There’s been a lot of talk on Twitter today by many writers I admire about poorly expressed or conceived writing advice. “Kill your darlings” has been taking the brunt of the assault. But various writers have also tackled “show, don’t tell”, “write what you know”, “cut adjectives/adverbs”, etc.
Now, these “rules” of “good writing” are well known to be overapplied and misinterpreted to the detriment of many a conscientious neophyte scribbler. But it’s also interesting to see the combination of straw-manning and overgeneralization being employed to criticize them.
Kill you darlings can be misinterpreted to mean many bad things, such as “kill everything you love”. Everyone agrees the original meaning was not to let overly-cute prose ruin an otherwise well-written story. More generally, it has evolved to mean that you have to be willing to cut things from your writing that don’t serve the goal of the story. That’s a very nebulous concept, and “kill your darlings” doesn’t give any easy hints as to figuring out what might constitute a “darling” for practical purposes. After all, every writer is different, and there are many valid styles of writing. And to be honest, demanding for three words to hold the secret to good writing is asking way too much.
“Show, don’t tell” comes in for similar misplaced acrimony. It was never meant to say you couldn’t ever tell, but rather to address an incredibly common flaw of writing, with beginners especially: the narrator telling the reader how clever or witty the main character is, for example, while never backing this up with action and character development on the page. You don’t need to have excessive purple description of the “beautiful palace”, but you do need to show your characters acting kind if you want to counterbalance ruthless or practical behavior in a protag with something fluffier. If your general is the Alexander of his world, the reader will be more willing to suspend disbelief if they actually see him making smart strategic decisions or brilliant tactical maneuvers, rather than being defeated time after time despite all the praise heaped upon him by his subordinates.
“Cut adjectives” is one of the rules that is far more of a stylistic choice than the others. Being able to express those adjectives as part of the character’s speech patterns can be a cool stylistic move, but plenty of good writers use adjectives with “said” without falling prey to a tom swifty. Choosing a more specific noun or verb can break narrative voice or result in thesaurusitis. Adjectives and adverbs can be used to great effect.
As with all rules of writing, they are shorthand for larger, more complex discussions, and it’s incumbent on writers not to ignore known context to score easy points or excuse their own misunderstandings and need for growth as writers.
Now, I do think that there’s a toxic interaction between writing “rules” like these and the raising up of certain writing styles over others. A spare, minimalistic style with “transparent prose” is the most vaunted style of writing in the modern era. Which I think is too bad. Not only character voice but authorial voice can add some really useful and enjoyable layers to a story. I personally in my everyday speech don’t talk the way those character voices who are most praised by the community write. I enjoy a so-called “purple prose” style of writing, full of metaphor and figures of speech, and dense language, and authorial imagery. Not exclusively. I like character voice-focused writing styles, as well. And I enjoy reading both style groups.
There’s a lot of reductionism in what’s put forth as the best way to write. But it’s not the minimalism of the various writing rules that’s the problem. It’s in the views of what’s widely considered to constitute good prose. Minimalist, fast-paced, shallow prose that requires less thinking and zips the story along. And that’s a great way to tell a story. But it’s far from the only way. Instead of attacking “rules”, I think we should be more focused on widening the conception of what makes for good pacing, because speed may be popular, but it’s only one way to approach a narrative.