Writerly Advice

Every writer, the world over, struggles often.  Finding the right word, or most elegant way to phrase a thought, or breathing life into a character whose only existence is among the carefully arranged symbols of an alphabet.  It can be maddening, liberating, and soul-crushingly depressing all in the span of seconds.  The blank white space of the paper or screen can mock and goad.  The specter of the dreaded writer’s block hovering over every pause and momentary mental blank-out.

One thing no writer is ever short of, though, is advice.

This advice comes from everywhere: family, friends, writer’s groups, the Internet.  I even have a Twitter feed that dispenses advice for writers several times a day.  For centuries, writers have dispensed their words of wisdom to other writers, trying to provide advice to make them better writers.  Advice is very different from feedback, which can be incredibly beneficial, because it is specific to YOU and YOUR writing.  Advice, generally, is just a broad sweeping statement that claims to be TRUTH.  For the most part, though, that advice is quite possibly the worst thing that a writer can read.

Here are a couple of pieces of advice that I have received over the last few days through my handy Twitter feed, and my thoughts on them:

“Grammar Pet Peeves: Alexander McCall Smith says cut the adjectives. We agree. Hate them. http://huff.to/bYWrUX (via @HuffPostBooks)”

You hate adjectives.  Hmm.  This reminds me of the Creative Writing course that I took at the University of Florida, back when I entertained the notion of getting an English degree.  Our instructor constantly told us to think and write like Hemmingway, who “CUT EVERYTHING TO THE BONE.”  That’s how he always said it, in capital letters.  I honestly think he liked saying “TO THE BONE” more than he liked reading or writing or coffee or anything else.  For me, taking out the “extraneous” words is very much cutting to the bone.  What you are left with is a dry brittle skeleton, all the sleek muscle and strong fiber and sumptuous juices and pumping organs and LIFE stripped away into the most boring and dull goddamn thing you’d ever want to read.  I can’t stand Hemmingway.  I mean, I CANNOT FUCKING STAND reading his stuff.  It’s awful (to me).  It’s dreadfully boring (to me).  It’s as dry and lifeless as an ocean beach in winter (to me).  On the other hand, I LOVE adjectives.  I adore them.  I don’t want to say the blacksmith carried a hammer.  I want to say the exhausted blacksmith carried a heavy iron hammer, both cracked and pitted from a decade of hard use.  Both sentences convey the exact same thought, but I know which one I like better.  Hating adjectives is like hating beauty and joy.  So go fuck yourself, CUT IT TO THE BONE people.  I am sure you can find archives of early 20th century telegrams to read for pleasure.

“People don’t like using dictionaries when they’re reading mere novels. ANTHONY BURGESS”

I get what he’s saying.  Don’t be pretentious.  But at the same time, having a broad vocabulary is a GOOD THING.  Using it shouldn’t make a writer feel ashamed or like he needs to dumb it down.  I come across words I don’t know all the time, but only once (it makes sense in my head).  How else am I supposed to learn new words, new ways to express and describe the world around me?  I hate seeing the same words used over and over to describe something.  I can’t help it that I sometimes like to use “big words” as a few friends put it.  Those words describe exactly what I’m going for, and I won’t apologize for it.  If you write like that, don’t apologize either.  However, that doesn’t mean you should take pleasure in using the most obscure words possible for the sheer sake of it, because that makes you a douche.  I’d love to see that as a quote given to writers 100 years from now: “Don’t use big words just for their own sake, because that makes you a douche.” – ARAVAN

“A simile must be as precise as a slide rule and as natural as the smell of dill. ISAAC BABEL”

What the fuck is that even supposed to mean?  GODDAMN IT, MY SIMILE SMELLS LIKE MOWN GRASS, NOT DILL!  This is pretentious (to me).  What the fuck is so natural about the smell of dill, exactly?  Way to undermine your own fucking quote.

There is, thankfully, a good bit of advice from one writer to others, and they all follow the same basic gist.  It’s the only advice I ever try to give.  It’s very simple: Write.  Read.  Do those two things, a lot.  It’s all you need.  If you want to write, you just… need… to… write.  There is no other way to find your own voice, your own way of talking to the world.  You might start off imitating another writer that you are fond off, probably self-consciously.  Gradually, though, your words and tone and descriptions will be uniquely you, the same way that you’d tell someone of an interesting incident that took place at Starbucks last week.  Read always, especially in the genres or styles that you like to write in, but just read.  Learning to be a good speaker involves listening: writing is no different.  Reading is the equivalent of listening to another storyteller, and something in their cadence or word choice may spark something in you, and teach you a different way of expressing yourself.

Finally, there is, indeed, one cardinal piece of advice that should be given to anyone who writes or is thinking of writing, and it is this:

“If I had to give young writers advice, I’d say don’t listen to writers talking about writing or themselves. LILLIAN HELLMAN”

Don’t listen to anyone else.  Including me.  Especially me.

About Alan Edwards

Former cancer caregiver. Husband of the most magical and amazing person who ever lived.

Posted on October 21, 2010, in Rantin' and Bitchin' and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I recently got a critique on the writer’s forum that made me laugh/grumble. As the person reviewing my work in progress from almost 3 months ago kept saying things like, “He shouldn’t say that. That doesn’t word doesn’t work there.” About DIALOG, really?

    Since when was my imagination conquered by the dialog dictators? If something is in quotes and a character is speaking why do people expect their grammar to be perfect? If I’m trying to convey how a character sounds I prefer to write how they sound. I can describe it all day but if you read how it sounds with a little description (I feel) you’ll immediately connect with the voice I’m going with for that particular character.

    Keeping things entirely up to the reader only makes sense in one format and one format only, a script, and even then I’m not a fan of all the interpretation we as writers have to put up with. I was always told, “Don’t direct from the page Matthew.” Bah! If he gets angry and he wrinkles his nose when he gets angry then have the damn actor do it. Sigh.

    On the plus side I had already fixed everything months ago that this person took note of, with the exception of dialog of course.

    On big words, use them. We place cent values on the “big words” in my house when we hear them in conversation.

    “Oooh that’s a 25 cent word right there!” Yes, my girlfriend is from North Carolina so we use a lot of southern fried phrases.

    So to those so dense they plod through life with the speed of a Paleozoic era ice berg, refusing to look up from their feet at the rest of the world evolving around them, PISS OFF! Some of us enjoy extraneous usage of someone else’s extensive vocabulary.

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