Category Archives: style

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

>Outside My Realm

>I’m in the midst of editing a novel for an online friend. Only trouble is, it’s not my type of story. It’s fantasy, which I’ve read at times but which I tend to find overwrought and overly descriptive. Still, I can recognize that my friend’s done a good job avoiding the annoying parts of the genre while still staying true to the core. And I can edit almost anything for basic style, grammar, and sense, which is mainly what she wanted from me anyway.

This brings up some interesting questions. My “day job” consists of technical editing, and I’ve worked as a writer and editor in a number of different areas over the years: newspaper, magazines and journals, public relations. I’ve learnd two primary lessons—I don’t want to write for someone else for a living (because then I lose interest in writing for myself), and I don’t want to work with any subject matter that holds no interest for me, as writer or editor.

My current writing is gay romance. This is a spinoff from fan fiction I’ve written recently, but I’ve written fanfic in the past without crossing over into original fiction. I’ve tried, but it’s never worked for me. I’m not really sure what made the difference this time. I’m also writing much longer stories now than I did previously.

For those of you who are writers or editors, do you stick with a specific genre, subject matter, even length? If so, how did you get started working with that type of material? How much do you experiment outside your usual “comfort” range? Have you ever tried something new and loved it? Tried something new and found it just didn’t work for you? What do you think it is that makes the difference?