A Surfeit of Good Advice

Aspiring and neophyte writers are always looking for advice (though sometimes, I suspect, it’s not so much advice that they’re looking for as company in their struggles, and a sign that somebody out there takes them seriously), and lots of people are happy to give it to them.

People tell them, “Avoid adverbs.”

People tell them, “Don’t use the passive voice.”

People tell them, “Make your prose lean and economical; eschew elegant writing and special effects.”

So they weed out adverbs assiduously from their final drafts, and turn every possible passive sentence into an active one, and put their prose on a fitness regimen guaranteed to take it down to zero per cent body fat.  All of this is hard work, and they are proud of it when they’re done.

And usually, their prose is the better for it, because they were, after all, neophyte writers, and stood to learn a lot from that much intense concentration on their texts.

But then they start hanging out with more rarefied givers of advice, who speak disparagingly of the elimination of nuance by the compulsive eradication of adverbs, and who point out that sometimes the passive voice is just what’s needed to convey the relationship between the subject of the sentence and the action of the verb, and who wax eloquent in their appreciation of leisurely, expansive prose.

And the neophyte writers bury their heads in their manuscripts and weep.   Will nobody, they say, will nobody tell them which side is right?

Alas, no.  Becoming a writer means learning to live with uncertainty.  All I can offer are some general guidelines:  don’t use too many adverbs; don’t overuse the passive voice; and try not to use more words than you need for whatever it is that you want to try.  But don’t stop trying.  It’s better to attempt something new and not have it work right the first time than it is to never try anything new at all.

We didn’t become writers because we were risk-averse.

4 thoughts on “A Surfeit of Good Advice

  1. Ah, the adverbs. I seem to have reached the stage where, when I do use one, I feel an urge to stick out my tongue and say “neener neener.”

    But I certainly don’t use as many as I did when I was fourteen.

  2. Every writer is fourteen at some point. Some of them get started later than others, and wind up being the fiction-producing equivalent of fourteen at thirty-five or forty . . . which is not a comfortable thing to be, especially if they’ve had the rest of their life whipped into shape for a decade or so and don’t appreciate having flashbacks to when they were confused teenagers who didn’t know anything at all about everything that seemed to matter.

    1. I’m still bumbling along with the rest of my life, but with the writing, I’ve at least got the training wheels off. I guess it evens out.

  3. “If a playwright tried to see eye to eye with everybody, he would get the worst case of strabismus since Hannibal lost an eye trying to count his nineteen elephants during a snowstorm while crossing the Alps.” ~ James Thurber

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