Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Defining What We Do

I found this great link about how we teach writing on my bud's blog, TalkToUniverse, and it really got me thinking. I've run into this many a time while trying to explain things to folks, and I've been just as confused by the terms in the past. As writers, whose jobs it is to communicate through words, we don't always make it easy on new writers.

In a nutshell for those who don't click over, Les Edgerton talks about the words we use when teaching writing and how confusing they can be if you don't know what we mean when we say X. His example is "start with action" and how that doesn't mean "blow things up."

I thought it might be a good idea to talk about, and define, some of the common teaching words and phrases we use that often boggle a new writer. I'll turn it into a tab post once I fully figure out how to get those suckers working, so newcomers to the blog can easily get a quick lesson on how to understand writing words.

I started this post, then realized there are probably a ton of things that I don't see as "unclear" now because I know what they mean. So let's toss it back to your guys. What are the words, or writing advice that has stymied you over the years or took you the longest time to figure out.

Stuff like...

Start with the action
Show don't tell
You need a hook
The narrative
Plot vs story

It can be stuff you're struggling with now or stuff that's boggled you in the past.


  1. Show, don't tell. That was the one that confused me when I first started going on writer/ agent blogs. But so many bloggers have written about it that I didn't stay confused for long.
    I wouldn't say that any of the jarrgon or the words we use confused me. What did confused me are the sometimes contradictory, absolute, concrete, do it this way or you'll never be published rules that a lot of writers spout out: absolutely no adverbs, go through your manuscript and delete every occurence of "that" along with a bunch of other words I can't remember, eliminate dialogue tags, if you insist on keeping dialogue tags only use "said."
    I love how you have had posts that address most of these rules and show instances when it's acceptable to break them.
    But, for a new writer ... those rules are confusing. Hell, for me they're still confusing.

  2. Hmmm...these aren't necessarily comments on my work, but comments I have seen from critiques in SYW that may be good to discuss:

    1. The prose is too flowery.
    2. Your sentences/paras aren't succinct
    3. It's an info dump/back story
    4. The voice isn't strong
    5. There's no hook/ opening isn't strong

    If I think of more I'll come back to add them. Hope these suggestions are okay. I think it's a great idea to do this for new writers (like me) because there is so much vocabulary to know and understand. I had a comment from one of my beta readers once that left me scratching my head because I had no idea what it meant. She wrote:

    "I’m really involved here as a reader. This is fantastic. Not sure where it falls in terms of your word count – if it’s a mid-point reversal, but either way it’s compelling and adding stakes."

    I kind of understand from the context what she means, but I had never heard the term "mid-point reversal."

  3. Good suggestions, thanks! Melanie, I use mid-point reversal, so I know it well. It's when something happens in the middle of the story that is a surprise and sends the story sideways. Something cool readers never see coming. It may have been confusing, but the comment sounds good! Involving the reader, compelling, raising the stakes. All good stuff.

  4. "Rules are made to be broken"

    This one really is confusing, because this tip assumes you understand that you must know the "rules" so you can break them successfully.

    Newbie writers (or not so newbie!) often miss the assumption, or they only see one of two halves of it:
    1. You must know the "rules"
    2. you can break them successfully.

  5. P.S.: Also on the "rules are made to be broken", I often see "examples" of it that are actually demonstrations of something else.

    For example, sentence fragments are okay in fiction. That's often used as an example of "rules are made to be broken", when it's actually an example of fiction writing having different rules than non-fiction writing.

    A true example of "rules are made to be broken" would be the rule "Don't use very." Can you get away with using it? Yes. Must you have a good grasp on what you're doing to be able to get away with it? yes. (Granted, that "good grasp" is more instinctual for some writers than for others.)

  6. I read that post at Les's blog - it was fantastic! What a great idea for blog discussion, Janice. :-)

  7. I love the idea. Almost all writing advice that I can think of comes with a learning curve. To cover some that haven't been mentioned:
    - kill your darlings
    - avoid passive voice
    - silence your inner critic

  8. At one point I had a piece I'd written described as "overwritten." At the time I had no idea what that meant.

  9. All great stuff, thanks! I'll start doing regular posts on these, then compile my dictionary when I can find the time, hehe. I'm thinking November.