Investigating writing advice given in absolutes #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

Once upon a time, I decided to write fiction. I consumed as many sources of craft advice (agent blogs, how-to-write books, author Twitter threads, etc.) as I could find. That advice often came in absolutes, as in, always write a certain genre in a certain tense, never start a story with a character waking up, and definitely don’t ever use -ly adverbs. No joke, I remember reading a blog post by a big-five author, and she said her agent only allowed her five adverbs per book. It didn’t sound logical to me, but she was published by a big-five, and she wasn’t the only established author touting this anti-adverb propaganda, which, as it happens, is all based on twenty-year-old, non-absolute advice written by Stephen King in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

Welp, I followed all that absolute advice and let me tell you, my writing got stiff as a result, and so I learned how to Google harder until I scrolled right past most of that advice given in absolutes and right to advice that explained how to judiciously use -ly adverbs, etc. And then a few years ago, I read the opening chapter from a guy who beat me out in an author mentorship competition, and he’d written the most captivating character-waking-up opening scene I’ve ever read.

Not all writing craft ‘rules’ have exceptions, but you won’t know which ones do and don’t The title of this post, Investigating writing advice given in absolutes, is superimposed over a photo of a one way sign in a street.until you Google harder.

This post is part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop. So many great blogs to keep hopping through. Click here to join the hop and to see what other writing tips you can glean from this month’s edition.

Are there any writing ‘rules’ you’d like to take a mallet to? Chat with me in the comments.

Thank you to Freepik for letting me use this image created by jcomp  and this image in this post.

76 thoughts on “Investigating writing advice given in absolutes #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

  1. You are so right, Raimey – people would do well to go back to read what Stephen King actually says in ‘On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft’. (I still struggle with the ‘show don’t tell’ mantra, as I’m a natural ‘teller’)

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  2. I am so over rules…LOL. How will readers learn to expand their minds if they read the same things over and over again? I believe there should be some boundaries but the constant picking over things is annoying. Great post!

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  3. I’d love to take a mallet to the “complete sentences” rule. I’m an English teacher and writer, so writing fragments for emphasis still hurts my brain no matter how many times I tell myself they’re occasionally necessary.

    Great post, Raimey! It’s important for us to know that some “rules” are meant to be broken, especially since some of them aren’t rules after all.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. The rule that says you need to read A LOT to write. Honestly, to this day, it stuns me. It’s like saying I need to know how to play an instrument in order to dance. Drives me insane! Of course it helps to read. But I know plenty of people who read A LOT and write like crap. And I know others who read like normal folk and write the most amazing poetry and stories… I mean, OY! I feel like that’s some sort of old cliche that still lingers and I think intimidates most people from writing. The irony? I think the more you write, the more likely you will enjoy reading… Hmmm… (Great post Raimey!)

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  5. When I switched genres I absorbed as many books and writing websites as I could, and tied myself up in knots trying to abide by the rules. I didn’t want to write something too amateurish. But it strangled my creativity. So then I just started fast drafting, ignoring the rules and just wrote a crappy first draft. Then went back in and identified bits that needed polishing and applied the rules that would help it in those spots.

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  6. Great post. I use adverbs. I’m not ashamed, despite being told by a beta reader that Stephen King thinks adverbs are the devil’s work 😂. I politely reminded them that I was not Stephen King and didn’t use their services again after that.

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    1. On Writing is actually a really funny read. I recommend it, if only because then you can laugh while comparing what Stephen King ACTUALLY said to what people are quoting him as having said about the so-called writing rules.

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  7. I love your advise Raimey. It’s true, we see something in an article by someone who has made it work but it just maybe doesn’t work for us. I’ve seen adverbs work quite nicely in sparing amounts 🙂

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  8. Lol! I just posted on adverbs for my first #authortoolbox. I think where adverbs breakdown is when they are used in writing the same way we use them in conversation. They have to be used for a purpose, rather than a lazy substitute for diving deeper into a setting or a conversation. I think that most adverbs can be replaced with a better and vibrant picture. However, this needs to be balanced with efficiency and the “less is more” approach. Really, just write the best thing you can!

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  9. I will admit that–as a teacher–I had several hard and fast rules, like don’t use “you” in an essay and “No rhetorical questions” in an essay, simply because students didn’t know how to use them appropriately. Later, I gave them examples on how to do so well. I just told them, “Once you learn the rules, you can break them.” That’s the approach I take to writing rules, except the ones my Editor-in-Chief gives me. Those are law.

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    1. I think there’s a difference between teaching rules and how to break them in a full program that plans to do both, and writing a blog post that says never ever do a thing, and that’s the end of the advice. Agreed about editors. What my agent says goes.

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  10. I don’t like dealing in absolutes when it comes to writing advice. We are all different which means we’re going to handle how to tell our stories in ways that suit us. If we all followed the same strict advice the stories would start to become cardboard cut outs. No one wants that.

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  11. Advice can be very tricky. On the one hand, everyone (ultimately) has to follow their own counsel, but (as you say) when advice comes from a seemingly successful source, it’s hard to dismiss.

