HOW TO HANDLE WRITING ADVICE (including mine)


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You’ve just read a blog post somewhere about how to write well. Next you must decide if the advice you’re reading is good advice or bad advice, or if part of it is good or bad. The more you read and hear writerly advice, the more you will see certain points made over and over again.

I say, for a writer, the only rules are for grammar, punctuation and spelling, and most of us, especially beginners, had better follow them in order to be taken seriously. But after you’re more established, even these may often be bent.

However, there are some “gurus” who advise you about other topics. For example, to eliminate all modifiers. They say you should make your verbs and nouns “strong” enough so you never need a modifier. Ever. But you’ll see some quite famous writers who use modifiers liberably. What to make of all this? Moderation, of course. Yes, find a stronger verb or noun, if you can, and if the one you choose doesn’t make the sentence sound pretentious or weird. But many times a modifier makes it better. Yes, it does. I don’t ever remember seeing anyone mention flow or rhythm when they announce this rule. And they should, because those little modifiers can help with flow and mix it up so your sentences don’t sound like rifle shots—noun, verb, object, followed one after another in a constant, boring rhythm.

Other examples are the topics of point of view (POV) and “show, don’t tell.” But there are no hard and fast rules in an artist’s world.

Okay, we’ve figured out that we need to take each “rule” and turn it into a suggestion for us to follow. Or not. Some of the suggestions might hit their mark with us, with the way we write, with what we want to accomplish in a particular piece of writing. In other words, we want to remember it, to follow it.

But few of us can remember everything we want to, so we need to write stuff down. In today’s world, there is more than one way to do that—by hand or by keyboard, or even touchscreen.

I started out before everyone used the computer for almost everything. I had a spiral-bound notebook my daughter gave me, and began jotting down anything that struck me as good advice.

That notebook is now almost full. I love to go back and read through it every once in a while. Some of the stuff in there is now ingrained in me so that I don’t have to think about it anymore. Other stuff has been lost to my memory, and it’s good to read it again.

I also have lists that help me with editing, checking for my overused words using the search feature in my word processor, and lots of other tips.

Takeaway #1—The “rules” depend on a matter of style and preference.  As a guideline, if you see a “rule” mentioned over and over, it might be a good idea to follow it as much as possible. And, if you think you may not remember them, write them down somewhere.

Takeaway #2–Look at the title of this post again.

Anyone have any ideas about how to organize their own personal list of rules? I love comments. We’re all in this together, so, if you have ideas, please share.


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12 thoughts on “HOW TO HANDLE WRITING ADVICE (including mine)

  1. One editor went through a book I’d sold the publisher using a software program that counted the number of “ly” adverbs I used. There were too many it seemed. I was asked to remove most of them. Was the novel better for it? I couldn’t say.

    • Where, there’s the thing. Do readers notice those “ly” words? Is this a fad, a trend, a real rule? Why are some writers so gung ho on getting rid of every single one? I agree, many can go, especially if we can find a better or stronger word for the noun or verb. But to remove some perfectly good words from every single bit of writing seems rather harsh.

  2. Jan, I agree with you that we need to master the rules of grammar and punctuation before we can bend them. As fiction writers we do that all the time to establish voice, mood, pacing, etc.
    Along that line, I hope you won’t mind my giving our mutual friend Dan Persinger plug. I’ve found his little book very helpful: Writers’ Devils: The Grammar Guide for Fiction Authors.

  3. Good blog post, Jan! And great advice, too! LOL

    You have to figure if we’ve been writing as long as some of us have, we’ve learned something, right?

    • I hope so, Bobbi–that’s we’ve learned a few things. I never seem to stop learning. And then, you know things will change again. Someday “ly” words, for example, may become all the rage. LOL

    • Earl, I answered this, but it got lost. I don’t remember now what I said, but I’m sure it was pity and well-written. So sorry. – Jan

  4. Personally, I love ‘ly’ suffixes. Suppose we write: ‘They’re lovely,” he laughed. Shouldn’t we qualify that verb, to detect irony, approval or melancholy? ‘”They’re lovely,” he laughed, exultantly.’

    Now we know what he meant, clearly. Frankly, I think we use too few ‘ly’ suffixes, whatever that old pedant Elmore Leonard might tell us, lugubriously. (I’ve used nine of them here, joyfully.)

    • John, I think you’re right. Because of this “ly” rule, I believe there are too few now, and I see that writing as more stilted. Thanks for coming by and commenting. I commented on your post the other day at your site, but it didn’t put in who I was–I often have problems commenting on other sites, so it must be me. Anyway, welcome to my blog!

  5. John, while I appreciate and respect your POV on “ly” modifiers, there’s another point to consider. We know many editors and contest judges are in the anti-“ly” camp.
    Why give them an easy reason to reject us?

    By the way, “laughed” is an action, and I question its use as a dialogue tag.

    And by by the way, I wouldn’t speak of crime writing icon Elmore Leonard derogatorily. Many of the revenge-seeking, cold-blooded killers he writes about are biographical.

  6. Earl makes a couple of good points. If you’re entering a contest, get rid of as many as you can. As for “he laughed,” that used to be totally acceptable. Now it would be better to make it a separate sentence, and as you do, John, let the reader know what his laughed sounded like. I guess it’s best to find a synonym, if you can, to do the job. At least that’s the “common wisdom” nowadays.

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