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Birch Bay Public Market

Friday, May 10 through the end of summer, Cathy and I will be selling her hand-made soaps, lotions, and toiletries, along with my photography, note cards, calenders, books, etc.

Come see us!

Across the street from the C Shop

4825 Alderson Road, Birch Bay, Washington 98230


I had an automated blogroll here, powered by Google Reader, but Google, in its near-infinite lack of wisdom, killed Google Reader. Prior to this murder, all I had to do to put a blog on my blogroll (or to take it off) was to place it in a Reader folder called, appropriately enough, "blogroll" (or, of course, to remove it). I use The Old Reader now for following blogs, but it seems to have no way to something similar regarding the blogroll. If you know of a way to do this, please let me know.

Bad Advice, Part II – The Banned Tools

Advice on painting:

  • Eliminate all unneeded colors.
  • Eliminate all unneeded brush strokes.
  • Every brush stroke should do one of two things: tell the story or build the subject’s face.
  • Never use red.
  • Whenever you want to add a color, ask yourself “Does this color add anything to the face?” If not, eliminate it.

Ok, I made all that up. But I’m sure you get the point. Writers get offered this kind of “advice” every day. Eliminate unneeded words. Never use adverbs. Cut all dialogue that doesn’t move the plot forward. If a character doesn’t carry part of the plot, get rid of him/her/it (sorry — couldn’t help myself).

Well, that’s all fine if you want to write exactly what everyone else has written. Or, more correctly, if you want to write exactly what the giver of the advice at hand has written, because a lot of this stuff contradicts other bits by other people.

The point is that there are as many ways to write as there are writers. There are as many ways to write as there are stories to tell.

Kurt Vonnegut said “Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.” Apply this to the brush strokes in a painting and the absurdity of it becomes obvious. In fact, apply it to Kurt Vonnegut’s writing. Half the sentences would have to go, and yet no one ever questions it.

Every writing pundit on the face of the Earth will tell you to strike all your adverbs and half of your adjectives. Adverbs and adjectives represent weak writing, they’ll tell you. Pick better words. Well, sometimes the perfect word is an adverb. To say “Never use adverbs or adjectives” is as ridiculous as to tell a painter “Never use red.”

Passive voice. Don’t even get me started on passive voice. Did you know that not even Strunk and White follow their own advice? (I was going to quote from the April 17th issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, where Geoff Pullum writes about the fiftieth anniversary of Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style” and calls it “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” but they’ve locked it up behind a subscription wall, so I won’t. The point is, they use passive voice in the book, and some of what they give as examples of passive voice is, in fact, not passive voice at all.

It is patently absurd to say  that a particular tool should never be used.

This is like an automotive book saying (which they all do) “Never use an adjustable wrench.” “Never use locking pliers.” Well, there are times when those are the very tools you need to use, precisely because of the very properties that the book cites as example why you should never use them. To say “Never use adverbs,” or “Never use passive voice” is every bit as absurd as to say “Always put an adverb immediately before or after every verb,” or “The use of passive voice wherever possible is to be strongly encouraged.”

A friend of mine had his tool box stolen once.

He wrote up a list of the tools he thought were in there, and his insurance company paid up, and life went on. But for years, he kept needing some weird thing and going “Oh, I have one of those… no, I don’t.” His toolbox had become filled with arcane things you may only need a dozen times in your life, things he’d forgotten were in there, things he hadn’t replaced with insurance money. That bent darning needle that does that one thing so perfectly, the offset wrench that is required for the distributor lock-down on a ‘73 Whatchamonkey, the wrench that you filed down by hand to fit one single purpose and now you need it again.

You can never have too many tools. In fact, you may never be able to acquire enough. Why on Earth would anybody try to outlaw some of them?


1 comment to Bad Advice, Part II – The Banned Tools

  • Ben

    First of all, probably my favorite blog that you’ve written. I’m trying to follow more of this advice than some of the more writerly advice. However, I think that if someone is truly skilled storyteller, they’ve figured this out for themselves. For those of us that are still finding our way, I think that the typical advice you hear can help quite a bit for a while. Once you get comfortable working within those confines, it’s going to be obvious that there is a better tool for the job, and I don’t think anybody needs to tell you that.