Weekly Musing: Don’t Do That!

The following pieces of writerly advice are sayings I can’t stand. I understand the good intent behind these. It’s to encourage writers to be as strong of a writer as possible. To get beginning writers away from being tentative and instill confidence in their abilities. In a way its like telling the writer if you do any of these, the rocket is going to blow up! The world will end! We’re not dividing by zero people; the world will be okay. Some very famous writers have violated these rules and the world still spins.

Your first sentence really needs to grab the reader. How many of us honestly remember the first sentence to any story we read? There are the ones that are famous first lines like ‘Call me Ishmael’ or ‘It was the best of times, it was the worse of times…’ but those are stuck in people’s minds because they have been repeated often as a couple of the most famous lines in literature. If you pressed a lot of people they wouldn’t be able to identify which books those are from (Moby Dick and A Tale of Two Cities). So is the first line really that important to the average reader? Does the first line of a story really turn on or turn off readers? Are readers that judgmental that if a story’s first line isn’t intriguing, the rest of the story must be rubbish? For me, I fall into the group of readers who don’t remember and don’t care what the first line of a story is. I couldn’t tell you what the first line is of my favorite books. It’s not how I determine what I’ll read and to base my entire opinion of if I should read a story or not upon the first line seems incredibly limiting and illogical.

Don’t use big words. If a reader has to stop reading to look a word up in the dictionary, you’ve lost the reader. This seems incredibly insulting to the reader. This piece of advice seems to advocate authors restrict their word choices to average, common words. But the beauty of language is its complexity and evolution. More complex, longer, or even less common words serve a purpose when a simple word just can’t fully convey what the piece requires. I can understand shying away from using strings of complex or archaic words; too many of those come across as pompous unless that is what the author’s goal is. But to advise writers from staying away from uncommon words is silly. Heaven forbid the reader learns a new word! In school I was taught if you come across a word you don’t know, first try to glean the definition from the context it is used in the sentence. If that doesn’t work, look it up in the dictionary. Even the Harry Potter series has words I didn’t know at first and it’s aimed at young adult readers. If a reader gives up on a piece because an unfamiliar word sends their fingers running for a dictionary then that is a symptom the story has a problem. A good story will stand up to occasional dictionary consulting.

Shorter sentences are easier for the reader. This one I can understand more why it is advised because if you read a lot of the classics or literature, it’s not unusual for a sentence to take up several lines on the page and yes, it can be taxing on the eyes and mind to keep track of everything going on in said sentence, however, with the proper placement of punctuation and the right training, you can keep up with the action in the sentence. Shorter sentences have their appeal. I suppose. Easier to read. Easier to digest. Take small bites. Chew your food thoroughly. The beauty of longer sentences is they can communicate a rush of emotion or thought. To capture stream of consciousness. Shorter sentences are great for building tension, to describe action, and for short bursts of emotion.

Your characters shouldn’t say ‘I love you’ to each other. Huh? Why? When I read that piece of advice in a writing book, I couldn’t wrap my brain around the author’s reasoning. Essentially what the author was arguing was you as the writer should be showing the characters are in love. Okay, I get that part, show don’t tell but if the characters on a page are to be as real as possible, to act as real people, they need to speak as real people speak. Real people say ‘I love you’ to each other. I can’t imagine a story with the relationship between a parent and child, two people in love, or the bond between a pet and its owner with those three little words never being uttered. Words are how people express how they feel. In the real world we show and tell each other every day how much we love someone.

If you want to shift POV, end the current scene and start another. Can’t have multiple POVs in a scene. I think this piece of advice comes from how most modern books have gotten away from being written in the third person omniscient a lot of literature used to be written in. Reading books written in that POV can be frustrating and confusing for the reader yet many of the classics are written from this POV. It is possible, and sometimes necessary, to have multiple POVs within a scene without having to use *** to denote a POV change. Sometimes it is important to the story for the POV to shift to a different character briefly. The trick is to be subtle about it. As a reader I don’t pick up when POV shifts so I wonder how often the average reader does and it throws them off?

Adverbs weaken the writing. Again, does the average reader notice the number of adverbs used on a page? In a chapter? In a book? I don’t think they do and believe this is something only other writers pick up on. Adverbs are looked down upon as weakening writing because they are viewed as indicators of passive writing rather than active writing. Instead of the character being the one doing the actions, adverbs give off the impression the action is happening to the character. I agree with the character being active rather than passive. I also agree writers should aim for strong prose but for some reason reading ‘she said in a soft voice’ grates on me more than ‘she said softly’. Less words to explain the same feeling.