Writing Advice: Beware Absurdly Reductive Writing Advice!

There are a lot of stories you can write. Hordes of them. Seething lexical legions demanding ink-black birth through your mind-womb!

That grew dire fast, and I apologize. Anyway, most of us learn early on that there are a multitude of genres with a multitude of options and three principle styles of writing (Low, Middle, High, or to write each using its own flavor: This Textbook Writing Befits Textbooks and Nothing Else, Average Joe Prose, and Purplegeddon the Death of Brevity) with which to execute those options. And it must be noted, these three styles can be mixed and matched with wildest abandon, lending thus a far-cast corona of limitless variety!

Look, I’ve said before that purple prose is fun sometimes. 

So, considering I’ve just said there are so many stories with so many ways to write them–don’t you wonder if you oughtn’t to be suspicious when someone says “ONE WEIRD TRICK FOR GREAT WRITING!” This what turns me off most writing advice from major publications. I understand every author has their own style and preferences. That’s great (see first paragraph.) I find serious problems with the fact that so much advice slams a fist down on the table and barks, “Damn it, Scriby Writermun, you’re a loose cannon, and in this industry we do things by the book!

We’ve just established there are ridiculous numbers of those books. Which of them is Chief Dogmakowski cribbing from? It’s probably the one she wrote, and that in itself is fine! Writers are only experts in their own writing–not even that to start with–so that’s the writing we should start with. But there’s a churning gulf between “I write this way and maybe it’ll work well for you,” and “I WRITE THIS WAY FOR IT IS THE ONLY WAY TO WRITE AND YOU ARE DOOMED AND ALSO A HACK IF YOU DO NOT WRITE THIS WAY.”

Alright, yes, that second version was unfair.

I recently stumbled across a 2011 Writer’s Digest article about openings. It puts forth the idea that you invariably need certain info in your opening, and that’s just ill-considered. Here are the things they said you should do:
Explain the conflict. This means I must open with characters who know what the conflict is and that there’s going to be/is one, or else as an omniscient narrator.
Establish a point of view. This is good to do early-ish, yes, but the first paragraph, always? Sometimes a more atmospheric opening into which the characters intrude will serve you better.
Establish a setting. Okay, unless you’re writing realistic fiction or the setting is a generic copy-paste, this just isn’t happening. You can get about as far as “there is or is not a planet, it does or does not resemble Earth.” Wooooooo. I sure am glad we cleared that up!
-Come up with an amazing opening line which, ideally, doubles as a hook. This is good advice for a short story because–gut-punch incoming–short stories are short. While I still think it’s excessive to form opinions about a story in the space of a single line, I can understand why publishers would be this stringent. Short stories rely on efficiency and punch, so an opening line that demonstrates those things isn’t as unreasonable a criterion as expecting the same from every novel.

My point here isn’t that any of this advice is inherently bad. My point is that it’s Absurdly Reductive(TM?) and being absurdly reductive turns your writing into a crap-shoot. Instead of choosing from the immense arsenal of techniques, styles and devices we as writers get to play with, you limit yourself to the same ones every time. Some stories will happen to benefit from some of the choices you make, and work a little better. Some stories will war with those choices instead, and what happens then? Do you just reapply the same rules harder?

Some further context for that article: it was written by a short story writer, and primarily references short stories. The form requirements, industry expectations and audience expectations for short stories are not the same as those for novels, or poetry, or non-fiction articles.

The vast majority of writing advice doesn’t acknowledge this. Most writers achieve their highest refinement in one form, and only dabble in the others. And perhaps there’s a tacit understanding that all our advice is tailored towards certain forms, but that’s the problem. New writers–or, an often overlooked category, competent but uncertain writers looking to refine their style–are rarely grounded enough in the industry to perceive tacit understandings.

This is why I generally try to provide context for my advice up-front. My advice for Fantasy novels is different from my advice from SciFi, which differs from my Poetry musings, and so on. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying writing advice which doesn’t account for genre differences needs to be thrown out. Just keep in mind that the author may not work in the same genre or lengths that you do, and that most writers don’t take style courses.

Also, take a style course. It’ll go a long way to helping you understand what things are actually errors, and which are just different approaches to the same language and structure.

I would hope it’s obvious that if you’re providing writing advice, I want you to more carefully consider whether the tips you offer are solid or just stringent. You don’t want to be featured five years from now in a list of terrible advice that almost ruined 2023’s hottest new novelist. Stylistic aside: can we stop referring to popular authors as “hot”? Especially if they’re actually hot. Books aren’t movies, there’s no excuse for selling them on the author’s sex appeal. We’re supposed to sell them on the characters’ sex appeal!

But hey, maybe that’s a big selling point in Romance novels. I wouldn’t know, I don’t write them.

(As always, if you found this post enriching or simply enjoyed it, then please comment below, leave a like, share it with your friends wherever you may go online, and consider supporting me on Patreon!)

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