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September 5, 2013

Writing Craft: Watching Out for Bad Advice

Rotten apple on the ground with text: Watching Out for Bad Advice

In the comments of my post about the number one writing rule, we shared some of the bad advice we’ve heard. Many of the examples didn’t point out advice that’s inherently bad, but rather advice that doesn’t apply equally to all situations.

Carradee shared the example of a writer who naturally overwrites and gives the advice to “trim-trim-trim.” That advice works for those who use too many adjectives, adverbs, or have a too-chatty writing style. However, that advice would mislead writers who naturally write sparse.

The comments made clear that we’re all likely to be led astray by “bad” advice at some point. When we’re first starting off, we don’t have enough knowledge to put tips into context and realize that most advice is situation-dependent.

Most “Bad” Advice Exists because of the Good Kernel Inside

Nicole Willson shared advice she heard from a high school creative writing teacher, who told her that we should never use the word “said.” As Nicole pointed out, there’s a kernel of good advice in that statement.

  • If we used “he said” or “she said” at the start of every dialogue line, readers would quickly tire of the word, so it’s good to find alternatives.

However, taken out of context, that “never use said” advice could lead writers to think that “snarled,” “roared,” “spit,” etc. would be better to use in dialogue tags than “said.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Those aren’t the alternatives we should aim for.

  • Better Alternative: Identify speakers with action beats rather than dialogue tags.
  • Action Beat: A separate sentence where the speaker performs an action. (She leaned closer. “Don’t you ever use the word ‘said’ again.”)
  • Dialogue Tag: Identifying information connected to the dialogue by a comma. (She said, “Boy, this seems boring in comparison.”)

As a bonus, action beats provide more showing details to readers and help avoid the problem of “talking heads” (when dialogue seems to happen in empty space). In my writing, I use action beats 99% of the time and rarely use dialogue tags at all, “said” or otherwise.

Regardless of the intention of the original advice, when we do use dialogue tags, we should stick to the basics (said, whispered, etc.) most of the time. The good kernel inside the advice refers to finding non-dialogue tag alternatives, not to having our characters “expostulate.” *grin*

My Encounter with “Bad” Advice

In my reply to Nicole’s comment, I shared the bad advice I’d heard—and believed at face value. A high school creative writing teacher suggested that we could vary our sentence beginnings by using leading present participle phrases (which we’ll call PPPs for short). Like Nicole’s example, there’s a kernel of good advice in that statement.

  • If we start every sentence with “she did this” or “he did that,” readers will grow tired of the writing style, so it’s good to vary sentence beginnings.

However, leading PPPs can actually be a mark of an amateur (another mark on that list is those too-creative dialogue tags Nicole mentioned). Like the bad advice Nicole received, we shouldn’t follow the advice in the way it seems to imply, in this case, using leading PPPs for sentence variation. Leading PPPs bury the subject of the sentence; they don’t change it.

  • Standard Sentence Structure: Subject(s)-verb(s)-object(s). (George ran up the stairs and shouted for help.)
  • Leading PPP Sentence Structure: Verb-ing an object, subject-verb-object. (Running up the stairs, George shouted for help.)
  • Better Alternative: Vary the subject of a sentence by using non-pronoun nouns; don’t just rearrange the phrases to “fake” variety.
    • Example #1: The treads vibrated under George’s feet, and he chased the echoes of his shouts up the stairs.
    • Example #2: Thumps from George’s rushing feet competed with his shouts for help.
    • Example #3: The stairs seemed to grow taller, as though neither George or his shouts for help would ever reach the top.

No, none of those examples are great (sorry, it’s late as I’m typing this part *shrug*), but they demonstrate that true variety comes from changing the subject of the sentence, not just from rearranging the pieces and parts. Also note that more emotion and/or sensory information often accompanies our efforts to vary sentence subjects.

Using leading PPPs as a sentence-variety crutch is likely to lead to overuse, confused readers, dangling modifiers, and non-simultaneous actions. All things that are Not Good for writers looking to improve their craft.

Solution? Be Willing to Learn, Even When You Think You Already Know

Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that “use leading PPPs for sentence variety” suggestion was bad advice until I seriously studied writing craft. My learning curve required a lot of editing. *sigh*

I’ve mentioned my appreciation for the Edittorrent blog before, for good reason. Theresa Stevens and Alicia Rasley are patient editors, eager to help writers learn. I’ll repeat their advice because this is one of those things that can make others assume we’re an amateur writer, and unlike many other “standard” advice tips, it’s one that many of us don’t know. Theresa posted:

“Five Minutes Could Change Your Style Forever
I know we nag a bit about present participial phrases. I was thinking about this last night, and it dawned on me that people might not understand that this isn’t just some personal peccadillo.

