Does Writing Have Rules?

I’ve been reading a lot lately.  And because I’m the sort of person I am, I’ve been reading writing books.  I was at a second-hand bookstore sale a while back, where I picked up a writing book that must have been written in the early 1900s, given the books it was referencing.  Actually, it’s quite fascinating to read.  He’s denouncing the method of teaching writing in American schools, because it’s entirely technical, and fails to address the craft of writing.

Actually, it’s surprising how similar a lot of it is to what gets repeated endlessly on writer’s forums nowadays, giving examples and general instructions for how to make a character who seems realistic without being boring, when prose is overwritten and purple and when it’s not descriptive enough, and so on and so forth.  Actually, it’s incredibly similar to a lot of what I’ve been reading from modern writing experts and enthusiasts.

But it does make me think.  The way the information is presented is nearly entirely opposite to the way I was used to it being presented nowadays.  That is, it’s presented as actual instructions.

Nowadays, if you get writing advice from anyone, you’ll see advice prefaced with “Well, if you’re good enough, you can make anything work, but …” or “I generally think …” or “I find it useful to think about …”, the latter two usually concluding with something along the lines of “… but other people do it differently, so whatever works for you.”  In some ways, this is a good thing.  Writing advice should not be didactic, and it shouldn’t be presented in such a way that people are afraid to try other things and see if they work.  Writing should be about finding what works for the individual writer (with caveats for the amount of advice one should accept from others, particularly beta readers, but that’s a topic for another post, I think), rather than an exercise in ticking boxes.

But.  And here comes the big ‘but’.  I did a creative writing course a year or so ago, which I found absolutely useless, because the teacher refused to give definite advice.  She avoided giving any real advice, to the point where lectures were just a series of slides of examples with very little idea what they were examples of, besides a statement about genre or a vague style (very descriptive – ethereal – blunt and sparse).  And when we were given advice, it was given with caveats and disclaimers until the point was muddled and confused.  There was always yes, but and no, but; I never really recalled any of the advice, because the point just got muddled.

And this, from the reactions of some new writers I know online and in real life, is a serious problem.  There’s no restrictions, yes, but there’s no guidance, either.  Think of the beta reader who only says “yes, I love it”, when all you want is someone to give you an idea of where to go from there.  That’s pretty much what happens for the new writer surrounded by “whatever works for you”.  Yes, of course, but if you don’t know how to find out what works for you, there’s no use in the advice.

I think the issue is that we focus more on the exceptions than the rules.  Writing advice isn’t invalidated with the phrase “but [insert genius writer X] didn’t do it that way!”.  It’s advice, and it won’t work for everyone – that’s just the way advice works.  But today, we treat advice as having to be true in all situations in order to be true in any one – the Nirvana fallacy.  And I think that’s really damaging to the ability to give solid writing advice, particularly for people who are just getting a handle on their writing techniques themselves.

However, I’m often asked for writing advice by friends with a literary bent, and usually they’re looking for something actually helpful.  Anything from beta reading a novel, to “I’ve got this idea; what do you think?”.  I do think it’s important to give guidelines that at least point a newbie in a direction of the right track.

So, here are some things I do.
First, I don’t give advice, I discuss advice.  If it’s a controversial grammar rule, I explain my position and why I hold that position – also for advice like where and when to use adverbs.  If it’s something a little more ‘whichever works for you’, like on how to outline a novel, or construct a good character, I explain my method and why it works for me, then discuss some other methods.  The more tools I can give someone to make a decision, the better.
Second, I always tell people to get more than one opinion on anything.  I don’t want to be a writer’s only beta reader, or only source of writing advice.  I’m biased, just by virtue of having an opinion at all.  I don’t change things in my own work until more than four other people have told me it’s a problem (with some personal caveats, like anything else), and I don’t expect anything less from anyone I give writing advice to.
Third, I watch my own advice for my own knee-jerk reactions.  I know my genre best, and what is a problem in my genre may not be so in another genre.  On an even more basic level, I might despise a particular character, not because of bad writing or any fault of the author, but because I, personally, dislike that particular character.  Maybe they remind me of my least favourite classmate in high school, but they’re well-written and well-rounded – I find I can be tempted to find reasons to tell someone to change the story because of things like that, when the problem’s not with me.
Maybe I find a particular trope overused beyond all saving when another reader thinks it’s an old trope with a fresh and exciting twist.

So, reader input time, if you feel inclined.  What am I wrong about?  What haven’t I thought about?  What do you guys do that I could apply to my own advice-giving process?

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