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Be wary of rules.

Discussion in 'Insights & Inspiration' started by U.G. Ridley, Oct 17, 2016.

  1. deadrats

    deadrats Contributing Member

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    Just because I know the rules of writing (at least a good amount of them) and choose to follow them, it doesn't hurt my creativity at all. Writing well, which can be aided by rule following, doesn't have to come at a cost to creativity. I think my work is quite creative and unique. Just because my story uses only said throughout and someone else never used said once. It doesn't make there work more creative or more unique.

    I studied writing. I have an MFA in fiction. This might surprise some of you, but we like never talked about rules. There was a lot of critiquing and very little if any discussion of the rules. I'm not saying everyone followed the rules to a T. I was in school with a very talented and creative group. There are much better ways to be unique and creative than just breaking the rules. And if I was just starting out, I would want to know the rules so they could help me. They have and continue to help me. Sure, I break them sometimes. I really have given the rules more thought on this forum than I ever did in all my years of writing.
     
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  2. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    @deadrats it shouldn't make you feel old - Virginia Woolf completely disregarded the head-hopping rule you've set forth a couple of times now, and she'd be quite a bit older than you. All of the "rules" can be ignored in a given situation, which means they aren't really "rules" as I use the term (may be due to my background, but I read the word "rule" as more of an absolute; a lot of new writers do as well, and form misconceptions when they see the word).

    The main problems with "rules" are two-fold:

    1) Damage to new writers; and
    2) Lazy critiquing.

    New writers are particularly impressionable, often insecure about the craft, and often looking for some method that is guaranteed to produce good results. Promulgation of so-called "rules" do those writers a disservice. It leads to misconceptions that are hard to shake and can therefore stick with a writer for many years. Applications of rules tends to genericize writing as well. The "rules" that you typically see on writing forums are fine if you want to write cookie-cutter, generic commercial fiction. That's the context in which they work best. But thankfully not everyone wants to write those works.

    Critiquers who probably have no business critiquing someone else's writing fall back on rules because it is easy, lazy, and requires no thought. If you can just go through a piece and say "show don't tell" every time you see a "tell," it very much simplifies the critique process. It's also largely worthless, because without analysis of context to know whether showing or telling would be most effective in a given situation, there isn't much value added to the rote recitation of the rule.
     
  3. deadrats

    deadrats Contributing Member

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    Just because I know the rules of writing (at least a good amount of them) and choose to follow them, it doesn't hurt my creativity at all. Writing well, which can be aided by rule following, doesn't have to come at a cost to creativity. I think my work is quite creative and unique. Just because my story uses only said throughout and someone else never used said once. It doesn't make there work more creative or more unique.

    I studied writing. I have an MFA in fiction. This might surprise some of you, but we like never talked about rules. There was a lot of critiquing and very little if any discussion of the rules. I'm not saying everyone followed the rules to a T. I was in school with a very talented and creative group. There are much better ways to be unique and creative than just breaking the rules. And if I was just starting out, I would want to know the rules so they could help me. They have and continue to help me. Sure, I break them sometimes. I really have given the rules more thought on this forum than I ever did in all my years of writing.
     
  4. BayView

    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Why do you think the rules were never discussed in your MFA? (I'm asking b/c the lack of discussion seems like an argument against the idea of rules being important, but you seem to think it's an argument in favour of the rules? I need clarification!)
     
  5. Simpson17866

    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

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    EDIT: reading comprehension failure :(
     
  6. deadrats

    deadrats Contributing Member

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    Our workshops were very lively and intense. More than once someone broke down or left the room crying. No joke. I don't think writers or people giving critiques need to go down some sort of rules checklist. Either the rules were working or the alternative was working. There was one rule that I broke with a story that I workshopped. I didn't even realize that it was a rule at the time. I ended up revising that piece to fix this, but it ended up killing the story. I only recently went back to that story and to my original draft. I'm in favor of good writing, and these rules or tools can help with that, but they don't always.

