Function and purpose in writing skills

Posted: December 10, 2014 in writing
Tags: , ,
Stay on target... stay on target...

Stay on target… stay on target…

In writing, we have all these rules and pieces of advice that get dished out. I offer plenty of them here, and follow others with varying degrees of dedication. But these rules aren’t just neutral things that create some kind of abstract ‘better’ writing. They create different sorts of writing, which have different impacts. A lot of the advice leads to writing that is familiar and accessible, that people will easily get into and enjoy. But we have to remember that’s what the advice is good for, and only deploy it when that’s the aim.

Going back to Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Morgenstern’s use of the second person is so disconcerting that some people make a rule of never using that voice. It’s challenging, even alienating, and as As If pointed out on Google+, it breaks the fourth wall, the implicit barrier between the reader and the content of the story. If you want to write relaxing action fiction then ‘don’t use second person’ is a good rule. But in The Night Circus it adds something to the mix, because the use of that voice fits the purpose of the story.

Don’t just take the approach that works well, take the approach that works well towards the aims you want. The advice that works for me works for me because I like accessible genre fiction with varying degrees of action. The advice that’s ‘good’ for me would be terrible for someone who wants to produce ground-breaking experimental fiction. Good writing depends on your aims, and if you don’t keep those aims in sight then you will end up working smoothly and efficiently towards something you never wanted.

On which topic, have you ever followed writing advice that ended up not suiting you? What widely accepted wisdom have you rejected, on writing or something else? Share your thoughts in the comments, and whatever you’re working at, make sure that you keep your aims in mind.


Picture by Pete via Flickr creative commons.

  1. In an earlier draft of my first book, I spent some time wrestling with a desire to be ‘literary’. I had this vision of the story starting after the initial crisis point and using a lot of flashbacks and visions and allusions… Stuff like that.

    Fortunately, I eventually remembered that I like to write combat and monsters, so I chucked that and went back to the original beginning, with everything actually in-scene. I think the early parts of the book are still weak because of that experimenting, but I’ve learned my lesson. Pulp fantasy all the way!

    • That sounds very familiar. I’ve definitely dabbled in trying to do smart things at the expense of story, creating results that actually looked stupid. Even when I’m writing less action packed stuff, I feel a straightforward, pulp-inspired style works best for me too.

  2. everwalker says:

    Getting the voice for Spiritus right was very hard. I finally worked out that the problem was writing in the past tense. A lot of the tension of the story hinged on the protagonist not knowing what was coming, completely unable to give hindsight judgements. So I changed the structure to present tense which allowed the reader to be both more ‘in the moment’ with the protagonist, and less certain of the eventual outcome. It doesn’t work for every reader but it ended up being vital for the story.

  3. Wayne Halm says:

    Aloha Andrew,

    “Write for yourself” – that is a piece of advice I’ve gradually learned to ignore. Pieces I’ve written for myself were only read by “myself”.

    Now, I feel that without readers writing is just scribbling. And I have observed that readers have expectations, meet those expectations and they read on – don’t and they move on.

    “Writing rules” that can be interrupted as restatements of reader expectations probably should be adhered to. Others can be played with.

    But writers who go “out on a limb” should realize – that is exactly where they are.

    A Hui Hou,

    • I think part of the problem with ‘write for yourself’ is that it’s so vague that in many cases it means very different things to different people. But like you, I do think that the reader is a vital part of the business, and I can’t expect to get readers if I don’t plan for them.

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