Be Wary of Writing Advice that begins “Don’t”

We all have our bugbears and prejudices. Most of us are aware of what works in our own writing. Those writers who read widely have the advantage of knowing what’s currently trendy/frowned upon and can tailor our writing to suit. Reviewers have the advantage of knowing that what’s trendy now won’t be in five years’ time and what’s frowned upon now may well become trendy in five years’ time. The rhymed/free verse, page/performance debates have circled inconclusively numerous times.

But most writing advice given on this blog has been done so in terms of how to do something. When I use ‘don’t’ it’s in the context of ‘don’t disadvantage your poems by not following guidelines’ or ‘don’t turn up at an open mic with an armful of bangles which will bang against each other and drown out your reading’.

What I do not do is dictate how you should write or how you should perform your poems. I do not recommend you follow exactly what I say. I do recommend you read my advice and follow your own instinct.

When a writer says “Don’t use these words” or “Don’t use this device”, it’s time to evaluate what’s actually being said.

  • Often it points to reader fatigue: the writer is simply tired of reading over-used words or the same plot devices occurring again and again.
  • Sometimes a writer is urging others to avoid one of their bugbears.
  • Sometimes a writer wants others to pander to their prejudices.
  • Sometimes a writer can be quoted out of context.
  • Sometimes a writer has developed ‘big fish in a small pond’ syndrome.

It’s good to avoid cliches and it’s generally good to stick to the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule but there are occasions when the word ‘shard’ is not only the best fit but also the most appropriate word, where ‘medicated sweet for sore throats’ is too clumsy when ‘lozenge’ conveys it better, where telling the reader doesn’t hold up the plot (particularly in a fast-paced fight scene). But it’s also good to examine the words you are using to ensure they are the best ones in the context of your poem. It’s good to examine if the plot device you’re using is the best one available or whether you’re just introducing it because your favourite author uses it.

Be wary of altering your writing to fit someone else’s preconceptions. Writers do tailor what they write for the market they have in mind, but a writer’s job is to communicate and you can’t do that if you take out a stanza that’s crucial to your poem or you give a minor character too much significance. Do listen to advice from writers you trust or advice offered by editors, but pick your battles, and don’t alter anything major.

Writers have to be aware of their own prejudices and limitations. You may be an expert on the 18th century, but that doesn’t qualify you to write about the 10th century. You may be biased towards nature poetry but don’t ignore urban poetry. When your characters speak, do they speak in character or do they become ciphers for your own views? When someone else comments on your work, do they do so from an open mind or a closed one?

Media reports are often second hand and deadlines can often get in the way of research. If you read an article about a lecture a writer has given, be aware the article’s aim is to draw a reader’s interest, probably with a clickbait headline. Where possible, put the article in context. Look at the examples the writer used. Was the writer giving an lecture on a specific topic to general students or was the lecture on a specific aspect of a writers’ publications to a special interest group. Was the writer actually saying “don’t do this” or “don’t do this unless you’ve carefully thought about why you’re using this device and it is in fact the most appropriate device to use.”

Some writers are reluctant to stray out of their comfort zones. They like teaching a group of students or they like running an open mic night or like chairing a workshop. Some don’t like going to groups organised by others or discussing work outside of a classroom, preferring instead to guide small groups towards a set way of thinking or critiquing work. They often become defensive if a newcomer asks questions or challenges a viewpoint. If you attend a group, course or workshop and feel you are being constrained or pushed towards writing in a certain style, it may not be a good idea to stay.

It’s always worth remembering words fall in and out of fashion, writing devices similarly become trendy and then overused, people have prejudices and bugbears, not all writers are media experts and some writers allow their own preconceived ideas about what a poem should be to influence the criticism and feedback they give to others. So, if another writer is saying ‘don’t’, evaluate what’s being said and decide on its relevance to your writing.

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