Completely serious writing advice

by look i have opinions

“‘The’ is […] the most overused word in the language[.]”

this writing competition announcement (eviscerated delightfully here)

As sad/hilarious as this is, it’s actually pretty typical of the bad writing advice out there. “X is overused; avoid it whenever possible”—just substitute a word, a part of speech, or a rhetorical device for X.

Also typical are the unhelpful Goofus & Gallant-style examples. The aspiring writer is supposed to look at them and say, “Gosh! I almost wrote something as bad as Goofus! Good thing I saw Gallant’s revision, which was dramatically improved by the magic of writing advice!”

Only, typically, the examples make no sense. Often the Goofus example is perfectly innocuous. Other times, it’s so ludicrously contrived that even a terrible writer would have the sense to cross it out. The Gallant example is usually a dubious improvement. Sometimes Gallant transforms a straightforward sentence into a charmless purple-prose monstrosity.

Part of the problem is that giving examples is hard. I’ve tried it myself. (Giving writing advice is one of my guilty pleasures.) Ideally, I suppose, the Goofus example should be taken straight from life. For simplicity’s sake, Goofus should be allowed to make only one mistake per example. The mistake should be a genuine problem, not a pet peeve. It should be common enough that it’s worth correcting specifically. It should be the kind of mistake that the amateur writer will not recognize merely by rereading, or else will not know how to fix. And finally, the Gallant example should be both a genuine improvement and a pretty decent piece of writing. Most literate people should be able to agree that it doesn’t sound stupid.

But all that stuff is hard. Finding a good Goofus in the wild is tricky, and getting permission to use it is (presumably) awkward. Getting good input from peers takes time. Distinguishing a common mistake from an unusual one can be very subjective, and trying to do it scientifically would require a decent corpus and a lot of patience. Also, anecdotally, I’ve noticed that writers are really bad at distinguishing genuine problems from pet peeves. I think writers just do what works for them and eventually, because it does work, they come to treat it as gospel.

That got more meta than I intended. Giving advice on how to give writing advice might be my new guilty pleasure.

Anyway, what’s especially sadlarious about this competition is that despite offering prize money in the thousands, it couldn’t afford to hire a competent editor to review the guidelines. I suspect they were put together by some cranky volunteer. Some people just can’t resist sharing their opinions with the world.

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