Image: Matthew Loffhagen
When it comes to writing advice, no-one can claim there’s a deficit. If anything, writers are inundated with advice, whether from luminary authors, fellow writers, or helpful editors (not to mention informative blogs – obviously the best and most trustworthy of the bunch.)
But with all that volume comes a lack of curation; sure, everyone wants to tell you how to improve your craft, how to edit your book, how to market your work, but that doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about, especially when it comes to your work and your individual style.
How, then, can you tell the good advice from the bad? Well, you already read the title – by acting like a doctor.
The problem with ‘because’
Part of the problem with writing advice is that everyone has an opinion on writing, so everyone feels qualified to offer advice. Of course, appreciating the end product doesn’t mean you understand how to make it and, as Alexander Pope would have it, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
This was exemplified for me recently when I stumbled across a list of possible synonyms for ‘because.’ The list was offered on a social media service built around image-sharing and was fashioned as something for authors to consult with ease – columns of alternatives for you to run your finger down and try out.
The reason this struck me as strange is because ‘because’ isn’t generally a problem word and, when it is, it’s usually either a) a symptom of larger structural issues, such as too much exposition bunched together or b) an imaginary problem, in which the author’s unique focus on their work has them seeing patterns that will never bother anyone else.
It’s also noteworthy because the ‘solution’ is rarely to substitute ‘because’ with another phrase. Generally, a more comprehensive rephrasing is needed, because a run of sentences that go ‘X because Y’ reads strangely even if ‘because’ is replaced. Yes, there are occasions where you can get away with a substitution, but not frequently enough that you’ll need to have a cheat sheet on hand.
Finally, solving the problem of ‘because’ is noteworthy because it so quickly becomes ridiculous. Yes, there are functional alternatives, but once you move into the second column and the suggestions become ‘for the reason that,’ ‘forasmuch as,’ and ‘in view of the fact that,’ you’re no longer suggesting solutions to a problem, you’re just listing words that mean ‘because.’
The ‘because’ list is a useful example of bad writing advice because it expresses lots of qualities you’ll find in similar tips. It offers solutions it doesn’t expect anyone to actually use; those solutions are facile because they address the expression of a problem, not the problem itself; and it’s so general in its approach that it risks doing more harm than good by convincing novice writers that the problem it describes is one they should be trying to detect in their own writing. In short, it fails to embody the idea that good writing advice is diagnostic.
Good writing advice is diagnostic
When I say that good writing advice is diagnostic, what I mean is that it should be used to assess an existing problem. The ‘because’ list falters in this regard partly because of its presentation – it’s a floating list detached from context, designed to be seen by writers scrolling through an image feed. It’s not something you look up when you notice that you’ve used ‘because’ four times in a paragraph, but rather something you stumble across while looking for writing advice. As a consequence, the list suggests that you should be trying to avoid ‘because’ in your writing, even though, for most writers, that isn’t true. It’s bad writing advice because it’s trying to tell you what to do before you have a problem.
Using the term ‘diagnostic’ is useful because of the medical metaphor it suggests – a doctor is someone who looks at the symptoms and then suggests a related cure. The problem comes first and, by doing so, it defines the parameters of the solution. Taking a lot of medicine before anything’s wrong won’t improve your health – in fact, it could harm it.
This idea was put best in Thomas McCormack’s The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist:
If the first stage of the editor’s examination (his reading and responding) uncovers symptoms (undesirable effects in the apt reader), then and only then should he go on to the second stage – diagnosis. Diagnosis entails the use of technical tools and tests to track back from the symptoms to the faults that are causing them. It’s an essential part of the editorial procedure, it’s the first thing the editor must do after reading and responding, and it’s a far more difficult task than most editors, publishers, and writers suppose.