    In many ways the whole thing reminds me of one instructor who liked to say “learn the rules so that you know when to break them.”
    I feel like one could make a case for the idea that “absolute statements are a test; when you feel comfortable breaking those rules, odds are you’re ready to break them.”

    I don’t generally believe in any “absolute rules” when it comes to storytelling, just things that are easier or harder.

    Marvel’s recent cinematic empire is a great example. At the end of the day most Marvel movies follow some very rigid pattern structures, and they work.
    A good comic book superhero story could step out of those structural conventions, but when looking at superhero movies outside the Marvel cinematic universe, I feel there are many examples of films that tried “more ambitious/challenging structures” and struggled to make them work, while Marvel rather consistently delivered entertaining films (with varying degrees of overall quality).

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      1. I feel like that also speaks to the classic tale of “how many rejections did the big titles get before 1 agent said yes?”
        Sometimes it feels like “everything is a bad idea” until (in spite of that) it’s a huge success.

        And sometimes I think the real “rule” is “if the audience doesn’t mind (or even likes it), you made the right choice, but if not, it’s because you broke a rule.”

        As you’ve cited, there are a fair number of really successful stories out there that break the rules, but at the end of the day, they did the right things “right,” and as a result no one minded.

        In college I took a film class where one of the directors for a film we watched was given a permit to make a documentary, but wanted to make a fictional narrative, so he began the film as if it was a documentary, and gradually transitioned into a fictional narrative, and by the time the officials (who were the first audience) realized what he had done, they themselves were invested in the film and liked it, so they gave it a pass.

        I feel like the same could be said for a lot of things. At the end of the day, there’s this elusive “well they can get away with that, because they have and they did.” We just have to keep hoping that eventually we manage to find that elusive balance which allows us to “get away with it” in our own way.

        Liked by 2 people

  12. This is the bread and butter. Advice is always a suggestion, and we have to look at it in context–what’s write for this story, this paragraph, this moment. Here’s to wading through the murky depths. Thanks, Ramiey!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I’ve made the mistake of trying to learn the rules before I write my memoir, and it’s making it more difficult. So now I’m trying to ignore them all, and just write, just so I have a first draft of my memoir to edit.

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    1. There’s definitely pros and cons to doing it either way. I think I can see how it would make it more difficult, though, if every time you learn a new “rule”, you’re like me, and you just want to go back and edit, and it’s a never-ending cycle!

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  14. Great advice–I think a lot of people think there’s only one way to write, which ends up with them pushing absolutes on people. But some of the best writing I’ve read has broken some of the most commonly-recommended rules!
    PS: I just found out that for some reason I haven’t been following you! I’ve rectified that problem!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Great post! I was told repeatedly ‘write what you know’. In my early writing days, I took that advice to heart by using local settings in my mysteries, until I eventually realized that urban settings change. Businesses come and go, light rail transit comes in, condos go up. older buildings are torn down and disappear. Even the sounds and smells of an area tend to change over time. The other thing is that I write murder mysteries, and I’m pretty sure I don’t have to kill someone to describe a death. I see images of it everyday on TV, real and fictional. And there are plenty of books that describe the difference, quite vividly, between a poisoning and a gunshot wound…just sayin’. 🙂

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  16. Great post! I hate writing ‘rules’. For new writers, they’re so confusing and misleading and cause untold frustration. Not long ago I did a bit of research on everyone’s least favourite writing rules and it through up a few unsurprising results – ‘never use passive voice’ and ‘always show instead of tell’.

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  17. Absolutes in writing. Ha! How about the only thing that is absolute in how to write is that there are no absolutes in how to write. Only suggestions. Thanks, Raimey!

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  18. Rule books are nice and sometimes they have amazing advice but in many ways the person writing it is telling you how ‘they’ write a book, not you. Nobody else has your voice. No matter how hard I try I could never imitate you and that’s special.

    One of the best ways I have learned to write novels is to pick up a favorite novel and read it. After every chapter I will ask myself why was it so good?

    We all have our own ways of improving. Mine is different than yours and so on. As long as the results are positive I say do whatever it takes.

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  19. Great post! I can relate so much to this. When I first began writing fiction I was so misled by these absolutist rules. I ended up banging my head against the wall in frustration. Now I’ve come to learn it’s all about using the right tools at the right time and striking the right balance. Passive voice was always a thorn in my side!

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  20. We have to cater to the modern readership…most want everything explained in ‘plain’ language. It is ‘lazy’ reading unfortunately but with shorter attention spans it has become the ‘norm’ to write a point A to Point B

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  21. YES! I remember hearing about that adverb thing while on a Diana Wynne Jones reading binge (she uses LOTS of adverbs) and thinking how that just doesn’t make sense. Sure, they can be over-done, but to eliminate completely? Come on. I know there are some basic grammar rules I ignore when writing all the time, because in the end it’s about making that voice. The voice will have its own rules and requirements, and those r&r will not necessarily follow the precious “absolutes” and whatnot. And just as you learned, we need to be okay with that or watch our writing suffer as a result.
    Thanks for this post! x

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