Damned if you do…

I really must stop reading “advice to writers” posts.

The mother of all writing rules is “Show, don’t tell.” Showing good. Telling bad. Oh, and while you’re at it, don’t use adverbs. You know, those nasty words that end in “-ly.”

The writer wants to convey to the reader that a character is experiencing an emotion. Anger, say, or fear, or joy. She can’t say “X was angry,” because “was” is one of those forbidden words. She can’t have X saying something “angrily.” So what to do?

Okay, the writer thinks, I’ll just show what the character does. X clenched his fists. Y rolled her eyes. Z sighed.

No, no, little writer. You can’t do that. Fist-clenching, eye-rolling, and sighing are overused. And please don’t have eyes wandering around the room or crawling over anyone’s body (I actually agree with that one).

You know what–I just realized something.

Many of these advice posts are written by trad pub gatekeepers and people providing services to writers–editors, book coaches, and similar. These folks read a million submissions or manuscripts in need of help. They are exquisitely attuned to words and phrases. If they are sifting through a deluge of submissions by hopeful writers, they are looking for reasons to reject. An offering has to be sharply different to perk these people’s jaded sensibilities (but not too different, of course). If they are working through a manuscript for a client, they are scrutinizing every word.

So–if you’re hoping to snag an agent, get traditionally published, or win a contest, by all means make sure your offering is free of these offending elements. Read the posts, absorb the advice, and edit accordingly.

But if you are publishing your own work, and your critique partners and beta readers say it’s good, it probably is good, even if your characters sigh or roll eyes more than once in your entire book. It doesn’t hurt to be aware of your go-to phrases and make sure you’re not actually overusing them, but most ordinary readers aren’t instantly annoyed by things that annoy people who read for a living.

Think about it–reading dozens of first chapters or short stories one after the other over several hours is a slog, I’m sure. In such a reading situation, the reader is almost certainly going to notice words and phrases that pop up in all or most of the pieces they read. They jump like fleas into the consciousness of that reader, and are about as welcome. They are the equivalent of the ticking clock or dripping tap to the insomniac. At the end of the session, the battle-weary reader is going to make sarcastic comments, like “Well, this batch had a dozen eye-rolls, fifteen sighs, nine shrugs, and a plethora of pounding hearts. Those writers! Can’t they come up with anything original?”

And what do you suppose that editor or book doctor is going to write about in their blog?

I’ll finish with something from one of the advice-givers in response to a cranky comment on one such post: “The only truly universal writing advice is ‘If it works, it works.’” Capitulation?

Well, maybe I won’t quit reading posts with advice to writers. I wouldn’t want my Audrey the Contrarian persona to run out of things to fulminate about.

gargoyle grumpy


  1. Time to turn off the advice broadcast. This is especially true when it comes to rules that aren’t really rules and the narrow-minded troglodytes that enforce them as if the future of the world is in balance. Can’t start a sentence with a conjunction. Really? Can’t end a sentence with a preposition? Who says so? Sentence too long, paragraph too short, the horridness of adverbs, fragmented sentences…

    It’s enough to make your head hurt.

    There are of course good rules and proper advice. But often, I like to be able to convey a story that reflects the way people talk every day. I like to write the way I want to write. I don’t feel obliged to those that insist that every sentence of dialogue must include he said, she said, Tom said, Susan said. Instead, I might want to write, he screamed, she cried, Tom whimpered, and Susan laughed.

    These rule enforcers are a lot like the news. Just turn it (them) off.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. “He awoke with a yawn. Stretched and thought, in a lazy sort of way “how can I anoy traditional publishers today?”. You make excellent points Audrey. There is nothing new under the sun, and if we spend all our time trying to avoid telling (as opposed to showing), etc, etc, then our writing will turn wooden. Kevin

    Liked by 6 people

  3. An astute, incisive and most importantly a post from the heart Audrey. When I was reading this there were a number of ‘Yes’, ‘Of course’ ‘Quite right’ ‘Exactly’ exclamations.
    It would seem to follow all these ‘rules’ in some way limits a writer’s story telling capacity; they are so concerned with not doing ‘something’ a certain clinical sterility creeps in. This is a shame because of the dual standard, in that they very successful writers can get away with this because their name ‘sells’.
    Anyway….must reblog this important post

