’s voice as an author and in terms of the book you’re writing is useful, even vital, to preserve; I often note that originality in fiction is utter bullshit, except in the area where it really matters, which is to say, YOU. You, the author, are the one original component that can be brought to a story. Your ideas. Your fears. Your preferred arrangement of elements. And, obviously, your voice.

Now, that’s not to say that BUT IT’S MAH VOICE is a good reason to keep bad writing. Bad writing is bad. But bad writing does not mean, “writing that includes adverbs and adjectives.”

Adjectives and adverbs should be kept when they are impactful and provide clarity to the narrative. Use them with intentionality. Use them because without them, the work cannot be properly conveyed. Removing adjectives will force us not to describe things, and while over-describing things is bad, describing essential parts of the story is just fine. We want the reader to know what they’re seeing. And never mind the fact that the constant tolling of the anti-adverb bell always seems to misunderstand that adverbs don’t just mean SHE RAN OVERLY SORROWFULLY THROUGH THE GARDEN, it also means words like “later,” or “everywhere,” or “never” or “alone.” And so the advice really should be, don’t use adverbs or adjectives when they sound awkward, or when they fail to tell us something that we need to know.

All this goes toward the old chestnut of SHOW, DON’T TELL in fiction. But even that is an oft-misunderstood chestnut, innit?  SHOW DON’T TELL is half-nonsense because, spoiler warning, you’re always telling a story. It’s why it’s called storytelling. It’s why your book isn’t a fucking movie. You must use words to — oh no — tell it. SHOW DON’T TELL isn’t a rule; it’s a trick. You’re trying to trick the reader into feeling like they’re being shown a thing rather than told a thing. Which is fine and admirable to attempt.

Whatever.

All this, really, is beside the point.

The point today is that you should beware writing advice from people with power inside the publishing industry — which, I know, sounds terribly counterintuitive. But please, follow the bouncing ball of my logic:

Writing advice, as I am wont to note, is bullshit.

And yet, I give it. I give it because I like to think about this stuff and talk about this stuff and often talking about writing helps me unpack the problems I’m having with writing. So, yes, writing advice is bullshit. Bullshit can fertilize; it has value. But you still gotta know that it’s bullshit. I also increasingly like to make clear that writing advice is nothing more than giving an opinion, and it is similar to the opinion as to how one should wear their hair or parent their child: while there are a few cardinal rules, for the most part, it’s DO WHATEVER THE HELL YOU LIKE, BECAUSE WHATEVER WORKS IS WHATEVER WORKS.

Nearly every piece of writing advice can be taken, tested, and found wrong. Because inevitably there exists a novel — a popular novel, either bestseller or an award-winner or both — that does exactly the thing you’re Not Supposed To Do. Or it doesn’t do the thing that Everyone Is Supposed To Do. Novels break the rules all the time because ultimately, no rules exist. (The one rule that does exist is that you must finish your shit. A book can never exist until you finish it, and so all books pass that indestructible law.)

The problem is when people inside the industry — writers, yes, but more notably editors and agents and other publishing folk — make declarative statements about writing and style and story without first letting people know, “This is my preference, not an ironclad rule.” Newer writers, aka LI’L BABY PENMONKEYS WANDERING THE DARK WOODS OUTSIDE WRITERTOWN, take this shit as Golden Law. They accept it to have been given from On High, and so now it is Sacred, even though it’s no more sacred than the steaming load that falls out of a bull’s ass.

So, I just want to note that you should be wary of writing advice from people inside publishing — not that you should dismiss it or disregard it. To the contrary, you should try using the bullshit to fertilize your own narrative fields, and see if anything grows there. But take nothing as chiseled into stone. Make no assumptions about the indefatigability and righteousness of their advice. It’s just advice. They’re just telling you how they prefer you wear your hair. But they also don’t know. For every bit of writing wisdom they believe that they believe, they will probably have that faith tested — and defeated — again and again, because what works works, and what doesn’t, doesn’t.

