The internet is full of craft advice for writers. Some of it is even good advice. All of it purports to make your writing better, more readable, more relatable, more salable.
I’m not talking about grammar advice, like how to punctuate dialogue. That’s a mechanical skill. It’s mostly objective, at least within its specific context (i.e. writing in English, because other languages treat dialogue much differently).
This is about the subjective stuff. It’s about choices authors make to meet audience expectations or subvert them. It’s about the “rules” that supposedly separate good writing from bad.
Mostly, it’s about style and the ever-elusive attribute known as “voice.” I’ve written here about character voice, but this is not about staying in character. This is about your personal, unique authorial voice and how craft advice can file that away until it loses what made it yours.
You know the advice I mean.
Avoid filter words. Avoid filler words. Keep the reader in deep POV.
Passive voice is to be avoided at all costs. And whatever you do, don’t start sentences with prepositions. Don’t use semi-colons, either; they’ll only confuse your reader.
Don’t head hop. Show, don’t tell. Replace words for emotions with physical reactions or internalizations. Etcetera, etcetera, ad nauseam.
None of that is bad advice, per se! Much of it is advice that I’ve given to others, even on this blog. All of it is advice I’ve internalized in an attempt to tighten my writing at one time or another.
However, it is all advice that hews to a specific style and type of voice. That style is on trend right now. I call it the death of the narrator, because it strives to eliminate any separation between the reader and the viewpoint character.
It has its place, because many agents and editors and audiences expect it, making it worth understanding how to do. But it isn’t the only way of writing fiction. It owes its dominance to its cultural and political roots, not its universal appeal—because there’s no such thing as universal appeal.
Style is not a bright line rule.
If you’re like me—prone to applying suggestions as hard and fast rules, determined to do everything Right as hard as I can—this type of advice can be a trap. It can steal your voice from you, bit by bit. It can steal the joy of writing away.
At its worst, it cuts you off from your creative source. It muffles your inner narrator. It shifts the rhythm and tone of words that once sang to you, bubbling up from a wellspring deep within.
You can tell when you’ve lost that connection, because the words don’t flow fast anymore. Not like they once did. Not with force and clarity, in a flood of words that commands you to hurry and record it.
Instead, they’ll appear with painful slowness, like dry toothpaste from an empty tube, a category 1 on the Bristol Writing Scale. They won’t sing for you anymore. They’ll lie lifeless on the page, inert and unexceptional and correct.
Ask me how I know.
Remember the joy of beginner’s mind.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I’m slogging through a first draft again. Once upon a time, when I wrote just for fun, I nurtured that link to my inner narrator by listening to it without trying to edit its output. It rewarded me with passages that echoed in my mind and refused to let go until I wrote them down, ringing with the clarity of pure inspiration.
To be clear, when I say “writing for fun,” I’m talking about my days of writing fanfiction. I don’t feel the urge to write for fandom much anymore because my creative energy is focused on my own original worlds. But I miss how it felt. I miss how often I experienced hearing the words of a new story as if downloaded into my brain, beating at the walls and demanding to be written down.
When I wrote fanfic, I didn’t care if my prose came out purple or if my sentences were convoluted. I’d never even heard of a filter word. I wrote under the influence of my favorite authors, already classics by the time I read them, who didn’t fear a head hop or a narrative aside or a little bit of authorial distance if it fit their purposes.
The beautiful thing about fandom is that you have an audience ready to treat your work as a gift made just for them. You know what they want, which is more of what they love, the same thing you both love. You can delight these readers simply by inviting them back to share that beloved world with you, capturing their favorite characters in a way that resonates, weaving them a small enchantment.
This is not a knock on fandom AT ALL, by the way! It’s a small love letter to the environment where I first learned the joy of writing for an appreciative audience. But in fandom, you don’t need an agent or a publisher or a publicist to find that audience. Your readers are already there, combing the A03 tags for new content.
Writing your own original work is nothing like that. You do not have a primed audience who already cares about your world and your characters. You have to make that magic to begin with, to capture them. It’s a different animal altogether, a different kind of challenge.
Beware of journeyman’s mind.
I know “journeyman” is an antiquated and gendered term, but it’s the closest thing that I can come up with that matches where I sit in regards to my craft right now. I’m not a beginner or an apprentice anymore, but a professional. I’ve dedicated time and effort to developing my skills. I have a working knowledge of my tools and their use.
That working knowledge gives me enough understanding to recognize my own shortfallings. And therein lies the curse of the journeyman, or journeyperson in my case (journeywriter, perhaps? I like that.) You know just enough to be a danger to yourself and to your inner voice.
Here’s what I am not at this point in my career: a master. And yes, part of learning art is learning to imitate the masters, practicing proven techniques, mastering the tools first. It means putting in the work, some of it mediocre, some of it passable, some of it good enough that people will pay money for it, to one’s eternal shock and surprise.
