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.

When can I call myself a Writer?

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America define “professional writer” as “someone who makes a living from selling their writing”. But that excludes every single poet in the UK since selling their poetry would exclude money made poetry readings, teaching creative writing and being a poetry editor which is how those who don’t have a day job do it. So clearly there has to be a better definition. James Van Pelt in The Fix suggests other way of defining the professional writer:-

1. Consistently produces work

Where poetry is concerned, word counts (how consistently do prose writers advise write 200/500 words a day?) are useless. But certainly writers, write. Sure they might talk about it and no one makes a better procrasinator than a writer who’s avoiding the actual work of putting words on the page, preferably the right words in the right order, but the key difference between a wannabe and a writer is that the latter actually writes rather than talks about their magnum opus that will be produced sometime tomorrow (and all we know tomorrow never comes).

2. Tries to sell the work

Yep, actually prints out poems and covering letters and posts them off to editors. Note the plurals. Currently have 40 poems on editors’ desks at the moment and will post off a further ten this week. Actually it’s unusual for me to have less than 50 out at any one time. With magazines running at 98 – 99% rejection rates, it’s the only way to get published. And I did get an acceptance today (see, it works).

3. Tries to improve knowledge in the field

Read, read and keep reading. Ask for book tokens as presents, subscribe to as many magazines as you can afford and join a library. No writer can skip the reading.

4. Networks

Not so easy when getting out involves finding a babysitter and a half-hourly bus service that stops at 6:30 pm anyway. That’s why I love the internet: I can network without leaving home, or someone complaining about my taste in music.

5. Keeps up with the field

How else are you going to know that submitting your experimental, edgy, urban-noir poetry to Poetry Review is a waste of time? Save postage, time and effort. Read reviews (some of mine are available at Sphinx).

6. Behaves professionally

Strangely I prefer it when editors send “never darken my post box ever again” responses. The ones I hate are the “liked your work but am not using it [without giving the reason for not using it]”. With the former I know where I stand. The latter always encourage me to try again. But I’d never threaten an editor. Most of them are unpaid, trying to fit in producing a magazine around day jobs and family life and get more poems in a week than they can publish in a year (hence the high rejection rates).

I’ve never flame a reviewer either. Politely pointing out a typo/technical error is OK. But expecting a reviewer, who is outside of your target audience, to love your work isn’t. Love or loathe them, reviewers do have the right to their own opinion. And sometimes they get it wrong. If a certain music critic hated an album, I’d rush out and buy it. If he loved an album I knew to put it on my “never, ever buy” list. I never criticised him for hating my favourite bands. I appreciated his consistency of opinion and his ability to inform my music buying. Negative reviews can have positive effects.

7. Pays forward, ie gives advice and offers constructive criticism to newbies

This is how I met my husband. So I guess I qualify. I am a writer.