If you’re a person inside publishing giving out writing advice, try to be cautious how you frame it. I’ve grown increasingly aware that the impact of my assertions can be dangerous; indeed, what works for you, what you like, may help someone. But it may set others off the path, and the best thing you can do is to frame your advice with a lot of flex in the joints, ensuring that people know full-well that what you’re offering is only your opinion, and nothing more.

NOW PLEASE GO AND READ MY BOOK ABOUT STORYTELLING

see, that’s how you pivot to sweet, sweet marketing, everyone

*beams*

* * *

DAMN FINE STORY: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative

What do Luke Skywalker, John McClane, and a lonely dog on Ho’okipa Beach have in common? Simply put, we care about them.

Great storytelling is making readers care about your characters, the choices they make, and what happens to them. It’s making your audience feel the tension and emotion of a situation right alongside your protagonist. And to tell a damn fine story, you need to understand why and how that caring happens.

Whether you’re writing a novel, screenplay, video game, or comic, this funny and informative guide is chock-full of examples about the art and craft of storytelling–and how to write a damn fine story of your own.

Out now!

Indiebound | Amazon | B&N

41 comments

  • I love that flowchart image every time you roll it out.

    “I often note that originality in fiction is utter bullshit, except in the area where it really matters, which is to say, YOU.” <– this reminds me of something my instructor in the ancient and traditional Japanese martial art of killing imaginary people with swords tells his students. That is, to get grades, you have to do it textbook and tick all the right boxes. But once you're a high enough grade, ticking boxes isn't enough. You have to take the art and *make it yours* whilst still ticking all the boxes. To show that how you see it is different to how it's seen by somebody a whole foot shorter or the size of the Hulk, and demonstrate that your form is different whilst still being recognisable as the kata you're performing.

    Personally, I treat adverbs as seasoning in food, and try to use them sparingly for effect (though I almost never use them in dialogue). But cutting out all adverbs and adjectives? That would be like taking the dumplings out of stew and dumplings, or the ginger out of a gingerbread man. All you'd be left with is stew and bread man. Kinda boring.

  • “And so the advice really should be, don’t use adverbs or adjectives when they sound awkward, or when they fail to tell us something that we need to know.” Excellent advice sir, excellently said.

  • The reason why I like to read your writing advice as opposed to others is because it is autobiographical, as if we’re sitting in a coffee shop talking about our lives and the writing advice is woven into the conversation. So even if I am not seeking encouragement or advice on a particular day, I still find what you have to say interesting and valuable.
    Makes me wonder, have you ever toyed with the idea of writing an autobiography?

    • DAMN FINE STORY is the closest I think I’d get to writing a memoir or autobiography — the life of me, the writer, ain’t really that interesting, though some individual stories from my life maybe are.

  • The best piece of advice that I’ve seen about show and tell went something like “Don’t tell me the window was broken, show me the glint of moonlight on broken glass”. I like that because it’s demonstrating why it’s good advice. “The glint of moonlight on broken glass” is a prettier sentence and it contains more information than “the window was broken”.

    • That Chekhov-quote is actually an urban legend and just the summary of something he wrote in a letter:

      “In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.”

      So, 1. he only talks about descriptions of nature and never claims it to be a universal principle of good writing. And 2., I can easily write a story where that glint of moonlight is neither the “prettier sentence” nor does it convey the information I want or need in a given context and voice. Purple prose is a thing too.

      NO advice, no matter how ostensibly catchy, is universally applicable.

  • I laughed my head off at your over-the-top advice, but I sobered up fast. I’m a book editor. I see the most atrocious writing you can imagine–not every day, not in every manuscript, but often enough it makes me wonder what they’re teaching in school these days. Good writers improve with every sentence they write. They read, they learn, they _do_ listen to people worth listening to. All beginning writers make the same mistakes, then hopefully they improve. It’s the ones who never do that are disconcerting. They write book after book, and they’re horrible. Maybe it’s how their brains are wired, or they think they’ve reached the absolute height of good writing already, magically, without soaking up a single thing from those who know better. Or they belong in that dreaded third classification of writers who think, “I’ll just spew this stuff on a few hundred pages and let the editor clean it up.” All I know is, I don’t get paid nearly enough sometimes. 😉

  • I think maybe the agent was misquoting Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ where he compares adverbs to dandelions: if you allow one on the lawn then, before you know it, the lawn is full of the damned things. Only King qualifies this and even gives a couple of examples where he uses them. I think the general message should be: one or two look cool but beware.
    Great blog!

