Part II of the Moral Obligation of the Mentoring Writer: Everybody Knows it All, but Nobody is Actually Doing it
I had to expand on the moral obligation of the mentoring writer. I have discovered another alarming trend in my writing groups. That trend is “writers” who post rules and tips that they have taken from other blogs/sites/books/self help novels/etc. While doing this is fine (when proper credit is given, mind you), what really annoys me is the amount of people who are leaving comments telling these posters how great “their” advice is when it isn’t really their advice at all. While lending a helping hand is well and fine, I feel a bit let down by the sheer volume of people who are looking up to these posters as “mentors” when they are not giving advice based on their own experiences as a writer. If you have not actually written anything of your own, then how can you possibly understand the advice and rules that you are copying and pasting into a writing lesson? It is disturbing to me as a writer that people would rather take the ‘advice’ of someone who actually has never really written anything over the wisdom of one who has been there, done that, gotten the book deal.
On the topic of these rules, it goes back to telling budding writers that “doing this instead of that” will cause the audience to get confused/not want to read it/etc. The number one rule that I see posters of these courses make is to either tell people or suggest to them that doing things a certain way is better than doing them another way. I have said many times that there are very few written-in-stone rules when it comes to writing. And the only ones that I can think of that could possibly be universal are misspelled words and missing paragraph indentions (translate: giant wall of text with no paragraph breaks in them). And even misspelled words are okay if they are used in the dialogue of a character. It is my opinion that telling people that following a specific set of rules will make them a better writer is ill advice.
Let me give an example. On an adult writing forum, a poster recently began posting a story based on her life. I will not go into detail in regards to the storyline. This member asked me to read her story and give her honest feedback on how it sounded because she greatly valued my opinion as a writer. We will call her ‘Jane.’ Now as a writer, I do not base my opinion on a story the way most people do. A lot of people think that if the idea is good, then the writing is good as well. I hate to break it to you if you are one of those who think this way, but a good idea and good writing do not go hand in hand. I have read many books that had a great idea but the telling of that idea was not nearly as good as it could have been, making what could have possibly been a fantastic story into a mediocre retelling. Learning to write well has very little to do with following certain rules. The bottom line for writers is to grab their readers’ attention and keep it. Following rules does not always do that.
I read Jane’s story. Misspelled words aside, there were fragmented sentences, run on sentences, improper use of punctuation, among other things. The spelling and punctuation could have been cleaned up. However, I would not have touched the fragmented sentences or run on sentences if you paid me to. Why you ask? Isn’t writing about following writing rules and making it look perfect? In my opinion, no. Writing is about getting and keeping your audience’s attention. Janet not only captured her audience’s attention, but their heart and admiration as well. Her informal approach to writing drew her readers in, tugged on their heart strings, and left them begging for more. She broke so many writing ‘rules’ that an editor would have thrown it out with the trash. But it worked for her.
Notice I said it worked for her. It will not work for everyone. Some people will do better by following rules. However, the ‘rules’ of writing will not make you a good writer, or a better writer, or make you more creative. Good writing is something that evolves over time. It is about finding your inner writing voice, discovering what works best for you as a writer, and going with it. If that means breaking all the rules, then go for it. If that means following all the rules to the letter, then go for it. At the end of the day, what constitutes a good story is the person who is reading it. Every publishing company in the world can think it is great, but if there isn’t an audience for it then it is not worth the paper it is printed on. It is why there are thousands of really great stories out there that have never been published by traditional means. And it is also why there are thousands of books out there in publication that are gathering dust on a shelf. A good story, after all, will always be in the mind’s eye of the reader.
N. C. Matthews