Anyone else hate "how to do ___" writing advice?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Mythopoet, Jan 11, 2018.

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  1. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Dark Lord

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    Maybe it's just me, but it really annoys me. Sometimes it even makes me feel angry. (shock!) Not at anyone in particular. Not even at the person who wrote the article. Such articles usually list at best a handful of methods that are approved by the article writer based on what their personal taste is. I read such articles and they just seem so limited to me. And it's not even that the advice contained therein is terrible advice. Often enough, the methods listed are good, reliable methods. And I'm sure they are helpful to new writers who feel uncertain about how to tell their story.

    But I feel as though such articles suggest a false idea about storytelling: that if you want to accomplish a specific effect within your story, there are certain particular ways of doing it. This idea seems so pervasive around the writing communities I have frequented, including here. How many threads do we get here asking some variation on the theme "I want to do this thing in my story, please tell me how to do it". And many of the wonderful, friendly posters here do their best to give the person an answer. But every time I see such a question, and not just here, I can't help thinking that these aspiring writers are missing the essential nature of being a storyteller.

    Being a storyteller means that you have to decide the best way to tell your story. The way it is expressed needs to come from you. Not a formula or a method or the advice of other people. Because there are an infinite amount of ways to tell stories. There aren't just a handful of ways to make a character sympathetic or create a plot or convey important information or any of the things that the story needs to do. Every writer is unique, every story is unique, every character is unique. It all the depends on your choices, as the storyteller. If you have someone else give you the answers or even just use generalized writing advice to form your story... I just feel like you're missing out on the whole point.

    But then, not having finished any stories of my own to speak of, I'm probably not one to talk. Maybe if I was capable of writing to formula or at least proven method I'd have actually accomplished something by now. :X3:
     
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  2. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    What, exactly, would be the point of the forums then? Or the articles. Or the blog?

    I can't imagine this site would last very long if every time a writer hoping for advice or looking to learn a new strategy got the response, "Follow your heart. It will tell you everything you need to know."

    The advice out there are tools. Not rules. Having a full tool box is a good idea in any profession. Knowing when to use a hammer vs. a screwdriver is important.

    But what is even more important is knowing what tools exist and when to use them. I'm not going to be an effective carpenter if I don't even know what a hammer is. This is why educating oneself is so important.
     
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  3. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    So, when I give how-to advice on the forums, I know that my opinion is only a part of a conversation. Even if, taken in isolation, I might sound like I'm saying, "Do this if you want to succeed," there are always other people here to add more context, or qualifications, or disagreements, or questions. I don't have to have all the answers, and nobody thinks I or anyone else here does.

    In an article, the rest of the conversation is cut off, and the "do this" goes on so much longer. Especially when you read a few posts sharing the same simple "fad" advice. I agree it gets irritating.
     
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  4. pmmg

    pmmg Dark Lord

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    I think these bits of advice we throw around serve only to assist another in building their toolbox. But until the work with and learn the tools, it nothing more than words. There is truth on both sides of this. I can do your writing for you, but you also limit yourself to learning new tools if you never go out and seek what others are doing and how they are doing it. Asking around is just a way of trying to build a toolbox a little faster.

    For myself, I don't really know what has helped me over time. Certainly, if one does not write, they will not get better at it and asking others for tools wont help them, so actually doing is the best teacher. But all the stuff and effort I have spent reading what other have done has all become part of the mix for me. Its like slowly building a more perfect writing engine with smaller and smaller upgrades. I don't know everything I have retained from this site so far, or everything I have retained from many of the places I have been, but I know I have learned a little. It was here I first encountered the term 'Way point' writer.

    I think it has been Chessie who has been hitting home the idea that the words matter less than the story. As one who works very hard on the prose, I found that I cannot disagree with some of what she said and I may approach my own writing with a newer type of liberation to see if it plays out well.

    Nimue also made a point in one of these threads about traditional fantasy, something along the lines Traditional fantasy does not get a lot of attention as it is kind of already well tread upon ground and does not require as much investigation. It did get my wheels turning on some things, and it probably would not have otherwise.

    For writing advice though, and for myself, I tend to go with say if fast and get to the point. I've read thick books on it, and thinner books on it, and IMO, the thinner books do it better. Quick lists of do's and dont's I always find interested. I may not agree with them, but I can obtain and work on the information better in those forms.
     