    I'm not trying to make this into me against the rule breakers. It feels like I'm in high school and no one is going to want to sit with me at lunch. I'm cool guys, I promise.
     
  7. U.G. Ridley

    U.G. Ridley I'm a wizard, Hagrid Supporter

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    There are indeed much better ways of being unique and creative than just breaking rules. I never said that breaking the rules makes you a better writer, I said that becoming a good writer doesn't happen by studying the rules, memorizing them, and following them religiously, but happens rather by writing ALOT, reading ALOT, and getting feedback on your stories, rather than be given advice out of context of your story. I don't believe that simply knowing the rules of writing will hurt your creativity either, but I believe that following them for the sake of following them is a bad idea, and will kill your ability to creatively come up with solutions.

    Does me breaking a rule make me a better writer? No. Does you following the rules make you a worse writer? No. But will you become a better writer if you spend a lot of time experimenting, getting feedback, and coming to conclusions on your own, rather than studying the rules? I don't know, but I personally believe so.
     
  8. deadrats

    deadrats Contributing Member

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    What rules are you breaking or do you have a problem with? Everyone is just talking all anti-rule without mentioning which rules. It makes it really hard to know what you are trying to say when left so vague.
     
  9. jannert

    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I feel sad that many new writers seem to worry more about the craft of writing than they seem to enjoy actually writing.

    Techniques and tricks (rules) of storytelling can be applied later on, if you feel they will improve what you've written. And the more you edit and learn, the more confident you'll become about how to make your story accessible to others. But as to rules, I'd say don't worry about them at first. Just write what you want to write and enjoy the process! Don't censor yourself. Too much worry will hold you back, maybe even keep you from even getting started. That would be a shame.

    Creative writing is one of the most risk-free things you'll ever do, as long as it's not an assignment with a deadline. It's pure creative fun. So dive in and have fun. You can refine what you've written later on. None of it is set in stone—not until you're published.
     
  10. jannert

    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    It's useful if folks think along the lines of what these 'taboo' things do for (or to) the reader—info dumps, purple prose, show don't tell, etc. It's not that you can't use them, it's that they will have an effect on the reader. It's important to understand what those effects are likely to be. Head-hopping is a good example. A story told by jumping from POV to POV within a scene will read differently from one where the POV is consistent. That's all really. Neither is taboo, but both have unique effects. I'd say study the effect, rather than slavishly following the 'rule.'
     
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  11. U.G. Ridley

    U.G. Ridley I'm a wizard, Hagrid Supporter

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    Again, I don't have a problem with specific rules, I have a problem with following them religiously. The reason why I don't count SPAG rules in here is because clarity is important, and the only reason to be grammatically incorrect is if you are, say: writing in the voice of a very specific type of character, or it's in the dialogue of someone who just doesn't speak correctly, or whatever other reason you may have. I don't hate rules, I hate the fact that we treat them as if they really are "rules" (which really is a terrible word for it) and not just suggestions; as if we have to follow them or our work is automatically bad. You don't even believe that yourself, so I think that a lot of this back and forth we're having is just misunderstanding of the other's motives, like we're having two completely different arguments. You seem to be defending the idea that learning rules is okay, and could potentially even be helpful, and I never said that this isn't true. I'm attacking the idea that studying, following, or even just learning the rules is necessary and/or a must for all writers, and you never said you disagreed with that, soooo...?
     
  12. Carly Berg

    Carly Berg Contributing Member Contributor

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    This comes up constantly on writer forums. As others have said, they're not rules, they're guidelines and there's a good reason you keep hearing them, which people misunderstand.

    Anyone who has done a couple hundred critiques will notice that there are a few dozen typical newbie mistakes. You see them over and over again and they distract from the story. So I think what many people think are rules are really just tips like, hey, watch out for these common problems. Then do what works, deliberately and with thought, not thoughtlessly, everywhere, because you don't know any better.

