“Advice” or “3 Ironic Tips for Writers”

Writers write about writing a lot. Go figure.

I don’t actually blame us. This is something we care about, so it’s something we talk about. It’s also one of those things where, no matter how good you are, you want to be better. …Unless the idea of attaining perfection repulses you, in which case I doubt you read many blog articles aimed at improving your craft.

For the rest of you who do read such articles, perhaps you’ve noticed some pieces of “recommendation regarding a decision or course of conduct” come up a lot. Like, all the bleeding time. To the point where you stop listening and start looking for ways to entertain yourself by pointing out the irony inherent in the advice’s continued use.

…Am I the only one who does that? Oh, good. Then you’ll probably be able to read my alternate take on these 3 done-to-death writer tips without any sense a déjà vu.

1) “Avoid clichés.”

The irony: The criticism of clichés, in itself, has become a cliché – trite, hackneyed, and so overly commonplace that it’s lost potency.

Why it bugs me (apart from the fact that I hear it all the bleeding time): Life is a cliché. You can only get so original before your story stops making sense and nobody wants to read it. Readers, bless their/our contradictory little hearts, want originality and creativity both. They want to read something they’ve seen a million times before without it feeling like they’ve seen it a million times before. They want old made new. They want clichés dressed up in a WOW factor. They want the same old heroic journey/love story/tragedy with new characters in a new setting and a new reason for them to give a hoot.

My advice: Don’t focus on what makes your story the same as the rest. Focus on what makes it different. Because, as the Backstreet Boys sing it, that’s what makes it beautiful. (No, One Direction, not knowing your own beauty does not make you beautiful. It makes you oblivious.)

2) “Show, don’t tell.”

The irony: People will be forever telling you this instead of showing it.

Why it bugs me (apart from the fact that I hear it all the bleeding time): You know what writers are? Storytellers. “Storyshowers” isn’t a word. Unless we’re talking about silent films or picture books completely devoid of text, there has to be telling involved. We’ve got to tell to show. Call me a literalist, but these are just the facts.

My advice: Tell the darn story. Just tell it in a way that shows the story, rather than laying it out in dry summary. “Ollie died, and this made Joey sad” gives you less than “Joey wept over Ollie’s fallen body”. I’m telling you both examples (as opposed to showing you, which would necessitate pantomiming the whole thing for you on video, or something), but doesn’t the second one make you feel a little closer to the action? If “storyshowers” were a word, it would be the characters’ job description, not the writers’. The characters show, we writers watch, and then we tell what we see.

3) “Kill your darlings.”

The irony: This seems to be a darling phrase of writing advisors everywhere.

Why it bugs me (apart from the fact that I hear it all the bleeding time): Notwithstanding my frequent fantasies in which I knock somebody over the head with a large stick, I don’t actually like violence. And this phrase – much like talk of slashing at your first draft until it bleeds red ink – strikes me as unnecessarily brutal. Editing does not have to be a slaughter! Does a surgeon hack mercilessly at the patient on the operating table like a Viking berserker? If your answer’s not “no”, change doctors now. A qualified surgeon enters the problem area with delicate skill, gently removes the unsightly tumor, and disposes of it in the proper receptacle. Tumor removal: Still a nasty metaphor, but so much more elegant on an artistic level, not so?

“Alright, Nurse – it’s time to painstakingly extract the darling.”
“Alright, Nurse – it’s time to painstakingly extract the darling.”

My advice: No matter how much you love a thing – that character, that scene, that witty phrase – if it does not serve the greater good of your story, it is an abnormal growth of tissue that possesses no physiological function and needs to leave for the body’s health and quality of life. Put on your surgical gloves and work some writer magic.

What think, fellow writer-types? Any writing advice clichés you’d like to put under the knife? Show Tell me in the comments.

6 thoughts on ““Advice” or “3 Ironic Tips for Writers”

  1. I have read several how-to-write advice books – and I’ve even written a column or two – and I’ve found some useful tips for revising but to be honest, it’s all sort of afterthought. I don’t think it has much to do with what it is that we are doing when we’re writing. It’s stuff we think up afterwards in trying to explain it. Mostly we play it by ear.

    • True enough, Catherine, as far as my own writing experience goes. I can plan like mad beforehand, and I can try to iron out the wonky bits after, but the actual doing of it — the writing itself — is a lot of beautiful guesswork.

  2. I always find the problem with these types of advice is that they become catchphrases for writers. You get people who really shouldn’t be giving writing advice (because they haven’t yet grasped the basic concepts) telling people to ‘show not tell’. Do they have any idea how to do this? Of course not, they just like passing on advice because it makes them feel clever.

    I think all writing advice has a paradox in it. Which is why, somewhat fittingly, I think the only piece of writing advice ever should be ‘Ignore all writing advice’.

    No offense to your writing advice, of course. People should listen to you, on account of the fact that you are good at all that putting words in order business.

    • YES to Paragraph One. I’ve grown suspicious of anyone whose business is working creatively with words and all they have to say is the same stuff everyone else says in the same way everyone else says it. If you can’t even be original in the delivery of your advice…

      No offense taken at all, and thanks for the credentials acknowledgement. (: I went for years thinking I was in no position to give writing advice to people. Now I’ve reached a point where I feel, yeah, I could advise you, but I think you’d be better off just writing and writing and remembering to occasionally eat/sleep/take bathroom breaks and writing some more. Simply doing that (minus always remembering about eating/sleeping/*cough* etc.) has taught me far more about how to write effectively than reading about writing ever has.

  3. Yes, definitely all of this!

    I usually have a hard time with writer advice. Yes, it works for some people, and yes, every so often something strikes me and helps me improve on my own work. It has its place, I understand that, but I have always thought that writers need to keep this kind of advice at arms length. Trying to “follow” writing advice can end disastrously (And, of course, there are always those new stories that come out that don’t seem to follow any of the “key” things about writing, anyways!)

    It’s good to be informed and to hear what others have to say, but it’s better to take these as, I think, opinions, instead of advice you should follow immediately.

    • Well spake. An opinion shared by a large percentage of people is still an opinion — and some opinions may be more vague and unhelpful than of practical use.

      A lot of common writing advice, I think, reads like shorthand. The principles behind it may be sound enough, but when its all been condensed into an easily-quoted fragment, it no longer does as good a job of telling the writer unfamiliar with the full premise the “what”, “why”, and “how” of what they’re doing.

      So I mostly like to use writing advice just to get me thinking, because whether or not one follows “The Rules”, intentional writing trumps writing in which you’re just throwing stuff in and out because someone said you were supposed to.

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