Free Advice Can Cost You

redpencil_thaikrit“NEVER DO THIS advice about writing style is rarely helpful. Writing is not an exact science. Authorial voice matters.”

I tweeted the above as part of a conversation on Twitter last week, and it got retweeted around a bit. I thought it deserved a little bit of expansion, so I wrote this post as a follow-up. 🙂

One thing that the internet has made easy is the dissemination of advice. Not just in the publishing world, of course, but the internet makes it simple for any random person (like, say, me) to set up a blog and start handing out suggestions, rules, guidelines, or manifestos about anything they want.

The proliferation of free advice is great for lots of things, including, in many cases, the publishing world. It’s easy to get help when you need it on anything from grammar to word use to location research. The problem comes when personal preferences or opinions are presented as facts. The end result is that there’s a lot of writing advice floating around that’s just not all that good.

When it comes to grammar and usage, most things are pretty clear-cut. There are widely agreed-upon rules regarding how to use the language, and even if not every source agrees, you’ll generally find consensus among different guides on things like word meanings, punctuation, and spelling. Where there isn’t a clear “winner,” a preference may emerge—or your publisher will have a house style that will take care of it.

Other issues aren’t so clear-cut. Idiomatic expressions, metaphors and similes, meter and flow… these are questions related to the author’s writing style, and they don’t have easy answers. They are likely to come down to clarity and authorial voice. To go back to that tweet, generally speaking, advice related to writing style that says to “NEVER DO THIS” is not helpful, no matter what “THIS” is.

Considering the collaborative nature of so much in publishing, it can be easy to forget that editing and writing are far different skills. Writing is a creative art, whereas editing is far more of a science. It’s all too easy for editors to get caught up in the science and lose sight of the art.

I think one of the most difficult things for a fiction editor to learn is how to fix problems without damaging the inherent voice of the author. Even when editors have good reasons for their suggested changes, that doesn’t mean they’re right, or what’s best for the story. I’m not advocating starting editorial fights by any means, but authors who feel strongly about the way they’ve written something shouldn’t hesitate to argue in favor of keeping it.

With every set of edits I receive, I go through basically the same process. I make one pass through to accept or fix everything that I immediately agree with: typos, missing words, incorrect words, and so on. Anything that needs more consideration or that I disagree with gets skipped. Most of the time, that first review clears most of the editor’s comments.

On the second trip through, I look at things more closely. If I agree with the editor’s comment, then I figure out a way to fix it. If I don’t, I mark the passage and explain my reasoning in a comment. Most of the second category contains instances where I think the editor has misread something or has corrected something that wasn’t actually wrong. Often, the choice comes down to “I think it reads better this way.” And pretty much every time, my version is what makes it through to the final copy. Not because I’m “right” and the editor is “wrong,” but because there is no right or wrong, only a preference. And my name is the one that’s on the story.

So the lesson? As with anything on the internet, don’t take every piece of writing advice you read at face value. Figure out what works for your story. And most of all, never say “NEVER.”

Image courtesy of thaikrit / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Advertisements

3 responses to “Free Advice Can Cost You

  1. Without even thinking about it, I handle my edits the exact same way. Correct ask that I agree with and ate obvious and then go back through to go over those items that are more complicated or I don’t agree with and make comments, etc. It works well, and my authorial voice comes through perfectly. Great article.

    Carah

  2. THIS! THIS THIS THIS!

    I read so so *SO* many posts about “rules” for writing. And I have seen some really annoying stuff that makes me want to pull out my hair. Stuff that is TOTAL preference but written as if it was *law*. Things like dialog tags or words for genitals, or how often you should use pronouns vs proper names vs epithets (which, to be clear, is all solid advice but it is NOT fact) just to name a few. And it makes me nuts. Those are not rules! Those are preference! I get it, there’s a lot out there that sounds better. But one of the things I always say in the end is that it’s not an absolute and so many (especially new) writers start to think it’s the ONLY way to write. I mean, if we all wrote the same things… how boring would THAT be?!

  3. You describe pretty much what I did with the one story I’ve had go through editing so far. Go through all the editor comments and put a note along the lines of “agreed” or “to reply” by every one and then go back and look at the ones that need further thought. Dealing with the ones I immediately agreed with reduced it to a much more manageable task. Sure, there were a few things I stood firm on, because I thought they were important, but I explained why I wanted them to stay as they were and treated the whole thing as a dialogue, rather than a contest. On most things I deferred to the editors, sometimes after a discussion to tease out where the problem lay.

    I have to admit, I ignore a lot of the advice out there because much of it reads to me as someone’s personal bias written as “law”, when the whole thing about writing fiction is that we can play with the rules to get the effect we’re looking for. Why not start a sentence with a conjunction? Fragmentary “sentences” have their uses. So do the infamous “autonomous body parts” (you know, those independently wandering hands and roaming eyes). Some of the best stories I’ve read (ie the ones that gripped me and I couldn’t put down) have done things that a lot of the advisors tell you not to do. So I take it all with a pinch of salt and blithely carry on writing my way.