The Blogification of Writing Tips

Note:  Congratulations to Bill for winning the copy of Feels Like Home. I will be contacting you for your information.

It's normal day. You’re wasting time online when you see an article “10 Clichés Your YA Dystopian Alien Pirate Story Should Never Have.” Funny, that‘s exactly what you’re working on! You read the article with bated breath and sigh with relief that you don't have any of those clichés...

Except maybe for cliché #5? “A pink alien who sings karaoke.” Your alien is blue, so does that count as a cliché? You spend the whole afternoon e-mailing your critique group about the post. In the end you're still not sure, but decide to make the alien play the drums instead, just in case.

I love the writing blogosphere. In the year and a half I've been blogging, I've grown both in craft and industry smarts. But I guess I'm entering my terrible twos, where I start skipping naps and refusing to eat my vegetables. More specificially, I've started thinking about the downsides of writing blogs.

There’s a specific writing style for online media. People skim online content, so you make your articles short and to the point. Bolded text is good, bulleted takeaways and numbered lists even better.

All well and good. Content should be crafted for your medium. But what happens when we apply this to writing advice? We end up with pithy, clever, retweetable tips that we skim and pass to all our writer friends: Five Ways to Make Your Characters Pop, Seven Reasons Literary Agents Stop Reading Your First Page, What Is a Hook and How to Have One.

Is this a problem? Not necessarily. But I wonder sometimes if there's a danger to so many simplified articles that don't acknowledge the subtleties behind the tips. For one extreme example, Patricia Wrede wrote a while back about taking the “start with a hook” advice out of context.

One of the classic bad examples of a hook-gone-wrong was the slushpile story that opened “Blood spurted!” then dropped into a flashback for several paragraphs, a combination that made it look like the opening of a horror novel…only to reveal on the second page that the viewpoint character had just cut himself shaving, and move from there into a piece of contemporary realism. Making a story look like something it isn’t is not a good way to hook either readers or editors; it is more likely to earn the writer a reputation for being untrustworthy and/or not worth reading. (Read the rest of article)

It's often said that you need to understand a writing rule before you break it.  But given this example, looks like you also need to understand the rule before you even follow it.

In addition, all rules have exceptions. People come up with writing advice by studying pieces of writing and drawing generalizations. The resulting tipsdescribe trends, not commands, but it's sometimes hard to convey that in a five-point list.

I wonder if there’s something about tweeting, re-tweeting, skimming, and sharing that makes it easier to forget all the subtleties behind the advice presented. The risk is that we internalize sound-bytes like “avoid cliché beginnings, “dialogue tags suck,” “and don't use adverbs.” In the meantime, we forget that The Graveyard Book headhops between points of view, The Hunger Games and Newberry Honor Book Princess Academy start with a character getting out of bed, international bestseller Pillars of the Earth starts with a prologue, and Harry Potter contains a whole lot of adverbs.

So that's it folks.  Writing blogs do more harm than good. I hereby announce my retirement from the blogosphere. It was fun while it lasted. Send me an e-mail once in a while to see how things are going.

Um, right. Don't think I fooled anyone there. No, I still likewriting blogs. And hopefully, we all are critical thinkers who can look beyond a single blog post or bullet point.

What do you say folks? Am I overthinking this?

P.S. While I was writing this, I noticed that Simon Larter had a nice post taking an alternate view on novel beginnings. Go check it out.


  1. Why, thank you for the link, good lady! You're a dear.

    And I tend to agree with you. But let's be clear: when it's done poorly, it's headhopping; when it's done well, it's just shifting points of view. Headhopping's a bit of a pejorative, no?

    I used to assidously avoid adverbs. I don't now, since I found that trying to keep them from my writing was leading to awkward phrasing. I'd absorbed that whole anti-adverb rule, but when I'd written enough that I began to recognize its side-effects, I ditched it.

    Point being, we all get beyond the rules eventually. I do find it a pity that the rules are blogged and retweeted until they're nigh dogma. So you're not overthinking, just pointing out some of the subtler dangers of fiction writing. It's a good thing.

  2. I really know what you mean. When I first started reading writing blogs, the various advice made sense. But when I started looking into it a little more, and expanded my writing, it sounded as if the advice was primarly right for one or two genres of writing.

