On Writing Advice: I Have None

It occurred to me that my three most recent Ed’s Casual Friday posts were all basically “writing advice” things; one about “cinematic” elements, one about naming characters, and one about exposition. Looking back over all three, it struck me that I felt the need to start each with a proviso about my lack of fondness for “how-to” writing advice. The disclaimers went something like this:

Let me first fully acknowledge that I subscribe to the Different Strokes school of literary advice, inasmuch as “What might be right for you, may not be right for some.”
– Book v. Movie, Steel-Cage Death Match, 8/24/12

(I)f anybody knew anything about any aspect of writing that was true in all times and places, I feel like I would have seen it in my facebook newsfeed by now.
– What’s in a name, Jar Jar? 8/17/10

(T)his post should be read with your “tongue-in-cheek” detector on its highest setting.
– Ed’s Really Bad Writing Advice: Exposition, 8/10/12

Of course immediately after each disclaimer, I went on to give writing advice, mix in a joke, little soft-shoe maybe, then exit stage left. At this point however, it seems like I should lay out my thoughts on writing advice in somewhat greater detail. I am not talking here about the grammar rules of the English language, but only about that “do this/don’t do that” sort of wisdom.

First, it’s all nonsense. If there was a set bunch of rules that any person could employ, then everybody could write a book. And you know what? Not everybody can.

Second, writers giving you writing advice don’t always follow it rigidly themselves. Stephen King says not to use adverbs, right? Have you ever read a Stephen King book without an adverb? Not if you’ve read a Stephen King book, you haven’t. Besides that, Strunk and White said it before King (they also said not to use adjectives, by the way), and Mark Twain said it before any of those other guys. And guess what? Twain used adverbs too, when they were the right word to use. Get over it.

Third, genre definitions do not depend solely on plot elements, like whether or not there are werewolves in a book, or if the story takes place in Cedar Falls, IA, or on Mars. Different narrative elements tend to be more or less prevalent in different genres. If your action-packed Thriller uses long flowery language, or your sprawling, epic Fantasy uses only short, clipped, subject-verb-object sentences, readers accustomed to the norms of either genre are going to think you don’t know what you‘re doing. No “how-to write” advice is going to apply the same way to every potential kind of literature.

Four. Some readers just like certain things more than others. Some can escape into a world that would bore others to tears. Some books are going to be too complex to interest some readers, and some are going to be too simple to interest others. That’s life.

Five, the very thing that makes the work of different authors interesting to read is their differences. No one reader has only one author that they like, most have several “favorites,” and often-as-not those favorites can run the gamut of genre or style or substance. Nobody’s favorite authors are following exactly the same rules, which means that there is no single rule that is going to yield something that will appeal even to one single reader every single time. That rule just isn’t out there, not even: “Just write a good book,” is reliable. Look at a bestseller list sometime and judge whether or not, according to your own opinions, every book on it fits your own definition of “good.”

So what does that leave me with, and why do I even bother with posts that are, after all, offering writing advice?

Only because I do believe that all of us, as writers, only grow our own skills by trying new things. If there is some bit of writing advice that sounds interesting and/or useful to me, maybe I will noodle around with it in the next thing I’m working on, just to see if it leads me somewhere. To try something I haven’t tried before, maybe to tell the story in a slightly different way than I have grown comfortable doing. As the sort of writer I am, I don’t feel like I can amuse a reader if I am not amusing myself first, so that is what I will try to do. But if a “rule” doesn’t work for me, I discard it and go on. And if someone later says, “you broke a rule there,” I feel sort of bad for them. Because I’m pretty sure their own writing would bore me to tears.


In closing as usual, another genuine one-star book rating, from a reader who really didn’t like a particular book. Like I keep saying, different strokes.

“I detest all Dr Seuss books.”
How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss

Author: M. Edward McNally

Epic fantasy author M. Edward McNally is a North Carolinian of Irish/Mexican extraction. He has a Masters in English Lit from ISU and Russian/East European History from ASU. He grew up mostly in the Midwest along I-35 northbound (KS, IA, MN), and now resides in the scrub brush surrounding Phoenix AZ, where the scorpions and javelinas play. Learn more about Ed at his blog, and his Amazon author page.

19 thoughts on “On Writing Advice: I Have None”

  1. You are so right Ed. I don’t generally like ‘flowery’ prose that describes a daisy in ten different ways over ten whole pages and yet, one of my favourite books is a slow, meandering story, full of descriptions so vivid I can almost smell the roses and feel the warmth of the sun on my face as I read. What works in one context totally fails [for me] in an other and I’m sure my own writing will please some, or at least I hope it will, and be hated by others.

    I know this has been said before but I believe the only time a rule shouldn’t be broken is when you don’t know you’re breaking it. 🙂

  2. Spot on, thanks, Ed! If you’re passionately involved with the story you’re writing, if it picks you up and moves you somewhere, readers will feel it, no matter the genre. Heck, I once sat through a four-hour movie, in Japanese, and it was so compelling, I barely felt time pass. And Life of Pi? Basically “nothing” happens for most of the book, but everything happens, and I could not put it down. Once again proving my basic writing “rule”: It depends.

  3. Thanks for this. I cringe when my writing groups get into discussions on rules. I like your take on it. I also test out a new thing or two in first draft mode. Some ‘rules’ are helpful because they improve the way I write. Some ‘rules’ are helpful because I realize how idiotic they are in practice.

  4. When it comes to writing advice, I’ve been thinking for a while now that if we dispensed with the word “rule” and substituted “general guidelines” we’d be a lot better off. Mind you, that approach hasn’t helped me when it comes to traffic infractions: “Seriously, officer, I thought that speed limit was more a general guideline…”

    Another good post, McNally.

  5. Good stuff. The other side of the coin is that writers need to know the rules first, so they know when it’s appropriate to break them. Which goes back to your point that not everybody can write a book.

  6. My personal fave:

    Four. Some readers just like certain things more than others. Some can escape into a world that would bore others to tears. Some books are going to be too complex to interest some readers, and some are going to be too simple to interest others. That’s life.

    Thanks for another great post, Ed. Good points, well stated!

  7. Great post! Could have gone into flowery prose to describe what I thought of it,but will just say, I agree pretty much with what you wrote, esp #4.

    @davidantrobus,lol about those traffic infractions

  8. Great post Ed. Your point 2 makes me ask, who makes the rules anyway? If the great ones, Stephen King and Mark Twain, say don’t do this or don’t do that and break their own rules, they remind me of hypocritical parents who say don’t smoke and smoke themselves or don’t cuss and cuss themselves, etc. And what Lynne said above, I agree.

  9. As usual I’m late to the party and all the great responses have been used, so I’ll just say I agree with you, Ed, on every point; and I agree with everyone’s comment in regards to that. Great post, Ed, and great advice on not giving advice.

    1. Ooh, a paradox! Does that mean my grandfather’s gonna come forward in time and, along with Chris James, kill a butterfly so that a dinosaur will end up president? (I might have mixed up a few concepts, there.)

  10. I don’t mind the odd mixing of concepts, David, mixed metaphors and an oxymoron doesn’t hurt either. Glad you and JD are still hanging about out there in the ether, buy the way. Oh and, JD, are you becoming faceless now? They can take oor lives, but they canny take oor FREEDOM!!

    1. Yes! The more nonsensical the better! 🙂

      Will always be as supportive of IU as time permits, and even though we may have flown the nest, you guys are still family. Aw. That was sentimental, wasn’t it?

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