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.