Conflicting Advice To Writers – Guest Post by Jaq D. Hawkins…

I recently came across an article offering advice about choosing past, present or future tense and first, second or third person pov. I didn’t finish reading the article after I got to a part that said first person works best in present tense.

No. It doesn’t.

In fact, many people like myself refuse to read books written in first person present tense, despite the growing number of books on the market, mostly self-published, written that way by young, mainly Romance authors.

There will be people who disagree with my opinion on this. There will be far more, especially in my age group, who agree. The point is, advice in articles about writing can conflict and all advice should be filtered through the reader’s own experience and opinions.

In my opinion, a book written in first person works best in past tense because it’s like someone telling a story, about something that happened to them. Historically, most books are written in past tense, though occasionally a short segment might be written in present tense to add immediacy to a scene. Charles Dickens often did this. I’ve yet to find a Classic written entirely in present tense, but let’s not harp on about that particular point.

The conflicting advice in articles about writing is greatly overshadowed by agreement on many points, especially about building an author platform. However, I do question some of the common advice as well. Why? because as a reader, I don’t respond to some of what writers are told to do.

For example, I’ve seen many articles encouraging writers to infiltrate social media. Readers get a lot of spammy posts on any given social network, so unless the author is very clever about it, their promotional posts are met with distrust. There are authors who participate and become more trusted, but the flyby spammers still proliferate, encouraged by publishing articles.

Another example is the use of speech tags. I’ve seen a lot of articles recently insisting that an author should never use anything but ‘said’. As a reader I strongly disagree. Speech tags are a source of expression if used well. They can set mood or just to avoid tedium, something like “he answered” or “she whispered” can break up the ‘saids’ in a flow of conversation. The trouble comes in when the writer tries to get too exotic with the tags or mistakenly uses a verb where a tag should be.

Readers have preferences and some advice could be good for one audience and bad for another, but we should always keep in mind that an article expresses one person’s opinion, including this one. I read a lot of writing articles, despite having been a published writer for nearly thirty years. now. There is always something new to learn, or even reminders of things we ought to know.

Marketing in particular is a fluid subject and updates on current trends or resources are well worth reading about from those who experiment with the latest tools available on publishing platforms.

As long as we’re aware that advice does sometime conflict and examine everything through our own literacy and reading experience, there is much good advice out there to benefit us all.

What say you? Have you come across writing advice you would question, or particularly brilliant articles that have given you those lightbulb moments?

Jaq D Hawkins

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18 thoughts on “Conflicting Advice To Writers – Guest Post by Jaq D. Hawkins…

  1. This is the best writing advice I’ve read for a very long time. One of the many ‘rules’ that annoys me is the one about not using phrases like ‘he took a deep breath’ because they are cliches.Obviously we don’t want to stuff our stories with cliches or have someone taking a deep breath ten times in one chapter, but sometimes it’s appropriate for a character to take a deep breath, shake their head or frown, and trying to find alternative ways to describe these actions only leads to horrible clunky sentences that are even more offputting for the reader.
    I’ve also come across advice about not using the verb ‘to be’, as in ‘is’ or ‘was’, which is just plain ridiculous. Soon the creative writing police will be banning ‘and’, ‘the’ and ‘a’.

    Like

    • Some phrases fit the situation, I agree. The one that makes me laugh is when someone complains about “He thought to himself.” Some of the old Goodreads trolls liked to harp on that one. All I can say is try reading the Classics.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. What a timely post! My editor and I were just having this discussion about tense. She’s in your camp; I’m still debating what’s best in my mind. One of the people in my critique group advises writing things in the present if they’re still true today. His argument was that writing something like “Jacob was a good friend” implies that he is no longer a friend. Like many other issues, I can see both sides of it.

    Like others have mentioned, I find it rather comical how some writing rules are okay to break while others are not. No wonder we’re so confused! One standard guideline that bugs me is the “never use adverbs” as if they are some evil force of nature. I understand that there is often a perfect verb to substitute for the use of a weaker adverb, but not always. I will opt with what my gut tells me is better, and it’s okay if others disagree. With any creative endeavor, people are bound to hold differing opinions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Stephen King advises some flexibility on adverbs and I agree with him. The point is not to over use them or to weaken your writing when a stronger verb would be most effective. Some adverbs are good expression.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What a sensible post. I’m not fond of the present tense myself, in whatever POV. Surely a story is something that is being told AFTER the event, not during it! And as for second perso, that, it seems, a few writers are doing now, well, thet’ so artificial. Who goes around telling people what they are doing?
    I agree about ‘said’, too. I find it tedious to have a list of He said, She said, then May said, and John said.
    The writing advice says people don’t notice ‘said’, but I do if it’s the only tag used. It’s boring. We’re told about repetition, and how bad it is to use the same word in close proximity, but then, in the next breath, as it were, we’re told to use only ‘said’.
    Thank you for this breath of fresh air.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I so agree about second person too. I tried reading something in second recently and had to give it up. I did what? That would be silly and put me in danger, no way!

      Rod Serling got away with it in his intro to The Twilight Zone because it was taking us into metaphysical territory and down a story rabbit hole. Like the present tense, I could see it working in small segments for an effect if used carefully. Otherwise it only really works in those choose your own story game books where it reads like a Dungeons and Dragons quest.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Quibbling with writing “rules” and advice has inspired quite a few of my blog posts. I admit to automatically questioning any advice that says one should always or should never do something. I especially question advice that labels specific words as “weak” or otherwise bad. It’s quite true that some word combinations work better than others, but words are our tools and we should use them all effectively. I’m with you on dialogue tags. Judicious use of words other than “said” is perfectly okay. I guess the takeaway is not to accept any piece of advice without thinking about it. Writers are also readers, and we therefore have our own reading experience to draw upon.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Much of the writing advice I read causes me to either dismiss it as lacking any kind of meaningful depth or scratch my head and say, “Where did you get such an idea?”

    I am very grateful that I studied the craft of fiction under a professor whose approach was to explain the various choices available to a writer for a particular aspect of the story (point of view, tense, syntax, diction, etc.) and how readers normally responded to each one. We could then make informed choices that aligned with our goals for the story and its intended audience.

    Liked by 5 people

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