From Writer Unboxed: A Writer’s Guide to Breaking the Rules

This post caught my eye because it starts this way:

In my early writing days–before I was agented, and long before my debut novel was published–I sought writing advice on every imaginable topic: premise, drafting, writing routine, word choice. I was like a sponge, heeding advice from authors who’d reached the goals I envisioned for myself. I also listened to the guidance laid out by agents and editors: they were the ones I wanted to impress, after all. Surely I should follow their advice “to a T.”

And I thought: really? Because I sought writing advice from Patricia McKillip, and the form the advice took was her entire oeuvre. As you may know — I’ve mentioned this from time to time — when I decided to write a short, standalone, publishable fantasy novel, I sat down, read all of McKillip’s books one after the next, and then wrote The City in the Lake. I never thought of trying to follow advice that’s presented as, you know, advice.

This is true even though I sort of like books about writing and have a fair number. They’re interesting to read. It just never really occurred to me to try to follow advice from any of them, partly (I’m pretty sure) because I find it impossible to follow writing advice anyway, so why try? Perhaps it’s just as well that I started writing before advice started proliferating on Twitter, although it might not matter, as (I’m really pretty certain) I couldn’t have followed any advice that appeared on social media either.

That doesn’t mean I can’t take editorial advice, by the way. Specific advice such as “seems repetitive” or “beef up the worldbuilding” or “cut some of the worldbuilding” or “can you cut this protagonist and make this other person the protagonist instead” may be difficult or painful, but it’s perfectly possible to follow advice like that. I mean writing advice like “avoid the passive voice.”

This post starts with that one:

Rule #1 worth breaking: Avoid the passive voice 

Within moments of picking up The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, I scratched my chin: the story was full of passive sentences. (“His tailcoat has been tossed lazily over a velvet armchair…”) I remember thinking, “Morgenstern’s editor let her get away with this?” followed immediately by, “I want to see if I can get away with this.” The fact is, the passive voice is lovely and artistic. It creates a sense of mystery and separation, which was ideal for the magical realm in which The Night Circus takes place.

And I’m like, Well, why did you ever take advice to avoid passive seriously in the first place? Isn’t it obvious that the passive voice wouldn’t exist in the language if it were useless? The question is when to use it and how to use it; there’s no reason in the world to contort yourself into a pretzel trying to avoid using passive when it’s appropriate.

Although! I have never thought of it as lovely, artistic, mysterious, and useful for creating a sense of separation. Not that I disagree! I’m perfectly ready to entertain the idea that the passive voice can be all those things. I would just have said useful and appropriate when you don’t know the subject or don’t care about the subject. So I’m actually intrigued by this post, much more so than I expected, because now I’m thinking about whether passive voice also creates a feeling of mystery and separation, and that’s a neat idea that’s worth thinking about.

I’ve never read The Night Circus, by the way, though I believe it’s on my virtual TBR pile. How about you? Anybody want to give this a thumbs up or thumbs down?

Without looking, I expect other rules that are worth breaking are probably also proscriptive: Don’t use this, avoid that, eschew whatever. As we all know — surely we can all chant this in unison — All Proscriptive Writing Advice Is Bad. All parts of the language should be used well and effectively; none should be removed from the writer’s toolbox.

A writer should no more throw away, say, adverbs, than a carpenter should throw away nails because someone said screws are better, except that we don’t get heaps of advice on Twitter telling carpenters to throw away nails and we DO get heaps of tweets saying adverbs are bad, don’t use adverbs. I’m sure adverbs are next on this list. Let’s see … ah! No. Here are the rest of the “rules” —

Write what you know. Write for the market. Show, don’t tell. Follow the formula for narrative structure. And — this one surprises me a bit — Don’t use a thesaurus.

I suppose those are all fine, but I wasn’t aware that “don’t use a thesaurus” is common writing advice. Well, that seems odd. I use the thesaurus function all the time. I particularly use it when a word is on the very tip of my tongue … there it is … darn it, what IS that word? When that happens, I type some word that’s kind of in the right ballpark and use the thesaurus function, sometimes in multiple iterations, until I finally go RIGHT, THAT WORD. Then I use the word I was trying but failing to pull to the front of my brain.

I would say: Don’t use words you don’t understand. But I wouldn’t say that’s writing advice for authors. That’s writing advice for students who are working on an essay for a class. They are the ones who may trip over the thesaurus function and use “infinitesimal” when they just mean “small,” or whatever.

The real problem with the particular six rules, imo, is that they are too scattered in focus. We start with something related to craft (don’t use passive voice) and then hit advice about storytelling (write what you know) and marketing (write to the market). I do think lists of this sort are better when they are more cohesive. Therefore, I’m going to add this link: Top Ten Examples Of Common But Terrible Writing Advice, which is the post where I hit the five worst pieces of advice for storytelling and then the five worst craft-related pieces of advice.

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8 thoughts on ““Rules””

  1. I loved The Night Circus, but I can imagine other people don’t, because it’s slow and convoluted and doesn’t have much plot. (It does have a plot, but that gets drowned out almost completely by the world around it.) Read it for the luscious descriptions!

  2. The Starless Sea is said to be even better, and I’ll gladly believe that, but I got squicked by a small instance of body horror in the first chapter and couldn’t read on.

  3. I loved it – it’s beautiful and low key, with some really interesting imagery and character work.

  4. I like The Night Circus. The Starless Sea was tedious. There were sparkling moments, but the plot was poor.

  5. I wasn’t aware that “don’t use a thesaurus” is common writing advice.

    An exaggeration of the prudent rule to never use a word suggested by the thesaurus if you don’t know it.

    I have heard horror stories of writers who neglected it.

  6. My assessment of both The Night Circus and The Starless Sea matches Mary’s. In fact, I really adored The Night Circus; it’s a perfect gem of a novel. Absolutely cool. And pretty short, too. And a standalone.

    I wanted to like The Starless Sea more than I did. There were a lot of cool things, but … they didn’t cohere? It’s hard to be objective about that book; I think I had too many expectations from The Night Circus.

  7. Well, I’ll have to pull The Night Circus up to the top of my TBR pile. Thanks for all your comments!

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