Monday, September 19, 2011

Taking Advice

I saw this list of quotes from Stephen King today, and immediately thought "YES!" when I read the first one: "The road to hell is paved with adverbs."

As you know, I give writing advice a lot. I speak from a Bachelors and a Masters in creative writing and (more importantly) as a professional in the publishing industry. I'd like to think I'm pretty qualified to give writing advice, as are many other publishing professionals who offer advice on a regular basis. All we can do is sit back and hope people listen. (Mostly so we don't have to repeat ourselves.)

That said, I understand why some writers don't take our advice.

With so much subjectivity in the field, how does one differentiate between personal taste and unarguable truth? The thing is, there are always going to be exceptions to rules, so nothing is ever set in stone. But! For the most part, especially for a debut author who's way less likely to be able to break any rules, there are some things you'll just need to take an editor's word on.

Bringing me back to adverbs. Poor, poor adverbs. The thing is, they can be used in moderation, but no one ever uses them sparingly enough, so they get ruined for everybody. Adverbs are words that seem to be universally hated by writing professionals, and yet writers continue to use (and abuse) them. It makes me wonder who is listening to writing advice out there.

So I ask you, fair writers:
How often do you listen to writing advice from professionals, either via blogs, conferences, or Twitter?
How many second opinions do you require before you're able to think of suggestions as "rules?"
When something is as frowned upon as adverbs, are you still able to write it off as "personal preference?"

Thanks, friends :)


  1. Ouch, that's a hard one to answer. How much writing advice do I listen to?

    In equal parts, too much and too little.

    Yeah there's all that advice about cleaning up and tightening a manuscript, and I listen to all of it. But then, there I am revising and trying to figure out if there's just one more word I can ax from a sentence. That's too much.

    As for adverbs, well, we don't get along, so I'm not likely to drown a reader in them.

    Rules: well, someone made them so someone else could break them, but the point isn't to break them and be all "Oh, but it's my personal style." The point of rules is to break them when you have a fracking good reason for it (and sometimes that is about personal style, but it's got to GOOD). IMO, rules are meant as guidelines to get you going, but some of them really are about the crutches we writers use when our writing isn't spot on: case and point adverbs (or worse, the dreaded double verbing!). When I write, if I find a dreaded double verbing, it's a clue that I haven't spent enough time figure out which verb I needed. Same with adverbs.

    But I'm just one writer.

  2. I'm still in the early phases of writing seriously, so I take in most advice, especially if it's regarding grammar or general writing craft advice. Some things I knew instinctively but didn't have a name for it or a specific reason for why it's wrong. For example, a certain YA author's writing style bugs me, but I didn't realize it was an over-reliance on adverbs, and particularly the word "just" which shows up on every page about 8 times.

    Stephen King said you have to know the rules in order to break them, and I agree with him there.

  3. So we should use adverbs "sparlingly"? Because they're "universally" hated, Sarah? :)

    I see the laziness that can creep up when a writer starts to depend on adverbs, but I think adverbs can also contribute to successful writing too. If an adverb describes the action better than an expression or some clause that would stick out as a desperate alternative to shun adverbs, stick with the adverb.

    Writing advice in general, yeah, I listen to what editors/publishers/agents/other writers have to say, because I can always learn. It doesn't mean I'll always stick with that advice--there's always an exception to the rule, (Rowling uses adverbs "excessively" in Harry Potter, ahem) but I think it's probably safer to be the example OF the rule instead.

  4. Sheesh, *sparingly. Sorry.

  5. Always.
    It depends on whose opinion it is.
    With caution.

  6. Ditto Kathryn. I picked up on "sparingly" and "universally," too:)

    I think that's the important thing to remember about adverbs - adverbs aren't evil in and of themselves; you just don't want them to stick out. (The only reason they stuck out in this post is because you were talking about them specifically.) Plenty of published books use plenty of adverbs.

    But the thing is, those published books use adverbs intelligently. You don't notice them because they fit with the flow of the writing. They stop being adverbs and start being the words a seasoned professional just happened to pick. And they work.

    I think it would be more useful for publishing professionals to teach some of the concepts behind all these writing rules instead of just blasting the writing rules themselves. Instead of saying, "Adverbs are bad," publishing professionals could say something like, "Adverbs are bad because they clutter up a sentence unnecessarily. Why write 'walked slowly' when you could write 'crept' or 'tiptoed' instead?" Then writers could apply the concepts instead of just trying to remember a bunch of rules that may or may not make sense to them.

