Advice, Craft, Doubt, Fiction, Tips, Writing

The problem with reading how-to-write articles

It goes without saying that when you’re as good a writer as I am, you don’t need writing advice. OMG, I could hardly type that for laughing so hard! Seriously, like most of you, I still have a lot to learn about writing. And I’m always looking for that bit of golden advice that will make everything fall into place, giving me the ability to write nothing but astounding fiction thereafter. So, of course, I read my share of advice for writers, but I have to do it sparingly.

In the March/April issue of Writer’s Digest an article by Steven James, titled “5 Story Mistakes Even Good Writers Make” caught my eye. He says, “Never let anything get between your story and your readers.” That’s solid advice and simple enough, right? Then he lists the five most common ways writers veer off-course.

  1. Overdoing symbolism/themes
  2. Trying too hard
  3. Failing to anticipate the readers’ response
  4. Using a hook as a gimmick
  5. Leaving readers hanging

Under each heading, he explains and gives examples of the mistake, and offers tips on how to avoid making it. I’m not going to quote too much for fear of copyright issues, so get a copy of the magazine if you can. I’ll talk a bit about one of his points.

Under #2, James writes, “There’s nothing less impressive than someone trying to be impressive. There’s nothing less funny than someone trying to be funny. Eloquence doesn’t impress anyone except for the person trying so hard to be eloquent. So look for places in your story where you were trying to be funny, clever or impressive, and change or remove them.” Remember, the heading is trying too hard, and here he’s talking about things like bolstering your dialogue with tags, such as adding “she joked” or “he mentioned in his fun-loving way” rather than making sure your dialogue is funny on it’s own.

Using excessive or inappropriate literary devices is another way writers try too hard. James says, “Believe it or not, you don’t want readers to admire your writing.” If you vehemently disagree with that statement, you probably write high-literary fiction where the construct is foremost. For the rest of us, he says, we want our readers “to be so engaged in the story itself that they don’t notice the way you use words to shape it.”

Anytime you stop your readers with confusion, causing them to reread a passage or an earlier section to figure out something, or even to analyze your beautiful writing, you’ve failed. “You want your writing to be an invisible curtain between your readers and your story.”

I agree with all that. I even think I know and practice all that, and yet … every time I read advice like this, doubt creeps in, and I want to recheck everything I’ve written—even if published—to look for places where I’m guilty of bad writing. Of course, I don’t actually check. Well, maybe just one or two pieces. Or five. Okay, so you can see that if I didn’t pace myself in reading such advice, I might never be able to write anything new.

21 thoughts on “The problem with reading how-to-write articles”

  1. Well I certainly like funny. Carl Haaison, Dave Barry, Garrison Keillor and Mark Twain’s satires too. I suppose the reference is to be careful not to seem “manufactured ” funny which is quaint and trite. Kinda like Mitt Romney trying to tell a joke. When Mitt tries to portray himself as one of us, well, now that is funny. Now let’s take clever. I happen to be addicted to similes and esp creative metaphors and even copy them to write in the blank end pages which I later tear out and file. When these start popping up I say to myself “I will finish this book whether the story or characters are appealing or not” but I would agree that the story and characters should not be contaminated or over polished with literary devices as they are a distraction for most readers except English majors. When writing historical essays the character and the action are the only things that should compose the piece as well as should written or oral journalism(which is not observed in cable TV). But fiction is not history or journalism.

    “to be so engaged in the story itself that they don’t notice the way you use words to shape it.” Well that certainly does not apply to poetry but this author is not referring to poetry – conceded. But with a BA and two MA’s I certainly am attentive to word use. 33 years in the classroom reinforced this propensity.

    When I read pure story,”just the facts ma’am” my attention wanes and probably won’t get past the first chapter. I acknowledge these are just my eccentricities as a reader and I concede that generally speaking sound advice has been offered but if the story is too sterile where does author style come into focus? It’s just another story. When reading the classics or today’s adventure/intrigue fiction I can often make reasonably accurate guesses of who was the piece’s author based on style. I know a bit about painting and for the trained eye the painting is apprehended beyond mere composition. I can estimate what kind of brushes were used, if mixed or from the tube paint has been used and the brush strokes themselves(literary flourish in this case) all contribute to my appreciation of the production and my attribution of merit.

    All this aside if the author does capture us with mere story and mere nature of characters well that is certainly an ability to be respected and admired. When the literary techniques are a distraction they should be cut and too many adv’s and adj’s and sentence twists are like a concentration on nuts and bolts and we lose focus on the steam engine itself as an example of the validity of this author’s offering.

    “Believe it or not, you don’t want readers to admire your writing.”

    I disagree. Since I read a lot of non fiction it is refreshing to take time out to read literature and the flowers used in sentences does make me admire the writing as well as the story. That’s the difference between literature and a police report.


    1. I don’t think what Steven James said is at odds with your comments, Carl. Perhaps my brief excerpts did his article an injustice. I certainly didn’t get the sense he was advising writers not to care about writing well. For instance, his admonition to actually write funny dialogue rather than prop it up by telling the reader it was funny, is an admonition to use precise and accurate words.

      There’s a difference between literary writing, which is often an example of writers writing for writers, and commercial writing. I wonder how many readers prefer experimental writing, such as dialogue written without quotation marks, or some such unusual construct, over just a good story told well.