So here’s a quick exercise for everyone to do. It will take less than five minutes, and the results might surprise you.

Step 1.
Go to your bookcase. Take down a book you love, something that really spoke to you when you read it the first time. Open to a random page.

Step 2.
Count the sentences on that page.

Step 3.
Count the present participial phrases. (Skip past progressive verb tenses and gerunds. We’re just looking for the dreaded PPP here.)

That’s it. 1, 2, 3. Do the results surprise you?”

As I mentioned in my reply to Nicole’s comment, I discovered the editors were right. Most traditionally published books contained 0-5 leading PPPs per chapter, nothing like my original 3-5 per page. Yikes!

I learned I was wrong and the advice I’d received was “bad.” So I learned the rule and the reasons for the rule. (Jordan McCollum, a friend I made through Edittorrent, has a great post summarizing those reasons we learned from Theresa and Alicia.)

I learned the grammar behind the rule. I learned the exceptions to the rule. I learned when it was okay to break the rule and when it wasn’t. I learned why leading PPPs were more likely to cause grammar issues than trailing PPPs.

And now… I use 0-5 leading PPPs per story. *nods*

It can be a delicate balance to be open to learning new things and yet not constantly doubt ourselves about what (we think) we know. Bad advice that carries a kernel of good sense doesn’t help. The good elements hiding in bad advice can make us believe in the whole thing, leading us to think we know more than we do.

However, the odds make it likely that some of the advice we’ve picked up over the years is at least partially “bad.” Maybe if we recognize that fact, we’ll be better able to separate out the good kernels so we can ditch the rest. *smile*

Registration is currently open for my workshop on how to do just enough story development to write faster, while not giving our pantsing muse hives. Interested? Sign up for “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.” (Blog readers: Use Promo Code “savethepants” to save $15 on registration.)

Can you think of other examples of bad advice with a kernel of truth? Have you been misled by that kind of advice before? How do you separate out the good from the bad? Had you heard the advice about leading PPPs before? If you tried Edittorrent’s test, what were your results? Does that sentence structure stand out to you if an author overuses it?

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What do you think?

33 Comments on "Writing Craft: Watching Out for Bad Advice"

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Carradee
I realize the article you linked to said this—and I’ll probably be saving that link, myself, to share with clients—but… Participial phrases indicate simultaneous action. That’s both why editors often remove them—they’re frequently misused—and why authors tend not to use them much—there aren’t that many circumstances wherein they apply or are the best option. “Tiptoeing down the stairs, I stepped on a creaky board” = “[While I was in the process of] tiptoeing down the stairs, I stepped on a creaky board.” While that sentence is perfectly fine in meaning, it diffuses tension. I’d probably be better served by something like, “I tiptoed down the stairs. Three steps from the bottom, a board creaked.” Probably. There are exceptions; it depends on context and the narrator involved. Can I think of examples of bad advice containing a kernel of truth? Yes. You probably don’t want to get me started, but to simplify, any “never” or “always” advice in writing is bad advice holding a kernel of truth—because the “never” and “always” is usually an actual rule of thumb that can be helpful. For example, I tell my clients to avoid the talking heads and floating heads. It isn’t that those techniques are innately wrong, per se—they’re red flags for places where transitions, setting, and character development are missing. I’ve probably mentioned this before, but schoolteachers often insist that students write a sentence outline before their essay, insisting that they require it for the student’s own good. They completely ignore that sentence… Read more »
Taurean Watkins
Jami, this is WHY I felt so sheepish about critiquing others in a beta-reader fashion. When I was part of a critique group, I met some dedicated writers who became so special to me, but- Before the group, I’d had some mixed opinions about my stories, I know in hindsight that even some (Not all, though…) the most cruel-sounding counsel I received had some truth, but HOW you infer issues is often harsher than the actual advice given to begin with. That’s why I make sure any critiques I give are about th, and I think twice before I recommend a book on the issue I have with the story. I’m honest, but I don’t believe you need to sound like a demonic tyrant to do it. While there were some bumps in the road (Mostly on my part when it was my turn to be critiqued) it was WAY easier to make needed changes because they didn’t diss what I loved writing, and knowing they liked my genre, and RESPECTED it, I was willing to make some radical changes to improve what I workshopped with them. I’d have a far more negative view of beta-reading had I not met them. I had to leave the group when I could no longer keep up with our rigorous schedule, but I still stay in touch and follow their efforts online when I can. To sum it up, I try to avoid sounding “absolute” in any advice I give on my blog… Read more »
Chihuahua Zero

I knew someone in a writer’s group who wrote great thrillers and suspense stories (he really knew how write in tension), but liked to use a lot of overstuffed participial phrases. If the misuse of participial phrases are bad, then long p-phrases are sentences begging for editing.

