Friday, December 21, 2007

On Writing & the Price of 50-Pound Paper

I recently revisited one of the many writers' fora on the Net and was immediately reminded of why I quit doing so. I suppose there are some good ones out there, but I haven't run across any.

In this case, right at the top I found the one billionth example of good advice going in one ear and out the other. The obtuseness of 99.9% of these people is amazing! It all bounces off their foreheads.

How many times can you tell them to "show instead of tell" and have them come back with another piece that tells, tells, tells, and never shows?

As Bob Dylan would say, the answer is blowing in the wind.

They must either be incredibly stupid or are doing that on purpose - just pretending to be so stupid, just pretending that you didn't say the advice they don't want.

Mediocrity to fore!

For example, a moderator recently gave the standard advice to "Take it easy on the adverbs," to challenge every one and get rid of any that don't carry their weight in the sentence.

Some clown argues. He thinks this principle of good, professional writing is a matter of opinion. A matter of taste and preferences. The next thing you know, he's made a moral issue of it: Who is she to say how many adverbs are the right number? Some people might like a lot of adverbs in writing. And blah, blah, blah.

Look at the cock-eyed way he's viewing the issue - as though it's a moral issue, as though there's some fair and just answer to the question. As though it's debatable and he's arguing his case in a court of law. By doing so he proves nothing except that he is clueless. He has no idea what professional writing is all about.

He's like one of those tennis players who thinks there's a "right" way to swing at a forehand and obsesses over form, paying no attention to strategy, tactics and where the darned ball goes. Instead, he's just gotta do it "right," you see.

Why doesn't he just go hit against a wall then? He has no idea what the GAME of tennis all about. He thinks tennis is about form, not substance.

Same here, with writing. That advice on form was FOR THE SAKE OF SUBSTANCE. But neither that tennis player nor that adverb lover can see far enough past the tips of their noses to be aware of that. Substance is wholly forgotten in their obsession with looking good or sounding good = form.

They think it's all about form. Form is the end, not just a means, in their eyes.

Most of these people are just glorified journalers. All they want is attention, which comes packaged as responses from other board members that say, "I really liked the way you expressed...."

Every day, in every way, you will see their posts littered with remarks to the effect that the purpose of writing (and all art) is for the author to EXPRESS themselves.

What is writing to them then? Therapy?

Never do you see any evidence of the understanding that art is a form of COMMUNICATION.

You know, as in...

SENDER -> MESSAGE -> RECEIVER

...not just...

SENDER ->


That advice about the adverbs was just standard advice. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Steven King would say the same thing. So would ANY qualified editor.

I'm sorry, but it isn't debatable. It isn't a matter of opinion any more that Newton's Universal Law of Gravitation or Einstein's Theory of Relativity is.

Anyone can take a sentence with unnecessary adverbs, remove them, and see how much better it is. How much sharper and stronger it is. How much more focused it is. How much more clear, concise, and to the point it is. Now the central message sinks in with impact. Before it had to battle its way through fog.

That's a matter of fact, not opinion.

And we know that no one likes reading grandiose writing. Correction: only those who write it like reading it.

The vast majority of so-called writers out there are just expressing themselves and think the whole world is dying to hear them sound off.

Wrong. People read only for what's in the writing for THEM. Especially these days, when we have so little time to waste and are constantly bombarded with writing from all directions clamouring for our attention. Result? We don't read it just because it's there.

"What's in it for us?" we think as we decide whether to read something. "Is it worth my precious time?"

Readers of fiction read for entertainment. Not edification. They don't read to be wowed by your way with words. They want an imaginary experience that can compete with the quality of experience they can get on film. They want to be taken on an emotional ride through a vicarious experience. Give them that or get a day job.

As James Frey wrote, fiction writing is a service industry, not a bull horn.

Readers of non-fiction want information. They have better things to do than plow through fancy-sounding gobbledygook. They will read competitors instead, writers considerate of the time and the effort it takes to parse and comprehend language.

If you think your "authority" on a subject needs boosting with devices (like writing in the passive voice and other verbosities) that imply the semblance of authority, maybe you haven't enough true authority on the subject to begin with.

Professional writing is a product needing a market. As in any product, user friendliness is a virtue.

But many wanaa-be writers wanna be writers just to be writers, not because they have any goods to deliver.

The surest sign of a glorified journaler passing himself off as a serious writer is that he or she will scoff at today's readers, refusing to condescend to writing at the more readable level they demand.

That's just an ego trip on delusions of superiority and makes as much sense as General Electric or General Motors scoffing at customers for wanting user-friendly products.

Such a writer (or any artist) has completely missed the boat! Then they scratch their heads and wonder why they're starving.

Respect your customers. Most people can understand 11th or 12th grade writing when they must. They just refuse to slog through that salt marsh without a machete whenever they don't have to.

Your academic papers written at densely foggy 14th-to-16th grade level are read only by students required to read them and by a couple hundred other academics seeking sources to quote in their equally foggy stuff.

Don't expect stuff like that to get published in a trade paperback for a general audience of people free to NOT read it. Paper is just too expensive these days.

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