Friday, October 14, 2016

In Writing, Nothing Is Black and White

A popular post from December 2011

by Annette Lyon

Recently at a meeting with my critique group, we got to talking about giving advice to other writers. All of the members of my group have spoken at writing conferences, at workshops, in classrooms. And we've all had aspiring writers come to us with specific questions.

We all try to help as best we can. But there's a little secret behind all our advice:

In writing, there are no black and white answers.
  • The craft and industry has some general rules, yes. But you can find exceptions to just about every rule.
  • You can find plenty of successful writers who violate rules all over the place.
  • What works for me may not work for you.
  • And while it pains me to say this: this includes grammar and punctuation, to a point.

Whether it's outlining, point of view, character development, world building, finding time to write, getting over writer's block, or a hundred other things, no one has the ultimate answer.


That said, figuring out what works most of the time and for most people is useful.

Learning the acceptable rules of grammar and punctuation will be in your favor . . . so that when you need to violate them, you can do so effectively and purposefully.

Following industry expectations usually plays in your favor when seeking publication, so you can come across as a professional.

You may be the exception. Or not.

So . . . How do you know if you are?

Um, yeah. Another tricky question. You can't really know, at least, at first. Figuring it out takes time and practice. And a lot of both.

My advice: learn the rules. Learn to use them well. Figure out why they're rules in the first place. That could mean years of practice.

You can't know what works for you until you do. So try outlining. If that just isn't you, try pantsing it. Chances are you're somewhere between the two extremes. Play around until you find the place on the continuum that fits you best.

You'll have far more success finding your own way than trying to duplicate someone else's journey to publication.

No writer follows the same path as any other. You'll find obstacles unique to you, things you need to figure out on your own. Things that, frustrating as that is, may not have a clear black and white answer.

None of this is to say to ignore the instruction of writing teachers, to stop going to conferences, to stop reading blogs like this one, or to abandon writing books, podcasts, and the rest.

Rather, it means to expose yourself to as many different ways of viewing the writing process and the rules behind it so that you can find your personal niche.

If something a writing teacher passes along doesn't resonate with you, that's okay. Maybe another writer's way of viewing the same issue will work better for you.

Along the way, you'll stumble upon situations where you'll want to do something out of the lines. If you've put in the work, you'll know if you can do that. You'll be able to do it better than if you tried going into it blind. And coming out the other end, you'll know why it worked.

So: Learn as much as you can. Read lots. Practice writing even more than that. Figure out which rules work best for you.

You'll eventually discover what is your black, your white


Krista said...

So true! I love the last line of this post - so quotable!

Donna K. Weaver said...

Well said. We do need to know the rules to know when it's okay to break them, to color outside of the lines.

L.T. Elliot said...

This is something I've slowly been learning. When I tell myself that my journey is taking too flippin' long, I have to remember that I'm discovering the rules, the methods, the means of what will make me the best kind of writer I can be. And while it sucks to be patient, I hope it will pay off.