    A well-placed -ly adverb is fine but one that's redundant or obvious or done every three sentences is annoying. For example, what is the difference between being "perfectly" honest and just being honest? Do we really need to have it explained that when he saw a plane fall out of the sky, he screamed "instinctively?" (Really? And here I thought he practiced that in the mirror beforehand, ya know, just in case he ever saw a plane fall from the sky). And so on. You can see they're trying to get their points across more emphatically, but it has the opposite effect. Unnecessary adverbs everywhere is a problem commonly found in newbie writing. So, it's commonly mentioned as a heads-up, to watch out for it. It's not a "rule to not use adverbs." That would be ridiculous.

    A dialogue tag besides "said" is fine, if it isn't redundant and obvious. Overuse/misuse of dialogue tags is another common newbie error. It's clunky and annoying and distracts from the story. For example, "Get out!" he yelled." (Really? And here I assumed he whispered it, ya know, what with the rude words and exclamation mark and all... ) "I don't like that," he opined. (Really? And here I thought he was asking a question rather than giving his opinion). "What's up?" she vocalized. (Really? Gee, my guess was she communicated that with smoke signals). Etcetera. It's another common newbie overdone thing. "Said" is more invisible, so it makes sense to just use "said" when you need a dialogue tag, unless you have a reason not to. Again, choose with thought, deliberately, not strange tags everywhere, clunkily, because you don't know any better. Thus, the heads-up to watch for it. It's a far cry from being "for" or "against" dialogue tags besides "said," which again would be ridiculous.
     
    Last edited: Oct 21, 2016
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  13. xanadu

    xanadu Contributing Member Contributor

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    This, especially the last sentence. I know there are people who think the rules are absolutes, but I'd wager a far larger majority of rule-proponents view them this way. I know I do.

    Oh, and add me to the "tools, not rules" bandwagon.
     
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  14. U.G. Ridley

    U.G. Ridley I'm a wizard, Hagrid Supporter

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    Yea, the "tools not rules" thing is something I probably should have mentioned in the original post to avoid some confusion:confuzled:
     
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  15. psychotick

    psychotick Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hi Deadrats,

    Here's where we differ a bit. I don't want new writers to think about "breaking the rules". I don't want them to be influenced by "the rules" at all. I want them to write their story, in the way they want to write it. I want them to grow and develop not like every or any other writer, but as the writer they are. And it's only when a writer has achieved that, that they should be introduced to "ideas" (not rules) of how their work could be better.

    To explain, I have a friend who worked as a golf instructor long ago. And as such he was always looking at technique and swings and those sorts of things. (I actually know almost nothing about golf, so don't expect brilliance from me on this topic!) But one of the things he always did when he was working with younger golfers, was to simply let them hit the ball. Give them the bat! Stick a ball on a tee! And let them go at it again and again and again. It was only after they were done and exhausted that he would start addressing their swing, suggesting ways they could improve it, and then letting them try it for themselves. And again he wasn't giving them rules he was giving them ideas. Because what works for one golfer will not work for another. And sometimes people will find that what most others would call bad technique, is better suited for them than so called good technique.

    This is what I want for writers. For them to read and write and write and write, until they reach that point in their development where they have a sense of who they are as a writer, the stories they want to tell, and how they want to tell them. It's only then that they should move to the next step, be given feedback and ideas (again not rules) as to what they could try. Because it's only then that they can stand back a ways, evaluate the feedback they've been given, maybe try what was suggested - or not - and say - this works or doesn't work for me.

    Because at the end of the day I don't want a new writer to write like Stephen King or Stephen Donaldson. I want him to write like himself.

    Unfortunately too many new writers get given this set of rules far too early in their development. They get told or at least hear the idea that "this is the right way to write" (as if there was such a thing) and then they promptly throw away who they are as writers to try and become someone else's idea of who they should be. And that's when you start ending up with (I hesitate to use the term since I've been blasted for it before) cookie cutter books. Books that have been written in a way that fulfills all the "rules" of writing (and often agents and publisher's expectations) but has lost their individuality. Their voice.