  7. @Kathryn - I hope you picked up that I used them on purpose to illustrate the point they can be used correctly. :)

    @Krista - When I critique or give clients advice, I do say why so that they can understand for future reference. But I think most of us (i.e. publishing pros) tend to give blanket statements because the reasons have been given so many times before and we can't bare repeating them all the time.

    I didn't mean to pick on just adverbs (lord knows they get picked on enough!). The Stephen King quote is what prompted this post, but I meant "things that most professionals hate" in general. Adverbs, in this case, is just an example.

  8. I tend to look at all writing advise from the philosophy of 'everything is moderation'. If you followed every piece of writing advice out there, you'd have an incredibly dead piece of writing.

    I basically have three rules for writing:

    If I read it out loud and I trip over any words, then it has to be rewritten.

    If I read/skim through quickly and anything jumps out (good or bad), then it needs to be rewritten.

    Anything that makes me stop and remember I'm reading words on a page is a bad thing. When you read something that is written well, you forget they're just black text on a white page because you are so involved with the story/characters.

  9. I definitely listen, and then I go back and read manuscripts I wrote a long time ago and CRINGE.

  10. When I first started getting serious about writing, I read every single word of every agent/author/editor blog I could find. That helped me realize pretty quick that some things are pretty universal and some things vary widely from person to person. And then you realize sometimes - you think something is a hard-and-fast rule that everyone agrees on - and there's that ONE person/editor/agent who disagrees with everyone else.

    I try to take in all this advice, let it marinate for a while, then make an informed decision based on what I think is right.

  11. @Sarah--I had a feeling. :)

  12. I try to take all advice in the spirit in which it's given without removing all the spunk from my work. I try to avoid adverbs because they look ugly-- also, I heard that over use of "just" and "very" make babies cry, so I avoid using them as well. Some things are easy to fold into my writing. Some things just don't work for me. Some advice I just don't care for, while I respect the person giving it.

  13. I think the use of adverbs is just another hallmark of writing before the author gets out there and connects with other writers, starts reading books/blogs/articles/websites on writing, joins critique groups, and learns to hone his/her craft. It's not that writers ignore the advice that's out there, I think it's that they don't know about it yet--they haven't reached that point in their writing journey.

    I think I'm like most writers in that when I first started writing and *gulp* sharing my work, I was so very sensitive to any bit of criticism. It's hard to listen to someone tear apart your work, but eventually, the writer learns that it's only making it better. Now, I welcome the constructive criticism because it helps me recognize areas of my work that need some improvement.

  14. Listening is only the first part: then there's the understanding, and the doing. A writer must understand the why of the rule, and how to do it a better way. Then not only can the author follow the rules, he knows when to break them.

  15. I think the key to taking advice is actually WANTING advice on how to improve. And on top of wanting to improve, you have to WANT to re-write and edit and re-write some more.
    The best thing I ever did for my writing was join a critique group. Now, we all share advice with one another, and that advice comes from SO many different places -- agents' blogs, Twitter, Stephen King, Anne Lamott, former teachers, whatever we're reading at the moment, etc. Joining this group has not only helped to continually motivate me to write (and re-write and re-write .. . ) but also has vastly improved my writing. So now advice doesn't fall on deaf ears :-)

  16. Early on, I hoovered up every bit of advice I could find and tried to follow all of it. Nowadays, I am somewhat less automatically obedient -- paradoxically, because I read some convincing advice to that effect....

  17. Advice is always welcome, and the more I write, and the more advice I read, the more aware I become of how I write. However, I think there will always be blind spots. I may recognise a flaw in someone else's writing, but might be completely blind to the exact same one in my own writing.

    I think it's just a basic fact of human nature: we can rarely see ourselves. And so, by extension, we can find it difficult to see our own writing clearly as well. That is why I think it is so important for a writer to have critique groups and critique partners who constantly force one to confront the inadequacies of one's writing. Advice in abstract is easy to accept, but it's more difficult to ignore when put into a personalised context.

    Thanks for opening up this discussion.

  18. I love writing advice. Yes, everyone's method doesn't apply to every work every time, but I think it's utterly important to know why the advice given worked. Understanding *how* and *why* is one of the most important keys to consistent quality.

