Monday, 24 October 2011

Pedantic Much?



When you first learn about the basics of good writing, about how to best employ the senses, or how not to employ adverbs, there comes a moment when it all comes together, when it all makes perfect sense. Good sense that can’t be argued with. And you start employing those ideas in your own writing and no doubt your writing improves greatly.

However, it’s very easy to go from convert to zealot. The main difference being you suddenly feel the need to impress on others the true path. And in many cases others would certainly benefit from knowing the value of show versus tell, or that short sentences make action scenes more visceral. How could anyone disagree with using fewer clichés?

But that doesn’t mean it’s true for all cases.


It’s human nature to want to impart wisdom to those who have not seen the light. Giving up smoking, becoming vegan, learning about the coming apocalypse a week on Tuesday, it’s very satisfying to keep shouting at someone until they agree with you (in between the sobbing and pleas to leave them alone).

When you’re armed with solid examples and carefully-worded instructions it’s not hard to sound convincing, to such an extent that you can soon have a full congregation in the Church of Start Mid-Action, or the Temple of No Flashbacks. But these are false prophets, even if they mean well.

Following a certain way of writing won’t necessarily make a story work, any more than not following those directions will automatically lead to failure. When it comes to the rules of writing (or to anything), there is two parts to every equation. There’s how the rule works, and then there’s when to use it.

And when others choose to follow a different path in spite of common sense—tolerance, always tolerance (we were not put on this earth to judge others—that what God created the New York Times Bestsellers List for).

There are plenty of times when even the most universal of laws just don’t apply. If it doesn’t jibe with the writer’s voice, or if it detracts from the intent of the story, or if it’s just more interesting to use another approach, as long as the reader can understand what you’re saying it really doesn’t matter all that much how you choose to say it. A boring sentence is far more problematic than a grammatically incorrect one.

That’s not to say a writer’s decision is always going to be correct. Believing a particular approach works best doesn’t make it so.  And turning against the tide for the sake of it is just as pointless as following along blindly. The story can take the next left to Dullsville whether or not you adhere to White and Strunk.

Often you find yourself getting advice from someone so deep into their favourite ideology that they stop being able to see the wood for the trees. They might tell you where you say Jack sat down on the chair, you should just say Jack sat on the chair. That extra down is redundant, and as you know extra words just get in the way. And that is certainly true in some cases, but the song wouldn’t sound quite the same as Sit, sit, sit, You’re rocking the boat.

There is a difference between what you could say and how to say what you want to say. And it all comes down to knowing what you mean. You have to know your own intent.

You can have a scene where one man kills another, and depending on how you present it, how you use language and pace and context, the reader could be sympathetic with either the killer or the victim, or even change sympathies mid-stream. That’s why you use the words you use, in the order you use them. Not to fit with some objective standard for what makes a good story, but for what makes your story as good as it can be.

Because they aren't really rules at all, they're options.

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26 comments:

Suze said...

Your best post, yet.

Two cents.

Lady Gwen said...

A lot of good advice here. I'm still at the first stage of how not to employ adverbs and showing, not telling. I'm sure it will all come together one day!

Cheryl said...

Good post, Moody, full of common sense as usual :)

Miranda Hardy said...

Yes, you are right. Everyone has a different writing style and it's important to know that rules can and will be broken, but that's ok.

L.G.Smith said...

Yep, which is why I try not to get into writing advice very much on my blog. There's room for every approach. It's all a matter of what works for the story and voice. As soon as I tell someone they shouldn't do something a certain way, some genius comes along and does it brilliantly. Doesn't mean the rules shouldn't be followed, but they should be treated more like, uh, guidelines. :)

Jen said...

I'm with L.G. Also, it's great to know the rules, but you should definitely be able to break them whenever you want. Because it's your voice!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

More like guidelines...
I'll admit to being an outline type of writer, but beyond that, I'm not good at giving writing advice to anyone. Even with my critique partners, I make sure they know my thoughts are just suggestions.

Nancy Thompson said...

Yeah, advice is a tricky thing. Only give it when asked for and then only sparingly, sandwiched between compliments. Then wrap it up with a disclaimer that you are in no way an expert. Rules in general aren't good to harp on. Read the material and judge from that only.

julie fedderson said...

I think that's what talent is--the ability to take the rules and morph them into something that reads like it's not limited by anything at all. Structure shouldn't be obvious. Great post.

Lorena said...

I've been both the Imparter of the Truth and the Rule-Breaking Pupil who've received the same critique over and over again. Fortunately, I have now reached a mid point where I understand the concept you're communicating here.

"Because they aren't really rules at all, they're options."

Excellent post!

Brent Wescott said...

I like your last line, not rules, just options. And you have to know what your options are. So every writer should read Strunk and White. (That's not an option; it's a rule.)

Fiona Faith Maddock said...

Another great post from you.

Sandra Patterson said...

"A boring sentence is far more problematic than a grammatically incorrect one."

Couldn't agree more.

Ted Cross said...

My feeling is that it's better to follow the 'rules' until you reach a level of mastery that allows you to truly understand when to break them.

mooderino said...

Thanks for all the comments, much appreciated.

I don't want to make it sound like I'm against following rules, if you've read any of my previous posts I think it's clear I'm a great advocate of knowing them and using them. And certainly the vast (VAST) majority of stories I read from aspiring writers could do with observing the basics to a much (MUCH) greater degree.

My point is that you need to understand what following a particular paradigm does for your writing (or for the writing of someone you're reading) and make choices within that context. Blanket statements should only be made about blankets.

Angela Quarles said...

Great advice! I've found this happens a lot on CritiqueCircle and it's sometimes hard to know what advice to take. I think I've finally gotten more confident about it, but it's true that sometimes it's the character's voice they're trying to change because it's not theirs. When I first started on CC I used to comment way more than I do now, because now I worry I'm messing with their voice. So I just look for inconsistencies, plot holes, unclear meaning, etc.

J.A. Beard said...

What I find amusing is many rules zealots can't even really articulate the reasoning behind the rules they are so obsessed with, so, on a fundamental level they really can't craft their writing in the most effective way as they don't truly know the problem they are trying to fix. :/

Michael Offutt said...

I retweeted this yesterday after I read it because I liked it so much. You are absolutely right, Moody, on every count.

ScottTheWriter said...

I used to tell my students "once per document, break a rule. But make sure that you know it's a rule, that you're breaking it, and that you have a reason for breaking it.

Christa said...

Oh, I thought you were going to go to a different place based off your blog title. Yes, I agree. There are rules, but for every one, someone has broken it and broken it well.

Now, go and do a post about how annoying it is when characters are pedantic in order to get your "moral/value" point across. :)

Sophia Chang said...

LOVE THIS. I've been in a rule-breaking mood lately and a "breaking out of how-to books" mood as well.

Lydia Kang said...

All rules are meant to be broken, right?

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

This summed it up for me -

"When it comes to the rules of writing (or to anything), there is two parts to every equation. There’s how the rule works, and then there’s when to use it."

pshene.webs.com/ said...

Found your doorway via another follower blogger...enjoyed this piece. Loved the, 'Often you find yourself getting advice from someone so deep into their favourite ideology that they stop being able to see the wood for the trees.'

Will be back for more.

Jennie Lyne Hiott said...

Very helpful. I got caught up in what other writers thought SHOULD be my style when I first posted my work online. Until, I decided that my scenes did not work in any other voice than my own. Sometimes advice can help improve work and other times it can destroy it.

mooderino said...

@Jennie-bad advice can never destroy anything. Only following bad advice can do that, and that's in your hands, not the advisor's.

many thanks to all of you for reading and commenting .

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