But I’m starting to believe that mastery comes with rejecting technique for the sake of technique and making the craft one’s own. And that means developing your own, recognizable, unique style. It means deciding for yourself when you will follow the rules you were taught and when you will go your own way and break them.
It means learning to listen to your personal, internal voice all over again. That voice may not sound the same as when you first started. In fact, it almost certainly does not, because the practice has changed it.
Practice changes us. Life experience transforms us. Our voice is on this journey with us, whether we listen or not.
But it’s still there. It always has been, whispering away in the back of your mind, waiting for you to hear it.
“Pure craft is a lie.”
My perspective on all this changed significantly after I started reading Craft in the Real World by author and writing professor Matthew Salesses. It’s a craft book I’d recommend to all writers, especially writers of underrepresented backgrounds or identities. It’s transforming my approach to my own work and my approach to giving critique.
I put that last sentence in the present tense because I am very much the product of the cultural tradition that Salesses sets out to challenge. I’m still integrating his ideas into my understanding of craft, so my notes here will reflect that incomplete understanding. It’s still all too easy for me to slip into the idea of correctness in this context.
Central to Craft in the Real World is the idea that style is not just subjective but dictated by cultural expectations, values, and taboos. Thus, “correct” style and craft, structure and voice, are not a matter of meeting some objective standard but determined by our target audience and by our authorial intent.
In many workshops, in many craft books, the dominance of one tradition of craft, serving one particular audience (white, middle-class, straight, able, etc.) is essentially literary imperialism, a term that should make us wary of the danger especially to emerging minority and marginalized voices.Matthew Salesses, “Pure Craft Is a Lie,” Craft in the Real World
Essentially, he argues that there is in fact no single representative, default audience that one must please with one’s style. He pushes back against the idea that you must learn “the rules” before you break them, because who gets to make those rules in the first place? The answer is in the above quote.
These ideas are related but not identical to my points about inner voice and mastery. As I write this, I know my inner voice is very much influenced by the people whose preferences have shaped “the rules.” But the perspective of craft as a cultural norm has encouraged me to challenge my unthinking obedience to those rules.
Learning craft, as Salesses points out, is learning “how to use cultural expectations to your advantage.” Those craft lessons may have value if you are writing for a “commercial” audience, sure. But what assumptions underlie the labels of “commercial” and “marketable”?
In those assumptions lie the danger of using a single, one-size-fits all yardstick to measure art, skill, and voice. All too often, people in the business of selling books assume a certain homogeneity of audience, even while searching for a “fresh take.” And yet, the market for books is not homogenous, but driven by diverse readers hungry for representation, for a voice that speaks to them.
Be a magpie of craft.
That’s not to say craft advice can’t be useful! Read the books, throw out everything that doesn’t make sense, and keep what does. Pick out the shinies and leave the rest.
But there is no secret formula that works for everyone. There are no universal principles. There is no science to storytelling.
Anyone can write a craft book. Literally. As with everything else in this business, there are no prerequisites or certifications.
There are certain oft-recommended how-to books out there I side-eye because their authors have never published a novel, and yet purport to teach new writers their foolproof methods. Whenever an apparent expert presents writing advice as an absolute, they’re really revealing how little they know about the creative process.
There are no absolutes in writing.
You can, if you like, write a novel entirely without the verb “to be” in an effort to avoid passive voice, but I speak from experience when I say I wouldn’t recommend it. (Also that’s not what makes passive voice passive so…yeah anyway probably don’t do this. Don’t be me, kids!) Applying any writing craft rule ruthlessly and without exception, while certainly an interesting exercise, does not a perfect writer make.
Filter and filler words aren’t crimes. Fragments can lend power and emphasis. Showing and telling are a balance to strike and every writer (and book) has their own balance point.
Instead, inevitably, deciding when to follow craft expectations and when to ignore them comes down to a judgment call. And it’s a judgement call that requires engaging your own personal, unique, subjective taste. It only makes sense, therefore, to develop and nurture your ability to call those shots.
I don’t mean breaking rules just to break them, unless that’s your thing, but approaching them with intention. We can’t all be James Joyce or enjoy James Joyce, nor should all of us want to. If you’re writing commercial fiction, you probably don’t want your style (or “being gorgeous” as Ursula LeGuin calls it in my other favorite craft book) to obscure your meaning. But that doesn’t mean you have to obey the rules to the letter.
No gods, no masters.
Please note, the above (and indeed this whole post if I’m honest) is primarily a note to my former self. When I am learning a new aspect of craft, hyperfocus urges me to brute force it. I have rarely met a piece of writing advice I didn’t rush to enforce on myself with an iron fist.
Yet your internal rhythm, how you put words together, your voice, is unique to you. It may be influenced by others, in fact, it certainly is, but how all those influences resonate and recombine in you is precious and unique. And that’s how writers stand out—not by sounding exactly like every other writer and doing everything Correctly, but by doing right by their inner voice.