  • In each oft-quoted chestnut there is core issue that it is supposed to address. However, over-applying the rule is just as bad. One book tackled the adjective/adverb one by given a sentence where every noun had two adjectives and one adverb and you can see why people say things like “delete all adjectives”

    My other fount of writing advice comes from Emma Darwin, a British writer and teacher. She really drills down into the oft-spouted rules and gets to the heart of the matter. For example http://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/showing-and-telling-the-basics.html breaks down the show/tell debate and shows what to consider when choosing between showing and telling.

  • Totally agree, Chuck. Adverbosity and adjectivity can certainly be carried to the flowery extreme. But a book without them is like black-and-white TV compared to color HDTV. Great if you’re watching Casablanca; not so good if you’re watching Avatar.

  • Amen. Awomen. Agenders. Ah-allof’em. As an editor, my first rule is to witness and preserve the writer’s ‘voice(s)’, imprint(s), and style(s). I encourage authors to design their own style sheet and submit it with the manuscript to guide me in understanding and upholding their word-visions. Rules are good to know because breaking them can create the proper resistance. But, if I were to make a style sheet rule to leav of th las lette o ever wor, it could make reading brains/eyes hurt (unless there is a character in the story who lives, talks, and reads by that rule! Hmmm. I think I’ll name him Chuc.)

    • I was once introduced to a lady who was writing a book in “Piratese” (Pirate language) and every page is in Piratese on the left hand page and English on the right hand page. As far as i know its still not done but the vision to do that i admire.

  • “(The one rule that does exist is that you must finish your shit. A book can never exist until you finish it, and so all books pass that indestructible law.)”

    And yet, there are exceptions to this rule, too. Unfinished books DO get published… when the author dies. And it only really works if you’ve already got a huge following or a popular series. And you won’t be able to enjoy it anyway, as you’ll be dead.

    Yes, I can be a bit pedantic at times. 😀

    Finish your book.

  • I was one of those gullible newbies who fell off the rails into a messy train-wreck because I believe every writing advise cliche. Logic told me lots of this stuff didn’t make sense, but I’ve gotten used to ignoring the Ms. Logic part of me. I mean sheesh, a logical woman? Serious nerd alert. Stop that logic!

  • Spot on, Chuck. I’ve said for years that there’s no one way to write, only what works for the writer. My First Monday Mentoring blog this month addresses the “write every day or you’re not a writer” issue. Heck, I don’t write every day despite having 90 books published. Even writers need a life, or what will we have to write about? FYI https://valerieparv.wordpress.com/2017/12/03/first-monday-mentoring-dec-2017-writing-needs-the-gift-of-time/

  • As Jeff Gerke says in The Irresistible Novel (and I paraphrase), the only immutable law of writing is that you must gain and keep the reader’s attention. Although preferably not in a fascinated-trainwreck-horror kind of a way.

  • Thank you for your advice. Too bad I didn’t read your article before I chopped my book down to its bare bones, removing adverbs and other no-nos. My second one is leaner and meaner but uses adverbs sparingly (I still love my “ly” words) that are needed to add meaning to my words.

  • Awww, I get to call myself a baby penmonkey now. And yes, we infants do take every word from the professionals as gospel, literal, unchanging truth. So your reminder to the professionals to use that power responsibly is a good thing.

  • Anne Allen gave us this link in her blog today and I’m so glad she did. You’re funnier than heck (a word I never use but I don’t feel it’s appropriate for me to use swear words in YOUR blog). Anyway, thank you for the writing advice. I agree with you on all points. I’ve learned a lot since I started writing and my first book is certainly different than my seventh and I hope it shows.

  • I say write, then read it. Even better, read it out loud to other people who are not that fond of you. If you hold them enthralled, you’re either a hypnotic speaker or you wrote the story the way it needed to be written. If you can make your readers want more, you’re doing it right.

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