(very) bad advice

This is, I’ll admit, a pet peeve of mine: More established writers  who seem compelled to issue grand  statements about writing. Such statements usually fall into one of two categories: the do this, don’t do that admonitions, or  the proclamation fiction is going to hell in a handbasket because… Note: I’m talking here about those who write fiction. The grammar police have their own crazy little universe, and I am not going there.  But see Geoffrey Pullum’s excellent post on this subject (5o Years of Stupid Grammar Advice) at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

People who are trying to write or establish themselves as writers seem to suck up these pronouncements  and run off with them without looking very closely.  Here’s my favorite (or better said) least favorite example of the second kind of pronouncement, from John Gardner: If our furniture was as poorly made as our fiction, we would always be falling onto the floor.

I have seen this quoted many times by many different writers with something approaching reverence. Gardner was by all reports an excellent teacher, but this statement? Meaningless. The comparison between making furniture and writing fiction, and the success or failure of either is specious at best.   To me it sounds like a cranky old uncle scolding kids for the imminent end of the world.

Just today I came across a more recent example of the ‘do this, don’t do that’ category,  with the foreboding title “45 Ways to Avoid Using the Word ‘Very‘” posted by a group who offers writing courses in South Africa.  Two examples of their suggestions: instead of writing ‘very clever’ write ‘brilliant’ and for ‘very bad’ write ‘atrocious.’

This kind of blanket advice will rarely do you any good. What if your POV character is a child complaining about eating vegetables?

Grandpa: You know your grandma and me have been growing asparagus in our garden since your dad was a little boy. It’s a great treat, fresh asparagus from the garden.  How does it taste to you?

Four year old: It tastes bad, grandpa. Very bad. Can I have Fruit Loops instead?


Four year old: Do you really think so, grandpa? Maybe it’s an acquired taste, but I find it inedible. Atrocious, as a matter of fact.

If you’re writing about a precocious four year old, then sure, you could get away with this. In general though, a list of phrases to use is never going to work for every character and every scene. So why publish such advice?

The other example — using ‘ brilliant’ for ‘very clever’ — can get you into just as much of a pickle.

Guy 1: You’re a half hour late.

Guy 2: Jenny hid the car keys on me again.

Guy 1: Very clever, that Jenny. I warned you.


Guy 1: Brilliant, that Jenny. I warned you.

Sarcasm and snide are hidden in that simple ‘very clever.’ If you substitute ‘brilliant’ for ‘very clever’ then there’s some confusion about Guy 1 and his intentions. Maybe he’s being sarcastic, but maybe not.

So the bottom line is, avoid quick bits of advice with global solutions to something that isn’t even a real problem.  Be wary of overusing very sure, but don’t twist yourself (and your characters) into a pretzel to avoid it.  Don’t take anybody’s admonitions (including mine) at face value. Look closely before you fold it into your personal encyclopedia of writing advice.