Five Lessons from Society Bad for Writing

If all the world is a stage, then society is improv. Improv, or, improvisation, is acting where, in lieu of a script, the players pull things from the top of their heads. Usually, there is structure in it, a “game” with specific rules and regulations, like every sentence must be in the form of a question, or every time a bell rings they must change the last thing said.

One rule of a successful improv scene is to never play a child, an alien, a crazy person, or a man in heat because they don’t abide by society’s expectations and can behave unpredictably. This makes it extremely difficult for the scene partner to know how to react, to continue a conversation, or have a smooth emotional arc.

When constantly dealing with the unknown, society comes up with rules that allow us to behave properly and make each other comfortable. Polite regulations like always knocking on the door before entering, saying, “How are you?” to acknowledge someone’s presence, and being quiet in a lecture can be ignored and altered depending on the context, but are still there to fall back on when the individual doesn’t know what to do.

Society, like improv, has a lot of guidelines to prevent everything from going to hell. However, when in a context of an omniscient writer crafting a world, he has the ability to do whatever he wants because he does not have to deal with the unexpected immediately, nor do his readers. And, for that reason as well as others, there are several expectations that are problematic for writers and their careers.

1. Don’t talk about yourself.

We are taught that people don’t listen, they wait for their turn to speak. We rant about being caught on a bus listening to the life story of a very hopeless woman. With complaints about Facebook and whining about children’s blathering, it can be understood that people don’t care about you or what you have to say about yourself.


What is the difference between my story and your story? The pronouns. My story tells things from my perspective, taking things from my life, and discusses things I care about. Your story is all about your perspective, life, and interests. Even when it comes down to fiction—a made up world with made up characters doing made up actions—it’s still all about the author.

Now, most bad writing can be attributed to the meta-thinking it causes, the readers still, no matter how many society tells us they don’t, like people.

Against expectation, works with more character development than plot tend to fare better than those with great plot and shallow characters. You’d believe this was a preference thing, considering that most writers focus on one or the other, but interesting or relatable characters are a key element to a successful story.

The typical human craves interaction. We get lonely, we want conversation, we like being in the company of fellow creatures. Even for those of us who are not dependent on being social still find themselves craving attention sometimes. And, despite being an animal lover myself, our cats don’t always do it.

What this means for the writer:

A book is, essentially, talking nonstop for three hundred pages. At least a few hours of reading. You are already talking a lot. It is okay, then, to make it on some level about you. Not only that, it’s more interesting if it is. Trying to keep your humanity out of it removes the most interesting parts of what you can say. Illustrating your perspective and your wishes and desires will create a book far more relatable to than something that is taken from a cold, intellectual stance.

2. Don’t Talk Politics (Be careful about expressing your opinion.)

Where above it’s important to be open about who you are, being open about what you think can even seem more undesirable.

Complaints on Facebook indicate that no one wants to hear your political banter. And, in reality, they don’t. At least, the majority doesn’t. Politics and civil rights issues and God and all those morality things are the three no-nos of polite conversation. Everyone ends up just ticked off.

What this means for the writer:

However, in writing, describing events neutrally without any hint of a writer’s personal opinions is often boring. Journalistic integrity is all about detailing the cold hard facts and not coloring them with personal opinion, but you’ll note that the news today has forgone integrity for the sake of ratings, and opinion has taken over. People prefer a passionate rant over a text book.

There are places for objective, unbiased writing, there are places for any kind of writing, it is not the only way, and rarely does objectivity benefit fiction writing.

Biased descriptions have less limitation: “A woman walked by,” versus, “An ugly woman walked by.” The latter sparks emotion where the first just informs. Depicting a character’s hatred of another, or his fear, or his naivety, or his love through a lens—through word choice and bias description—enhances the mood and atmosphere. Letting the author’s opinion

3. Don’t let them see you sweat.

Several months after reading an article complaining about National Novel Writing Month, I’ve finally come to an understanding of the author’s hatred.

Everyone who ever wants to be successful has faced judgment for trying.

“Trying” is synonymous with “not doing.” If I’m trying to be a writer, it means I am not a writer. In fiction, trying something that doesn’t work often proves that you were wrong. The protagonist shoots someone without a word, and they find out that he was, in fact, a traitor as the protagonist believed, he was right and anyone who argued is an idiot. Take every episode of House.

If, however, he is stubborn and is wrong, then he is the idiot. It doesn’t matter if they did the same thing with the same information, the end results are all that matter.

People who have been afraid of “failure” unanimously agree that it’s not failure they’re afraid of. I’ve always said it as a fear of embarrassment, but it can be more than that. In American culture, we look down on trying: “Don’t or not do. There is no try.”

