How not to write.

March 23, 2010

Again and again I see writer’s guides or tips on writing and a lot of them seem to give the same advice. They tell you what NOT to do. “This word is overused, don’t use it.” “This style is boring, don’t write that way” etc, they give you more road blocks to dodge in a process littered with obstacles as it is.

What in the world do they mean “You can’t use that word”? Every word has a usage and a place in writing, don’t tell us we can’t use them. Using a word in the wrong way should, absolutely, be corrected, but saying it should be removed altogether, either because it’s often used wrong or used too much, is simply ridiculous.

As for avoiding particular styles; many times I’ve seen articles that say not to let your sentences drag on for too long, but isn’t that a matter of opinion? Some of us like long flowing sentences, if done right, others like them short and concise, but isn’t that the point of it all? If you like wordy styles, then you find a writer who writes that way, if you like it simple, you find someone whose style fits your needs. It’s art, no style is wrong, it’s personal preference.

Now I’m going to get controversial for some. I’m going to disagree with Stephen King, or at least something he said.

I was reading his book “Stephen King on Writing” and a lot of what he said I agreed with. One point I remember him making, was that a writer should find their own vocabulary and use it, rather than attempt to use words they are unfamiliar with. This was great advice, as it gives all writers confidence in their words, no matter how simple those words may be.

However, there was something he said that I did not agree with, and that was the point about active and passive verbs.

He explained active and passive verbs thus, “With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence.”

He then said that the passive style was used by the timid or unsure writer, or in other words, if you write that way you have no confidence in your voice. As I read this I started to agree with him, but then I read some of the examples of, bad passive, and good active and I could see intriguing writing in both. In fact, I liked the passive better, and I started to think that this wasn’t advice at all, this was someone saying, “I don’t like this kind of style, please stop using it.”, which shouldn’t be in a guide to writing in the first place. Unless it’s made clear that this is an opinion not a rule.

He does begin this point with “I have my own dislikes” implying that this is only his opinion and not a writing rule. However, he goes on to make his case so forcefully, and in such a way, that you forget the set up, and some will take it as a rule, becoming doubly uncertain of their voice.

What I’m really getting at is… Stop telling writers what they can’t do, because all it really accomplishes is making writers too scared to sit down and write. Saying a style, or word, should be avoided because it’s not what YOU like, is simply bad comprehension of what art is.

To put my point in Stephen King’s own words “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing”. I agree with this wholeheartedly, but he said it as he put even more fear and uncertainty into the writer who was reading his words.

Sorry for the rant, but I have seen good writers become crippled because they tried to follow all those sorts of rules. It didn’t make them better writers; they just ended up thinking their work was never good enough and questioning every word they put on the page.

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3 Responses to “How not to write.”

  1. mommyannie said

    My advice is, don’t read books about writing. Read books. I’m almost 70 years old and I’ve only read a few books about writing. My favorite is young adult author Lois Duncan’s How to Write and Sell your Personal Experiences. She doesn’t talk about grammar, word choice, passive and active voice. She simply uses a goldmine of concrete examples.

    Concrete examples. Most important. So my advice is, don’t read books about how to write. READ BOOKS. Fiction, non-fiction, whatever you like. The classics. To Kill a Mockingbird. Hemingway. I like his style. Current writers: Rachel Simon, Riding the Bus with My Sister. There are so many good books out there, past and present.

    Growing up, I read books and stories (the Best American Short Story collection of the 40s and 50s were wonderful) that told a story, that revealed character. The writing was superb. Why I don’t know, it just was, I think because the writer had something to say. How good would a painting be without something to paint. A character. A place. A vision.

    Just write. About someone you know. Something you did. Something you feel passionate about. Then I think you’ll find a voice, you’ll write clear and meaningful sentences.

    Your comments about Stephen King on Writing reminds me that I once taught a grammar class where I spent about a third of the semester diagramming sentences, talking about passive versus active verbs, etc etc because I thought this might help them write better, but it didn’t. What they needed to do was just write. So the next semester I spent an hour talking about grammar, told them they could read the textbook, and then I had them write. Freewrite to start. How else can you get over the fear of writing except by writing? I was also careful about critiquing their writing. If you’re too harsh, the student might never write another word. A serious writer has to develop a “thick skin” if he wants feedback. But if you like to write, or paint, or whatever, you’ll keep doing it.

    • Exactly. That was actually kind of my point, that most of these ‘how to write’ guides don’t help you write, rather they make you question everything you put to paper. I almost never read “how to” books on writing for just that reason. I just read what I like and write what I’m passionate about. I figure people who share my opinions will enjoy my work.
      Luckily I’m not the type to get discouraged when someone’s opinion differs from my own. In fact, it usually makes me more passionate about my opinions when they’re unjustly attacked.
      You sound like the best kind of teacher. You give them the tools, grammar, encouragement, etc, and let them find their voice. Bravo.

  2. mommyannie said

    Thanks for the compliment. And I’m glad you don’t get discouraged. The important thing is to keep writing. There will be someone who will appreciate what you write if you write with passion. And save everything. I wish I had, but moving so often I tossed too much. I do have a few “old” pieces, though. It’s fun to look back and see who you were.

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