3 Writing Maxims to Ignore or Tweak

Today, Writers on the Move has a wonderful guest article from freelance writer Melissa Miller.

3 Writing Maxims to Ignore or Tweak

If you've undertaken any formal education in creative writing – say, more than one workshop – you probably know that much of the same advice is recycled by your teachers and peers, time and time again.

This is not necessarily a bad thing: the collective knowledge of people who have devoted their lives to this craft is an invaluable asset to draw on, especially when you're first setting out on the journey of finding your own way as a writer.

That said, some of the clichés are as stale as day-old bread (see what I did there?) and you should take them with a grain of salt (mm-hmm). Remember: in writing, there are no hard and fast rules. Anyone who tells you otherwise has been brainwashed, and is not to be resented so much as pitied. They will forever be confined by the non-existent rules, and their writing will seem as though you've read it too many times before, because it's been streamlined by groupthink, too many heuristic words of wisdom they've unquestioningly absorbed.

Here are a few old chestnuts that you should always question, and not even because they're necessarily wrong, but because they could stand to be examined more deeply:

1.    "Write what you know."

The way you interpret this is what matters. Should all your writing be autobiographical? Not necessarily. Is research off-limits? Certainly not.

But the emotional truth of your writing can only come from felt experience. This is what Stanislavski preached for actors, and was later embraced as "the Method" by such luminaries as Marlon Brando and Dustin Hoffman, but it's also true for writers.

So you can write about others with wildly different backgrounds from your own, but probe into yourself spiritually and try to empathize with how a given moment must have felt.

2.    "Show, don’t tell."

The problem here is that this is literally (or literarily) impossible. Writing only tells, by definition, unless you're writing in hieroglyphics, and even then, as the Rosetta Stone taught us, they were usually not representational, but conventionalized symbols.

Anyway, that's a tangent, but the point stands. What they really mean by this cliché is, "simulate showing, not telling," but that's not nearly as pithy.

It is true, though, that the level and diversity of sensory detail in a piece of writing has a profound, immersive effect on the reader. In this way, literature is sort of like virtual reality, but invented 10,000 years before any goofy 3D headsets.

3.    Always remember your audience.

Okay, this one is particularly well-intentioned. It's like "the customer's always right." The idea is that you should respect your eventual reader, and anticipate what they'll want, how to hook them, how to keep their interest, etc.

It's a good maxim, like these other two…as far as it goes. The problem comes when your audience is always in your head, psyching you out, from the first draft onward. This can censor or even paralyze your natural flow as a writer.

Sure, it's important not to waste the time of others. But the best way you can make sure to write something worth their reading is to, in another famous platitude, coined by Joseph Campbell, "follow your bliss." Don't forget to write for yourself too.

Melissa Miller is a freelance writer. Throw your questions to melissamiller831@gmail.com.


Kathleen Moulton said...

Melissa, this is one of the best articles I have read about writing.

I'm just starting out and I tend to a) follow the "rules"; b) figure others know better than I do.

While there is merit on both points, the fact remains that the rules have conflicted from writer to writer (thus leaving me confused because of my second point).

So, I "think" what you're saying is we have to have balance? Not be afraid to forge ahead with something that may break all the rules? Some of the best things in life have been invented/created by going against the flow!

Thanks so much for your thoughts.


Margaret Fieland said...

{grin} Great post. I might phrase this as:

1. Know when you know enough to write about something.

2. Show (or simulate showing) where appropriate, but realize you don't have to show everything.

3. Include an appropriate level of detail for your intended audience.

IMO it's important to know the rules, and just as important to know when to break them.

Mary Jo Guglielmo said...

Three great writing tips. Thanks

Heidiwriter said...

Very good. When you're starting out it seems like there are so many "rules" that sometimes you can be overwhelmed. But you have to know the rules before you can successfully break them. Happy writing!

Karen Cioffi said...

Melissa, thanks for sharing with us. It is an interesting and helpful post.

Kathleen, you're right, some of the rules of writing can be viewed subjectively, making them a bit confusing.

Peggy, you did a great job narrowing it down.

Anne Duguid Knol said...

Enjoyed this--a sensible take on the roolz. Thank you Melissa and l agree with all the comments about knowing the rules before breaking them.

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