As I see it, we writers need to be teachable the same way teachers do. At the end of every school year, I would do an evaluation, formal or otherwise, thinking of the ways I wanted to improve the following year. Sometimes I focused more on discipline, sometimes on content, and sometimes on the organizational mechanics. The thing is, I needed all three to be as good as I could make them if I was going to teach to the best of my ability.
So with writing. Fiction is first and foremost a story, but the author also chooses and/or develops a style of writing, and of course, the writing is conveyed with established mechanics—grammar, punctuation, capitalization, and the like, but also with good fiction techniques.
I believe a writer needs to continue learning in all three branches. From what I’ve seen at writers’ conferences and in online writer communities, even what I’ve heard from some editors, it seems to me that an undue emphasis is placed on the last category, the mechanics.
I’ll reiterate, I think we writers should constantly strive to improve, even in what I’m terming mechanics. Grammar, punctuation, capitalization, formatting, spelling—these are important, even deal breakers, according to a number of agents and editors. So writers do need to pay attention to these basics, but they must be kept in balance with other parts of storytelling.
Even the last segment of this category—good fiction techniques—can be emphasized too much. Certainly I believe in good fiction technique, things such as a proper point of view, showing vs. telling, vivid descriptions using the five senses, foreshadowing , avoiding cliches, repetition, redundancy, and a number of others. But an over emphasis of these can suck the life out of a story.
I’ve heard and read writing teachers decry the use of -ly adverbs, was, -ing words, to the point that some writers come to believe using an adverb is actually wrong. Oh, sure, we say there are “no rules, only guidelines,” but the implication is still that “good writing” doesn’t use any of those undesirables.
The result seems to me to be stilted writing, robotic fiction, cloned storytelling. Where is the art, if everyone writes in the same structured, lean, prosaic way? OK, fiction is prose, but must it be prosaic?
So here’s what I’m suggesting. Maybe, just maybe, we writers need to learn these techniques so that we can venture away from them—on purpose. Not for the sake of thumbing our nose at the conventions. Some writers seem to do that, and the result, quite frankly, is alienation of the intended audience.
But I think this might be one place where art resides in fiction—the choosing to venture away from the “proper” techniques on occasion in order to strengthen the story.
First posted at A Christian Worldview of Fiction, January 2009.