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Writing Craft

Why Writing Advice is Ruining your Manuscript

Don’t let bad writing advice ruin your manuscript

Bad writing advice, or good advice that doesn’t work for your story, can completely ruin your manuscript. Trying too hard to follow someone else’s writing rules is letting someone else author your story. Don’t let that happen.

The week’s shredding was a resubmission from a year ago. She had completely reworked her opening, and I was excited to see what changes she had made. I also re-read my original comments to compare the two and see what advice she had taken and what she had left. I’d like to say I did this so I could tailor her feedback and not retread old issues, but really I wanted to know if the advice I gave a year ago was complete crap.

Even now, I still have a panic attack every time I e-mail someone my comments from their shredding.

There are tons of people out there giving writing advice. Much of it is just regurgitating the same basic points over again in different ways: Death to prologues! -ly is evil. Deep POV is the only way to tell a story. All from bloggers, myself included, trying to help beginners make their manuscript sound more professional. Everyone is trying to nail down the “rules” that will guarantee a spot on the NYTBSL.  While some of it is very sound, some of it is just bonkers, and ALL the rules have plenty of exceptions.

I opened the submission and was immediately confused. The author hadn’t done a rewrite of the first chapter, she had written a completely different book. Everything that I loved about her original draft: the authentic teen voice, the richly (notice I used an -ly word there) detailed setting, and one of the best opening lines to have crossed my desk, had been edited into oblivion. All in favor of faster pacing. I was stunned.

I guessed that the author had in the past year likely gotten multiple CP’s to give her feedback and then made changes trying to accommodate everyone’s advice. As a result, she ended up with a story that had lost all its individuality. The authored ignored all her good instincts and lost her voice. The story was no longer hers. It had been written by a committee.

You can’t take a set of rules from an article and blanket apply it to your story. All advice, yes even mine, needs to be considered in the context of the story that you want to tell. Right now 1st person deep POV is ruling the advice circuit, but it doesn’t work for every story. Could you imagine Winnie the Pooh told from this POV?

My tummy is rumbling, always, always rumbling. I’m so hungry. I am always hungry, but there’s nothing here. Just sticky, empty pots lining my walls. Dozens of them. Stacked to the ceiling, leaning, tumbling, scattered on the floor. I searched them yesterday, I’ll look again today, but they are always empty.

In this POV the bear of very little brain takes a completely different tone.

If everyone follows all the same rules, then everyone will be writing the same story.

There is no right way to write a book.

Some rules for ignoring the rules:

The only real rule for writing is: Know what story you want to tell

Do I want to tell the story of a hungry bear’s unrelenting quest for a meal, or do I want to tell a story of friendship through the eyes of a little boy’s imagination?

When you know what story you want to tell, then you have something to use as a guideline for processing your feedback.

Consider each piece of feedback and ask: Does this serve or undermine the story I want to tell?

Does it reflect my character?

I’ve seen characters whose inner voice is choppy and scattered. This is their voice. Cleaning up this for the sake of pretty prose would destroy the character. Instead of having someone who is an impulsive flake, the author would end up with an inconsistent character who acted like an idiot and somehow spoke like someone with a BA in creative writing.

Does it actually make the story better or is it just a change for the sake of change?

I’m guilty of this in my feedback. We are all writers, and it’s easy to get inspired by someone else’s story and add suggestions for things we like: a change of costume, setting, or intensity of the dialogue. Adding a “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” comment. The answer is always “maybe.” Make sure the suggestion would actually be better than what you already have. You can always tuck their ideas away and use them in your next novel.

Does it implement a rule for the rule’s sake or for the story?

In my own MS, I was advised to start en media res, but this meant I lost all the relationships that made revealing moment meaningful. It didn’t work. Chopping off the opening chapters to get to the action sooner didn’t serve the story.

You are allowed to ignore advice

I give you permission to ignore any advice. Yes, even mine.

Do read articles, get feedback, and work to improve your craft, but ultimately you are the author. Only you can tell the story you are meant to tell.

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M.L. Keller is a freelance writer and editor. Her blog "The Manuscript Shredder" is focused on helping emerging writers hone their craft.


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