I think an awareness of what your own writing sounds like is an essential skill for a writer. Fortunately it’s one quite easy to cultivate, to relearn, to reawaken.Ursula LeGuin, Steering the Craft
Personally, I’ve been trying to keep this in mind while drafting. I’ve been making overtures to the voice within, inviting it to take the wheel. I’m pushing myself to shut up and listen. I’m working not to strive for correctness, simplicity, or pure deep POV while the words go down, and I think it’s paid off in livelier work.
We’ll see, of course, how my betas and editors feel about that when the time comes. I’m typically a pretty “clean” drafter, a product of self-editing. I don’t know what it looks like anymore to work dirty, but I’m interested in finding out.
As for me, also for thee
I mentioned how I’m changing my critique process earlier, and I want to talk a little bit more about that. Craft in the Real World blew my mind in a lot of ways. But I owe my biggest light bulb moment to its syllabus and particularly its list of “banned words” for writing workshop environments.
“Banned words? Syllabus?” you might say. “That sounds an awful lot like rules.” Did I just spend this whole post talking about how there are no rules, only to turn around and talk about my newest rules, thereby contradicting myself? Hell yes, I did.
These aren’t rules for writing, though. They’re guidelines for critiquing other people’s writing without trying to make it conform to your taste or make it more like your own. This is an extremely important consideration for me as I navigate mentorship from the mentor side, trying to guide growth without imposing my own preferences.
This is also the part where I feel like I should apologize to all my past critique partners and beta recipients. Wording which centered my expectations as the reader over the author’s intent for the work were staples of my critique style. As writers, we should understand above all else that the words we use matter, so I am doing my best to shift my language—and thereby shift my thinking.
Below is a select list of words and phrases that I am working to eliminate from my critique vocabulary, or at least—in the spirit of this post’s rejection of absolutes—reduce. My selection criteria: these are the ones I myself have often used in past critiques, so your mileage may vary. My notes are in brackets.
- Plausible/not plausible/this wouldn’t happen in real life, etc. [Plausibility and the requirement of realism can vary with cultural context/life experience]
- [Character] wouldn’t/would do this [centers reader expectation over authorial intent]
- Buy it/earned/pay off/etc. [Salesses: “the evaluation of fiction here will not be capitalist.” 🤯]
- “Show, don’t tell”
- “The reader” [There is no default/definite reader]
- I want/I need/I’d like/I feel/I find/etc. [centers reader preferences]
- I relate
Salesses instead encourages critique via questions, which honor and invite authorial judgment, intent, and preference over that of the person providing the critique.
- What would the story be like if . . .
- How would the story change if . . .
- What do you think about . . . / Have you thought about . . .
- I noticed (on page X) . . .
- On character arc: How does the protagonist change (or try hard to change and fail)?
- On character agency: How does agency work in the world—who has it and who doesn’t? Why?
- On worldbuilding: What information does the story need to present in order to make sense to its audience? [Emphasis added to highlight distinction between a work’s intended audience and “the audience/reader” as a default/hegemonic entity.]
Disclaimer: by including these adapted critique guidelines from Salesses, I’m not prescribing them for others’ use. Personally, I have benefited from critiques that diverge from his syllabus as well as critiques influenced by them (hi Mel! You’re a gem.) I’m offering these lists as examples of how I’m trying to move away from absolutism on craft and style.
Let your true voice sing.
So, if you’re like me and your inner editor often drowns out your inner voice, please take this post as permission to ignore the rules. You can always edit later and shape your work with a mind toward audience expectation, but your words written in your way have special power. It’s worth it to let them pour out from that wellspring rather than filtering them for correctness first.
Again, this is particularly true for authors of underrepresented identities. For instance, I’ve seen discussions lately relating to how chronically ill writers may write stories that seem “slow paced” to abled readers. And requiring stories to adhere to three-act structure with an “active” protagonist privileges Western storytelling traditions over those of other cultures. Divergent authorial choices on pace, structure, agency, and style aren’t just possible, but fully valid.
Remember, you truly cannot please every reader. No matter how much you hone your craft or how many rules you follow, there will always be a reader who finds it too fast or too slow, unrelatable or confusing, implausible or trite. If you don’t believe me, check out Goodreads and read the reviews of recent bestsellers.
This is because readers, like authors, have their expectations and tastes shaped by their unique influences. There is no default audience member, no objective reader. (In law, we call this mythic being “the reasonable person standard” and I’ll put on my attorney hat for a moment to say that the Reasonable Person does not exist in real life.)
All this means that you aren’t writing for the same audience as everyone else. No one is! You are writing for YOUR audience, and it’s your prerogative to determine that audience as you refine and master your voice.
Learn to honor the style that makes your art unique, and you’ll find your readers. They’re out there, ready to listen to the voice in the wilderness that speaks to them. They’re hungry for it.
Sound off in the comments and tell me you least favorite “writing rule,” or your favorite one to break, and why!