    That was not the way I wanted to go, so I pretty much stopped reading the writer advice and went on to read a lot instead, from as many different writers as possible, and write in the style I prefer myself.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

  3. Simon -- No prob. Thanks for the great article! And you're right about head hopping. The problem arises when people start viewing everything as head hopping (the perjoritive version) even if it's done well.

    Berit - I also find that I learn a lot jus tfrom reading. I need to do better with the reading different types of author sthough. I tend to stick to my comfort zone. (granted, it's my genre, but still...)

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  5. Thanks, Livia!

    And I also appreciate all the interesting things I learn in your posts and links...


  6. What a thought-provoking post (that's why I keep coming back)! Even though I read lots of writing tips on blogs, I often find that the way the writer presents the tip will give me a fresh take or remind me to think more deeply. But it is true that sometimes what works in one genre isn't the same in another, so it might be important to think about the source, too.

  7. I like how people are bringing up genre specificity. It's a dimension I hadn't thought of.

  8. Before I started writing, I read writing and agent blogs nonstop. I became so confused before I even wrote my first word. Well, They say third is better than first so I should change how I was going to write this. They say don't do this. But the other They says you *should* do this. It was enough to make my head spin. Sometimes we need to trust our story, too.

    Of course, I still read writing blogs like crazy now. I just know that every rule won't work in every case.

  9. I've always thought that to the extent becoming a writer is an artistic journey -- meaning you must find your own style, and what works for you -- the received "rules" are often, but not always, counter-productive.

  10. I see the writing blogs as reminders. To really understand the rules, I've read craft books and and read books that hooked me. If you read enough blogs, you do find that a hook doesn't always mean action. It means voice, whether it's telling, dialogue, or action. The information is out there. but, writers make that mistake and then hopefully learn from them. You have a point. We just have to take what we learn and balance it with what professionals say. Thoughtful post.

  11. I love reading writing advice blogs, and I try to read them thoroughly rather than just skim them. But like most advice, I always take it in, think about it, and then store it in the back of my mind.

    When I'm writing (especially the first draft) I try not to think too much about what advice I've been given. I just write.

    During the revision process, I consider more closely all the advice, but by that point, the story mostly has a shape. So I can select or discard the advice as it applies to a particular story.

  12. Orson Scott Card said, "You can break any rules if you are willing to pay the price.
    It's applicable here, I think. All the so called rules are probably there for a reason, but will mostly work only in some situations. So I'd say that you need to weigh the two sides. What will I gain from breaking this rule, and what will I lose?

    Thanks for the post.

  13. Those are some excellent points. But you near freaked me out this morning. First I had to find your new site addy to put you back on my blogroll after I discovered you weren't there anymore. Then you said you were going to stop blogging. Thank goodness you were only joking. I love the scientific take you have about writing and fiction.

  14. Thank you everybody for the great thoughts!

    Jaleh - sorry for the scare :-) I actually didn't change my blog address, just the blog name (which was too long and interfering with the twitter syndication). So I'm probably still on your blog roll under Livia Blackburne

  15. I laughed at the mention of characters getting out of bed. Since hearing the advice about not starting a story with the main character waking up (which incidentally I think I read in a book, not online), I notice every time I read a book that starts that way. Except for the distraction of thinking about the advice, it's rarely seemed problematic -- so that's how I rationalize that I have good reasons for starting my own novel that way.

    I like Laura Pauling's comment about using blogs as reminders of writing strategies that we've learned elsewhere. Writing blogs are great, but if someone tried to use them as a sole educational source, I think they'd end up a very confused writer.

  16. Good point here. I personally get tired of hearing that every book must start with action, action, action. Some of the best books I've read started slow and ended with an emotional bang.

  17. Right on target, and I blog on writing tips too. I always try to point out that there are few actual rules, mostly techniques or guidelines, and always exceptions. Always understand why something is a rule or guideline and how/why to use it, then you can better understand how/why/when to break it. The standard "Five Tips to Better Writing" blog posts and articles are interesting, informative, and simplistic. They're good for provoking thought, but they don't replace learning and practicing the art and craft of writing. But I still like reading them, and writing them.

  18. Oh god yes! There comes a point when you've read so many writing blogs that the material is either the same (apparently there are the same number of topics to blog about as plots in the world) or contradictory. (Both at once?)

    I've definitely learned a ton from the blogosphere, but it's also actually distracting me from just sitting down and banging out pages. Good old fashioned teeth cutting.