Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Archive for the tag “Rules of writing”

The Danger of Following Advice About How to Write (Or: Advice from Nobel laureates r teh suk)

Because writers love to write, there is no shortage of things that have been written about writing. Add the countless interviews with famous writers, where one writer talks to another writer about writing, and pretty much everything there is to know about how to write has been written. That’s a good thing.

It’s also a bad thing.

Or, more accurately, it can be a very bad thing when writers read just enough about writing to “become dangerous.” Particularly when a new, inexperienced, and/or unpublished writer is faced with advice from someone more experienced than she is; i.e., pretty much everyone. What I advise doing with that advice is precisely what I advise doing with regard to advice you get from other writers in the same situation in On Critiques and Writing Advice (Or: Editing on teh interwebs r teh suk). Whether the advice comes from a Nobel Laureate, Pulitzer Prizewinner, ten-time NYT Bestselling Author, or some schmuck like me, what you should do with that advice remains the same:

You should be willing to consider everything, but don’t get bullied into anything. If you get advice that improves your writing, it was good advice. If not, disregard it.

Many of you may respond to this by saying something along the lines of 



The answer is, yes. I am absolutely serious. Which leads to the follow-up inquiry:


Or, more accurately, WTF makes me think I can ignore the advice of someone who won the Nobel or the Pulitzer or sold a bagillion books? Let alone tell you to listen to me instead of them.

God, I must be an arrogant prick.

Except, that’s not really what I’m saying. I am certainly not saying to ignore the advice. That’s where the you should be willing to consider everything part comes into play. You should never ignore a piece of writing advice from anyone. The point here, and it cannot be overstated, is that you can’t write better just by doing something someone tells you to. Ever. You have to figure out how the advice offered fits with your writing. Regardless of who’s giving the advice, it might not work for you.

Which brings us back to me being an arrogant prick. It’s also where you can use the tsunami of advice about writing to your advantage. You see, there are few things, if any, that writers agree on.

I have absolutely no problem ignoring Steven King’s advice to sit down and write because outlining is a waste of time. The fact that E. L. Doctorow seems to agree with him doesn’t sway me, either. While they’re both fine writers, I’ve tried writing with and without an outline. I write better with one. So King and Doctorow can kiss my lily-white ass.

Arrogant? Not really. If there was a general consensus among all the great writers that outlining hampered storytelling, I’d be inclined to force myself to write without one, figuring I’d eventually get their point. But there isn’t. A quick internet search says that, among others, the list of people who completely disagree with Steve end E.L., include: Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, James Salter, Henry Miller, J.K. Rowling, William Faulkner, John Grisham, John Irving, Margaret Atwood, Hillary Mantel, and what appears to be a majority of renowned writers. All three of last year’s Pulitzer finalists outline, too. 

So it’s not that outlining does or doesn’t work. Steven King thinks he writes better without one. More power to him. John Irving thinks he writes better with one. Who am I (or who is E. L. Doctorow) to tell him he’s wrong? And nobody, other than me, is in a position to tell me whether I write better with or without one. 

It’s tempting to look at a phenomenally successful novelist and try to emulate her process as much as possible. The problem is, while there are valuable things to learn from that process, not all of it may add value to your writing.

Writing habits are a good case in point. Some writers advise that you must write first thing in the morning. Others say you must require yourself to write a certain number of words per day. Still others advise that your brain is at its peak in the late morning and early afternoon. One famous writer says that, until the story is completed, you must dedicate nearly every waking hour to it’s completion. Another is more concerned with having a firm cutoff, so your writing does not get stale. E. B. White likened writing to surfing, and advised waiting for inspiration to arrive then riding it like a wave. None of them are wrong. None of them are right, either. Except with respect to themselves and their own habits.

I’m reasonably certain that advice from successful writers about writing habits is advice for overcoming those particular writers’ weaknesses. If you’re prone to procrastination or easily distracted, committing yourself to sit down and write for a set number of hours first thing in the morning makes sense. It worked for Earnest Hemingway, anyway. If you tend to obsess about minutiae to the point it interferes with getting a reasonable amount of words out, setting a minimum word count will compensate for that. I suffer from writer’s diarrhea, not writer’s block, and I could happily write seven or ten hours at a time. But I’ve also found, particularly with humor and satire, my writing starts getting stale after four. The key for me is a firm cutoff, and it has nothing to do with the number of words I’ve written. All of those essays and interviews about author habits are interesting, but they don’t change what my individual strengths and, more importantly, weaknesses are.

