I’m tired of the writing cliches. You know, all those snappy little sayings about how if you want to be a writer all you have to do is write. Or that you should show not tell. Or start a story in the middle of the action.
To quote the great Kurt Vonnegut, so it goes.
The problem is not that there’s no truth in these cliches. Of course there is. All cliches have an element of truth or else they’d never have become cliches in the first place. But if you need such cliches to understand writing, odds are you’ll never become a great writer in the first place.
To understand what I mean, check out what author Jeff VanderMeer wrote as the ever-charming Curmudgeon on his Facebook account. Jeff’s response sums up my own feelings about all of the “writers write” advice which abounds in our world.
“I’m finding the proliferation of this advice annoying: ‘If you want to be a writer, write.’ Well, duhhhhhh. If you have to be reminded of this continually or accept this ‘wisdom’ with some kind of rapturous awe…hit yourself in the head with a dead fish while repeating after me: “WRITE WRITE WRITE WRITE WRITE.” You will not soon forget again. — Sincerely, the Curmudgeon
No shit. Writers write. If you don’t have an instinctual understanding of that, you’ll never be a writer. Chanting the cliche “writers write” like a repetitious mantra will do nothing to change this fact.
My suggestion? Writers should avoid all of the following writing cliches. Unless they actually work for you. But even then don’t become so obsessive with the rules that they blind you to the truth behind the writing process.
Reread what Jeff VanderMeer said above, then allow me take this cliche to the extreme. Writing is not merely the process of putting words on paper or screen or organic-cerebral implant—writing is a process. Part of that process is, yes, the physical act of writing. But reflection and understanding must also be present before the actual writing takes place, and editing and rewriting must occur afterward.
Do you know what types of writers merely write, with no other part of the equation figuring into their writing? Hacks. Anyone can crank out page after page of writing. But to be a good or great writer means you can’t simply write. You also must reach into far more of the creative process than the simple physical act of writing.
Show don’t tell
Don’t get me started about this cliche, which is so widespread it even has its own Wikipedia entry. Yes, showing is often better than telling. Except when it’s not. For example, if you’re describing an action scene, I’d say to generally go with showing. But many things in stories should be told and not shown, such as transition scenes which would otherwise bore a reader, or those moments when you reach into a character’s head to reveal a startling insight to the world. And there are plenty of times when a writer should neither tell nor show (that’s why few stories have their characters eating and drinking as much as humans do in real life).
There are authors who can “show” entire worlds in their prose, and those who would have been better off telling. And those whose “tellings” are richer than any attempt at showing could ever be.
As Neil Gaiman has said, “The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like.” That advice totally applies to the show don’t tell cliche. And notice how Gaiman told us that advice instead of showing it.
Start in the middle of the action
Also known as using a hook because you want to stab the reader through the torso with a curved piece of metal and toss their screaming carcass into a frothing river full of piranha. What’s that, you say? Using a hook to start your story doesn’t sound as attractive when I write it that way. I wonder why?
Look, I have nothing against starting some stories in the middle of the action. But I’ve also read amazing stories which instead first slowly set the scene, and even stories which succeeded by starting in the middle of philosophical reflections. Each story and author must find their own beginning.
Write what you know
Basically this advice implies that only arrogant know-it-alls can ever be writers. Please! I love reading stories where authors didn’t stick with what they know. Where they ventured into unknown realms and tested new ideas and learned as they went.
Don’t get me wrong—writers should have a strong knowledge of the world. And if you’re writing about a topic, make sure you have an understanding of it or you will be called on your ignorance. For example, if you’re writing about a Thai woman living in Bangkok, but have never visited Thailand and know nothing about Thai culture except what you’ve seen in the movies, it’s the ultimate in arrogance to assume you can write her story.
But as long as you’re not arrogant there’s no reason you must limit yourself to writing what you know. Almost all writers—hell, almost all people—know very little about life. Following “write what you know” to the extreme would mean no one could write anything since we’re all ignorant about most major aspects of life and the universe.
If you can write in a great way about the little you understand in life, go for it. But if you likewise want to reach beyond yourself to embrace a story you wouldn’t otherwise know, don’t be afraid to take that chance. But if you write about topics or characters beyond the scope of your life and knowledge, do so humbly and with your eyes wide open.
Stick with a single point of view
I get it—switching back and forth between first person and third person can really throw a reader. And since most writing advice is aimed at new writers, who often have problems with point of view shifts, I understand why this cliche is so often given.
But Neil Gaiman’s advice above also applies to shifting points of view. If an author can make multiple points of view work, then go for it. If you can’t, then stick to a single POV. Or take a chance.
I like writers who take chances.
Isn’t it funny that writers are told to avoid cliches even as we are given so many cliches to guide our writing process?
Seriously, cliches are another area where a good writer can make them work while a hack merely wallows in the cliche. Don’t be afraid of cliches, but likewise be careful about embracing them.
How the hell can I ever become a writer without cliched advice?
So what advice would I give new writers, if they are to avoid the cliches listed above?
I’m tempted to tell every wannabe writer to figure it out for themselves. Not that I’m trying to be an ass or to thin out the competition. Instead, I want people to understand that writing is like life—a process we can share with others, and which is made great by our interactions with others, but which we ultimately live as individuals.
Instead of advice, I humbly give the following suggestions. This is what seems to work for my own writing and perhaps people will find this useful.
- Understand life. Or at least try to reach an understanding. If you don’t have a decent understanding of the world around you, your limited vision of life will transfer into a similarly limited vision within your stories.
- Understand your written medium. If you write fiction, read fiction until you can understand stories on an instinctual level. Same with the other respective writing mediums. No matter if you’re a journalist, poet, screenwriter, game writer or so on, understand the storytelling in those mediums until it becomes second nature.
- Let the writing consume you. And that doesn’t mean merely writing 24/7. Yes, write as much as you can, but realize there are also times when you need to recharge and think about what you’re writing. For example, which of the following makes me a writer: The 10 hours I spent thinking about a story or the one hour I spent writing it? The truth is my story wouldn’t exist without both aspects of my creative process.
- Don’t be arrogant. Yes, I know many writers have big egos, but that’s not what I mean by arrogance. Instead, don’t assume you know everything. Don’t assume your viewpoint is the only viewpoint in the world. If you’re open to the people and experiences of this world, everywhere you go you’ll find stories waiting to be told.
- Understand that each person’s creative process is unique. The act of creation is so singularly dependent upon the individual that it’s silly to universalize any fixed set of rules. Take from others the advice which works and ignore what doesn’t.
And that last point is actually the point of this essay. If you rigidly follow the writing rules laid out by others, all you’ll end up doing is becoming a shadow of those who created the rules. In other words, a hack. Someone who can create words but lacks the insight and ability to make those words into something great.
Two of the saddest things in the writing world are stories which could have been amazing, and writers who had the potential for greatness but never reached it.
Don’t be a hack.
Jason Sanford is a Nebula Award nominated author whose science fiction stories have been published in a number of magazines and books, including Interzone, Asimov’s and Analog. Follow his Sci-Fi Strange Medium collection at https://medium.com/sci-fi-strange.