It’s not bad writing advice, just mediocre.

I love Nanowrimo. I used to participate every year and while I don’t feel like it’s a necessary part of my process anymore, I value what Nanowrimo has taught me. How far I’ve been able to come is, in part, because of this crazy yes-you-can program.

The 2016 Nanowrimo icon

I also love Nanowrimo’s support group. We have Nanoedmo (National Novel Editing Month), and the Office of Letters and Light blog often features authors who have gone through the publishing process and have tips for those of us who may be mired in the “Now What?” months of post draft revisions.

However, the past couple of posts have made me gnash my teeth. Yes, a lot of writing advice is subjective (is show don’t tell the worst advice or a necessary part of developing style?) – but there is some practical matter, and it is that matter I take issue with here.

Yes, a lot of this is nitpicky. But yes, the little things can make a big difference.

Beth Revis wrote a great post on having goals in writing, and being able to fail in writing. I liked 99% of the post. But one thing about querying agents caught my eye:

I learned other things. Tricks of the trade that you pick up as you go: 

  1. Copy and paste the first five pages into the bottom of your query in order to give the agent a sample of your writing.

There are a couple of NOPES here. First of all, this isn’t something you should be picking up as you go. Read in advance and you will learn all about what agents want. In fact, research will reveal that a blanket copy-paste for every query is quite possibly a terrible idea. Why? Because agents have guidelines for submissions. Agencies have guidelines. And not all of them include the first five pages in the body of the email.

I have queried agents who don’t want pages. I’ve queried agents who want the first five, the first ten, the first chapter, even the first 20 pages. I’ve queried a (very) few agents who wanted pages attached, not pasted. Some want a synopsis, too. If you don’t follow the rules, the agents think that 1) you can’t read, 2) you can’t pay attention or 3) you think you know better than them. None of these scream BUSINESS PARTNER FOR LIFE. And a lot of agents auto-reject queries that don’t follow the guidelines.

Now, agents understand that it’s easy to get mixed up or make a mistake in the querying process. If you send out a query with the wrong guidelines, an agent might like your material anyway. They might see what you have to offer. In my experience, agents have been quite helpful towards authors who are starting to navigate the publishing world, a world that is far more complicated than we first imagined. But don’t give your dream agent, who has 25000 queries in her inbox and only 2 hours to answer them, an easy excuse to reject you.

Writing Advice from the Wall Street Journal

Well, it’s not exactly from the Wall Street Journal. Thanks to Chuck Wendig’s blog post on the subject, I was able to read a lovely article about the way teachers are trying to get kids to use words differently.

Yes, I do think it’s lovely. And yes, I understand what teachers are trying to teach kids to do. And yes, I think they’re going about it the wrong way.

First, the article. It was brilliant. Props to James R. Hagerty, who follows the advice he writes about and eschews the so-called ‘bad’ or ‘boring words.’ Take a look, I’ll still be here when you get back.

You can also consider the objective quality of the article, separate from its satirical element, via these words.

I think it’s cool that teachers are actively trying to teach kids to be better writers, and to use more of the English language. One of the greatest aspects of English is the vocabulary at our fingertips. But the important thing about writing is to use the correct word, not the most interesting one. And that is something that the teachers of the article are failing to teach their students.

I went through a phase where ‘said’ was a banned word for me. I thought there were so many other great dialogue tags out there, why not let them shine? But much better writers than me have come up with the answer. ‘Said’ is an invisible tag. The eye skips over it. It’s only there for reference, when we need to remember who, exactly, said (proclaimed, sniveled, ejaculated) what. It doesn’t need to jump up and down, waving its arms in the air. And that’s what 5-dollar words do.

Despite the fact that I don’t think they’re dispensing great advice, I’d say – let’s NOT tell these teachers what horrible people they are. Most of the kids they teach won’t pursue writing even as a hobby, and even fewer will pursue it as a career. And those that do will soon learn that ‘banned words’ are a bogus entity in the English language, thanks to that great pit of advice called the Internet. We’re not talking about a BA or MFA course here. I can appreciate a class which focuses on making my child think in different ways, even if I don’t completely agree with the method.

I’d like to finish with my favorite quote from Hagerty’s article:

Second-guessing famous authors was tricky, Josh cautioned: “It’s almost as though they’re given a free pass” to flout the rules. Josie submitted that she wasn’t sure they should get that pass.

Her brother winced: “You’ve got to remember,” he lectured, “most of these guys are dead.”

And my favorite quote from Wendig’s post:

Context is more meaningful than painting up your words to be pretty.