Writing advice: Personal quirks and preferences are not “rules”

Science

Science

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you know I’m not big on writing rules… unless they are backed by evidence. I’m a science-brained person. If you tell me all writers should do X, please show me some stats.

I’m going to steal an example from myself: I while back I blogged about how so many experts say, “You must join a writing group.” In my post, I asked why. I didn’t say writing groups weren’t good for some people; I merely wanted evidence that being in a writing group increases my chances of publication or makes me a better writer. Because if it doesn’t, why must I join one? Statements aren’t proof of themselves.

Ok. In the world of science, it’s standard practice to back up statements with hard data. Since the goals of writers vary so much, and “better” isn’t a concrete measurement, let’s expand the parameters to include common-sense proof.

For example, agents often advise, “Don’t send a 10-page query letter. I’m not going to read it.” Read enough agent blogs and websites and you will see, again and again, instructions to limit your query to one page, or the equivalent in e-mail form. That should be enough common-sense proof that “Don’t send a 10-page query” is good advice.

Same thing with, “Keep your first manuscript under 90,000 words.” It’s a good, common-sense suggestion. Occasionally a debut novel will be a massive epic, but not usually. Go to Barnes and Noble and look at the new-authors display. Most of those novels are about 300 pages. Go back a month later, and a month after that, and you will see a pattern: 300-page novels. That new-authors display should be solid evidence that your 700-page manuscript will probably get rejected. The odds against being industry published are already dramatic, so why reduce your chances from almost zero to zero?

But then there are the “my personal quirk” bits of advice that writers, agents, publishers, and writing teachers dish out as if from a science book about the solar system: Jupiter is the largest planet. Venus is a rocky world roughly the size of Earth. All writers should use outlines.

What? If Neptune, Uranus, and Saturn joined to form a superplanet, then who would be biggest? Huh? Jupiter? I think not.

Wait, that isn’t the point I was trying to make. Where was I? Oh yeah…

What? All writers should use outlines? That’s not a fact, it’s a personal preference, yet I come across that claim at least once a month somewhere in the advice-o-sphere. The fact that Stephen King does not outline is ample proof that not everyone needs outlines. He became one of the best-selling writers of all time without them. If outlines make you a better writer, then use them, of course. Personal fact: I write better without outlines.

More science

More science

I can give a dozen examples of quirks masquerading as advice that alleges to make us better writers, but, given space limitations, I’ll discuss only one. It really grinds my gears:

“Don’t have characters using profanity. If your characters are swearing, it means you lack creativity with dialog.”

Since lots of really good writers—who are known for their dialog— depict characters swearing, this advice is not advice at all, unless it is prefaced with, “If you get hired to write the next Nancy Drew book…”

Not having characters swear isn’t more creative or less creative. It’s a preference. It might be an unrealistic one sometimes, too. If you write novels and stories about NYC homicide investigators or about angst-filled teens caught up in a world of cheap booze and homemade drugs, for random example, PG-rated dialog would come off as silly and tepid, as if you are trying to avoid offending anyone instead of telling the story the way it needs to be told.

Maybe the advice giver read a poorly written, cliché-riddled manuscript with lots of swearing and thought, “This writer is uncreative. Look at the dialog!” But could it be that, even if the writer had chosen a less-profane route, the novel would still suck? Maybe the profanity-laced dialog is smoke and mirrors. Maybe the problem isn’t that the dialog is dirty… it’s that the writer lacks skill.

Or perhaps the advice giver has a visceral reaction to profanity. Visceral reactions are organic and words are intellectual. That requires a lot of back-and-forth translation between our primal brain to our cerebral brain. That is, there must be a rational reason I was repelled by this dialog. I know! I am a writing expert, and I react to bad writing. Thus, cursing is bad writing!

Oops. I’ve reached my self-imposed limit (see, no plan). Talk to me:

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53 responses to “Writing advice: Personal quirks and preferences are not “rules”

  • M. R.

