The Ad Nauseam of Writing Advice

Writing classes tend to give the same sort of advice ad nauseam, as if the modern tips to good writing were set in stone at one time, etched by God or otherwise. Internet sites and blogs on writing reel off the same advice because, apparently, the writers responsible for them attended classes and so desperately wanted to be one of the chosen that they memorized the jargon. It feels so good to be an expert, even if the expertise is questionable. If, for one moment, we stopped to analyze the advice, we might find that it is lacking in sense.

The same can be said for expertise in any area; my favorite area for finding the same spurious, ad nauseam advice is in the medical field: drink eight glasses of water per day, don’t go out in the sun between 10-2, always wear sunscreen, make certain you visit your doctor and fill his coffers for every complaint. All of the above could have potentially detrimental effects on the health. Drinking too much water can damage the kidneys, the best time to absorb vitamin D is between 10-2, and wearing sunscreen blocks D absorption and is full of dangerous chemicals. I don’t even think I need to mention why visiting the doctor is dangerous, but, just in case you don’t know, most doctors will take your money and prescribe pharmaceuticals that will mask your symptoms and cause other, potentially fatal side effects.

Heeding medical advice without thinking it through is about like applying the standardized writing tips to your writing without questioning them. Among the top tips that I love to hate is this mantra: don’t use passive voice. Thank you, Strunk and White for your Elements of Style, which treats passive voice as if it’s actually ungrammatical. Ever since the publication of this horrid, little book, writers and educators have been repeating this phrase to the point of, well, nausea. Not only is passive voice perfectly grammatical, but it also has its place in good writing. Don’t try to tell me otherwise; I won’t believe you. British authors, who haven’t been put under the thumb of Strunk and White and pressed into submission by them, still use passive voice with aplomb. By the way, some would say that my last sentence was written in passive voice. I would have to say, “So what?” I was simply placing British authors in a place of prominence in my sentence.

Many of the modern writing tips mimic the passive voice idea. It seems that action is desired. You see, I had to use passive voice in this context because I don’t know who actually desires instantaneous action. I certainly don’t desire it. For example, if a book throws me into the action on the first page, I feel as if I missed something important–the foreplay of characterization and stimulating setting and lovely rumination. On one website, I found that the list of tips went so far as to include changing progressives to simple tense verbs! So, not only must the action exist now, but it also must be concluded immediately. I’m imagining the result of this kind of advice: “When I walked into the room, John and May danced.” Wow, that’s some serious narcissism on the protagonist’s part, to always think that she is the instigator of the action! It couldn’t possibly have been already occurring before she entered the room.

Then, of course, I occasionally find really odd advice, too, which I’ve never heard before, but makes me scratch my head. Here is an example: In a series, go for odd numbers of items. Usually, the author of such tips gives no explanation, either. What if my protagonist prefers to have coffee, toast, fruit, and yogurt for breakfast? That sounds like a deliciously fulfilling breakfast to me. Why should I add an item or take it away?

Probably, I am simply contrary. When I was a child, my parents used to chant at me, “Mary, Mary quite contrary.” Supposedly, I used to frequently ask in an annoying tone of voice, “But, why?” And I guess I still do.


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