A friend from writers boards loves to quote Heinlein’s Rules of Writing. The most famous (infamous) of which preaches:

 You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order

Contrast that with Earnest Hemingway:

I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.

Heinlein says, “refrain from rewriting” Vladimir Nabokov says, “I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” Those opposite, mutually exclusive approaches worked, both men achieved their goals. 

So, there it is. Plenty of advice about how to write, which begs the question:

I think the first step is take writing advice for what it is — that particular author’s take on how that particular author writes best. Sometimes, maybe even how that particular author wrote a particular book or story best. None of the advice out there will tell you how you should write everything. It’s useful, but its usefulness is almost archaeological. You can look at how prior writers achieved success. It can’t hurt to take note of those things. Just realize you are looking at something that happened to someone else in the past, not a blueprint for your future success. Being able to take bits and pieces of knowledge and tailor them to ideally match your strengths and weaknesses is a blueprint for success.

The real lesson is seldom found in the advice itself. That advice does, however, give you a way to understand the reason for the process. 2,000 word per day minimum? That goal seems to insure against procrastination or getting sidetracked with research questions. Advice to wait for the “perfect wave” makes me think E. B. White constantly came up with ideas, unless he was writing something else. He had to stay unconnected from a story until he knew it was the right one, because the faucet turned off for him when he was working on a story. Don’t revise? Many people think this advice is stupid, but a writer prone to endless cycles of revisions won’t ever submit anything. Even a rough draft is a better submission than no submission. Somewhere between never revising and revising until you’re in a pine box is something we can use. 

So, I’m not saying ignore writing advice from great writers. However, you don’t want to follow it, either. It’s useless at face value, but there is a lot of value to understanding the motivation behind it. For fun, take the next piece of writing advice someone quotes at you and research its opposite. There’s about a 99% chance you will find a Nobel Laureate saying that you must avoid doing whatever that piece of advice is telling you to do. 

The bottom line is: Our novels are the product of a lot of variables, the most important of which is how our brains individually function. As much as I love reading Kafka and Hemingway, I’m also happy my brain functions differently from theirs. No matter who’s giving it, we can’t just follow advice about how to write. But we can mine it for the lessons it stems from, learn from the perspectives it offers, and even take it for a test drive. It it works, use it.  But that way you’re using it because it works for you, not just because someone told you to do it that way.

The “Rules of Writing” Should be Called (and treated like) the “Guidelines for Editing”

Just about everyone who has written much has compiled a list of his or her Rules of Writing. Most of those lists include similar items, like:

  • Don’t use adverbs.
  • Don’t use adjectives.
  • Use “said” (and nothing but “said”) as your dialogue tag line.
  • Show, don’t tell.
  • Don’t use passive voice.
  • Have your character see something, don’t just tell us she could see it (and a corollary, tell us the thing happened, don’t tell us your character felt it happen).

and so forth. Often, the lists also include one more item, saying it is the most important rule of all:

  • There are no rules.

None of the “Rules” is truly a rule — or at least not a law. The last one in particular. There is, however, an important reason for including that on the lists. Starting with the fact that these are not really “Rules of Writing.” they are, more accurately, “Rules of Editing Your First Draft.”

Why the difference? Because we have enough on our plates when we are actually writing a story or novel. Creating believable characters in the midst of a situation fraught with conflict is hard. Doing that well, writing dialogue, thinking of a clever (but not too clever) way of resolving that conflict is hard. Writing believable dialogue where fifteen different characters sound like fifteen different people — with different education levels, who grew up in different parts of the country or different countries, who have different motives, who may be acting out of character for themselves in a given situation or who may be perceived by other people in the world you create in a way that is entirely different from the way they perceive themselves — is ridiculously hard. 

Trying to come even reasonably close to writing a half-decent first draft while also worrying about following all of the “Rules” is like trying to drive cross-country being followed by a cop who watched you walk out of a bar. You’ll be so worried about signaling before every lane change you’ll probably forget to look at the fuel gauge and run out of gas somewhere in Kansas.

So you soldier through the first draft, secure in the knowledge that it is going to suck whether or not you bother trying to follow any “Rules.” The difference is, if you disregard the “Rules” at that stage, there is a chance you will actually finish your first draft.

That’s why they are rules of editing. You use them when you are done to go back through and clean up the steaming pile of shit that is your first draft. 

There are “Rules,” and then there are rules.