    Absolutely love it! – there are few things as irritating as groups of wannabe writers being given advice of the kind you eschew. And it happens all the time. I reckon the first thing to teach a wannabe writer is that SUBJECTIVITY is the name of the game, and that s/he’s not going to get the same response from any two readers. Well, by and large, anyway.

    • ericjbaker

      Exactly! If I write chick lit and the “expert” hates that genre, how much weight do I give his advice? Ultimately, your audience decides if you are good. People like to bash Stephanie Meyer because her writing is a bit melodramatic and adverb heavy, but millions of people found joy and pleasure in her work. Are we in a position to tell Stephanie Meyer how to write?

  • Jill Weatherholt

    Thanks for making me feel better about my preference not to outline, Eric. In life, I try to follow the rules, but when it comes to writing, I’m a rebel…at least in my own mind. Great post!

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks. If you look back at most of the legendary writers, they were rule breakers. It’s like everyone want to put us in a box. Do you think Mark Twain ran around worrying that so-and-so might not like his work?

  • 1WriteWay

    A long time ago I read someone describing the prolific use of profanity as demonstrating “intellectual poverty” in a character. Of course, I don’t think he meant characters that just occasionally swore. I thought it was a great description of characters (and frankly some people) for whom every other word uttered is “f**k” (think Glengarry Glen Ross).

    I love this post for so many reasons, but mainly because I agree with you 🙂

    • ericjbaker

      I think bad dialog is bad dialog, regardless of whether it is laced with profanity. I’m more put off by expository dialog, or anything that makes me say, “Now, who would say that?” Interesting you brought up Glengarry Glen Ross. David Mamet won a Pulitzer for that play! I’ve worked in and around sales, and I’ve seen managers treat their reps exactly that way. It’s authentic.

      Thanks for the comment and for the reblog!

      • 1WriteWay

        You’re welcome 🙂 Glengarry is my “go-to” example for use of profanity. What would that dialogue have been like if they had left out the swearing? I’ve known people like that too, unfortunately. You know, I once saw a skit of Glengarry where “Fuck” was replaced with “Forget you” and “Get fucked” was replaced with “Get forgotten.” It was hilarious.

  • 1WriteWay

    Reblogged this on 1WriteWay and commented:
    A man after my own heart. Eschew the writing groups and damn the outline!

  • nrhatch

    When I read that you write without following standard one-size-fits-all writing advice, the world felt a bit off-kilter.

    So I prepared an outline to return the world to an even keel:

    1. Writing Groups
    a. Effect on Publication Odds
    b. Better Writers?
    2. The World of Science
    a. Hard Data
    b. Common Sense Proof
    3. Size Matters
    a. Query Letters
    b. Manuscripts by unknown wannabes
    4. Outlines
    a. Personal Preference
    b. Planner or Planter or Plantser
    c. Stephen King
    5. Profanity
    a. As distinct from creativity
    b. Nancy Drew and the Case of the Quazy Quirks
    c. Cheap booze + drugs + expletives = Perfect Together
    d. Differentiating between Dirty Dialog and Shitty Writing
    6. The End

    &*$% . . . that’s better! :mrgreen:

  • change it up editing

    I just finished editing a manuscript that had some profane dialogue; it was used judiciously, and I felt it was perfect for the character.

    Is the problem with “The Rules” or with the unthinking application of them? I once belonged to a writers critique group where a member eviscerated my short story because I used adverbs. He believed (because he’d read the rule!) that no adverb should EVER appear for ANY reason.

    When I edit and then write my editorial letter to an author, I remember how he made me feel—and I don’t hammer “rules” unless they really ARE rules (like a sentence ends with punctuation).

    • ericjbaker

      Excellent. “Unthinking application of rules” is a problem in writing and in the larger world in general. Well said! I run into it in many aspects of life. I have a hard time conversing, even, with people who shun the concept of “nuance.” It’s black-or-white, soundbite, knee-jerk thinking.

      I’m on board with “adverbs CAN be lazy” and that they CAN lead to telling rather than showing. But, you know, sometimes they work in a certain situation, that’s when you use them.