    In the end the only "rule" there should be for a writer in writing is; "does this work do what I want it to do? Is it my work done in my way? Am I pleased with it? Does it do what I want it to do?" And the rule for readers is only one; "does this book work for me?"

    Turning to cricket - a sport I actually do know something about - if you watch the bowlers in action you'll notice that there are a number of them who have strange, even bizarre actions. And I can't even begin to imagine what must be wrong with their anatomy to bowl like that! But it doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is that the bowling action is legal and gets results. Same with writers.

    Cheers, Greg.
     
  16. AnchoredAerial

    AnchoredAerial New Member

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    There's so much to be said :superlaugh: so much opinion to be had:

    First, @Tenderiser: In the first post, you said the "worst" and "best" writers seem to be the best. When you said this, it forced me to think about what I'm learning in my humanities class, right now. My humanities class is ridiculous and is only French Impressionistic art history, and we've only talked about Degas, Monet, Manet, and Renoir. All of these painters, that are ungodly famous now, have something in common; they are all ungodly famous... No, that's not it... They were all the worst painters during their time. They were doing something that nobody understood, but beyond that they were doing something greater than themselves, although they did not know this at the time. (That's it. That's all I wanted to say for now) I think the authors in the middle are not necessarily "bad", they are just following guidelines for what they have learned.

    This is when, for me, rules begin. We have all said rules are good and rules are bad, but rules are meant as guidance. This is where I did not agree with @psychotick; young writers can always read books about how to write. (Guilty!) Those books are awesome! They are an inspiration to young readers. They break down the great big concepts that we often over-look, such as the importance of sub-plots and motives, to eliminate plot holes and establish an environment that we, as writers, can torture our readers with. The biggest problem of young writers is motivation. Yes, they may lack the skills that a seasoned writer may have but, they can learn those later. However, I do agree about establishing you're own individualism. Yes Psych, read and read and read because you learn so much from it.

    @Carly Berg you have established my faith in the writing world :friend:You said exactly what I felt. The rule are guidelines! The rules are used to help you when you are stuck. Show don't tell is to help the writer get deeper into the story. Again, this is for newer writers. Seasoned writers are more likely to know their style. However, all-in-all, if a writer was to write with the rulebook side-by-side with their keyboard, there would be no need for beta readers, critic partners, spell-checks (I call them that), or even publishing your story. To me rules are little advice sticklits. Like post-it notes on your wall that show your to do list... that you never end up doing. I believe it's when a new writer looks at these guidelines and says, "Yeah, I see what I'm supposed to do, but I don't want to do that" that the story gets interesting and creative. A writer needs to find that point, whatever it may be, on their own, when it is their time. If you force it on them it won't be honest. They will be following the rules, your rules to you forced on them. How dare you try to make a writer better! The other side of the coin is writing those stories that are true and honest, yet follow the rules. We see those all the time, especially in movies. You know what? We love them! Chick-flicks still come out. We have the same action movies. And we crave each and everyone of them. However, it's the truly great ones that stand out that catch our attention.

    Which one are you? Do you follow the rules (there's nothing bad with that. You're not a bad writer and your stories won't suck. You can still be great!) Or do you abandon all the rules?

    I've been working on call to action in my English class, what do you think? :cheerleader:
     
  17. EnginEsq

    EnginEsq Senior Member

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    It's been useful to me to learn the rules.

    I only recently learned the 'rule' against shifting POV in a scene. I was rereading a scene, and I saw two paragraph where the POV shifted (for one paragraph each time). Hmm. So I tried a rewrite. The rewrites were shorter, flowed better, and in one of the two cases allowed me to communicate more with less words.

    I'm still willing to break them. But only after evaluating whether breaking them will really produce a better result.
     
  18. 123456789

    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Look, literature doesn't exist in a vacuum. It needs to somehow relate to the literary cannon developed over the course of millennia and it also needs to relate to the modern mind.

