Friday, May 18, 2018

When Discussing Controversial Writing Tips



Most writers’ advice is directed towards novices even though the vast majority of their audience will be people who’ve written quite a bit. The newcomers tend to go straight to the big names; unless you have a ridiculous marketing campaign for your blog, it’s going to take some digging to find the helpful word of non-household names. Even most of the big guys will take some time to be found. Unless you’re Stephen King, your audience will typically be writers who are interested enough to have found you.

Novice writing advice is pretty easy to spot. It doesn’t involve a lot of thinking, not for the tipper or the tippee.

“Don’t use ‘said.’”
“Only use ‘said.’”

It’s easy to find ‘said’ in a manuscript, easy to change it out—or not. It doesn’t take a lot of introspection or questions to turn all dialogue tags to he said, she said. The criticism is easy in every sense, but the real question is, is it useful?

Did I spike your blood pressure with that question? That’s the real point.

When you find a writing teacher, it’s important to examine their belief in their students. Someone who doesn’t actually think writing can be learned isn’t going to help you improve all that much. Someone who thinks that you’re all a bunch of idiots isn’t going to push you to be the best you can.

It’s also useful to really reflect on differences of opinions. Readers are all very separate people, and you aren’t going to write a book that everyone agrees is genius, especially not as a knee-jerk reaction to a first impression. Same goes for critique partners.

Which is to say, sometimes the person standing before you going on and on about what’s appropriate in dialogue tags truly believes what he’s saying. It might not even occur to him that other authors might disagree. Or, more commonly, that “Of course intermediate and experienced writers have different opinions! That’s the point. To learn the rules to learn to break them.” The beginners, however, need to start from ground one and be informed of these rules, right?

Well, not in my opinion. As I’ve stated many times before, experimentation is extremely important, and the sorts of people who will really absorb these writing rules are the first people who need to be convinced to branch out. Those of us—myself definitely included—who need to set aside our egos and hear options that we don’t want to listen to aren’t going to be convinced by a bossy, one-sided argument.

Most of us either fall on the side of fighter or follower as an overall tendency. The goal is really to achieve a good balance of both. Conversation, the exchange of ideas, is a two-way street. It’s not about listening and it’s not about talking, it’s about knowing when to do which. You honestly won’t learn as much from just smiling and nodding as you would by asking questions, being truthful about skepticism, and expressing disagreement. But you also won’t learn much if you don’t shut up and be open to the ideas of others.

So, you have the new writers who don’t like to be limited or told what to do. They tend to question authority and stand strong behind their own beliefs. They often have to reinvent the wheel, taking a lot of time to produce crap when, if they had just listened to the advice of others, they could have drastically sped up the process. They’re (we’re) hard to work with and can be obnoxious as hell, as well as, ironically, restricted to our own comfort zone.

Then you have the new writers who are afraid of doing things wrong. They absorb everything that everyone has to say, are (with some exception) fun to be around, and are better faster. But they have this ceiling of quality, and—as writers—this generic, personality-less tone that draws no interest or attention. They have no desire to waste time on something that won’t work, so they never take any risks or do anything personal, caring far too much about what other people think to really do something different or important.

The goal is to fluctuate back and forth between the personalities, to know when to stand strong and when to be open-minded. It’s not easy to achieve, requiring a great deal of awareness of who you are and who you’re talking to. It takes years of experience, and most of us will always be able to be labeled as one or the other category.

In any case, it’s useful to realize how your tips might come across to the listener and consider how you might be both alienating those you advise, but also spreading bad advice. Even good advice explained poorly is useless, and if you’re expecting them to only apply your opinion in moderation—expecting them to break the rules—you need to be clear on that. There are definitely some writers out there who will hear, “Don’t speak in full sentences in dialogue,” and restrict themselves to only sentence fragments.

There are others who will take your small helpful tips with the full implied magnitude and throw the baby out with the bathwater: “Only use said? So what? Other words don’t exist for a reason?” They ignore it, or even intentionally do the opposite out of spite.

When giving advice, make sure to say what you mean. If you don’t trust your students to understand you, it’s even more important not to over simplify. If your tips are really only written for writers who you expect to either quit or ignore you later on, then question if they’re really all that helpful. Trust those you advise to understand the complexities of context when explained, describe your thoughts through anecdotal experience, and take a moment to consider the opposing viewpoint and discuss it.

Any time you order someone around—“PLEASE learn how to punctuate!”—you’re going to have someone who disagrees with you. By being aware of that controversy, you’re more likely to sound informed, more likely to calm hostile audiences, and more likely to have your listeners implement the advice in the way you intended. Also, you’re more likely to actually understand the advice better yourself.

I can’t tell you how much hypocrisy I see in the writing world, and not just from me. “Do as I say, not as I do!” The belief that masters can get away with things the plebeians can’t is prevalent and problematic. I have heard people actually say, “Well, just because it doesn’t work for me…”


Your opinions matter, and it does no one any good to keep them to yourself. But keep in mind that part of the point of expressing opinions is that they’re not shared by all, so be prepared for a discussion, a misunderstanding, and pissing people off. This is normal. Don’t worry about it.



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