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I generally agree with show don’t tell and overused eyerolls, but sometimes a sentence gets convoluted trying to show. In that case, I think it’s best to write “he shrugged” or “she was sad.” And yeah, the average reader doesn’t have a reason to get all hung up about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’d hate to be a trad pub gatekeeper, reading stuff all day and perhaps not possessing sufficient energy at the end of it to face reading for pleasure.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I was once a slush-pile reader, going through a hundred or so subs each week, and if I got past three pages (dbl-spaced, wide margins), it was a keeper. Regardless of the rules, it’s the connection from the reader to the character. The rules are often no more than craft issues. I’d like to quote from the master of all things, Po’s dad, that there is no secret sauce – it comes from within (but first, you have to know how to use the ingredients!).
        A writer can have perfect grammar and construction (and everything), but if the reader doesn’t get involved, the story fails. It is always about the reader (and yes, the writer is the first reader).

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Reading a hundred manuscripts a week must have been a challenge at times.
          Once a writer has mastered the basics of written language, there’s no need to obsess about them. And I agree that connecting with the reader is a writer’s most important job.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Reading so many got me into the habit of reading with intent, and how to use a block coloured bookmark (slide it down the page, line by line) to save my eyes. I now read 7-10 books a week (which could be an expensive hobby if I had the money! Yay for eBooks and free, including libraries and junk sales (so sad to see books tossed out)!).

            Liked by 1 person

  6. I stopped reading “how-to-write” advice years ago. All it does is make you self-conscious. And if anybody can write or speak the English language without using the verb “to be,” I’ve never met ’em. I “am” a writer, I “was” a writer, I always “will be” a writer.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Ah, contrarian Audrey is back! Hello – I’ll tell you a story –

    Two or three years ago, I submitted my book ‘Albatross’ to St Edmund Hall, the Oxford college where, in what seems like prehistoric times, I studied for my degree. The idea was that if it was liked, they would give it a place on shelf there in the Alumni library. It was read by the lady Librarian and perhaps by others too, I don’t know. I read her subsequent review in the next college magazine. She liked it, I’m delighted to say, and gave it a good review. And in that review, she picked out something which I’d thought little about when I’d written it. The writer, she says, uses a strange device from time to time – he switches from third person to first – and some pages later, back again to third – with no warning or reason ever given. And then she goes on to say, “And strangely, it works.” The book now resides, I’m very happy to say, in the Alumni library of St Edmund Hall.

    The only qualification I’d add to what she said is that the switch-over only ever takes place at a point where the narrative, in some way, changes in tenor, feeling, mood etc. It’s never indiscriminate. And it’s never at the start of a new chapter because I don’t use chapters.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Hi Audrey – actually, I’d never been aware of such a device before – as the Librarian seems not to have been either. I found myself just doing it. And thinking about it now, you’re absolutely right – it was done quite instinctively as a response to feeling a need to increase both focus and intensity. And yes, it is quite powerful – I’ve done it a number of times now in the present book I’m writing – effectively I hope!

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I agree. If a writer listened to all the writerly (oops) advice, they’d never write. It literally stifles creativity. And I don’t even want to start on how many trad published books I’ve read with plenty of all you mentioned.
    Maybe the secret is to try not to overuse the overused and otherwise, let the words flow.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. To me the ‘show don’t tell’, like all writing ‘rules’ has to be understood for what it means – which is ‘the reader has to be made to do a little work in order to be drawn through the book’. It is not a device to stifle voice and style, or – as so often happens – force a writer to find clumsy ways of ‘showing’. In other words, telling is OK sometimes. But not all the time. Hemingway used to ‘tell’ quite often, and it worked. He knew how to use words to invoke emotion in the reader and telling, like showing, is part of the mix. The trick is knowing how to use it and the balance to reach, which comes only with experience.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I know much of that advice is well-intended, but some situations call for telling over showing. Though I’m guilty of using unnecessary adverbs, I would argue that there are sentences where going with an adverb is the right choice. Like most things in life, there are few absolutes in writing. If the writer is happy with their choices, then that’s the most important piece.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s the main thing, especially for the first draft. I think that’s why Stephen King says to write first drafts with your door closed, i.e., not show them to anyone. For subsequent drafts and rewrites, we open the door and let critique partners, beta readers, and editors to offer their thoughts. And thanks for offering yours here, Pete!