    If you got the stuff. If you're the next James Joyce. If you want to break every single convention, including basic language. Go ahead and try it and see what happens. If you're successful you will be the very, very, rare exception. So rare, there's no point trying to justify it here or anywhere else. Just do it.
     
  19. EnginEsq

    EnginEsq Senior Member

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    That's a false dichotomy. You can cheat on your spouse without abandoning them.

    Not that I'd ever do either, of course.
     
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  20. jannert

    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    The most important thing about 'rules' of writing—and I wish I could stamp this on my forehead—is to understand why.

    Understand what following the rules will do for your story. Understand what breaking the rules will do for your story.

    For example, there is a general rule that you shouldn't open your story with a long passage of bare dialogue. Instead of slavishly following that 'rule,' learn what dialogue does for (and to) your story.

    Dialogue speeds your story up.

    That in itself is neither bad nor good. The question to ask yourself when you're writing dialogue is this: Do I want my story to speed up here? Do I want this opening scene to whiz past? And if I do, am I willing to sacrifice other aspects of the story that take time to establish, such as reader orientation? Comprehension? Understanding of motivation? Getting to know a character's opinions and thoughts? Identification with a particular character?

    How many times have you seen new writers opening with a scene where everybody is talking? He said, she said, the other guy said, the teacher said, the girl across the aisle said, the guy who plays varsity football said, then he said, she said.... Yes, it moves quickly, but we don't know who the people are, their names are getting dropped every third line, we don't know the setting or anything about them. It's as if we're stuck in a motel room, listening to a party going on in the adjoining room, on the other side of the wall. It's hard to get excited by these people because all we're getting are the sounds they are making. We're spending so much time trying to keep them straight, that what they say doesn't stick—because we don't know them yet.

    If you think about your life, you will realise that only a small percentage of it is spent talking. MOST of your time is spent in silence with your thoughts, feelings, resting time, forming your opinions, watching others, getting things done and making plans. That's where the real 'you' exists. It's where your story's character exists as well.

    So if you want readers to begin your story by getting to understand your characters—to know where they live, what they do, what their problems are and what is happening to them—probably best not to shove three pages of straight dialogue at the reader at the start of your first chapter. This doesn't mean you can't do it; this means you need to understand the effect it will have. Good, pertinent dialogue is better than clumsy dialogue, but it still moves fast. Make sure you have a need for speed before you open with a lot of dialogue.

    The important thing about rules isn't should/shouldn't. It's why.
     
  21. psychotick

    psychotick Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hi Engine,

    I think you're making my point for me. Because if I read your post correctly what you did was first write the scene. (Hopefully more than just a couple of scenes, but the principle holds.) So you wrote. Then you read and reread what you wrote, and you asked questions. You found a "rule" (and there are no rules as I say, only ideas) and you applied it, then with it found places where your work did not meet your expectations. (By the way you can chage POV's from para to para - but normally you would be writing in third person omni and you would have tags everywhere, and it does require a lot of skill to do it well.) That is in my view, the right way to do it.

    The question that has to be asked here is not about the "rule". It's about the writing. And it's whether the writing (final version) would be any better / more you / more what you wanted to say had you started out before you began writing by knowing these "rules" and applied them, than it is by writing it first and than later reviewing with the rules in hand. And for my money the best approach if you want to write new, fresh work that is distinctly "you" and you also want to become the best writer you can be and discover your voice, is to write it first.

    Go into writing like a charging rhino. Write, copiously. Make mistakes. Don't give a tinkers damn about them. Make more and celebrate them. Enjoy the process of writing what you want to write, how you want to write it. Unleash your full creative literary demon. Do that for a few years. Then start looking at reviews, opinions and thinking about the "rules". That's the way to become the author you can be and the one you should want to be. Not timidly reading endless books about writing and rules, and trying desperately not to make a mistake right out of the box. That's the way to stunt your authorial growth.

