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The Single Worst Piece of Advice You Can Give an Aspiring Writer

I got a kick out of Nick Mamatas’ Ten Bits of Advice Writers Should Stop Giving Aspiring Writers. (If you’re allergic to profanity, avoid this piece!) Probably because I’m SO tired of hearing some of these things regurgitated SO often. But my favorite, hands down, is number six:

We should stop telling aspiring writers… It’s All Subjective

Because it’s NOT. It not ALL subjective.

The Submission Guidelines to that publisher you hope to land are NOT SUBJECTIVE. Just try ignoring them and find out. You can disagree with the Chicago Manual of Style all you want, but if it represents, as its subtitle suggests, “the Essential Guide for Writers, Publishers, and Editors,” then ignore it at your own risk. And if good writing is subjective, then why are there so many books and blogs and seminars and courses and manuals on… how to write better? If good writing is subjective then there is no need to get better at it. In fact, “getting better” is completely relative.

As much as we dislike the Rules, there really are some Rules an aspiring author should try to master before they go breaking them. Which means… it’s not ALL subjective.

I can hear it now. People have different tastes, you object. Some folks hate peas and Hemingway, while others like chopped liver and Pollock.

Well, no duh.

There’s a difference between your “taste” in something and the actual quality of the product. A good reader / reviewer / critic should be able to separate the two. Just because I don’t “like” liver does not mean liver can’t be properly cooked. In the same way, just because I don’t “like” Amish fiction does not mean it can’t be well-written. Similarly, I might not “like” a film, but that shouldn’t keep me from admitting it was well-made. Conversely, I can admit a film is poorly made, but still believe the story has merit.

People who suggest that “Good writing is ALL subjective” are usually referring to taste, not quality.

For the moment they concede there IS a standard for quality writing, they undermine their own argument. So you must make a distinction between “preference” and “precedence,” between “what you like” and “what is well-done.”

Essayist and art critic Dan Schneider, in a rather academic piece entitled Objectivity, Subjectivity, And The Fallacy Of Self Limits In The Arts affirms that “Subjectivity exists, but in the small gaps between easily identifiable (i.e- objective) quanta.”

The critic that claims there are no objective criteria on which to base an opinion of something is really stating their own inability in doing so… Those who claim that all is subjective are a curious lot, for if they really believed that then they would not argue the point, since its arguing belies their belief in its objective nature. If all is subjective, after all, then all viewpoints are equally viable. But that is, again, patently silly. (emphasis mine)

If there is no “easily identifiable (i.e- objective) quanta,” for what makes a good story, then puking on the page is just as reasonable as polishing the prose.

Make no mistake about it: One of the primary reasons people play the “subjective card” is to excuse bad art or their taste in it. Your writing might really suck. But how will you ever admit that if you believe… it’s all subjective?

If you’re still not convinced, if you really think good writing is all subjective, then here’s a quote from my new book entitled “Abstract Writing.”

“Wjhdf lguyrk. Jvn ksdnajf nN le-5bx784nfgv? Khtv 3rlkjvn dvk.erjgb. Mfkiuvlrl v943jm ;dnv. Swu676woulOd, lbpv-5i! ybDD! GGG. Hanfurgd fiyrnkd. ## dor887bJHG…”

Question: Would you like to pre-order a copy?

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{ 24 comments… add one }
  • Steve Doyle January 26, 2012, 7:18 AM

    That was great. I’ll have to read the rest of Nick’s piece.

  • Carradee January 26, 2012, 7:36 AM

    I think that “It’s all subjective” is most of the other “rules” of writing: It’s a rule of thumb.

    Even “always put a comma before the conjunction in a compound sentence” is a rule of thumb; sometimes, you need a semicolon. And there are rarely-encountered situations where you don’t capitalize the first word in a paragraph unless it’s a proper noun.

    And, like the “Show; don’t tell” rule (of thumb), “It’s all subjective” is an oversimplification.

