UofL Writing Center

Who We Are and What We Do

5 Pieces of Writing Advice to Reconsider

Jacob Robbins, Consultant

Giving writing advice, by its very nature, is a difficult minefield to navigate. It is often handed down in what appear to be timeless platitudes, as if only recently and begrudgingly translated from the Latin. While they are situationally applicable, the following instances of (mis)guidance suffer from their often indiscriminate use:

“Show don’t tell”DSCN1622

In many cases, this is actually excellent advice. There is no easier way to guarantee that one’s personal statement is dull than by turning a riveting personal anecdote into a grocery list or instruction manual. Vivid details ensnare the reader, and can ensure persistent attention. However, continuing to do so with no reprieve is not only exhausting, but also tends to dilute the descriptions with increased use. Showing often draws its power from poignant use, so blanketly following this rule can actually have the opposite intended effect.

“Clichés are bad”

This one may be the hardest to put a half-hearted defense for. If you just use the same old, same old tired phrases, you’ll just end up beating a dead horse. Also, the individual meanings you intend to impart upon your utterances may be lost in the process. That being said, if you are attempting to win the The Bulwer-Lytton Writing Contest, clichés are right on the money.

“Edit as you go”

One should absoltutely edit as they go, because that indicates attention to the minutiae of the paper. However, it seems as if this statement excludes the possibility of (or diminishes the importance of) editing on a largger, more global level. In other words, this maxim only covers hald the equation. Editing is a constant process that requires attention to meticulous details as well as the big picture, rather than one to the exclusion of the other.

“Only use said”

There is no denying that “said” is the most direct way to indicate speaking attribution. However, the monotony of using it exclusively can quickly develop a white-washing effect similar to that which is created by the overapplication of the other “rules” found on this list. “People say things in a variety of ways that can be reflected in language; it would be a shame to unnecessarily limit our capacity to describe that variation,” mused Jacob.

“Write what you know”

This is by far the worst offender of the bunch. Depending on one’s perspective (or philosophical stance), the argument can easily be made that knowing itself is a tenuous and perhaps impossible goal. Conversely, writing what you know may be the only possible option. Read generously, this statement warns against fabrication. Hopefully this is not something we need remind ourselves constantly as we write.

At points, I was perhaps too critical or too ungenerous in assessing the value of these time-honored directives. However, I believe that negative experiences or habits connected to the constant overapplication of these phrases can be put in perspective when viewed through this critical lens. As in most (if not all) things, these expressions are best used in moderation, rather than generally.

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