Counterintuitive Advice On The Craft of Writing

craft of writing

You own all your artistic decisions, so let your heart guide you on your path as you embark on the craft of writing.

Anyone intent on mastering his/her writing skills will encounter a bewildering assortment of ideas about the best ways to accomplish excellence in this craft. Here are some alternative takes on common nuggets of advice that suggest there might be more than one way to enhance your writing chops.

Do away with the outline

Your fifth-grade English teacher probably started hammering the idea of working from an outline into your head from the moment you began stringing sentences together to describe your pet turtle or how you spent the summer. This perennial advice percolates through a never-ending slate of writer’s guides, workshops, and instructional materials. Nonetheless, a significant number of highly successful writers shun outlines and encourage a more free-form approach.

For example, in Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction, Jeff VanderMeer argues against plot outlines and other “paint-by-numbers” story structures. He says: “The structure of a story can grow as easily from the way the residue at the bottom of a coffee cup resembles a continent as it can from reading a newspaper story about a heroic act. The most important thing is allowing the subconscious mind to engage in the kind of play that leads to making the connections necessary to create narrative.” This approach was clearly at work in his mind-bending science-fiction novel Annihilation, which was made into an eerie, thought-provoking movie, offering a new twist on the alien invasion theme.

Stephen King is another writer who plumbs his dreams, captures and records those curious random thoughts that drift by while walking down the street, and prods his subconscious for story ideas. Then he develops his works intuitively, never working from an outline. As he explained to an interviewer at The New Yorker (as he described in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft), he believes that stories are found things, like fossils in the ground. Knowing the story ahead of time isn’t important to him; it’s a matter of excavating once he finds the fossil. “I’d suggest that what works for me may work equally well for you. If you are enslaved to (or intimidated by) the tiresome tyranny of the outline and the notebook filled with ‘Character Notes,’ it may liberate you. At the very least, it will turn your mind to something more interesting than Developing the Plot.”

Stop rewriting your work

In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott offers this inestimable advice: “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”

Don’t fear passive constructions

In Stephen Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing, he assails the traditional worship of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, pointing out that it’s filled with incorrect grammar usage, contradictory explanations, conflicting examples, and little understanding of linguistics. For example, Pinker notes, “We now know that telling writers to avoid the passive is bad advice. Linguistic research has shown that the passive construction has a number of indispensable functions because of the way it engages a reader’s attention and memory. A skilled writer should know what those functions are and push back against copy editors who, under the influence of grammatically naive style guides, blue-pencil every passive construction they spot into an active one.”

Pinker earned his stripes as a renowned linguist and Harvard Psychology Professor, which is maybe worth a few extra points for credibility. I also recommend Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s witty and irreverent The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed. It’s a lot more fun and, ultimately, more practical than the stodgy, unimaginative The Elements of Style.

Everyone’s favorite disreputable poet, Charles Bukowski, takes it a step further and tosses grammar out the window completely. An article on Brain Pickings quotes a letter in which he explains to a friend his response to getting a D in English as a college student: “I didn’t pay a hell of a lot of attention to grammar, and when I write it is for the love of the word, the color, like tossing paint on a canvas, and using a lot of ear and having read a bit here and there, I generally come out ok, but technically I don’t know what’s happening, nor do I care.”

Abandon punctuation (maybe not entirely…)

Maverick and wunderkind novelist Cormac McCarthy eschews the use of punctuation in his writing. No quotation marks, no commas, no em-dashes, and not a semicolon are to be found in his books. During an interview with Oprah Winfrey, McCarthy explains the rationale behind his punctuation-free prose: “James Joyce is a good model for punctuation. He keeps it to an absolute minimum. There is no reason to blot the page up with weird little marks. If you write properly, you shouldn’t have to punctuate.”

Let your story dictate your pace

Turning again to Stephen King for sage advice, in an interview with The Guardian, he says, “Pace is the speed at which your narrative unfolds. There is a kind of unspoken (hence undefended and unexamined) belief in publishing circles that the most commercially successful stories and novels are fast-paced. Like so many unexamined beliefs in the publishing business, this idea is largely bullshit… which is why, when books like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose suddenly break out of the pack and climb the bestseller lists, publishers and editors are astonished. I believe each story should be allowed to unfold at its own pace, and that pace is not always double time.”