      Rules are for grammar, not for the art that employs it.

  • Kevin Brennan

    Should. Ought to. Must. I’m like you. When I hear these words, I start to bristle. I go, “Really? Well watch this!”

    Thanks for reminding us that best thing about writing is what the individual writer brings to the material.

  • shelleyhazen83

    I actually really like writing advice and “rules.” They help me structure my writing. However, sometimes they go too far and stifle creativity. As a reader, however, I appreciate books that confor to certain expectations and guidelines, because they often make for an easier read. For example – “don’t weigh down a story with back story,” I think, is great advice that makes for stronger, easier to read stories. Whether or not an authors time travel science is accurate (an actual reason one of my stories was rejected) does not make or break a story.

    • ericjbaker

      Seriously, they rejected you for that? You could take any story and pokes holes in the plausibility. Good grief. What’s accurate in Star Wars? Rumor has it that movie was sorta popular.

      That’s another thing I don’t like: Being held to a logic standard that successful, beloved stories are not held to. We could spend all day talking about what’s illogical about Star Trek, but I’d rather just enjoy it for it’s good characters, intriguing stories, complex universe, emotional weight, etc etc.

  • Dave

    Initially, it’s hard to ignore all the “advice” that flies at your from everywhere and everyone. You figure they must know what’s right and wrong … who cares if they’ve ever published a book. Or who cares if there are differing opinions?

    Like Jill, I thank you for addressing outlines, and that they aren’t required for good writing. And also profanity … I don’t use it a lot, but if it makes sense as part of a story, I’ll use it.

    Are Nancy Drew books still around?

  • Richard Leonard

    Dead right. This was done in a PG rated TV show here a few years ago. About 30 years ago an Aussie band called The Angles had a song called Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again, to which the typical pub crowd would chant “No way! Get Fucked! Fuck off!” This family oriented TV show featured a nameless pub band covering this song and what did the producers have the pub-goers chant back? An over sanitised “No Way! Get Stuffed! Stuff Off!”
    Embarrassing. Here’s a proper example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i_py6WbMV1k

    • ericjbaker

      haha. I recall a sanitized edit of The Shining playing on television. The replaced all the “fucks” with “foul.” As in: You’ve fouled up everything else in my life, Wendy. I’m not going to let you foul this up!

      You tell ’em, Jack Torrance!

      • Richard Leonard

        I’m trying to recall if there was line like “I’m gonna foul you up real good” or “You’re only here, boy, because I fouled your mother” Hmm. don’t think so.
        There was a versio of one of the Lethal Weapon movies on TV here years ago where Mel G says “This is a real firing gun…” Love it!

  • livelytwist

    Nice one Eric. I think that when you start out-unsure, unsteady- rules and recommendations can be like the classroom buddy who leads you into your new school playground. As you gain confidence, you may want to break some rules, experiment with style, find your voice, find out what works and what works for you, etc.

    At that point, I guess you can question everything, decide which answers to embrace (scientifically proven or not), and live with the consequences 🙂

    • ericjbaker

      I fear that rules, rules, and more rules will make new writers be afraid to be daring and stifle creativity. Remember the era of French academic art (well, it was 400-180 years ago, so I doubt you were alive then, but you know what I mean)? If one didn’t paint X way, using X color with X form and X paint on X canvas, you weren’t a good painter. Who remembers French academic painters today? No one.

      I’m not talking about language mechanics. One has to understand the way words and and sentences are constructed and how ideas are conveyed. Once you have that down, though, it’s up to you what you want to do with it.

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  • Paula Tohline Calhoun

    Dear Eric:

    You want to know what pisses me off? A blogger who gets more than 25 comments/replies in less than one day for a post, that while excellent in thought and execution, is longer than most of mine. That wouldn’t be so bad, BUT, the reason I have been given for receiving so few comments/replies is that my posts are too long. What’s a poor blogger like myself supposed to think? Oh NOOOOOOO! It must mean that she (I) am just not a good writer, or good enough anyway to merit so many comments and replies. When I finish weeping over my suddenly discovered deficiencies, I shall continue with my comment on this particular post of yours.

