Notebook, tomato, tape measure, diet

Why Writing Is Like Dieting

Writing and editing have been compared to cooking. Here’s another analogy (from my contrarian side).

Two approaches to diet: forbid yourself all foods high in calories, carbohydrates, and/or fat, OR eat a variety of foods (including ones you like), limiting those highest in fats and carbs.

Which one are you most likely to adopt as a way of life?

Two approaches to writing: follow all the rules and make sure you don’t use forbidden words, OR use whatever goddamn words you like, as long as they bring your story to life in the reader’s mind.

Which one will you regard with zest and enthusiasm?

Eating a variety of healthy, palate-pleasing foods from the entire range of available edibles is a better approach than restrictive regimes that label certain foods as forbidden. Of course, it helps to learn something about nutrition, and what “moderate” really means.

We writers have the entire panoply of words available to us. Words are the writer’s tools. Learning to write is learning how to use them well, all of them. Some words — cliches, maybe? — are analogous to processed foods. Flat, boring prose may be likened to vegetables boiled into a khaki-coloured mush. Well-chosen words skillfully assembled are like magical combinations of juice and crunch and richly blended flavours. A dialogue tag other than “said,” or the occasional adverb, are like touches of spice or a few hot peppers.

I’m not a fan of advice that labels certain words as weak words, crutch words, or filter words. The implication is that if you avoid those words or replace them with other, better, words, your writing will be good. But it’s not really about using some words and avoiding others. Writers must develop the ability to embody their imaginings in words that engage, delight, intrigue, or appall readers and keep them reading to the end.

If it was simply a matter of avoiding adjectives and not using “was,” writing would be a snap. It isn’t.

In writing, as in diet, it’s all about good choices and optimal combinations. Experimentation, mistakes and failures, adjustments, and fresh attempts are part of the process. Too much focus on rules can result in paralysis. Ignorance and total disregard of good writing practices can result in bloated or crippled prose.

When the writer embarks on a journey of creation, the rules should be in the luggage and the editor in the back seat. When the writer’s inspiration and intention have been given shape in the form of words, they may be unpacked and summoned to do their parts.

Image by Vidmir Raic from Pixabay

62 comments

  1. Hi Audrey, Thanks for your interesting piece. Re food and eating…I’m in the second category and eat more or less what I want BUT in moderation; like one small piece of dark chocolate after a meal and I rarely have a second biscuit with my morning coffee. As for writing, apart from too many thats, verys and was-es…I try and do my best but feel the word ‘moderation’ is somewhat out of place, as I like to put my foot down now and then…Ciao. x

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Audrey, I love the analogy running through your post and totally agree about the balanced combination! How true that too much focus on one area results in paralysis whilst being a glutton in writing often involves poor word choices and lack of power and direction! Your final paragraph sums it up perfectly! Let inspiration be the initial driving force and later take out the tool of the trades to hone the piece!😀

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for your comments, Annika! I hesitated for a while before publishing this, since I often question rules for writers, but in the end, I pushed the button. It is a matter of balance, in both diet and writing.

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  3. I really like your analogy, and I agree with it. I’m wondering what prompted your writing the post. Could it have been yet another blog post by yet another self-proclaimed writing guru claiming to have all the answers to writing the next Amazon best-seller? The writing advice I remember most from my undergraduate creative writing program is this: You can do anything you want–as long as you can get away with it. The context for the advice was a discussion of D.H. Lawrence’s short story “Odour of Chrysanthemums.” The prose is very clunky, but the story works anyway. The reader willingly enters into it, believes it, and is moved by it. On the other end of the rules spectrum, I’m seeing calls for story submissions that specifically say they don’t want MFA workshop stories. The prose is letter-perfect and polished to within an inch of its life (oops, cliche), but the story itself is dead.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Every time I read advice that tells writers to avoid specific words, my argumentative side kicks in. Same with those “never eat this” diets. I had this post in Drafts for quite a while, until one of those “what the heck” moods arrived. I LOVE the advice you quote, because that’s really how it works. For every rule, you can find examples of how a great piece of writing breaks it. Writing is an art, and art thrives on questioning and breaking rules. (Of course, you have to learn how to break ’em right! 😉)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Recently I was trying to rewrite a cliche sentence, and my attempts kept turning out too showy or something. It was like:

    Normal sentence
    Normal sentence.
    Normal sentence.
    Awesome sentence that draws attention to itself and just doesn’t fit.
    Normal sentence.

    So I settled for:

    Normal sentence.
    Normal sentence.
    Normal sentence.
    Cliched sentence.
    Normal sentence.

    Good post!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. A perfect example, Priscilla. Sometimes when I read a sentence that seems a bit “off,” I wonder if the writer was avoiding “was.” It’s pretty hard to write much of anything without using that one.

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  5. I agree completely with your position, Audrey. I once knew a beginning writer who read all the books on writing and could recite every rule. His first draft of his first book was exciting. Then he kept rewriting according to the rules and it died on the page. It is said that rules are there to be broken, but first you must know the rules. Then you can judge which ones can or should be broken. And I write a whole lot better than I diet!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’ve given up on actual dieting, but I have found that time-limiting eating helps me to eat moderately. Also knowing a bit about nutrition is good. As for writing, a balance between idiosyncrasy and standardization is necessary. Good point about not editing away one’s unique voice.

