This post is both traditional and antithetical. The Internet is full of tips for aspiring writers: about content, about process. As a writer myself, I sometimes struggle with the simplistic nature of these tips. Who doesn’t love a bulleted list? The problem is that those lists remove a lot of the nuance, even if the person composing the list understands it well.
Today, I want to discuss some familiar tips for writers in the context of both why they are good tips and why you may want to ignore them anyway.
Whenever the subject of writing tips arises, my mind goes towards adverbs. Traditional writing wisdom is to use adverbs sparingly or avoid them altogether.
Why it makes sense: An adverb is a word or phrase that modifies or qualifies another word (especially an adjective, verb, or other adverb) or a word-group, expressing a relation of place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, degree, etc. (Oxford English Reference Dictionary). Nouns are things, verbs are actions, and adjectives paint pictures – adverbs are superfluous words that explain the how.
In particular, when I argue in favour of the “avoid adverbs” rule I tend to explain that if one is modifying an adjective or verb then a better adjective or verb likely exists. Write with the adverbs, but during the revision stage identify them and see if a better word exists. A synonym may carry the necessary degree of modulation to convey what you mean.
Why it doesn’t make sense: This is a theme of this piece – people use adverbs. Look over some of my blog posts (I do little in the way of revision beyond basic spelling and grammar so that I can get back to my other writing projects). Adverbs litter my unrevised writing because I have a pressing need to qualify everything. They are natural.
While fiction writing is meant to express ideas rather than act as a transcript for real events, readers do expect a degree of realism. In the context of dialogue, adverbs are both natural and useful. If someone were to base a character on me, I would expect that character to make regular use of adverbs – it conveys that pressing need to qualify everything.
See? They can be useful for characterisation alone! Know why adverbs are often maligned in writing and then determine if that applies to your use – do not avoid them for the sake of avoiding them.
Why it makes sense: If you are writing about medicine in a fiction piece, your average reader is not a medical school graduate. Jargon may as well be a foreign language, and it serves to distract and disrupt the reader.
Why it doesn’t make sense: For one, we have again the question of realism. A doctor will say “uvula” and not “dangly thing in the back of the mouth.” I think a better rule is not to avoid jargon, but to use it sparingly and creatively. Like a foreign word, raise it in a context that defines the word for the reader so that it feels natural. A ham-fisted, “You know, when ______,” dialogue to explain it is clunky, but clever context can provide enough definition for a reader to follow anyway.
Write What You Know
Why it makes sense: If your reader knows anything about the topic and you do not, then your entire work will fall apart fast. There is a reason medical and procedural dramas have technical consultants on hand.
Why it doesn’t make sense: Unreliable narrators exist. If the point of the piece is the ignorance – brilliant. From a more troublesome perspective, a writer imagining the realities of a situation may have value. I say more troublesome because there are matters like representation.
I, as a heterosexual writer, do not know the homosexual experience well enough to write a story about that experience – at least not as well as someone who lives it. We see this debate all the time with performers in roles. On one hand, the authenticity of a performance provides invaluable insight into human experience. On the other hand (and in the right context), the insight provided by an inauthentic perspective may be valuable. It offers another perspective on the social issue, and provided that the writer expresses it as an inauthentic perspective (or perhaps a satirical take) then it could be useful.
Limit Regional Dialect/Patois
Why it makes sense: It becomes distracting fast. After establishing that the character has a regional dialect it offers little in the way of characterisation. The first time we “hear” it, “Okay, so this character grew up in that place.” The third time we hear it, “Yep, still from that same place.”
I personally also have a guideline against unnecessary description. If the detail does not serve the story, then leave the detail out of the story. The reader has an imagination, too. Let them use it. Provide enough detail for the reader to understand the region’s impact on the character and let them bring the regional dialect to the voice.
Why it doesn’t make sense: That last step is easier said than done, especially for a minor character. The context of a story may make the regional influence important, and therefore the dialect a critical bit of characterisation. Writing in accents to put the voice into a reader’s head may be the way to go, and one cannot very well abandon it once begun.
Use Active Rather Than Passive Voice
Why it makes sense: Active voice is engaging. Passive voice is less engaging. It’s right there in the name.
Why it doesn’t make sense: I again refer to themes of characterisation and tone. While regional dialect may be distracting, other ways exist to convey a particular voice for your character. Providing them with a passive voice says a lot about their character without wasting time actually saying it. Readers will intuit the passive nature of the character from the tone.
In summary, do not research tips for writing and apply them blindly. Understand why experienced writers advise certain things, then use that understanding rather than the tip itself to improve your writing. Why, with a little understanding, you may even find creative ways to subvert the rules to great effect!