How To Write Stuff Real Good
I had the great misfortune recently to see an enormous volume of bad writing advice passed around in public by bored writers. Trust me, I’ve given plenty of silly, misguided, naive or just plain ridiculous writing advice in my day. After all, I used to be a high school English teacher, back when I had no business teaching anybody anything at all. I was 23, and I really think one ought to be legally prohibited from teaching adolescents until one is 30 and can say ridiculous things like “in my day” whilst gazing into the middle distance and stroking an imaginary wizard’s beard.
I like to think I’ve also given some good writing advice, but it’s only good advice if it is actively solicited, authentically stated, and — perhaps most importantly — effective for the recipient, right? I’m still not sure.
Now, let’s distinguish “writing advice” from a few other things. When I taught my students the basic rules of grammar — rules I shall happily violate within this very essay — I was not giving advice. I was conveying the conventional, accepted norms of written language in a very particular time, place, and society. Some people would expect them to obey those rules at all times. Some people would not care.
In our classroom, I explained that we learned these rules for purely utilitarian reasons — to get jobs, to write entrance essays for college, to impress whoever the hell cared about it so long as we needed to impress them. But we also learned the rules because it’s fun to break rules for creative purposes. One can’t reinvent the wheel if one does not understand the wheel and its function.
When I edit another writer’s piece as part of a work assignment, I may give advice, but I may also give notes. Notes are suggestions — or sometimes directives — on how to improve a piece in order to satisfy the specific writing assignment. It’s the difference between “All writers should start work at 6 a.m. every day” and “I think the story would be better served if we learn Caleb’s name in the first paragraph.”
I am used to receiving notes from editors for my essay and book work, and from producers for my script work. Often editors or producers will say “this is just a suggestion” in order to distinguish this type of note…