Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Changing fashions

I caught the reading bug many years ago at school (the writing bug took rather longer, as explained here). Those were the days when they had real chalk blackboards and we wrote everything out longhand with fountain pens. Remember those?

I borrowed books from the library, borrowed from friends, and assembled quite a collection of my own books, mostly sci-fi.

Recently, I got my hands on some of those old novels and started reading, to see how my memory lived up to reality.

It's been a remarkable trip down memory lane, and a stark reminder of changing fashions.

These were stories written in the middle of last century. Let's set aside the strongly "Boy's Own" style, the highly stereotyped characters, stilted dialogue, and the inevitably dated descriptions of technology. The breadth of imagination is still amazing, and this is what drew me in originally.

What struck me most, though, looking through the lens of current trends, was the style of the writing itself. Most of the action was written in passive voice - shields were raised, torpedoes were launched, etc. The whole text was laden with more adverbs than ants on a picnic. And much of it was delivered in full-on narrative lecture mode, interspersed with dips into a more immersive style.

I found myself skimming long passages because I was tired and it was just too much like hard work to read.

I won't comment on whether or not these stories would get published nowadays, but I'm sure they wouldn't survive five minutes in any of the critique groups I've been part of.

The question is, does that make it bad writing?

I think that some of the "rules" we hear so much about are probably founded in good practice. But many of them, I think, are not so much rules as current fashions.

In my writing journey, I've had to unlearn years of schoolboy indoctrination to be expressive with lots of descriptive words. Were my English teachers teaching bad writing, or did I just misunderstand?

And I'm struggling to pinpoint exactly when "He walked quickly" became such a pariah. Adverb! Kill! Maybe it's the programmer in me, but there's actually a certain design elegance in separating reusable qualifiers from the primary verb, rather than insisting on a distinct word for each possible nuance.

How about "show, don't tell"? At times, I've gotten seriously peeved at critiques that pick up on Every. Single. "Tell".

"Don't tell me she's angry/frightened/upset (delete as applicable) - show me!" You know, sometimes I just want to get the emotion across (quickly!) and get on with the action.

So, is it inherently wrong, or a passing phase? Let's think. Isn't this called "storytelling" for a reason? The oral traditions were highly narrative.

In fact, I would argue that too much emphasis on showing can be dangerous and lead to misunderstandings. For example, I am extremely bad at reading emotions in faces, so giving me descriptive clues about the expressions a character is pulling is likely to fall flat for me. What description is so unambiguous that you can be sure every reader is going to get what you intended? Just tell me she looked angry, and get on with the story. Believe it or not, I can fill in the gaps for myself. I do have a vivid imagination.

And that brings me back to why I started skimming in so many places. As a reader, I think I've become soft and lazy from being spoon-fed too much easy-to-digest writing. Maybe today's writing fashions are influenced by shortening attention spans and the demand to have everything painted for us. The old style of storytelling, of narrating, placed a great burden on us as readers to envisage the scene for ourselves. We had to work at it. But at the time, for me anyway, that wasn't a burden, it was part of the joy of reading!

So, my question for you is, do you think there are any absolute and timeless measures of good writing, or are they all fashions subject to change?


  1. Yes, and yes. I think there is one absolute that will never go out of style, and that is the ability to spin a good story. Grammatical errors, overly long descriptions, information dumps, and repetitiveness (or too much telling, not showing) can all be real turn-offs, but most of us are willing to forgive (or at least overlook) all of those things if the story is truly engaging. As for changes in writing, the long flowery passages common in many of the books I read in the past wouldn't be as accepted by today's readers. You could be right; maybe it is due to a reduced attention span or quest for instant gratification. Oh, and sometimes, I think it's perfectly FINE to tell and not show. In some circumstances, it's simply more expedient.

