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Why You Can Ignore Most Popular Creative Writing Advice

There are very few absolutes in creative writing.
With the proliferation of writing blogs nowadays, anyone can (and does) post their "secrets to better writing." While some are genuinely helpful, I frequently see certain tidbits that writers accept as gospel, even though they shouldn't. Many of these are derivatives of good, reasonable tips that have been twisted and transformed through a prolonged game of telephone until one day someone proclaiming themselves an authority shared the distorted version they'd accepted as truth.

Often the initially nuanced advice has been taken to a rigid extreme. So as you're improving your craft and applying various suggestions, how can you know if advice you're seeing falls into this category? By remembering there are very few absolutes in creative writing.

Conventions and style guides are undeniably important, but writers are constantly proving it's possible to convey their intended meaning to the reader while stretching those boundaries. Consider how commonplace fragments have become in literature, even though they used to be hunted down and eliminated. Nowadays we make many allowances for character voice and have even had books written entirely in list form or as multiple choice questions.

Basically, if something is effective, you can get away with it rather than strictly adhering to formal rules. If your work is having the impact you want, keep doing what you're doing.
    This is not license to ignore your editor! But you should feel comfortable explaining your reasoning and intentions, while remaining open to the rationale behind their suggestions.

Unfortunately, it's often newer writers who discover and end up applying these tyrannical distortions of good suggestions. While there are more than I could possibly address in one post, let's take a look at some examples of twisted tips:
  1. Twisted Tip: Eliminate adverbs.
    • Underlying Good Tip 1: Avoid unnecessary adverbs.
      • Meaning, if the adverb isn't adding anything to the text, don't include it.
    • Underlying Good Tip 2: Don't use an adverb to modify a verb when there's a more precise verb available.
  2. Twisted Tip: For dialogue tags, don't use speech verbs other than "said."
    • Underlying Good Tip 1: Don't use unnecessarily complex speech verbs.
      • If your narrator wouldn't use the word susurrate, then whisper will do.
    • Underlying Good Tip 2: Don't overuse various speech verbs, as this can detract from your story and slow your pace.
  3. Twisted Tip: Don't use words longer than 3 syllables.
    • Ridiculous.
      • Sure, I could have said absurd, but my choice made my point more effectively. That should be your goal with your writing.
    • Underlying Good Tip: Don't overcomplicate your language in a misguided attempt to appear more intelligent/literary/etc.
You may have noticed a theme in these "rules" that are presented as the path to better writing: they each eliminate a portion of the vocabulary available to you. English is an incredibly rich, diverse language, but if every writer followed all of these "rules" (and others like them), the resulting stories would lose all variety and color.

Writing tips are there to help you, not hamstring you. Adverbs, speech verbs, and multisyllabic words are all colors on your palette. When used judiciously, these elements add variety and depth to your story, allowing you to create something compelling and evocative. When you pour them on without restraint, they mix together into a muddy brown. But when you eschew them entirely, you may find yourself with an unfinished sketch that doesn't come close to the complete picture you wanted.

So remember, whenever you come across an "absolute" rule, dig around for the helpful tip underneath. Apply only as necessary.