What this means for the writer:

As can be seen with people’s hatred of National Novel Writing Month, “Never letting them see you sweat,” can be taken as, “If you’re sweating, you’re not doing it right.” The naysayers complain about how it encourages bad writing, which doesn’t really affect the naysayers themselves. And what do they expect to happen when you encourage beginning writers to start their first book… period? When people first start writing just about all, with a few outliers, are terrible. And no one complains about people being encouraged to write in the privacy of their own homes… As long as we don’t have to hear about it. Certainly, it’s annoying to have people think their book is great when they really haven’t put in a lot of effort, but that’s not the Writing Month’s fault.

Nevertheless, everyone has the right to try, and trying is the only way to do. In the words of Cracked author, David Myers, “You cannot do without trying first. It is impossible. If he’d said, ‘Get drunk, or do not, there is no drinking’ it would have made as much sense.”

Sure, Yoda’s real point is that you don’t stop just because you tried, you keep going until you’ve done it. You can’t quit and say, “Well, I tried.” It still means you failed.

It’s not the issue of failing that bothers us, it’s the issue of letting everyone see us fail.

4. Normal is bad.

“Be yourself,” really means, “don’t be like everyone else,” which, from my standpoint, isn’t really being yourself.

I am a firm believer in being the person you want to be, and that while being different needs to be accepted because I’m also a believer in variation, people have the right to try and change themselves until they’re happy.

In either case, we can’t deny that we are, on whatever level, normal, and as writers, understanding that is a powerful tool.

There are benefits and consequences to being normal, just as much as there are to being different. Different and weird people may have strange perspectives that help us look at life in a way we’ve never seen before. But they are also harder to understand. Normal people can say exactly what they want to say (be themselves) and have more people innately relate to it. It is also, probably, something that has been said many times before, which is where our own personal weirdness helps in making it something different.

What this means for the writer:

How we are similar and how we are different to the average is mixed and varied. Every single one of us is normal and abnormal, depending on the context. The best way to creativity and clarity, however, is by understanding exactly how common our thoughts are and using that to the best ability.

For instance, the way each person interprets a singular word is different. When using the word “sit” I personally mean, “lack of motion.” When hearing the word “sit” in terms of a creature that can sit, most readers hear it as, “the act of sitting.” So if I say, “John sat there and watched him,” people will go, “Wasn’t he lying down?” Understanding that helps me get why “sit” isn’t the best word there, even though it is an accurate illustration of my understanding of sit.

In this case, my “abnormality” is not beneficial. Sure, they can understand what I mean, but it takes them out of the read and demands they give me the benefit of the doubt, two consequences that outweigh any sort of reward I get. So, I, recognizing the difference of opinions, choose the circumstance which is most beneficial, i.e. in this context, the normal one.

Though when to be normal and when to be abnormal is not cut and dried, being willing to admit that you are, in fact, normal and average in some ways, and abnormal and weird in others, allows you to take it into consideration and make the best choice possible. Embrace your weirdness and your normalcy.

5. Everything you want makes you a bad person.

If you look at what acts we define as “good” and “bad” the clear cut denominator tends to be: “What I assume you’re inclined to do.”

For instance, in most forms of entertainment we Americans perceive violence as more favorable to having sex, despite sex (usually) being an act of love and intimacy and violence being, well, the opposite.

Lots of factors come into play, but from the way I see it, it much more likely that I will sleep with someone in the future, but not murder anyone. Violence happens, to be sure, but, especially in modern society, sex is far, far more common.

When looking at writing advice, this motivation seems prevalent. They say, “Don’t ever use adverbs,” but what they mean is “Don’t overuse adverbs.” Because most everything is a balance, it is common to express the thought, “I assume you’re doing ____; don’t.” Trying to explain what the right balance is is harder than saying just don’t do it.

We have judgment for people who want to make money, have power, get laid, or even to fall in love. In all honesty, I can’t think of any goal someone couldn’t criticize you for. I remember while in college a girl told me her dream career was managing the L.A. Fairgrounds financials. I told her I wanted to be a writer. We both looked at each other like, “Idiot.”

Dream big or dream small, want money or want fun, power or no responsibility, you’re wrong.

What this means for the writer:

Motivation, as I said earlier, is important. Making the infinite number of decisions required of an author means cutting down on the possible options to something more manageable. Fact is, anything could be a good book in the right combination.  So, whether you make a drama or a comedy, a pure romance or a mixed genre, for teens or young adults or regular adults, what you name your character, the kind of clothes you put her in, the way she reacts to being slapped, every single choice you make has a thousand different “good” options, so now you have to make them all target a consistent goal.

You can’t be embarrassed to tell people you’re a writer. You also can’t sit around, dismayed that your book isn’t selling while simultaneously rejecting any advice because, “I don’t write for the money.” In order to make yourself happy and make effective decisions, it’s important to be honest with yourself.

Remember that no matter how much society looks down on wanting things, wanting things is what motivates you. There’s a reason why great artists tend not to fit into society very well.

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