    Sniff, , ,sniff, , , (OK, enough of that).

    I was recently perusing through my own blog, (no one else does, so why not I?), :”Reflections From a Cloudy Mirror,” (do you remember that one?) and I happened to come across a year-old reference to a comment/reply/submission to a contest you had proposed for your blog, the prize being having the winning entry included in a soon-to-be-published book by none other than YOU! From what I can tell so far, I WON! Now, where’s your book? I need to be published in some form or another before I die, and I figure that being included in your book would be my only or best chance. Here’s the link to that post in case you can’t find it: https://ericjohnbaker.wordpress.com/2012/10/24/ridiculously-long-sentence-anyone/

    Now, to make a comment on your post of today, you make a statement (and I quote) “Personal fact: I write better without outlines.” You had just spent the majority of a rather long post whining about statements and/or so-called rules that offer no proof to back them up. So where is the proof to your statement/rule?

    Just thought I’d point that out.

    Say! I just thought of something: maybe the fact that I have only posted about five times in the last two or three months might have something to do with the fact that nobody reads my blog. But then again, couldn’t someone at least comment about that? Damn! I’m depressed again! Which leads me to a new RULE about WRITING: How often one posts has nothing to do with how many comments one gets.per post. The proof being: back when I posted daily, I didn’t get many comments – regardless of how many of others’ blogs I read and commented on, and now that I post only rarely, nor read anybody – including NRH! I still get only a few (if any) comments on my marvelous, snappy, witty, and somewhat abbreviated postings. I sense a plot. Nefarious writers such as yourself and the insidious NRH (you know who I mean) are JEALOUS of my skills and and have come up with a software program to divert any comments on my blog over to one or both of yours! That’s it, isn’t it? Please say that’s it, otherwise I shall be forced to conclude that i am simply inferior, and we all know that couldn’t be true, because there is no proof, is there?.

    So, to close this well-written, snappy, and witty comment, I say, “How you been? Long time no read! Long time no read anybody, so I thought I’d test the waters, drop by, check out if you were still speaking to me, or, more importantly (I guess) if you are still alive.

    A reply to this comment will be proof of your life. A sincere and honest refutation of my self-analysis of my own writing will prove that you are still nice and polite even if not really honest! (That is unless you have proof of my RULE.)

    Well. . .good night! I guess I’ve said enough. . .

    • ericjbaker

      I am, in fact, not still alive but have learned to think my posts from beyond the grave. And by “grave,” I mean, “that which is not a good situation” rather than “A hole in the ground to put this thing that is starting to smell even worse than he did when he was alive.” I prefer my mashed potatoes without gravy, by the way, so it can’t be that.

      In regard to the number of comments, I believe the best avenue for increasing such is to mail $5 to everyone on WordPress. This is stretches my budget, however, so instead I write about things that I suspect already annoy people but they don’t discuss because they are polite, civil human beings. Unlike me, a right bastard, who sort of enjoys arguing and riling people who disagree with me. It gets a reaction.

      Me being a right bastard probably also explains why you haven’t seen me around “Reflections From a Cloudy Mirror” lately, though your lack of posting might have something to do with it as well. Don’t think I am unaware of the cute tyke pics of little Zoe you post. It simply does not fit my image to post comments like, “Oh, how adorable!” even if I think it.

      Jealously yours,

      EJB

      • Paula Tohline Calhoun

        Somehow your reply disappoints me. After all, I expected so much more. . .like maybe $10 per rather than the paltry $5. . .but then again I haven’t received that, either, and yet I still ccome around and comment.

        Also, you did absolutely nothing to allay my concerns vis-s-vis my writing ability. So, at last th worst is confirmed. Considering that you are among the best of the best, I must accept your verdict, right? WAIT A MINUTE!

        This is still more of your cowardly and nefarious plot to eradicate me from the writing medium altogether. Harumph! It didn’t work – or hasn’t’ so far, so there!

