The decline of writing, part 1 – Bad advice for stupid writers

29 April, 2009

An actual professional editor called Pat Holt posted a big pile of crap on her blog purporting to be the inside scoop on what editors look for in manuscripts. It’s called The ten mistakes: ten mistakes writers don’t see (but can easily fix when they do), and I will deal with this misguided manifesto point by point.

1. REPEATS. She observes that “Kate White uses “quickly” over a dozen times in A Body To Die For“. Good God, that means she’s using the dreaded word every 33 pages or so! (It’s a 400 page book.) How did the copyeditor let that slip by? Holt reminds me of the girl in my creative writing class, years ago, who red-lined me each time I used “and” more than once in a sentence.

“Here are the documents.” says one character. “If these are the documents, I’ll oppose you,” says another. A repeat like that just keeps us on the surface. Figure out a different word; or rewrite the exchange. Repeats rarely allow you to probe deeper.

How exactly does repetition relate to “surface” and “depth”, I’d like to know?

2. FLAT WRITING. She gives a couple of examples of undeniably flat sentences, but makes no effort to identify what makes a sentence flat. The problem in these examples is not that the writer has “lost interest” or is “intimidated by [his] own narrative”, that he is “veering toward mediocrity”, his “brain is fatigued” and he has “lost inspiration”. The problem is that these are run-on sentences in which nothing happens. The simple solution is to break up the long sentence into short, punchy phrases.

3. EMPTY ADVERBS. Actually (there’s an adverb for you), adverbs are not inherently bad. Adverbs work when they describe the character or narrator’s point of view. Otherwise they can seem like unnecessary authorial intrusion. But I’m afraid Holt is one of those writers who demands adherence to The Rules without understanding them. She gets a nervous reaction every time she reads an adverb but she can’t say why, except that removing it makes the sentence “more powerful”.
(And “almost inconceivably” is not a bizarre tautology like “a little bit infertile”. A thing that is almost inconceivable may be conceived, with special effort or luck, but it remains exceptional.)

4. PHONY DIALOGUE. Holt correctly identifies the problem of “As you know, Bob” conversations, also known as “maid and butler” talk. She is also correct that character dialog needs to be individual and consistent with character. I’m not sure about this “avoidance of contemporary slang” thing, however. Where do you draw the line? Slang can, like clothing fashion, date embarassingly, but eventually slang and fashion serve the purpose of nice period detail. The trick is to use it, or any writing technique, with taste and moderation.

5. NO-GOOD SUFFIXES. This turns out to be a repeat of the REPEATS complaint, except now it’s words ending in “-ness” and “-ize”. As with the previous complaint, the best solution is to use these words sparingly and mindfully. Holt’s Rule against words ending in “-ly” again shows that she doesn’t know why these rules should be applied, and so is unable to explain the Rule’s exceptions.

6. THE “TO BE” WORDS. This is just the old saw about passive voice being baaaaaaddddddd. Again, she can’t explain the exceptions to the Rule, or even the Rule itself. Of the examples she gives that actually are badly written, the problem in all cases is simple repetition. Her initial examples (“I am the maid”, “It was cold”, “You were away”) aren’t passive voice anyway. (*See link below.)

7. LISTS. Yes, a flat list can be dull. Like any kind of writing, it needs to be created with imagination and flair to be interesting. The list itself is not the problem.

8. SHOW, DON’T TELL. Like the “no adverbs” and “no passive voice” rules, this is well-meant advice for a beginner, but a mere hindrance for a competent writer, who will show or tell as is appropriate to the story. Show, when you want the reader to see; Tell, when you want them to hear the author’s voice. But this is redundant, as Holt seems to misunderstand the whole issue. She thinks bland, generalised description is “telling”, whereas interesting, detailed description is “showing”. (The favoured Graham Greene paragraph is a “tell”, not a “show”.)

9. AWKWARD PHRASING. Yes, awkward phrasing is bad. Thank you for stating the bleeding obvious. How very helpful.

10. COMMAS. Here she is nice enough to correct the highly respected and best selling novelist Graham Greene. I’m sure he’d be grateful. The other example’s main problem is that it is a run-on sentence, not that it lacks commas (although it does). The rule should be that a comma can be omitted if the phrase it would precede or follow is short, and the sense of the sentence will still be easy to grasp.

Although point lists can be helpful, I think the best education for a writer is to read a lot. What to read, though, is the question. Most 19th century stuff is just too stilted to be a relevant model. On the other hand, I agree with Clive James, who said that “Fifty years ago, even bad books were well written” – the corollary of this being that the last few decades have seen a serious decline in editorial standards (see above!). I feel I myself have been disadvantaged as a writer by the “modern” education methods that came in from the 1960s…


*Please see the link below for a dissection of Strunk and White’s famous dictat, The elements of style.

50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice


6 Responses to “The decline of writing, part 1 – Bad advice for stupid writers”

  1. robink336 Says:

    Rather late in commenting, but I just ran across Holt’s list and your excellent reply. What bugged me most of all was the second title, “10 COMMON PROBLEMS THAT DISMISS YOU AS AN AMATEUR.”

    I’m no grammarian, but that title tells me if I make these mistakes, then I am no longer an amateur. Well now!

  2. eyeresist Says:

    Yay, a comment! Thank you for the compliment, and also thanks for making me reread my post, and spot a rather appalling error. Nothing like mispelling “competent”, during a diatribe on writing technique, for a heavy dose of irony.

  3. penthia Says:

    I am doing a course which has a creative writing component and another writing component for which the definition is vague, but could be mistaken for Social Work 101. Anyhoo, the number of times I have dug my nails into my palms because the tutor or “esteemed” guest speaker knows less than I did at age 8… ah, too many times to count, but too many *is* too many! Basic grammar, when to use “whom”, the right time to use a semi-colon… (and how to best abuse the ellipsis!) these things infuriate me when done wrong [sic] and that they are being taught by example by people who should know better – makes me borderline postal.

    Oh, and in #7, I think you meant “flair” not “flare” 🙂

    • eyeresist Says:

      Goddammit, “flair”, “flare”, why aren’t we all speaking Esperanto? It is the future, after all. I have corrected the error, but pause to point out that the two words probably have a common origin. Probably.

  4. Yup! I am very late on commenting, but thank you for the commentary. I do agree that Pat Holt does not know how to explain her rules probably, but I do agree with a few of them – I agree that lists, repeats and commas are often abused in the history of literature, and should be avoided. However, with the rest of her advice… I think she gave me the sense that if you’re having trouble reading what you’re writing, then something has gone wrong. Her writing struck me to be very ‘clean’ when juxtaposed with the examples she used. The Dan Brown example I agree is awkward, for example. Perhaps it is grammatically correct, but the word ‘inconceivably’ IS a mouthful. Ultimately, it made me ponder a few things about writing, even if only in a sketchy way.

  5. […] a follow-up to my piece “Bad advice for stupid writers“, here is “Learn the F**king Rules!“, in which an editor laments the degraded […]

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