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Writing Tips Are Like Diet Advice 15 January 2014

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Advice For Writers.

If there were a magic solution for dissolving avoirdupoids — a secret formula that really worked, for everyone, without other factors and regardless of life’s complications — we’d all have movie-star bodies. And if there were a secret formula for perfect, readable, saleable prose, there’d be no writer left behind. The fact is, no magic combination of kill-the-adjectives and active voice will automatically perfect your writing, any more than grapefruit-cucumber milkshakes or an all-protein diet will make you thin.

It’s a good idea to learn the rules before you break them, in the same way that learning about calories and nutrition and exercise can help you become healthier and stronger. Understanding grammar is good. Figuring out what said-bookisms are (and why modifiers should be used sparingly, and why the active voice is generally stronger than the passive voice, and what that show-don’t-tell thing means, etc.) is even better.

But then… you have to read. And read, and read. Read the best writing you can find, in as many genres as you’re willing to try. This is like eating good stuff. And all that great writing, and the techniques and style therein, are absorbed into your brain. It fuels your writing just like healthy and varied meals fuel your body. There’s no secret reading list that will set you right up, of course, any more than there’s one perfect meal plan for everyone. We all need to find our own way, with variety and balance and experimentation, and even occasional guilty pleasures — you won’t stick to reading any more than you’ll stick to a diet if it’s an unpleasant bore.

(Oh? Don’t have time to read because you’re “too busy writing”? Isn’t that essentially starving your writing rather than feeding it, sacrificing long-term development in favour of short-term gains? Sure, it’s fine in temporary bursts, but how many literary meals can you skip before you start losing writerly muscle mass and energy?)

And of course, you write. It’s like doing push-ups; you’re maybe in poor shape at first and can barely get yourself off the floor, but start doing more and more, regularly, and one day you realize that you’ve gotten all strong and toned and whatnot. There’s no substitute for doing the work.

The most entertaining similarity is that literary preaching is just as annoying as lifestyle-and-diet preaching. Think about it; in both of these areas — where no two people are the same, where the measure of success changes from person to person and even from day to day, where getting it right involves endless trial-and-error, learning, experimentation, hope, small successes and failures, and ongoing hard work — it’s intensely irritating to hear “you’re doing it wrong” and “if you’d only do it my way you’d get a better result”. (Also, anyone who doesn’t know the difference between preaching and discussing is probably beyond help.)

Ultimately, we’re all entitled to choose what our own goals are, and what means success to us, right? So I don’t get to tell you what your body ought to look like, what I think you should eat, what makes you beautiful to yourself and those who love you. I’m pretty sure that, likewise, your literary voice can be unique and awesome in so many ways that might not fit with what I currently see as perfection. If I choose to be judgmental about the way you look (and yes, that’s hypothetical… we all try not to do that, right?) or the way you write (um, possibly guilty, depending on who you are?), that’s on me. As an editor, I can tell you what I want and don’t want to see, but only with regard to magazine and book projects I control; as a reader, I can only choose what books to buy or not buy, and how to spend my reading time. But you’re still free to choose your own path.


1. Kathleen Mickelson (@kcmickelson) - 14 February 2014

Nicely put, Camille.

Camille Gooderham Campbell - 15 February 2014

Thank you, Kathleen!

2. Milo James Fowler - 23 February 2014

Agreed. And judging my the books I read, it seems the path chosen by many bestselling authors involves plenty of over-used modifiers, telling, and just about every other no-no I try to avoid. Go figure.

Milo James Fowler - 23 February 2014

…”by” the books I read. See, that’s why I need an editor. =]

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