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.