    Last edited: Jan 11, 2018
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  5. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Dark Lord

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    I've always thought the purpose of a good forum was community and conversation.

    A carpenter can have a toolbox which contains all the tools he needs to do his job. When it comes to writing and storytelling, I don't think there are a quantifiable number of tools that one can have to make a full writing toolbox. Stories are infinite. This is my entire point. When one reads writing advice and then thinks "ok, now I've got all my tools", they are probably limiting themselves unintentionally.
     
  6. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    I think I'm confused about the post.

    Are you suggesting that one should not ever bother studying craft because it is limiting? Or just that some advice is irritating to you, personally?

    I feel like I'm missing something here.
     
  7. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I think it's more about getting annoyed because there is definitely a "cliche" writing advice that has simple absolutist content and / or a condescending tone towards disagreement.
     
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  8. pmmg

    pmmg Dark Lord

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    Tools are also infinite. Growing and learning is always a journey and not a destination.
     
  9. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Right. So for you that might mean friendly conversations about manga. For me that means in depth analysis of craft. I love talking craft. I love learning about craft. I love taking what I've learned and applying it to my craft. Writing for me is not a magical thing that happens through some sort of divinity. So what I'm seeking here is community and conversation about craft. Is that wrong?
     
  10. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Dark Lord

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    Sigh. I'm sorry Helio. I think you really just don't get me.

    A conversation, even a debate, is a different thing from an advice blog/article/post by someone who sets themselves up as someone who "knows how to write". Remember that I am not directing this thread at anyone in particular or even at this website. I spend time in a lot of writing communities and sites. And I've seen all too often the self-appointed person who "knows how to do ____". Even when frequently that person has never even published. Personally, I love a good in depth conversation about writing and story theory. Love it. But it's very difficult to have a good one because there are just so many writers who think either their taste is objective or once they've figured out how to do a thing in their own story that means they know how to do it in general and need to tell everyone.
     
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  11. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Ahhhhhh. see this makes sense. This is why I said above that I think I was confused about the OP.

    I think a lot of that just has to do with personalities, IMO, and the nature of Internet forums. If we were all sitting around at a coffee shop I think we would be more inclined to niceties. When people are frantically posting on their phones or iPads with kids running around or at work or whatever the niceties get dropped for a more concise response. Concise is good, but it can come across as curt and overly direct. I think that is the failure of forums like this.

    And Devor's point about the articles is bang on. In an article there is no "conversation". No "debate" so they can often come across as a bit "do it my way."
     
  12. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Dark Lord

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    Certainly. But there are so many people who approach writing with the mindset of "These are the tools of writing. These are the right tools because they are the tools I used and they worked for me". And then they pass that view on to any newbie they can find to listen to them. But I tend to think writing and storytelling is something for which you are always discovering or inventing your own tools. But general advice blogs/articles/posts necessarily rest on the premise that they can tell you what tools to use even though they are addressed to a diverse audience who are all going to need different things for their unique story.

    Am I being clear?
     
  13. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Dark Lord

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    I think forums are mostly. When you can have an actual conversation between two people who can give and take information in an attempt to help each other, that's a good way to seek help. But there tend to be a lot of thread just inviting anyone to write the story instead of the author and I feel like those people are missing the point. But I was attempting to say that I think it is the articles/blog posts/general advice posts that come with that "this is the way to do it" attitude that make people think they just need to find someone to tell them the right way to write their story. And then once those people successfully write a story (even if it isn't published) they think they can now be the ones to dispense advice on "how it is done". So it's a problem that is constantly feeding itself. And I tend to think it would be better if writers took a step back and realized that you mostly have to learn to write yourself by opening yourself up to experimentation and practicing until you get it right.
     
  14. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I agree that a forum is more conducive to digging into nuances than a typical article or even a blog post. Even on forums you'll see, from time to time, people who seem to think they've hit on some objectively "right" way (or, worse, the objectively right way) of doing something. I don't think that type of advice is useful to writers. It's more counter-productive than anything. I've said before, and still believe, that this type of advice is also geared toward pushing prose toward the generic and stifling voice.

    Advice with respect to the craft of writing can and should be debated. Anyone who tells you they have the One True Way® to write fiction should be eyed with great skepticism.
     
