Writers often ask each other this: what’s the worst writing advice you’ve ever been given? Following this question, the funny, sad and tragic stories come out, of advice given by friendly, but misguided fellow writers, of paid-for assessors who really didn’t know much about fiction or others who were plain rude.
This post is not about that. I have had some incidences of laughable advice, of occasions where my fellow writers led me onto a path that ultimately led to a place worse than where I was coming from, but those incidences will stay in my personal memory. No doubt I have given such advice, too. I have no illusions about that.
This post is about the slush I see, about an older manuscript I’m revising, and about what I think is the singlemost damaging piece of advice doled out in workshops and writing courses:
Your prose should be active and not use dull verbs.
I have a problem with this, not because it’s bad advice (it isn’t), but because it leads almost every writer to write notoriously bad prose through the simple and very human assumption that if you do something right 70% of the time, you get decent marks, but if you do it all of the time, you get full marks.
Wrong. This advice often leads to the most beginner-ish and most tortuous prose on the planet, and an editor can do nothing with it, because the crap is terribly insidious and all-pervading.
I’m writing this because I’m angry with myself for getting caught up in this must-write-active-sentences and must-use-interesting-verbs advice. I’m editing a manuscript that is full of this sort of crap. It is insidious. I have to make changes to many, many sentences. I wrote this about three years ago.
So, what is the problem?
OK, an example:
Carla opened the bottle. The contents smelled strongly of vinegar.
Carla opened the bottle and was hit in the face by a strong smell of vinegar.
Carla opened the bottle. A strong smell of vinegar wafted out.
These are all functional, quite simple constructions. But say you were afraid of starting the sentence with a name, or you had a feeling that somehow you needed a more complicated sentence.
When Carla opened the bottle, a smell of vinegar wafted out.
Here we have four perfectly serviceable constructions writers can use. Why then, do so many writers feel that it’s necessary to say stuff like this:
After opening the bottle, a smell of vinegar pervaded Carla’s nose.
Urgh. I mean: urgh, urgh, urgh. Why make such an effort to say a simple thing in such a complicated sentence, which is grammatically incorrect to boot. Why make the smell of vinegar a character? What is with the smells pervading people’s noses? Has no one heard of the verb ‘to smell’? Why, why, why?
The worst thing is, a total, total beginner will probably in all his or her ignorance, write a sentence like the top examples. After a writing course or reading a book on writing, or a few workshop sessions, he or she will come into bad habits, and those habits need to be un-learned first. Scents pervading noses, eyes dropping to the floor, just don’t OK?
Two simple rules here:
If it doesn’t sound like something someone would say in real life, don’t say it.
Keep It Simple, Stupid!