    Remember you want to become not "an"author, but the author you can be. You don't want to become the author that other people and conventions say you must be.

    Cheers, Greg.
     
  22. deadrats

    deadrats Contributing Member

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    You lost me here with the literary cannon. I don't see how those books have anything to do with being wary of the rules. Anyone who has been through an MA of MFA program has studied the literary cannon on some level. These are great books that people can learn a lot from. I write literary fiction, and I follow the rules a lot of the time, but I'm not trying to get my work in the cannon or expect that it ever will be. Outside academia, I'm not sure how many people actually look to the cannon. Those books can create a great foundation for any writer. But what we write in no way needs to relate to the literary cannon, I strongly believe. And, again, how does the literary cannon play into this discussion? You don't have to answer this. It's just that the cannon itself is a pretty big topic. I don't see how working that into the discussion here is going to help anyone. But I would love to discuss the literary cannon if you or anyone else wants to start a new thread on that.

    But you do bring up an interesting point about literature not existing in a vacuum. I think what we read does have a strong effect on how we view the world and think about our lives and others. And a good book can have that impact on many people, a whole community or society or generation. I often feel like I'm writing in a vacuum, but I would like my work to exist outside of my quiet writing life.

    Still, the rules are not going to determine what is good literature. However, breaking rules aimlessly or just not being aware of how they work and what they mean, can hurt a writer and the story they are trying to tell. I agree with you that it is more of an exception that succeeds from breaking the rules. But it is interesting that the majority of posts here are against the rules with very little information about which rules they want to break.
     
  23. deadrats

    deadrats Contributing Member

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    I hate stories that open with dialog. I think it's the worst way you can start a story. I rather read someone waking up from a dream and looking in a mirror than a first line of dialog. Now, I know I'm just one opinion, but I have worked in publishing, and I have rejected works that opened with dialog. I read on before just rejecting to see if these works had a good enough story that the beginning could be redone, but it wasn't a good way to catch my attention as an editor or slush reader. And for me to pass up a story that opens with dialog to someone above me, it had to be a killer piece of work. That never happened. So, no matter why the writer did this is not going to matter to me as an editor. It's still a strike against the writer, in my opinion.
     
  24. deadrats

    deadrats Contributing Member

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    Are you really suggesting writers spend years just writing without any sense of the rules? I don't know. I sure wouldn't do that.
     
  25. Mckk

    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    haven't read the entire thread, but to add - in terms of the debate between reading fiction vs reading instructions, quite simply if you read instructions alongside fiction, you may well learn just that much faster than the one who only reads fiction and does everything by trial and error alone. Both ways leads to your destination eventually, but you may say reading solely fiction without instruction might be likened to I dunno, cycling to the shops, whereas the one reading instructions alongside fiction - assuming the instructions are good and applied well - could be likened to driving to the shops. You get to the shops either way and you'll get your bag of chips, but one way is faster.

    In my experience, it seems people never clarify just what on earth they mean by writing. You learn to write, your writing improves, how do you write X - and at least I personally took that to mean the actual act of putting words together, crafting a pretty sentence or an effective scene. When writing a novel has so much more to it. You can write excellently and still never get published - why? Because you never learnt to structure the thing properly. Because pacing and build-up were lacking. Because characterisation was weak. Definitions may matter more than we think because once we can define what plot is, we then know what we need to even create a plot, before even bothering with making a good plot. Writing - the actual act of crafting a sentence - is only the bare bones of the trade. A bare minimum. I find the rest of it way harder than writing :dry:

    Like any other field of study, time spent on analysing other stories, be they book or film, and figuring out what works and why, will help you improve. Reading fiction by itself doesn't help - reading fiction analytically helps. Reading instructions by itself doesn't help - knowing the instructions and then understanding why such instructions were given helps. So anyway, I would add to reading and writing, that you need to think :coffee: if you ever wanna improve.
     
    jannert likes this.

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