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  6. Another enthusiastic agreement here Audrey.
    I am not one to care much about labels for words. A great deal depends on the skill or gift of the writer to draw a reader in. Or even if their writer’s skill with words is not up to much the ability to weave stories.
    One successful SF writer ran dialogue as follows
    ‘…………’ he said
    ‘………..’ she said
    ‘……….’ he said
    ‘……….’ she said
    And so forth. His skill was in the story telling which went on around this sparse method of recording dialogue….I have a clutch of his short stories on audio book.

    PS….Diets?

    Liked by 3 people

  7. If one has never had self-control over what one ate, moderation is a hard road. A strict diet is a must for such people — until they slowly introduce moderate intake of forbidden foods, learning control along the way.

    I’d suggest that this is true of writing. Early on, learn the rule, follow them strictly, and after you’ve understood why those rules exist, expand your literary diet.

    This ages long transition from novice to master exposes so many wrinkles in learning and understanding. We each sample from the treat-trolley in our own strange way.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, you have to learn what moderation means before you can practice it. And it is true of writing too, but at some point the novice has to close the “how to” book and just write. It’s like learning how to ride a bicycle — you just get rolling and maybe you fall over a few times before you get it. (Of course, falling over takes several different forms in writing.)

      Liked by 1 person

  8. At the risk of being more contrarian than you, Audrey, I don’t think one needs to know the “rules” to write fiction. Yes, in non-fiction, were precision is important, the rules are important. But for creative writing, a writer needs to posses a certain way with words, a knack of being able to play with them comfortably, which, I think, is a gift, a talent.

    Bob Ross can teach anyone to paint a landscape. But to be a good, creative artist, one needs more than technique. An artist has to be comfortable doing whatever, and however, they need to do to bring the creation in their head to life.

    Maybe one can learn to write a “Bob Ross” level of a story by following the rules and the how-to-do books. But to write a truly original work, a writer needs to be comfortable following their creative talent, wherever, and however it leads.

    We know our language; the vernacular. The vernacular has always been the language of the story teller. Trying to fit a story into the deliberately sterile language of clerks, drains it of its potential to soar. That’s why even people who feel that one need to know the rules, will admit that one has to break them. I think it is better to find one’s own way from the start, than to have to break free of someone else’s way later. (Oh, my! My spell checker doesn’t like “else’s.” I wonder what the rule is?)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Chuck, you’ve expressed some things I believe myself. I think the rules one must learn in order to start writing are the really basic ones, the kind you learn in school as a child and teenager. Most people don’t go on to write fiction, but that’s where what you call a knack with words and talent for playing with them kicks in. That stuff is hard to teach in a step by step way. I think a lot of the advice I see in blogs is an attempt to simplify it. Lists of “weak” words can be helpful, but only if one has what it takes to know when one of those words is exactly the right one for a situation. Using Find and diligently deleting or substituting those forbidden words does not guarantee anything. And reading too much “how-to” stuff, especially by those (often editors, haha!) who adopt a sarcastic tone, as though the writer is an impractical dolt, are worse than useless. Many would-be writers may read that stuff and decide they don’t have what it takes. They quit or don’t even start. I could go on, but I think I’ve said enough. Thanks for commenting and setting me off, though!

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  9. Rules are made to be broken. What’s wrong with using “was?” He was hurting, is simple and direct. He had been hurting, or He has been hurting, is just padding the word count.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think advice that discourages use of certain words is trying to address more subtle problems, but latches on to the words because they are concrete. In the case of “was,” for instance, a paragraph with many instances of it may have a plodding quality.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Absolutely. Most of the time, any “rules” of art are attempts to address problems that are nuanced. And the best way to teach young writers to recognize those problems is to point to “problem-words”. The issue though is when the “problem-words” are taught without any explanation of why they can be “problem-words”. Those words are usually symptoms of a larger, deeper problem – and to only chastise the use of the word without describing the bigger problem is like a doctor trying to cure malnutrition without taking note of the bacterial infection causing the malnutrition.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. You’ve said really well what I’ve been thinking. Word lists may be really helpful for writers who have identified problems in their own writing that are associated with certain words. As you say, they’re not so useful to those who can’t recognize those underlying problems.

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  10. I liked the whole post that you have written but liked this point most: “In writing, as in diet, it’s all about good choices and optimal combinations.”

    I completely agrees with this. Thanks for sharing the helpful tips in such a very simple way.. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Oh my gosh, yes! The writing advice that focuses on which words to “never” always struck me as off and you perfectly explain why that is. Love this post! All words have a purpose and writing is an artform, not a bland checklist of words to avoid.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess a checklist makes it seem simpler — sort of like paint-by-numbers. It is true that certain words are associated with clunky or laboured writing, but what writers need to do is develop a sense for what combinations of words are most effective to convey whatever they’re trying to create. And it’s almost impossible to turn that into a checklist. Thanks for your comments!

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  12. Yes! I, too, am not really a fan of all-or-nothing writing rules. There’s also no ‘one rule to rule them all’, like Mr. King’s adverb advice that’s routinely touted on writers’ groups everywhere.

    If it works, it works, it’s as simple as that. Thanks for reminding me not to get caught up in all the must and must-nots during my journey in bettering my craft.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think zeroing in on specific words or types of words is a kind of shortcut to describing less than optimal writing practices. Trouble is, the presence of those words isn’t really the problem; it’s the way they’re assembled and the effect they produce on the reader. It’s hard to describe. As you say, “if it works, it works.” That’s where it helps to read a lot, so you recognize what works when you see it.
      Thanks for your comment, Stuart.

      Like

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