    Some folks—multi-published, making-a-living-from-their-writing folks—believe it’s better to put out a story in enjoyable format than perfect format. Some think a few typos are acceptable, while for others, it’s the end of the world.

    That is where the subjectivity comes in, methinks. 🙂

  • Heather Sunseri January 26, 2012, 8:11 AM

    You crack me up, Mike!

  • Kessie January 26, 2012, 9:08 AM

    I’ve heard all those tips (and read them expanded in writing books), but I’ve never run across the “subjective” line before. That’s like people in the art world who insist that art is self expression. Maybe modern art, where it’s smears of colors to represent your mood, but representational art is not self expression. It’s science and a lot of work, especially if you want to sell any. One of my favorite artists has waxed eloquent on the topic many times. 🙂

  • Jill January 26, 2012, 9:56 AM

    Argh! I notice you failed to lay out a list of those rules. Many so-called rules are simply preferred styles. Even grammar rules are fluid, as is demonstrated by the fact that Americans follow different rules of grammar and spelling than do Brits. There are very few hard and fast rules of any kind, and that drives me insane. And you know what else drives me insane? I hate it when people put forth supposed rules of writing and claim, “This is what the reader wants.” They say this, of course, because their rules aren’t rules at all, but styles they are throwing themselves behind with broad sweeping statements of a collective readership. Language must communicate–yes, for that, we follow styles of grammar and spelling. And stories must accomplish certain goals: (I’m going to steal this list from Katie Ganshert’s blog) A clear beginning and end. Engaging characters. Forward momentum. Some sort of conflict. And a theme that matters. These are timeless elements, but even they are subjective. Sigh.

    And, for the record, my favorite books are ones that use author/narrator intrusion. Losing that old-fashioned/classical style is a great loss to literature as a whole. By the way, I’m making fun of a close 3rd-person perspective on my blog today.

    • Mike Duran January 26, 2012, 11:04 AM

      So Jill, will you be buying my book “Abstract Writing”? If so, I’d like non-abstract cash.

      Throughout your comments you affirm basic grammar and story-telling goals. That’s pretty much all I’m saying. Sure, subjectivity comes into play and language morphs. But it can’t ALL be subjective. If it is, then so are your comments. Which makes them pointless.

      • Jill January 26, 2012, 11:37 AM

        I don’t think truth is subjective, just difficult to grasp. I also don’t like to confuse rules with modes or styles. And I’m pretty sure my comments ARE pointless. 😉

  • Katherine Coble January 26, 2012, 10:59 AM

    Okay…this is a little bit creepy. The post I had drafted for today (which is now gone live) is about Showing vs. Telling and how I think so many of the Authorial Advice bits that tell you to Show, not Tell are just plain wrong.

    I guess we’re all in the mood to second guess the advicemongers today. 🙂

    As for “It’s All Subjective”, that’s ALWAYS been one of my least favourite things to see on an advisory list (other unfavourites: write every day, write what you know). I realise that perhaps when they say it they mean that sometimes good books are overlooked because a publisher isn’t interested in marketing that story at that particular time. But really, every time I see it I think of all the people I’ve come across at various writers’ groups who CANNOT WRITE. And there are a lot of them. I sat in one writers’ group night at a popular chain sandwich-and-bread restaurant and listened to one young woman read the most dreadful piece of writing I’d come across in a long time. The only response I could muster when my turn came was to say that it was definitely an interesting twist but finding a publishing house for it might be difficult, as the characters were all under copyright to other authors. (It was a piece of fanfic where characters from CSI were romantically involved with characters from Law & Order and House.) ALL the other writers at the table immediately jumped in with “It’s ALL Subjective”. As though things like “those characters don’t belong to you” and “that is a painful piece of garbage to even listen to a part of” didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

    • Kessie January 26, 2012, 11:09 AM

      HAHAHA! What a terrible piece of writing! I’ll bet it made your brain bleed, didn’t it? I know those kinds.

