Some thoughts on writing, revisited

I wrote the following about eighteen months ago in reaction to a lot of the advice to writers I’d seen posted here and there about the internet. It started as a rant but I managed to tone it down by the point of posting. As I keep bumping up against my pet hates, I’m reposting it in an attempt to achieve equilibrium.

l. Grant yourself unfettered access to the entire English language. Do not fret unduly about using words or parts of speech others have misused or overused or put on a list of ‘things to avoid’. All you need consider is whether you are using the right word in the right place for your work.

2. ‘To be’ is a very strong verb. If you don’t believe me, reread the first ten verses of the KJB translation of The Gospel according to John or else the first sentences of 1984 or The Bell Jar or Bring up the Bodies or More Than This. You may decide to use it sparingly but few verbs are more powerful in declarative statements.

3. Don’t rush to judgement when a sentence is written using the passive. No crime or sin is being committed.

4. The presence of ‘was’ does not automatically render a sentence passive. Your writing life will be easier if you can distinguish the grammatical passive voice from the past continuous (otherwise known as the past progressive or past imperfect) form of a verb.

5. Feel free to make use of dialogue tags other than ‘said’; people do indeed ‘whisper’, ‘shout’, ‘hiss’, ‘scold’, ‘murmur’ or ‘dictate’ upon occasion. That said, unless you’re writing a very particular sort of fiction, ‘ejaculated’ is probably best avoided these days.

6. Fiction isn’t Latin or academic prose, so it’s fine to use contractions, to split infinitives and to end sentences with prepositions if you wish to.

7. Too much showing is as tedious to read as too much telling. Assume intelligence in your reader: there’s no need to show, tell or explain everything.

8. A little description can go a long way. The well-placed detail is the key to world building, whatever genre of book you’re writing.

9. Sweat the small stuff! Anachronisms, factual errors and unwarranted assumptions will play havoc with a reader’s ability to suspend disbelief so do your research and get the details right. Pay attention too to internal consistency. That matters, as much if not more than external consistency.

10. Be open when people offer their opinions on your work, consider carefully what they say, but do not feel obliged to follow their advice if it goes against your grain (and, yes, this goes for everything I’ve written here, except point 4).

I feel better now.

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13 Responses to Some thoughts on writing, revisited

  1. Stuart McEwan says:

    I smiled whilst reading number 5, haha!

  2. Reblogged this on Jane Dougherty Writes and commented:
    Read and take note.

      • Knock some sense into heads full of rubbish put there by bad editors.

        • I think much of the advice is well meant; it is very easy to over-use adverbs or not realise how often one uses a specific word. The trouble begins when it tips over from saying, for example, ‘that’ can be over-used to saying remove all instances of ‘that’.

          It’s point 4. that particularly bugs me. Every time I read somebody saying ‘was’ is passive I start to gibber.

          I omitted my particular love for the pluperfect. One day I’ll write a post on that. Does everyone have a favourite tense or is it just me?

          • There’s no excuse for confusing passive and past. It’s a sure fire way of losing all credibility as an editor. The rest is really just homogenization, ensuring that every story reads more or less the same, a sort of seamless web so you can slip from one author to another and not even notice it.
            I only have a least favourite tense—the passé simple, because I don’t know it.

            • Is that any relative of the passé composé? Not that I’d recognise that these days, even if it bit me on the nose. It’s been too long since I had to deal with such things.

              I love the elegant layers of time one can achieve by weaving the pluperfect with the perfect and imperfect. It seems so silly to limit oneself to the flatness of a single tense.

              • We called it past historic at school and were told to ignore it. It’s one of those very elegant French things, a tense used almost exclusively in literature and the culture ghetto radio programmes.
                Editors tend not to like the pluperfect and I’ve never understood why. I’ve been told that if I didn’t rewrite a section, it would have to go into the the pluperfect tense. As if that was the equivalent of the first circle of hell.

                • I ‘got away’ with the pluperfect in my books. My (lovely) editor said normally she didn’t like multiple uses of ‘had’ (the quota is one per paragraph, apparently) but I’d done it so well she wouldn’t change a word. 🙂

                  • She was probably imagining those entire scenes where she had insisted every single verb must be in the pluperfect to be consistent. That clunks. I thought the rule was that as long as the first verb was obviously in the pluperfect to set the time, you could mix and match with past and imperfect as long as it’s obvious where you are.

                    • Anything can clunk, done badly. I don’t do ‘rules’, any more than you do. My view is you can do anything so long as you do it well. Reading aloud helps – see how it trips off the tongue. Actually, in the sentence I’m thinking about, my first five verbs are in the pluperfect (yes, it’s a long sentence). It doesn’t clunk; it builds nicely to the point where it switches to the perfect. 😉

                    • If it sounds right, and it makes sense, why not? Sometimes the correct grammar sounds ridiculously wrong.

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