But hey, you identified what I find off with most p-phrases. They often cause tense troubles.

—-

I would leave with one other addition: Don’t go overboard with writing advice. Sometimes, by being zealous with a rule, you can end up making a mess during revision.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Yes, the leading PPP sentences! I used to always use them when I was little, but nowadays I keep using “She”, “He”, “It”, “The”, “A”, “An” as sentence beginnings, because I was consciously imitating the published books I saw around me. One reason why I imitated them was because this constant same structure (i.e. subject starter sentences) didn’t seem to bore me. But sometimes you’d have sentences starters like “Eventually, ….”, or “Once, …” Apart from starting a sentence with a different subject or with a time indicator, we could start it with a past participle. (I’ve seen Nora Roberts use this method and I liked the effect.) E.g. “Intrigued, he….” But most of my sentences still start with She/He/It/A/An/The, lol. And I agree that using these types of subject-first sentences make your prose sound more professional. So I’d say that it’s better to imitate writing that you like than to listen to writing rules. We learn through imitation, after all. And often while we’re imitating, we even learn or feel why that style worked so well for us. Like there’s a style that a lot of published writers use with a lot of “She” or “He” sentences in a row. That sounds like a lack of variety, yet when this method is in action, you can see that this repetition is actually quite nice, perhaps because 1) It sounds nice rhythmically; and 2) We’re forced to focus on the subject for several sentences, so our attention’s arrested. Of course,… Read more »
Melissa Maygrove

Excellent post.

I’ve been lucky that the majority of the advice I’ve gotten since I began writing fiction has been sound. But I read on someone’s blog recently that a man told her a new author didn’t have a chance at getting a publishing contract unless their story was at least 100k or more. Gah! She ended up with a lot of wasted queries and a LOT of trimming to do, poor thing.

My take on the details of fiction writing is: moderation is key. In small doses, you can get away with almost anything. 🙂

Daphne Shadows

Yeaaaaaah, the advice on cutting ALL adverbs and adjectives? Grrr. I’m halfway through the first critique of my MS and realized I’m not one of the people who overdue on either of those. So cutting them out? Now I have about zero.
And I’ll have to add some in so my writing isn’t dryer than the Sahara on my next critique.
But random posts like this one help out so much. Often times we KNOW we know something, we’re not just consciously aware of the fact that we know it. So when someone points it out, we smack ourselves on the forehead, wonder how on earth we didn’t already know we knew that, even though we ALREADY knew it. And then we wonder how we understood what we just thought.

And now I’m wondering why I just transitioned to third person. But whatever, you get what I mean (hopefully) and THANK YOU!
For making me realize that I knew what I knew. 😉

E.B.Pike

Wow–this was a great post, Jami! It’s funny how many things like this there are and how many “rules” need to be broken sometimes, but not too much. 🙂 It’s good to always be learning and growing!

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Mongoose
Mongoose
So eventually, as a writers skill grows they will be able to tell when to use ‘said’ vs say ‘ he roared or mixing it with an action beat. I’ve found now that i;’m on chapter 30 I have what I think is a good sense of when to do so and when not to. The above ‘bad’ advice is there imop for young writers so that tehy don’t go overboard, you know? I find that during my current revisions some times I’m adding to those tags, striping them off, or adding in an action tag. Or just leaving it as he said/she said. I think that it boils downt o finding your writing style/voice. Slightly off topic: This reminds me of some not necessarily bad writing advice, as to be more opinionated writing advice i’ve gotten. Where the other author said that, I should not have so many of my dialogue tags in the beginning. I did listen, mostly. In that I changed a few of them to have action beats or a (rarely) a different tag for ‘said’ but more often then not I like using he said/she said when I want the focus to be on the dialogue it self. Now mind you if my editor toss it back at me and says the same I’ll consider itOr quietly hire one and have them look at it and see if I get the same response. If it is then yes I will change it to be less… Read more »
Mongoose
Mongoose

Excuse my typos, and yes I edited, I find they don’t jump out at me until after I’ve posted something. xD

Mongoose/darkocean

Any so called advice that starts with “always” or “never”; I look long and hard at it. I like to use he/she said often and occasionally use whispered, but most of the time lots of action beats. My problem is I put the tags and beats before the dialogue, oops. This edit is going to take a while. (⋟﹏⋞)

Kate
Kate

I came to this article looking for thoughts on dialogue tags that end with a present participle phrase, like: “I used to spend hours out here with a good book,” I told him, stopping under the big oak that dominated the yard.

I’m beta reading for someone that uses this construction constantly. The use is too frequent for my taste. My immediate urge is to recommend reconstructing most of these sentences. What’s a general rule of thumb? Is that exercise noted in your article also referring to these phrases, or just leading PPPs? Cut down to less than fiver per chapter?

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