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.
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.
Count the sentences on that page.
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?Pin It