Don’t expect a six-figure contract

For anyone out there pondering whether they can plan a wildly successful career as a writer, in a Masterclass session Margaret Atwood has this to say, “When I was starting to write, none of us thought that we were going to have careers. We thought we were going to have vocations, which is quite a different thing. Our idea of being a writer was not a six-figure contract. It was the garret in Paris with the absinthe and tuberculous and being a penniless unknown. People get news of this occasional writer who gets this fabulous contract and they think that that’s the norm. But it isn’t. The norm is that most writers don’t make a living out of their writing. Don’t forget that many well-known writers had other jobs.”

Write what you don’t know

T.C. Boyle — with literary credentials that stretch from here to eternity — heartily disagrees with the adage “write what you know.” In an interview for Writer’s Digest, he says, “I love to write fiction and only fiction because it is a process of discovery. I don’t know what will come. The old saw with writing is write what you know. I feel just the opposite. ‘Write what you don’t know and discover something.’ That’s why it is so exciting for me to continue to write fiction. I never know what will come next.”

Follow your own rules

Boyle also has a fitting close for this article. In the same Writer’s Digest interview Boyle says, “There are no rules. Some writing teachers have certain rules — these things you can and cannot do. I think that is patently absurd because you’re working in an art form and you are the only one who can write your own stories for better or worse of everybody who has ever been on this earth. That’s one of the miracles of it. In order to do that, you have to find out what your own way is. Any story can break any rule and be great. All you have is an individual work by an individual person. Once that work is complete, you examine it.”

— — —

Now you have another set of rules to embrace or ignore as you develop your proficiency as a writer. Ultimately, you own all your artistic decisions, as well as all the nitty-gritty elements of the writing process itself. Let your heart, tempered by intellect, guide you on your writing path.

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  1. Really loved this article! Well, I don’t agree about Strunk and White, which I find both amusing and useful. Also, White was an excellent writer. ;). But I agree with almost everything else, and love the links you’ve so generously provided. I will be checking out these resources.

  2. I am this kind of writer because it opens the door to creation. The publishing industry leans/depends on the commercial and standardized conventions. I would have liked the writer to explore more deeply those contradictions.

  3. Without an outline? I don’t think so. Of course, I write non-fiction, so I find fewer sleepless nights when I have my “shopping list” prepared. And it lets my mind go free to create the best, most inviting prose I can manage because I know I have my facts in there already.
    I think, too, that following these so-called old-school instructions can lead to eventually breaking the rules because by then you know what you’re doing. In other words, “5th graders, don’t try this at home!” until you’ve learned to marshall your thoughts. There was a reason our grade school and high school teachers tried to make us slow down, settle on a topic and come up with an outline. It’s so much easier to follow a “road map” than to fumble along jotting down random thoughts and getting nowhere.
    Please forgive the mixed metaphors, Mrs. O’Hern, fifth grade teacher.

    • I was beaten over the head with outlines as a pre-writing technique that I was soured for over ten years after I graduated college. (In fact, I usually wrote the first draft, and THEN wrote the outline from the draft, even if the teacher had an earlier deadline for the outline than the first draft.) I think I spent a lot of time spinning my wheels trying to decide what order to put things in an outline, instead of just writing the damn thing. Even now, the closest thing I get to an outline is a rough idea of what the table of contents will look like–and it grows and changes as my book does. When I wrote the blog post that eventually grew into my Five Theories on the Fitz, there were several comparative accounts I knew I wanted to include, but wasn’t sure where to put them. They finally told me where they wanted to go when I started fleshing out Fitz’s narrative–it was only after several chapters were nearly complete that I could see the ebb and flow of the prose and where I could safely shift to a different train of though without derailing the reader. And, for the record, I find outlines LESS useful for non-fiction than fiction, because fiction usually has to go in more-or-less chronological order, while non-fiction often has multiple valid arrangements of chapters–which one works for a given book (for me, at least) often ends up being a matter of how exactly I end a particular chapter, which is something I discover in pre-writing.

      To use you own metaphor, you can’t draw a map of a place no one’s ever seen. I can’t draw you a map of my book until AFTER I’ve “scouted” a few chapters. Teachers trying “to make us slow down, settle on a topic and come up with an outline” not withstanding.

  4. Some authors can just sit down and compose a novel as they think about it. However, I find that without a basic outline, I get lost in my own story. (Not hard to do with 150,000 words to write.) That isn’t to say that items in the story, and even the plot, can’t change as one is actually writing. I change my story all the time as well, when I find a scene doesn’t fit, or a scene need not exist at all, or a character turns out to be different than originally conceived in the outline. But, I do not agree about omitting an outline. Do that at your own peril.

