On Writing Advice

I’m about to give you the most important piece of writing advice you will ever get.

It is this:

Take all writing advice with a pinch of salt.

(Except this bit, obviously. You should pin this piece of advice above your desk, or perhaps get a tattoo of it somewhere about your person.)

Writing advice is always well-intentioned, and usually comes from a sensible starting point. Things like “show, don’t tell”, “avoid adverbs” and “don’t use passive voice” are all concepts which, at heart, hope to help writers identify those sentences that could be made stronger. The problem is when these ideas get turned into rules, which always hold true and to which every writer must adhere.

It’s nonsense.

When it comes to writing, and especially when it comes to fiction writing, there are far fewer absolute rules than many people think. And even the actual rules can, and often should, be bent every now and again.

When it comes to writing advice, always ask yourself these questions:

  • What problem is this piece of advice trying to combat?
  • Does this sentence actually suffer from this problem?
  • What effect would applying this piece of advice have on this sentence?
  • Is that the effect I want?

Context is everything. For example, someone might advise “Always use contractions in dialogue”. This can be very good advice – the intention is to solve a problem, and that problem is stilted, unnatural-sounding dialogue. The line “I am just washing my hands. I will not be long” is definitely suffering from this problem, so applying the advice here would strengthen the writing by making the dialogue sound like something a person would actually say. But what about something like “I will kill you”? Let’s ask our questions. The advice is still trying to solve the problem of unnatural-sounding dialogue. Do we have unnatural-sounding dialogue here? I’m not sure, but to be honest, I don’t tell people I’m going to kill them very often (out loud, anyway). So let’s ask the next question. What would the effect of a contraction be here? “I’ll kill you.” We’ve changed the rhythm. We’ve speeded it up slightly, and in doing so, we’ve taken a bit of the punch out of it. Is that the effect we want? Well, as every editor knows is the answer to most of life’s questions, it depends. It depends on the words before and after it. It depends on the character who is speaking, their voice and style. It depends on what the intent behind the words is, and what those words will mean to the other characters in the scene, and to the reader. “Martin, I swear to God, if you’ve put my cashmere jumper in the washing machine I’ll kill you” is something quite different to “Someday, somehow, I will kill you”. The effect is what matters. A writer always needs to think about what they are trying to say and whether following a piece of advice will help them say it better.

In future posts, I’ll look at a few of these pieces of advice that seem to have become immutable laws in the eyes of some, but for now, just remember this: applying blanket “rules” to your writing without thinking about it is never a good idea. Only those who don’t understand writing deal in absolutes. Or is that the Sith? It might be the Sith.

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