No writer is an island

by Cathryn Burge

If there’s an opinion piece type that’s guaranteed to raise my blood pressure, it’s one in which the author pontificates about How To Write – particularly if their pontificating is dressed up as well-meant advice. And there are lots of articles like that out there, especially on the internet. Here, have a small selection:

  • If I’m reading a Western story and the author has tried to render the characters’ accents phonetically via non-standard spelling, I stop reading. Please don’t.
  • I don’t judge … well, actually, I do. I stopped reading a romantic story when the author thought the expressing ‘sucking face’ would make a nice change from ‘kissing’. It didn’t.
  • Careless spelling in summaries augurs ill for a story. ‘Adam’s proposal peeked Rickard’s interest’. Peeked. PEEKED. Someone please tell the author the word they were looking for was ‘piqued’.
  • Another phrase I’m sick of reading is ‘their tongues fought for dominance’.

Don’t get me wrong: we (almost) all do it. We look at other writers’ work and pass judgement on it. After all, why shouldn’t we? Developing the ability to differentiate between what works and what doesn’t can help us make our own writing better. But how can we be sure of what’s ‘good’ and what’s ‘bad’? What standards do we use to guide us?

My head is full of writing Do’s and Don’ts: rules on spelling, grammar and punctuation I learnt at school; tips on writing well from famous authors; notes and advice from editors; and feedback from readers. Some of it I took on board because I had to (it was drummed into me for exams), some I actively sought out and some was forced upon me.

But it’s all useful stuff in determining quality, no? Well, it can be. Abiding by grammar, spelling and punctuation rules allows a writer to communicate their ideas clearly. As writers, we want our readers to understand what we’re saying; we want them to see the pictures we see in our heads. As readers, we want to be swept along by a story, to believe in the characters and the worlds they live in. A story through which the reader moves smoothly is far more likely to entrance than one which trips them up at every turn with dodgy spelling and impenetrable sentence structures.

And, beyond clarity, there’s the delight to be had in graceful writing. It’s so rewarding when an author finds exactly the right word; I’ve been known to squeal with appreciation at phrases like He was determined to eradicate the dandelions (‘eradicate’ from the Latin eradicare from the Latin e- (out) and radix (root) and I’m always impressed when, through sentence structure, an author ensures that its emphasis falls on the most important word. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in need of a wife … It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. We all want to write beautifully, so what’s wrong with a bit of tough criticism to keep us – and others – on our toes? Why shouldn’t we look at stories that other writers have put out there and analyse their flaws?

Well, for one thing, there’s the danger of becoming complacent: realizing that your SPAG (spelling, punctuation and grammar) are better than someone else’s can make you feel superior, and smugness is no foundation for growth. Or perhaps you genuinely feel motivated to educate? That can take up huge amounts of time to do well.

Critical analysis is a double-edged sword. It can help your writing improve but it can paralyse you as well. I wrote my first novel-length story a long time ago; rereading it now, I see it was teeming with errors. I didn’t care about correcting typos back then, nor about maintaining a consistent point of view. I was too busy having fun to be concerned with such dullness! These days, I mostly cringe at its flaws but, every now and them, I’m amazed by its freshness of expression and the energy of its narrative drive. The characters were vivid, and some of the writing wasn’t bad! It was 100K+ words long and written in 8 months, in time snatched between work commitments and raising a family. My productivity was phenomenal; my engagement with the story absolute.

Now, I have a lot more time but greater fear about getting the story down. I write a bit but then I edit, then edit again. Elmore Leonard says never use the word ‘suddenly’. Writing courses insist that adverbs are BAD. Some people hate the word ‘chuckle’ whilst yet others flinch when confronted with the word ‘moist’. I’ve had readers curse me over an experiment with punctuation and others who demanded trigger warnings (that would have prematurely given away whole character arcs). Meanwhile, the internet mutters darkly about entitlement and misappropriation. These things, too, make me afraid I’m less than perfect and thus not allowed to write.

I could go on. I could talk about the snobbery around genre; how some fictional settings are automatically worthy whilst others are automatically dumb. Professional critics and general readers can be terribly snippy about chick-lit and sci-fi. They want unflinching realism, not fantasy. ‘Write what you know!’ is their echoing refrain – and their implication is that there’s no point to a book if it doesn’t leave you depressed. With so many snipers taking aim and itching to fire when writing is already a minefield of potential errors, it’s a wonder anyone dares to write anything at all. I suspect for every one who does dare, there are tens – maybe hundreds – of writer who’ll either hide their unique stories in a drawer somewhere, or else chuck it in the bin. Those lost stories may not be perfect, but that doesn’t mean they’re not heart-felt or valuable.

So, to all those writing ‘experts’ out there, please keep your opinions to yourself. If someone asks for advice, by all means provide it, but do it in private and with respect – because your criticism doesn’t toll solely for lesser writers, it tolls for thee.

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