November 10th, 2011

if I were me

On Writing Advice

I may have mentioned that I came to a conclusion a while back, but I want to revisit it even if I did.  And that conclusion is that writing advice is often either given or taken as prescriptive when in fact everyone everywhere should realize it is, at best, descriptive.

It's a bit like language. You can pretend there are rules of language that people should follow (giving a prescription for grammar, basically), but in the end, the only thing a rule does in that case is describe how certain people use the language at this point in time.

Language is fluid over time. Things change.

Example: Eventually, we will all say "ax" when we mean "ask."  It will probably still be spelled "ask" however.  Much like most of us no longer say "hwat" for "what."

Other example: consider how we no longer use "terrible" in the "Great and Terrible Oz" sense but rather in the "this cake is dry; it's terrible" sense.  The meanings of words are mitigated or intensified, for a variety of reasons. Words referencing taboo or uncomfortable subjects get abandoned--when's the last time you said, "My grandmother died and the funeral is tomorrow" instead of "my grandmother passed away and the funeral is tomorrow"?  "Die" is a clinical term, but it's considered a bit impolite to use it for someone recently deceased.  Likewise, I feel like "passed away" is getting stigmatized; people are now using "passed" instead.

You can install a council of rules lawyers on language, but most of the world will laugh at it. See, France.  

As for councils of rules lawyers on writing? We need to start laughing at them. Certainly we who wish to publish must respect what the market will bear, and always listen to *your* editor, to the degree that you can...  but in general, advice is relative, highness, and anyone who tells you otherwise is selling you something.

Few things annoy me more than when another writer spouts half-understood prescriptivist writing rules at me.  I'm trying to be tolerant about it, because a) when you mention craft problems on social media, you probably deserve the response you get, and b) I'm not that established of a writer, so I should remember that 8 or 9 years ago, that could have been me.

In any case, whether you buy my descriptivist/prescriptivist argument, I'm going to outline my personal Hierarchy of Advice.

1) Good advice for you, but you aren't ready to hear it yet, so you won't understand it.  Leads to later revelations where you are dumbfounded that you had been told this all along, but you can't believe you didn't realize how epic and useful it really is.

2) Bad advice for you at this point, but you try to follow it. Often leads to mushy manuscripts or a vaguely ill feeling.

3) Bad advice, period. Indistinguishable from #2 without perspective and time.

4) Good advice that you are ready to hear, and OMG why doesn't everyone hear this and revel in its marvel and brilliance? I shall now try to tell everyone with the most vaguely related problem how this is good advice.

5) (Neutral) advice that others find good but that you find stupid.

6) (Neutral) advice that, when presented, seems so simplistic that you wonder how this is a revelation.  Are you actually so good at that particular thing that you have fully internalized it and conscious thought about it is unnecessary, or are you <i>so bad</i> at it, you can't figure out how to use this perfectly reasonable sounding advice?  You ponder this in dark hours, but no one has ever really told you you do it badly, so, maybe, mmmaaaybe, you are a genius on this one subject.  But probably not.

7) (Neutral) advice that "everyone" agrees on, but newish writers take too much to heart, and experienced writers seem puzzled that newish writers don't understand the exceptions to.  As advice, it mostly seems to function as the Organic Chemistry of writing. But in fact, none of the rest of the pre-med program is as hard as Orgo.  It's a weeder rule, a gateway rule, and it is commonly believed you have to earn the right to go back on this bit of advice.

Any others I've missed?