top of page

Common Misconceptions about Writing: Things We’ve been Told that Aren’t Necessarily [Always] True about The Craft

1.    The ole saw, “Show Don’t Tell.”

Every writer—new and seasoned, young and old—has heard this one. It’s industry shorthand for: Use action scenes versus explanation or summary. In other words: Show characters acting, doing things, being in conflict, pushing against self and other, engaging in internal and external tension, arguing, disagreeing, fighting, clashing, etc. In general, this is a good rule. *(My novel The Crew, is probably 85% action scenes.)

However, the truth is it depends on what kind of writing you’re engaged in. If you’re writing action-packed suspense or thriller in the vein of, say, John Grisham or James Patterson or Stephen King, then yes, it’s all about plot and action, scenes and riveting dialogue.

But if you’re writing—dare I say it and sound overtly pretentious and ostentatious—“serious literary fiction” (aka “literature”) then you’re in more complex literary terrain. Read a book such as, say, Paul Auster’s 2023 novel, Baumgartner, or Tom Robbins’ Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, or Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom or The Corrections or Zadie Smith’s Swing Time or Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room or more or less anything by Ottessa Moshfegh, and you’ll see immediately that plot is always trumped, big-time, by character, style, voice, and depth.

If literature can be defined broadly as the search for meaning underneath all phenomena—or the uncovering of what it means to be human—then most solid literary fiction generally focuses more on character and style and meaning than on “plot” per say.

(And of course voice. Nailing your literary voice is perhaps 65% of the battle right there.) Of course this isn’t always the case, and many classic novels have both strong plot and depth/voice/style etc. Consider Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. (Major plot-work mixed with long philosophical asides which last for twenty pages.) So, what I mean to say here is: Editors, writing teachers (a contradiction in terms, in my opinion), MFA programs, and some seasoned authors will say “show don’t tell.” Sure. Often true. But not always. Remember: The best way to become a good writer is by reading often and widely and by writing. Pay attention to what successful novels have already done. Pay more attention to that than to what others may say.

2.    “Kill Your Darlings.”

Yes and no. As a developmental book editor, I admit I’ve said this very thing to many a past client. And it’s often true. But not 100% of the time. “Darlings,” here refer to “purple prose,” aka flowery, glittery, gaudy diction and syntax that makes it sound like you’re trying too hard to sound like a writer, versus just simply writing; doing the damn thing. Darlings are your precious prose you think are genius and which 75% of the time are delete-worthy.

However. Sometimes you get a Michael Chabon, or a Tom Robbins or a Norman Mailer. These are all excellent literary examples of writers who, theoretically, write words and sentences and paragraphs and pages that are filled—ostensibly—with “purple prose,” aka riddled with those grotesque, pesky “darlings.” (Way too many adjectives and adverbs, $100 words galore, etc.)

And yet: We love these authors (at least many of us do). These authors have won Pulitzer Prizes and have changed writing for the better in myriad ways. Yes, most of us will NOT be anything like these genius-giants, and yet, some will have if not the same level of talent, something in the ballfield. Ergo: Yes, as much as I generally love the stripped-down, Hemingway and Carver-obsessed clipped writing, there’s clearly also room for more “darling” writing…if you can make it work. Remember: Writing is filled with rules; first you need to learn those rules and then, if you’re any good, you need to start breaking those rules left and right. Some of our best, most experimental writers did this: Kerouac, Burroughs, Bukowski, etc.

For the full article CLICK HERE


Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
No tags yet.
bottom of page