      As a writer, I’m more prone to notice the actual writing, so when I realize I’m totally enthralled with the story and oblivious to the mechanics, I know that’s great writing.

      “Good prose should be transparent.” — George Orwell


  2. I think the trick is to write so that readers who don’t want to notice your writing, can just get on with the reading, while those who love to attend to writing as well as the story, will notice what you’ve done and hopefully, admire it.
    I’ve committed just about all the sins listed and finally begun to understand that I need a balance. For me, writing needs to be clever to carry the story well, but it should never be clever-clever, contrived, and laughing snortily up its sleeve at its own prowess. But if someone who loves elegance of structure and wording, notices that in something I’ve written and finds it adds to their enjoyment – wonderful. Even more wonderful that I might actually achieve something like that!
    Linda, I don’t see those sins in your writing so quit the post mortem and get on with delivering another literary baby!


    1. “I think the trick is to write so that readers who don’t want to notice your writing, can just get on with the reading, while those who love to attend to writing as well as the story, will notice what you’ve done and hopefully, admire it.”

      Exactly! And I think Steven James would agree too. 🙂


  3. When I read “advice” of any kind, I take in what makes sense, especially if I have that AHA! moment, and the rest I either let go, or it will simmer without me even knowing it’s simmering, and one day I’ll be going along and some advice will make sense.

    This works for me because I don’t concentrate on the advice, but instead, read it, let it soak in a bit, or not, have an AHA moment or not, and then go on about the business of writing my books. Sooner or later, things will make sense for me in the way I write.

    It goes the same for when I give “advice” on my blog — take what makes sense and let the rest simmer for one day when there is that aha moment or that dawning recognition!


    1. You’re right, Kat. 🙂 Advice givers–of any persuasion–rarely agree on everything, so you’d drive yourself crazy if you tried to follow all the advice. I did that at first and strangled my Muse. Well, to be honest, I still sometimes take a bit of advice to heart that I shouldn’t, and end up two steps back. I’m getting better at knowing what to pay attention to and what to let pass me by.


      1. I resisted giving “advice” on my blog for a long time. Well, I used to do it regularly, then I stopped, because there was SO MUCH OF IT out there! lawd!

        But, when I looked back at my stats from “the old days of talking about writing,” I realized how many people came by and read, discussed, etc. So I decided to bring it back every so often.

        But, you all know I always say: Break the rules (it just helps to know them first! – however, my first novel I learned by doing!) and If you convince your readers – then you have done your job, no matter what!

        I hope my advice or tools or whatever give writers an Aha! moment and not confuse, but I also know that sometimes I will be just one more confusing voice out there – dang my hide!


        1. I enjoy your Monday Classroom posts, Kat. 🙂

          In the early days of this blog, I wrote more “advicey” posts than I do now. I backed off those because I don’t want anyone to think I know more than I do. I know what works for me. Grammar rules are for everyone, but the other stuff is debatable. Now, I only blog about how I write. If someone tries my “methods” and they work for them too, great.

          But, now that you mention it, maybe I’d get more discussion going here if I blogged more “how-to’s” … er … “how-I-do’s”.


          1. I decided my Monday Classroom wouldn’t always be about “advice” but sometimes just about books or literature or publishing, etc — the last few have been “how to’s” but I’m not limiting myself to that because, well, dang, there isn’t enough for me to say without repeating myself *laugh*!

            I do enjoy writing my Free For All Wednesdays, especially the personal training and product reviews – their fun to write, and take me away from The Business of Writing for a while!

            I enjoy your blog!


        2. Exactly the rules of painting, design, science, even etiquette. Know the rules so your heart would break without them, then bend them to your purpose. Naive is wonderful, but only once; after that, you expect skill.


          1. Lawdy! *laughing* – yeah, poetry is weird. That’s why we (at R&T) have a poetry editor – if I had to read and pick poetry, no telling what would end up in the issues . . . lawd.


  4. Hi, Linda. You know, I allowed my subscriptuion to Writer’s Digest to end. I have a stack of the last year or so on a shelf that I have yet to get to. It isn’t that I think I’m great by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just that I have become caught up in the business of writing now that I don’t have the time. I’m networking, promoting, reading and writing, which is what we’re supposed to be doing. I have one novel published which people seem to like. I have another releasing this spring. What the gentleman advised is currect. Absolutely correct. However, if we’re reading and writing the way we’re supposed to be, then we probably already knew that.
    Just a thought!
    Take care, my friend.



    1. Well, Jimmy, I’ve sampled books from a couple of the more prolific self-published writers, and I have to disagree that just writing a lot means you know how to write well. But if you mean the best way to learn to write is to study good writing and then write, write, write, I do agree with that. But you do need to learn what good writing is before you can write well. Good luck with your new book! 🙂


  5. See, totally disagree with not wanting readers to admire my writing thought. Sometimes, when I’m ready and a line or passage stands out as being exceptionally written, I pause, pull myself out of the story and think, “damn, that’s good” and then I go right back into it. Now when I’m writing, every now and then I’ll have the same experience and I pull myself out of the fictive dream, think “damn, that’s good” and hope that someday a reader will do the same.


    1. I agree somewhat, Kimberly. We’re writers, so of course we notice good craft and we hope other writers will notice that in our writing, but it’s also great when a reader says, “I got so caught up in the story that I didn’t want it to end.” that’s fulfilling too. And, as a reader, I love doing that too.


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