      Of course, if they really like writing, they might improve. Everybody starts somewhere. It’s when they want to publish those first fledgling (awful) efforts that you have to complain.

    • Jill January 26, 2012, 11:42 AM

      I agree 100% that “show vs tell” is often bad advice. That’s another one of my buggers when I rant against modern rules of storytelling. All show and no tell makes Jack a very boring book.

    • R. L. Copple January 26, 2012, 1:01 PM

      Actually, any book that is either all show or all tell would be boring in the latter instance, and a ten-pound book in the case of the former. There are times to show and times to tell and knowing the difference is the real trick. 🙂

      But I guess a comment for another blog.

      • Katherine Coble January 26, 2012, 1:08 PM

        We’re having this discussion over at my blog just now. I pretty much just insist that Showing is just a tool, not a rule.

  • Lyn Perry January 26, 2012, 11:38 AM

    I pretty much agree. Storytelling has some basic rules and we can grow in our mastery of those rules so that when we “break” them it’s in the service of the story. I think why some people feel that terrible storytelling is subjective is that there are still terrible readers who can’t tell the difference between good and bad.

  • Alan O January 26, 2012, 11:44 AM

    Hey, Mike. This is a topic that I know is near and dear to your heart, as you’ve mentioned it frequently in the time I’ve followed your blog. Reactions to a few things:

    a) “It’s all subjective” is not a concept I’ve seen preached a lot in How To Write books, seminars, courses, etc. I suspect maybe you’re seeing this philosophy argued mostly in the comment sections of blogs & forums by people who are defending their opinions? If anything, I tire of the opposite: countless voices of the kind that drive Jill, above, (and me) insane: bold proclamations and confident assertions of “this is what the reader wants” or “This is Only Way to hook your reader in an opening” or No One uses the (fill in the blank) POV anymore”. Then you turn to the next expert voice, who flatly contradicts what the previous expert said.

    b) Somehow, in sifting through the semantic complexities of this issue, you have to account for the fact that The Rules of Good flex and change over time. Even grammar evolves, albeit slowly. Rules do serve as measuring sticks of quality, but only within the context of the time & culture.

    c) I guess my follow-up question to your piece would be: What *is* the standard of quality writing? Not being sarcastic at all…I’m genuinely curious about your perspective: Unless I’m misunderstanding you, you’re suggesting that this thing we label Quality Writing is not relative or subject to opinion; it’s an absolute. That this thing Exists, and can be somehow identified *outside* the realm of personal preference. If I’m seeing your point clearly, then the next step is: What are the non-negotiables that define Quality Writing?

    Thought-provoking stuff, as always…

    • Mike Duran January 26, 2012, 2:32 PM

      Appreciate your comment, Alan. This issue concerns me not because I’ve heard it taught as a Rule, but because of my interaction with other writers, specifically bloggers. I’ve heard too many writers, when pressed to argue a case for the quality of a book or defend their own writing, summarize by saying, “Well, you have your opinion and I have mine,” or “Oh well, it’s all subjective.” I have come to the conclusion that this sets a dangerous precedent, not just for our own writing, but for aspiring writers we can potentially influence. Isn’t there SOMETHING that all good, well-written stories share? I think so. We ought to be able to recommend a dozen well-written books to an aspiring author to study. Those books will all be different, break different rules, and appeal to us differently. Cool. That’s where the subjectivity part comes in.

      You said, “…you’re suggesting that this thing we label Quality Writing is not relative or subject to opinion; it’s an absolute.” Alan, I think SOME aspects of quality writing are definitely objective. Craft books and writing programs are a good place to start. There is a scaffold for this thing we call good writing. It involves grammar, sentence structure, prose, word economy, story arc, dialog, etc., etc., etc. Sure some of it is debatable. But my guess is that if we both graded first pages simply on how well they were written, we would be in a lot of agreement.