Capitalization notwithstanding, the rules (like the one that cause me to put a comma after the introductory clause in this sentence) are relatively concrete. When people are talking, we put what they are saying inside quotation marks (unless you are Cormac McCarthy, and even with a writer that much more brilliant than I will ever be, it still bugs the shit out of me). Rules of basic grammar and construction make your writing comprehensible to people who have learned to read according to those rules. There is seldom (like, maybe, one time per couple of full-length novels) a reason do deviate from that outside of dialogue.

“End each sentences with a period, exclamation point, or question mark” is a rule. There is virtually never a reason to deviate in prose. “Don’t use more than three exclamation points in a novel” is a “Rule of Writing” (which is to say, an editing tip). There’s a big difference.

Make no mistake about it, I love the Rules of Writing. Almost all of them. They are rules of thumb from people practiced in this art who know what they are talking about. And I follow those rules 95% to 100% of the time.

Because of that, I love breaking the Rules of Writing even more.Because that one time in fifty or one in five hundred that I break them, I’ve had a long, hard talk with myself about whether I should be breaking the Rule in question. There are few sentences in my writing I have examined more closely, dissected more thoroughly, more earnestly searched for alternatives to breaking the Rule, and so completely convinced myself that there was no alternative. Going down the list:

  • Don’t use adverbs. Maybe I overdid it a little in the prior sentence, but it’s packed with adverbs that, combined with the alliteration, hopefully made the point. I am certain that I did not overdo it with the sentence prior to this one, because I’m not sure whether I accomplished that end, so “hopefully” is necessary for the sentence to be true.
  • Don’t use adjectives. Application of this rule and its exceptions are functionally the same as adverbs. If the bomb is going to set something on fire, it’s best to give the reader a heads-up that it is an incendiary bomb. 
  • Use “said” (and nothing but “said”) as your dialogue tag line. Unless the speaker just finished running and finds herself panting. This is the Rule I probably break more than any other Rule, but I can also say that I follow it at least 9 times out of 10.
  • Show, don’t tell. Novice (or bad) writers breaking this rule without a good reason account for most of the crappy writing in the universe. That said, if you show something important at the beginning of a dinner party and your plot doesn’t move again until the drive home, no reader wants to watch everyone eat just for the hell of it. A sentence or two giving us the gist of what happened during the meal (telling) is much better storytelling.
  • Don’t use passive voice. Thanks to grammar check, I know I hover between 97% and 98% active voice, which is as close to following this rule as I will ever get. Sometimes (though very rarely), the “passive” voice means livelier writing. “He put his hand on the doorknob, not knowing that if he opened the door he would be killed,” is passive, but, if you don’t want to disclose who or how or why he would be killed in that sentence, it’s still the way to go.
  • Have your character see something, don’t just tell us she could see it (and a corollary, tell us the thing happened, don’t tell us your character felt it happen). Done without intent, ignoring this rule leads to flat, boring writing. It adds unnecessary words and perspective to action, diluting its impact. By the same token, though, writing that a character “could feel the sweat roll down her forehead, stinging her eyes” changes the sensation completely — because the significance is not the sweat itself, it is the character experiencing it. And if I want to say she could see Canada from her back porch on a clear day, I shouldn’t feel obligated to make her go out and look at Canada every day it isn’t raining.

Do not read that analysis as me being dismissive of the Rules, because I am not. Odds are, you will find those and many other general rules of writing followed closely in my prose (which, unlike blog posts, I edit). More closely than most other writers. The distinction between bad Rule-breaking and good Rule-breaking is this: Good Rule-breaking means (1) you know the Rule; (2) you understand the purpose behind the Rule; (3) you have looked at the sentence that breaks the Rule to see if you can re-write it so that it follows the Rule; (4) every way of following the Rule you can come up with makes the sentence worse; (5) so you highlighted the sentence and moved on; (6) looking at it the next day, you remain reasonably sure the Rule needs to be broken; and (7) you make a mental note to go back over that sentence when revising (each and every time) to make sure that the changes don’t eliminate or reduce the need to break the Rule.

That’s how seriously we should take the Rules. They are not absolutes, but they’re close. If you make a conscious decision to break them 2% of the time for a really good reason, those departures can make your writing shine. Up that to 5% and it dulls your writing. More than 10% and I can almost guarantee you are not someone who knows the rules and is making a conscious decision to break them. A person breaking them that much just doesn’t know how to edit his work. 

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