The very term ‘diagnosis’ prompts the first comment. The editor should embrace the old doctor’s maxim: First, do no harm. Be wary of even applying technical diagnostic tools to a well manuscript; such diagnosis tends to lead to treatment – which can only harm a healthy specimen.– Thomas McCormack, The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist
Bad writing advice offers solutions before there are problems, creating a narrower field of writing in which authors are afraid to do something ‘wrong.’ This is the number one complaint writers level at sources of writing advice and – while it’s important to temper this insight with wariness of the knee-jerk instinct to push back against constructive criticism – they’re right to do so. After all, if your readers love a sentence, if it reads clearly and evokes emotion, is it really a problem that it ends with a preposition?
When advice isn’t diagnostic, it tends to be general, which makes sense when you’re trying to offer advice with no single person or work in mind. Of course, it’s the case that some writing missteps are so ubiquitous that they can be diagnosed sight unseen in 90% of cases, but even then, 10% of writers are getting bad advice.
So, good writing advice is diagnostic and bad writing advice isn’t, but does that mean there’s nothing proactive you can do to improve your writing? By definition, isn’t anything you read in advance of a problem non-diagnostic? Well, in the age of self-publishing, it’s not quite that simple.
Writer, edit thyself
When McCormack issued his edict on diagnostic editing, he framed it as advice for an external editor – that editors shouldn’t apply their own preferences and general rules of good writing to ‘well’ manuscripts, but should instead address only those symptoms they actually discover after reading through with an open mind.
This is good advice for editors, but in an age where more and more authors are editing and publishing their own work, it needs to be presented in the proper context. By this, I mean that while self-editors should apply writing advice diagnostically, they should still collect writing advice for future use.
Finding a problem in your manuscript and then going looking for a solution is fine, but it’s a process that’s helped by already knowing some or most of the advice that’s going to apply. When your dialogue feels staccato or stilted, it’s good to know that showy speech verbs (like ‘bellowed’ or ‘cackled’) can cause this problem, since you can immediately judge whether that’s your issue. Doctors don’t prescribe medicine before there’s an issue, but they do know which diseases tend to require which treatments.
It may sound like we’re back where we started – good writing advice is diagnostic, but you should still try to learn it before you need it – but that’s not quite true. When you understand that good writing advice is diagnostic, you’re able to change your relationship to writing advice. Without this understanding, something like the ‘because’ list creates the impression that you need to actively avoid a perfectly normal word. With this understanding, something like the ‘because’ list becomes a resource that you can fish out if you ever need it – something you can use to diagnose a symptom, but which doesn’t turn you into an editorial hypochondriac. Is it worth having a synonym or two for ‘because’ rattling around your head? Sure, when it doesn’t come at the cost of making you paranoid. This is how you can avoid bad writing advice: by understanding that it only becomes relevant once you’ve detected a problem.
Of course, that problem might be subtle, and the diagnostic process usually involves identifying what’s wrong as well as how to fix it. Sometimes, the solution to a problem will surprise you, and sometimes what looks like a blemish will be something more serious. The problem might even be something you’d just like to do better, rather than something you’re necessarily doing badly.
Writing advice comes into its own when it’s helping you see the literary processes hidden in your craft. Before that, however, any given piece of writing advice may or may not be applicable to your writing. It’s not just that the problem should come first, it’s that you need the problem to put the possible solutions into context.
Keep the good, ignore the bad
There’s a lot of writing advice out there – much of it tried and tested – but writing is artistic expression, and that means that your voice, the stories you want to tell, and the way you want to tell them may stray outside the confines of what it’s useful for other writers to consider.
While authorial ego is its own trap, and rejecting outside input is an easy impulse to embrace, understanding that writing advice is only good when it’s useful to you is an essential skill if you’re going to keep the best and escape the worst of our information-heavy age.
Don’t get stuck trying to conform your writing to every piece of advice you hear, even if it comes from an impressive source. Assess your work for problem areas, seek out potential solutions, find the one that works, and repeat. Gathering insight in the meantime will speed up this process, but be careful not to enact the solution before you have a problem.
What writing advice do you wish you’d never heard, and what advice changed your work for the better? Let me know in the comments, and check out 5 Popular Misconceptions About Story Pacing and 10 Self-editing Tips Too Vital To Ignore for more writing advice that MIGHT be good for you.