      And I agree with your (and Jill’s) frustration with those who say, “this is what the reader wants” or “This is Only Way to hook your reader in an opening” or “No One uses the (fill in the blank) POV anymore.” Problem is, if it’s the Gatekeepers saying it, you either jump their hoops or rage against the machine. But wouldn’t you agree there are definitely elements of truth to those things? A story that NEVER hooked anyone or that jumped through innumerable POVs would also be a problem.

      All that to say, I harp on this point because I think the writing community — especially the Christian writing community — tends to play the “It’s all subjective” card way too often. Some writers need to hear: “Your writing OBJECTIVELY needs improving.”

      Thanks so much for writing, Alan!

      • Alan O January 27, 2012, 5:03 AM

        Agree 100%. Very well articulated… Put me at the top of the list for writers who need to objectively improve!

  • Tim George January 26, 2012, 1:09 PM

    I know we’ve discussed and probably missed each other on this subject several times. To say anything is “ALL” something precludes any reasonable discussion. Would you say writing is “ALL” objective? Of course not. Athol Dickson once wisely advised me to first prove I could master the rules so I could then earn the right to bend them when needed to better tell a story.

    However, reading must be highly subjective. I see no other way to explain the millions of copies of Twilight and whatever Dan Brown churns out. How else can I explain putting the same well written book in two people’s hands and getting wildly different opinions about the quality of the writing?

  • Jennifer K. Hale January 26, 2012, 1:21 PM

    Funny. And true. Thanks for reminding me that subjectivity and taste are certainly not one in the same.

  • R. L. Copple January 26, 2012, 1:21 PM

    Well, as I like to say, absolute statements are always wrong. 😉

    So, yeah, it isn’t *all* subjective. But that also doesn’t mean there is some subjectivity to it. It all depends on what measure you are using to gauge what is quality and what is not. As I state in an older post on my blog about this topic, some people also make the mistake of thinking the rules are ends in themselves. http://blog.rlcopple.com/?p=446

    But if we’re referring to grammar, the measure is maybe more objective, though as pointed out that isn’t set in stone. We have, after all, many style guides depending on what type of writing you are doing. Going by the Chicago Style as a journalist will get your editor angry with you. And I think most would agree if your first chapter is chalked full of typos, grammar mistakes, that it is not likely to be read widely simply because it makes it hard to read.

    But if you’re measure is what readers will buy, we all know of badly written books that break all the rules and still sell well. Not to say no one should do that. The rules are there as guides as to how to write in a way that will have the best chance of connecting with the readers. But therein is the issue, the main goal of most writers is to connect with some readers. The rules are there to help us accomplish that. But once someone starts writing as if the rules are the end goal of writing will maybe produce technically good stories, but perhaps not as often stories people really want to read because that is no longer the focus of the writing.

    Now, if you write only for yourself, then there is no need to throw it out there, and no need to follow any rules. Just write to have fun and get the stories out of your head. But if you want to connect with readers to tell a good story, then that takes more than following the rules, and often a good story will connect despite not following the rules.

    But the bottom line is you learn the rules, you follow them when they serve the story, and when they don’t, you ignore them. Knowing when that is true takes experience.

    And yes, people who have said “This will turn readers away from your story, you have to do it this way to keep your readers glued to your book,” aren’t accurate statements. People tend to use “readers” in a generic sense as a way to support their statements that you can’t argue with. Because the fact is that if anyone of us knew what readers wanted, we’d be rich, because editors at publishing houses can’t figure that out more than a small percentage of the time. An editor who knew how to pick all the best sellers would demand a very high salary.

  • Patrick Todoroff January 27, 2012, 6:08 AM

    id lik two preeodur too copees uf yur bok pleez. Ware can I paa?

  • Bob Avey January 27, 2012, 4:47 PM

    Yep. There’s more to a good story than words on a page.

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