  5. What a refreshing and liberating article! I love every one of Lee’s concepts and every quote from these excellent authors. I’ve already printed this out and cut and taped several sections onto my computer hutch where I write. Thank you Lee Purcell.

  6. I’m all for the rules. Strunk and White? Clever, entertaining, and witty. Passive voice (Yawn!) makes me sleepy and makes it seem as if no one is responsible for the action. Removes things from my presence to out of sight.

    And outline? I love the way McPhee introduced his high school English teacher and her emphasis on outlining – with all kinds of innovative structures and forms. Circles, checkerboards, whatever. Make up my own form. But at least think about what I’m going to do when I start writing. What’s so wrong with that?

    Just saying – or writing in this case.

    • Sometimes no one IS responsible for the action, or we (yawn) simply don’t care who did it as much as what was done. That’s what the passive voice is for. You say “passive” is wordier than “active”?

      Passive: The lights were off.
      Active: Someone turned the lights off.

      Which is the wordy yawner here?

  7. I guess if it’s an obvious question then don’t use a question mark. For new writers, abandoning punctuation, is pretty brazen. It evokes visions of their English teacher reading and objecting over their shoulder.

    • What mystifies me about Asian languages isn’t their pitch-stressing or umpteen-stroke “letters,” it’s how they got through so many centuries with hardly any punctuation!

      Seriously, I can hem and haw about the nuances whether this “separation” between phrases needs a dash or ellipses or a semicolon or a completely new sentence–and then you get these “artistes” that say people should pick up on all of these nuances without the aid of punctuation? Oh, right. This is the age of “I can spell ‘ghoti’ anyway I want to, and it’s your fault if you don’t understand what I’m saying.”

  8. Excellent article, both fun and encouraging (and it doesn’t hurt that I agree with you). Thanks for the book recommendations, too. I have read some of them, but not all. I’ve added them to my to-read list.

  9. This article is very counter intuitive and quite absurd from Book Baby’s point of view. Especially when Book Baby hawks editing services at prices only wealthy folks can afford. So, what is it? Can authors wing it? Can we use our own vernacular and writing style, follow our own rules, write what we know, abandon punctuation and STOP RE-WRITING OUR WORK? Who the hell needs an editing service with this kind of advice. So, what’s the story here? While at the same time I receive regular editing service offers from Book Baby, telling me if I do not pay thousands of dollars and if I do not conform to today’s writing standards my writing will never make the cut. The same services who will tell me I can not do any of the things mentioned here. How exasperating.

  10. Great article. I always feel this way about just starting off the writing journey by faith, enjoy the ride, and see what comes, but invariably I bump into voices that pressure me for character arcs, plot outlines, and a great number of other technical issues that leave me bewildered and feeling incompetent. And that while the writing I had most succes with were all novels ( I am a ghostwriter) that just came out of nowhere and rolled on and on.
    I will keep an eye on structure and so forth, but not while I am crafting my first draft.
    Thank you. Liberating indeed.

  11. Thanks for this article. I really needed to see it today, as I’ve been tying myself in knots over a story structure issue. Now I’m going to relax and tell the story the way I think it should be told. Whew.

  12. Very entertaining and an enjoyable sharp pencil in the eye of the humourless, no split infinitive, grammatically anal, rule fascists. On the other hand I’ve had students taught by the avant garde, who gives a shit about grammar, spelling, and punctuation, I deserve an A because I handed the assignment in “educators.”

  13. One of the best posts on “how to write” I’ve read in some time. Many of the books suggested are in my personal library with massive highlighting and personal notes. Thanks for freeing my creative mind to pursue my writing the way I want.

  14. Excellent article. I’m a “newbie” at authoring mystery/suspense/thriller fiction. I’ve purchased many books on writing as well as downloading articles online. I have tried and tried to write WITH an outline because that’s what so many articles and books tell you to do including MasterClass. I cannot write using an outline. I can zip along with my writing when I start with the plot in mind and just begin writing. The words seem to flow from my mind directly to my fingers and the Word document. Sometimes when the story is complete a new twist will come to mind and I’ll add it in a new chapter. I may have to rewrite a few chapters when I do that, but that’s okay. I’ve found that I tend to be a perfectionist too much. This article helped me realize that many of the “rules” I have agonized over are not written in stone including Passive Voice. There have been so many times I have spent a lot of time trying to rewrite a sentence or paragraph without any passive voice, but they don’t seem to convey what I’m trying to impart to my readers. Thanks for this article..


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