        Enough of this. . .I’ve missed all of you guys – (I use the term loosely) – and just wanted to let you know that I was trying to come back, and since you are so well-read, as well as being read a lot, I figured you were a great one on which to make the announcement..If you consider yourself a night bastard holds no water to me. Odd how my clock continues to have to be reset so often. I haven’t figured out yet how to fix it, and I have no money to buy another. . .since my writing work has not been in increasing demand as I used to believe it would. Actually, I still do. Once I’m dead, it will probably be the source of many NYT Best-Sellers. Then my hubs can buy a clock.

        I leave this comment sounding as ominous as I can, but nevertheless alive, at least, alive enough. .

        Cheers – heh-heh-heh. . . .

        • ericjbaker

          I am confident that you will be the Vincent Van Gogh of WordPress. As for my reply disappointing you… I am so used to disappointing people that I aim for exactly that.

        • Paula Tohline Calhoun

          You mean ear-less, poor, and totally unappreciated until after my death. Sounds about right to me. But I am a coward. Care to lop off that ear for me?

        • ericjbaker

          I don’t like the sight of ears when there is no head attached. Perhaps we can order one from The Ear Superstore. I’m sure they have your size.

        • Paula Tohline Calhoun

          Ears without head or head without ears? Makes me wonder, though, exactly how big (or small) do you think my head is? Are we talking “The BigGiant Head” from “Third Rock From the Sun,” or a pinhead from the circus? If you mean ear size, being a circus freak is nothing new to me, so I don’t care what size you get, though if you remember, Van Gogh was satisfied with a bandage.

  • skywalkerstoryteller

    I’m coming in late – busy three nights of 12 hours caring for very sick people. But, as always, your points are not only well made, they bring a smile to my face. As one who has listened to too much advice and tried an awful lot – I’m finally beginning to solely trust myself and write when and how I damn well please! 🙂

  • Janna G. Noelle

    I’m late to this party. I’m not really much for rules in any aspect of live wherein my own experience has proven more beneficial to me (how much of a badass does that make me, eh?), although I guess both rules and personal preferences can serve as a good starting point for those who haven’t yet figured out what works for them, so long as they keep an open mind about it all.

    As for the bit about swearing equating to a lack of creativity in dialogue, I call bullshit on that (see what I did there?) For some characters, it makes sense for them to swear, whereas from others, it doesn’t make sense. All characters needn’t be painted with the same brush. It’s funny how I’ve only ever seen this preference expressed by American writers. Y’all seem to have a complicated relationship with cursing/”cussing” that I won’t even pretend to understand.

    • ericjbaker

      Whole libraries could be filled with volumes about the contradictory nature of the American character. I’ll leave it to someone else to examine that topic. As far as writing advice goes, I’ve long appreciated how your blog is idea oriented without ever insisting on anything.

  • Uzoma

    Apart from a few rules that have been proven as solid, It’s down to the writer to decide what best works for him. Just because Writer A joined a writing group and got published in the end doesn’t mean that Writer B will achieve the same level of success. Writing groups are like variables. What happens if a group is driven by individual egoism? A newbie in such a group is very likely to lose focus along the way.

    Another thing is to read a lot. Read different genres. I’ve come to the realization that it helps the writer in me a lot.

    Thanks for the post, Eric.

    • ericjbaker

      I agree; reading different kinds of writing (extending to poetry and non-fiction) can inspire and influence on many levels. Partly to help us realize we don’t have to be all things to all readers. There are things you write that I never could, and I’m sure the reverse is true.

      I have a friend whose writing style is very “Gothic” for lack of a better term (lots of dark, heavy imagery and poetic flourishes, a la Edgar Allen Poe and HP Lovercraft). He’s been criticized in his writing groups for not writing in the modern style. But some readers want a Gothic style. Entire literary magazines exist built around that type of writing for the audience that wants it. True, I don’t write like that, but it’s also true that I can’t.

  • D. Thomas Minton

    I need to check here more often than I do. Nice post, Eric. I follow only one rule when writing. That rule: “You must write to be a writer.” Everything else are guidelines.

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