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  15. pmmg

    pmmg Dark Lord

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    Well, this kind of goes along with wisdom. No one really knows what they think they know, and when they become wise, they will realize they don't know anything at all. Many people learn something and think this has become most important, but in time that will prove not to be true. But it does not hurt to hear them. We all must use our best judgment on what is useful to us and what is not.

    One thing, I think may come into play here is also the point of diminishing returns. The amount of knowledge and energy obtained or spent to get to 80% competence with something is way less the amount of energy and knowledge needed to go the remaining 20%. And it gets more and more costly as we move closer to 100%. So, if we participate in forums and obtain writing tools, over time, they will seem less and less useful to us, cause more and more of them will not be showing us stuff we did not already know. Maybe we will even get to a point where we say, I have forgotten more than this guy knows.

    But the quest for making oneself better is never ending, and sometimes we do pick up a new tool. Sometimes we just become aware of some of our older ones. Our bread and butter ones, though, they always get the most use.
     
  16. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    [​IMG]
    The Dunning Kruger effect. People with least experience are always the most confident they have it "right". As you get more experiences you start to lose confidence in your "rightness" because you start to learn how much you don't know.

    But I agree with pmmg that all voices have value.
     
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  17. pmmg

    pmmg Dark Lord

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    Also, for those who have come a good distance and feel they have something to say about the craft, sharing their knowledge and wisdom is a way of paying back. Cause those on front edge of Helio's graph, they need the most learnin'
     
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  18. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    This is a very good point. I think if we shift this slightly into other more formal fields of study, things in writing are similar to them.

    For example, say a person is studying to become an engineer, a doctor, a programmer etc. There are foundational skills and knowledge that must be acquired before one can graduate with a degree. While taking courses to acquire those skills and knowledge, things will be simplified within those courses for the sake of making things easier to learn. Parameters will be absolute and things will be black and white so as to avoid confusing the student.

    IMHO, In the learning situation, its more important that the student understand the basic theories/knowledge/tools and gets comfortable applying them than it is to have them be in a 100% realistic environment. As the student advances, the problems they'll face will become more realistic.

    I've read a lot on writing and for me, this is what all those How-To articles are doing. They are distilling knowledge and offering up tools for someone else to take and learn how to use. In this situation, it's up to the student to figure out that these aren't absolutes. This happens by exposure to more knowledge, by actually using the knowledge and tools in practical situations, and by discussing these things with others.

    When a student graduates with a degree, that degree means they have acquired a certain level of knowledge and worked with a certain set of skills. This doesn't mean a student has learned everything they need to know for the rest of their career. It's a starting point for them to begin the real schooling, real life, real life problems.

    IMHO, every student goes through the I-know-everything-now phase. Those who can't, won't, or are unable to move pass this point get left behind.

    Some things may seem like they're limiting or trying to box things in, and maybe they are. BUT in everything, there are limitations. Within even the most stringent limitations there are still infinite possibilities. To me, it's like being asked to find all the numbers between 2.1 and 2.2.

    Everything has bounds, even the universe, but does anyone think of it as limiting. It all depends on how you look at it.

    my 2 cents.
     
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  19. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Of course, in areas like engineering, medicine, programming, and the like, there are objective facts that people can agree on. How you calculate the ability of a structure to bear a load; what happens when a certain protein binds to another protein in a cell membrane; what happens when a snippet of code is executed. Art forms like writing are much more subjective overall, though subjective factors may also come into play in more scientific arenas.
     
  20. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Shadow Lord

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    I understand the sentiment expressed by the OP. The same sentiment has been expressed by others. I don't begrudge anyone feeling annoyed by whatever annoys them and owning the emotion. I hope the expression of the annoyance does not make others feel unwelcome to express opinions in whatever manner they are most capable of expressing them, even if it comes off as prescriptive and authoritative. I'm able to weigh what others say and apply it to my situation, and trust that others can do the same or will eventually learn to do so.

    There are many things that annoy me and yet don't annoy others, so is it on me to tolerate what annoys me, or on others to take care not to annoy me? I want the answer to be the latter, but think it is probably the former. That doesn't stop me from trying to find kindred spirits, those annoyed by the same things that annoy me, with whom I can commiserate. Maybe that's what the OP was hoping for here.
     
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