Most of the articles I see on this subject are bullshit. In general, they tell writers that happiness is a sin, there is a thing called ‘proper’ grammar that must be adhered to at all times, no exceptions, and showing is always 100% without a doubt better than telling. And, in general, this is bullshit.
As a writer, a reader, an editor, and a linguist (both social and practical), here is a list of common mistakes that laugh in the face of the grand writing rules, and will definitely make your life harder.
1. Everything is Awful
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve critiques stories or beta-read for people who had built a world where literally everything is awful. I’m not saying these stories were dark. That’s not a problem. I’m saying that nothing good had ever happened to any of the respective main characters of any of these stories. This is a problem for two reasons. First, I find it hard to take seriously. Instead of engaging with the story, it makes me want to exclaim, ‘whoa, calm down edgelord!’ Second, it invalidates itself. If we’re living in a world where nothing, not a single good memory, can be found within all the shit, then what’s the fucking point?
Happiness, hope, nostalgia – these things are not sinful. They do not somehow make your story uninteresting. Even if you only use them in bits and pieces, they can be powerful tools to enhance the fact that everything is awful. Nearly everyone has something they hold on to, and ignoring this can make your story difficult to read and to write.
2. You always show, never tell
Listen. I’m a slut for grand metaphor. I can paint you a picture with metaphor and simile and all that good stuff. But sometimes, a thing is just a thing. And sometimes, pointing that out can create a powerful moment in a sea of metaphor. Or, even, just on its own.
Telling is not always bad writing. When you’re just starting out as a writer, absolutely practice showing over telling. But as you mature, find your style and your unique voice, you get to break whatever rules you believe exist. If you always show, let’s be real, it’ll get confusing. You might even get lost in your own writing, which really isn’t good for anyone.
3. You listen to vampires
As stated in the song “Die Vampire, Die” from one of my favorite musicals, Title of Show, “a vampire is any person or thought or feeling that stands between you and your creative self expression.” Seriously, this song is a must for any creative person. Go listen to it. I’ll wait.
Okay, now that you’ve listened to the song, you now know how to kill vampires. The answer is, simply, confidence. Your writing and is your writing alone, and even faking confidence when you don’t have it will help your writing start to shine. This lack on confidence that let’s people, even yourself, trample all over your work will turn writing into this ridiculously stressful uphill battle. And, most of the time at least, that’s really not what writing should be.
4. You believe in proper English
As a linguist, I can tel you this is bullshit. Certainly there is a standard American English (SAE), which most US authors write in. But if you don’t actually speak SAE, you have no obligation to write in it. Consider: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurtson. The whole book is written in the Black dialect. Did it make it harder for some people to read? Absolutely. Does that actually matter? Nope. Because, in the end, it made the story more authentic and gave people who were part of the Black culture or language some insight as to how all of that functions.
Furthermore, most people don’t actually speak SAE when they’re talking. So why on earth would you write dialogue in SAE? A character from Boston is going to sound significantly different than a character from South Carolina, and that’s perfectly fine. It’s to be expected. I actually hate using the word ‘authentic,’ but it makes your writing more authentic. And sociolinguists everywhere will thank you.
5. You take internet advice too seriously
You could read this list and think that everything here is bullshit. And that’s fine. Except for the language thing. I am a stubborn sociolinguist and I absolutely will not budge on that. And I guess that vampire thing, too. But the first two things, man. Fuck those things. Or, you know, don’t. it’s up to you. It’s always up to you. Because, guess what, it’s your writing. Not my writing, and not anyone else’s. Sit back, take a deep breath, and do what feels right. Your writing will thank you.