I just deleted the opening sentence of this blog for about the millionth time. Part of the reason is because I keep calling out the names of other authors, which simply isn’t nice. Another part of the reason is because I can’t figure out how to put what I want to say into words. Typical writer’s block.
I’m gonna just say it, then: if writing were 90% art, 10% science, then that would mean 90% of all the advice about writing is bullshit and anecdotes, period.
This isn’t some universal truth or anything; that’s just my opinion. My unpublished, unbestselling, uncritically-acclaimed opinion. As much as I respect other writers, some of them follow the rulebook way too closely. They have all these ideas about writing a certain word count each day and reading books every day which are just…ugh. Not true. Everything is undergoing evolution in this intricate Matrix we live in, and writing and language are among that. The conventions that worked yesterday aren’t guaranteed to work today.
Allow me to go through some of my favorite examples of very popular advice that now fall short of being universally applicable. (Hopefully some of you reading this will have an open mind and not bash my head in afterward.)
Show Don’t Tell
The “show-don’t-tell” rule is meant to make writers focus on creating visual imagery in their text. By using descriptive words for actions, objects, and even concepts, the scene gets painted in the reader’s eye the way the author visualized it. This is supposedly important because readers are humans, and humans are visual creatures. If a paragraph in a narrative contains not even a single word about something people can visualize, then by contemporary standards it is considered a bad paragraph.
This is 90% bullshit.
Take a look at the paragraph I just wrote to you. There are barely any visual objects in there. Bad paragraph? No, of course not. All I’m doing is talking to you, explaining something, and you, being the human you are, are processing this information as efficiently as if you could actually hear my voice. This naked relay of information from me to you is called “exposition,” and it’s a wonderful freaking thing.
The show-don’t-tell rule disdains exposition. It sees exposition as boring, lazy, unskillful. Yet exposition helps readers understand what the hell is going on, and thus is entirely necessary in every story worth its salt.
Don’t get me wrong; visual imagery is nice. I think it’s just as important to have imagery as exposition in your works. But we can’t keep knocking on exposition, because it takes skill to write that too—especially when weaving it in between action and dialogue. The number one rule should be “Show AND Tell.”
Active Voice Over Passive Voice
Passive voice is when two verbs show up to the party and don’t even have the audacity to enter one at a time—“pass through the door,” as I say. Eg: “she was running.” The was and the running are just all up in there, groveling at she’s feet. This is bad for several reasons: the writer wastes words; the reader has a harder time visualizing the action; and in some cases, the double-verb creates confusion. Active voice is better because it aids in imagery and is more precise. “She ran” is infinitely cleaner to read.
This is also 90% bullshit.
I forget which author mentioned this, but Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” is passive as shit, yet how many readers actually care? Harry Potter too, and, I’m willing to bet, countless other bestsellers. If that’s not evidence enough for you that the “active voice/passive voice” conflict is just made up jargon, I don’t know what is. The fact is that passive voice, for most writers, is sooo much easier to write, and thanks to that, allows the writer to focus more on their story and less on political correctness. Most readers don’t care about anything but the story. What else did they purchase the book for?
However, let’s be sure to take the scientific 10% into account. Active voice does create better imagery. Thus, the number one rule should be to “Switch Voices as Necessary.”
The Serial Comma
The serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma, is a comma which appears before “and” at the end of a list. Eg: “him, the bear, and the orange.” This is recommended by The Chicago Manual of Style to be used at all times because it enables precise listing and disables any room for confusion. The classic example is “they called his parents, Mother Teresa and the Pope.” This is clearly wrong because no one has those two people as their parents (I think).
This is 66% bullshit.
The serial comma is a wonderful tool, but it should not be used at all times. There are some instances where omitting it is aaalright, and incurs no harm on the text.
No serial: She called his parents, Mother Teresa and the pope.
With Serial: She called his parents, Mother Teresa, and the pope.
Difference? Yes. Definitely use the comma.
No Serial: He has a grape, apple and orange.
With Serial: He has a grape, apple, and orange.
Difference? No. Use it or don’t; doesn’t matter.
No Serial: Have some food, friends and family.
Serial: Have some food, friends, and family.
Difference? Yes. You should NOT use the comma here.
There are more examples, but I think you get the point. When it comes to artistic forms like writing, convention doesn’t always equal correction. While I’m sure those writers out there who are giving advice mean well, they often forget to preface their musings with the fact that they are not writing scientists, editing gurus, or grammar wizards, and are only relying on past wisdom for what they are about to say. At some point these people should really figure out where to draw the line between “giving advice” and “forcing other people’s style.”
Authors, please. Write freely. Own your voice. And when other folks try to declare the rules—including myself—let them know: this is 90% an art form, so you’re talking 90% bullshit.