  19. Hmmm....I guess it depends on how universal the advice is. Adverbs are evil is a pretty consistent piece of advice. But, there is a lot more advice floating out there that it is hard to be sure on. I've heard:
    1. YA books should be in first person.
    2. You should never have a prologue.
    3. YA books should be in past tense.
    4. Don't bother writing a vampire book.
    5. Semi-colons don't belong in commercial fiction.

    Are all these true? Maybe. But would any of these necessarily be a deal breaker for an agent if you have an awesome book? Probably not.

    Best rule of thumb for me is follow the rules, unless your writing/story are improved by rule-breaking.

  20. I spend time every day reading writing tips. I appreciate advice and follow as much of it as I can. Please continue to blog on this topic no matter how many adverbs you read in submissions! I went out and bought Don Maass's The Breakout Novelist because you recommended it, and I'm so glad I did.

  21. Everything in moderation. But what "in moderation" means varies widely depending on whether you're talking about carrot sticks (showing rather than telling) or double-hot-fudge-death-by-chocolate-cake (adverbs).

    -- Jo Eberhardt

  22. I mostly rely on what I learned in English Literature and Creative Writing classes and from novels I read that have won awards and received great professional reviews. When it comes to writing advice posted on the Internet, I only pay attention to advice based on developing literary skill, but completely ignore advice based on popular trends or personal preferences. As far as adverbs go, if the number of adverbs is in line with those in award-winning books and sounds like really good writing, it's OK with me. I feel like sometimes popular trends in writing lead to a kind of "paint-by-numbers" art form in which every book sounds basically like every other book and there's just not enough creativity ... until someone does something completely new, and then that becomes the new popular trend which everyone's expected to follow.

  23. Sarah, I hear you. It does get a little repetitive. But we blog readers are always coming and going, so you never know when another Idiot Krista from Three or Four Years Ago might wander through:)

  24. I read lots of advice, and then I shut it all out and write. What sticks, sticks. I've found in the past that if I don't shut out the advice I can't get the stupid story on the page. Which is the very end I was using the advice to meet.

    Story > writing advice

    After a while, good writing comes [more] naturally anyway.

  25. I tend to read, listen, take advise and in the main it works. All my writing is in the first person so adverbs are not such a blight. I have winced at my early attempts but now it seems to be balanced between theory, advice and not to be taken lightly the soul. You can feel soul in writing and creatively it tends to be easier to get these thoughts down. Then the editor steps in!!!!! Some times good some times bad.
    Thanks for the opportunity to pass comment. Love your tweets

  26. That quote is hilarious!

    I like to get second opinions, but I always take everything into account. I know that some people hate adverbs more than others, but this has become a rule, especially for me. If I try to eliminate as many adverbs as I can from my MS, it gets so much better!

  27. Great post - and I tend to agree. I think anything in moderation (in the case of adverbs, sparing moderation) is a good thing. I find that I use adverbs mostly when I'm guilty of telling instead of showing - that's the quickest way for me to spot my weak spots on a revision run.

  28. I tend to feel adverbs are like sparkling diamonds and their purpose is to ornament. Too much glitter and you're blinded by the shine, you can't focus on the sentence anymore and get distracted.

    -If at least three SOLID sources recommend a rule I'll follow it (to an extent, without killing my voice)--there are a lot of know-it-alls out there spewing out rules, with little credentials behind them, which only confuses beginners. I tend to browse a lot of recent Writing Books which helps.

    -Constructive criticism is golden. Lay it on heavy.

    -When something is frowned upon, like adverbs, I'll change my methodology but if I need to use that diamond to amplify drama/meaning, I'll do it. But I realize the era of books like Jane Eyre and other classics, with sentence upon sentence of adverbs, is long gone. Just like our modern reader's patience.

  29. Great post! I've heard the writing advice to try not to use adverbs in your writing and I try hard not to let those "ly" words get into my prose - but something that really bothers me is I find it EVERYWHERE in books by big name authors. I see it making their writing weaker and it drives me nuts, but it's like I just keep finding it in every new book I pick up even when I've heard the author say on a podcast not to use adverbs if you can avoid them! What gives? Even if these authors used all of these adverbs, why aren't their editors have them take them all out before it gets published? Adverbs drive me nuts and my newer stories don't have them. If only all the pro published books I'm reading didn't have them either!