  11. I’d like to believe that after reading a thousand plus books over the course of decades, you can come to rely on trusting your “ear” to write in a style you enjoy, without resorting to following rules. On the other hand, if you’re young and not that well read, but still want to write, learning techniques from accomplished authors could be of some value.

    In art you can go to school, or take lessons on how to paint. And you can learn how to do it well. But the next level is to unlearn what you’ve learned in order to make the art uniquely your own. No doubt the same principle applies to writing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree, Chuck. Writing is an art, at least fiction, poetry, and other forms of “creative writing.” We learn the mechanics of stringing words together to express ideas in school, but artistic writing goes beyond the basics.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. The current ban on adverbs is very strange. When I was at school I was taught they were the basis of descriptive writing. I use them all the time. When I was doing my Masters in Creative Writing another student told me off for using too many. When I asked what was wrong with them he said they were lazy writing! I was left scratching my head. How to write expressively without using adverbs? I must have missed that lesson.

    As for show don’t tell. It gets out of hand sometimes. My way round it is to use dialogue but this can get too much. Sometimes it’s necessary to cut to the chase, tell some incidental detail that helps move the story along then get down to showing the exciting bit that happens next.

    These posts are great. A lot of the advice to writers does lead to very restricted writing. Everyone who follows it ends up writing the same way. Originality and creative prose get forgotten in the push to be just like everyone else and find mainstream acceptance.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, I think writers who want to sign with an agent or a traditional publisher have to pay attention to those “rules” more than we indies, who are writing for our readers. Of course, some say the quality of our writing is unacceptable because of that, but I know that is not true.
      As for adverbs being lazy writing, I think that idea originates with the practice of adding an adverb to a common verb, such as “ran quickly” instead of “sprinted” or “dashed.” The trouble is, some take that to mean that using any adverb is lazy writing.


      1. Thanks for explaining what lazy writing is. I didn’t know that.
        It is strange how these contemporary writing ‘rules’ have so much influence. The old classics had lots of telling and lots of ly words.
        Over here in Australia we have a genre called ‘Australian Literary Fiction’. I guess there are equivalents elsewhere. What I have found with the Australian version is that it seems to be a blanket term for dense intellectual works that are hard to read. I’ve heard them described as ‘impenetrable’ and that is an apt description. It’s very popular with publishers and with the people who run short story competitions.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes, “Can Lit” is similar. Many Canadian small publishers receive some government funding, and prefer that sort of literary writing. “Dense” describes it well. It seems to come from creative writing departments at universities.

          Liked by 1 person

  13. The only ‘rule’ I follow these days, (apart from Vernor’s Law) is that however I choose to write a particular story, I need to be consistent. πŸ˜€ … it’s why I keep a ‘style guide’ for every story. πŸ™‚
    (Vernor’s Law – All scenes need to accomplish 2 of three things. 1 – provide background information, 2 – Develop the characters, and 3 – Advance the plot)

    Liked by 2 people

  14. That was great, Audrey. Yes, I think reading all those eye-rolls, shrugs, and sighs would get to a professional manuscript gatekeeper. I used to be fanatical about some of these rules, but have softened some over time because I’ve seen wonderful successful authors break them all! I think understanding the “rules” is important, because it’s good information… then we are well-armed to go out and write.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Susan. That grumpy gnome is the mascot fot my contrarian self. One hears that the Victorians were all “tell,” and that worked for them because it was a slower time with fewer distractions. (So how can 21st century readers endure reading those guys, one wonders.)

      Liked by 1 person

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