    1. Yes...I agree, Susan. It doesn't matter how much a writer knows about the nuts and bolts of writing. Perfect grammar and punctuation do not a story make. G and P evolve...languages evolve, preferences evolve. "If they did not," --as my daughter wrote on a recent blog post comment to me, "...we would all still be speaking and writing like Shakespeare." :-)

  2. Definitely changing...and I find the same thing as yourself. Some of the classics I am rereading leave my muttering "get to the point" and skimming page after page of what seems to be useless diaglogue only to have to go back and reread it because it had bearing on the story. I have fallen into lazy reading habits.

  3. "Adverb! Kill!" I'm still smiling over that...

  4. Yep, our reading tastes are changing. I can appreciate that sometimes tell is called for. Showing slows things down and yes, it can lead to unclear reactions based on the readers perception. But adverbs, those must die! Ok, not all of them, but what can I say, I've been brainwashed in that regard.

    I recently picked up a sci-fi classic, anxious to expand my reading horizons with something old/new. OMG, the first two pages were all one endless block of text. One paragraph. I tried. I foraged my way though a page of it and gave up when my eyes glazed over for the fifth time. That would never fly these days.

  5. Susan, spin a good story certainly fits the bill as a timeless requirement.

    Delores, that's the danger when you start skimming. You might miss something important. I find problems at the other end of the spectrum with many movies and TV shows - especially thrillers/mysteries. The important clues come out so fast I blink and miss them even though I'm riveted to the screen.

    Karen, glad to have brought a smile...:)

    Jean, it's strange, adverbs clearly weren't always seen as such bad things. And your experience with a sci-fi classic is exactly what I'm talking about.

  6. I just read a book where all the author does is SHOW. I ended up skimming large portions of the book in search of the plot because it was bogged down with too many explanations of every little thing.

    And I do like some adverbs, but things like "whispered quietly" is redundant. The adverb must go in this case.

  7. I loved the imaginative strength of that old-time sci-fi and certainly much sci-fi is well written (eg, Ursula K Le Guin).
    The writer John Braine (Room at the Top) was against the use of adverbs and adjectives!
    Click here for Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

  8. Kimberlee, I suspect I've I've written "whispering quietly" a few times myself. Those redundant adverbs have to go, no argument there :)

    Bazza, that sounds rather extreme. I know it's easy to go overboard, but adverbs and adjectives are parts of speech for a reason and they have their place.

  9. I will read pretty much any sort of style, as long as the story is good. Slavishly avoiding 'bad' words (adjectives etc) is as bad as overdoing them, in mu opinion.

  10. When you follow rules you are following the formula for writing today. Real writing is good regardless of the rules. Read 'One Hundred Years of Solitude'-- no one can tell me that is not great writing but when you read it, he's all about telling. And it's great.

  11. Sarah, that's my opinion too. Slavishly following a rule tells me that you don't truly understand what you're doing :)

    Danette, there are always exceptions, aren't there? Good writing should shine through regardless.

  12. Story & emotion - is the reader hooked? I think that writing styles, like any art form, do indeed change with time. "Rules" apply at that specific point in time and everyone, it seems, needs to be on the band wagon. That is, until someone comes along who blasts those rules with an outstanding read & then everyone runs toward that style like 6 year olds to a soccer ball! If the writing capitvates the reader, whatever style was used worked...

  13. I recently wrote a post that touches on some of the things you wrote about here, Botanist. I so agree with Susan about spinning a good story.

    And I agree with you about the shortening attention spans. If a book does not start in media res, I find that I maintain a sort of clinical distance from it...and find it much more difficult to connect with not only the story--but the characters as well. And...if I am not reeled in by the characters, why bother reading it? As a reader, I must be able to relate to them, somehow, some way... and I need a good balance of action, dialogue, and narrative to pique my interest.

    I really don't think that there are hard and fast rules. Good grammar and punctuation are a plus. However, there are authors who recently made tons of money and have devoted fans, who write quite poorly. (Quick! Kill the "poorly".)

    It is easy for us to find the "overload" point when it comes to reading writer's blogs, tips, tricks, advice, etc. But, I think I am at that place where reality is much larger than following rules and formulas.

    Eventually, it comes down to what the market will bear. And the market wants story. They like it when the story is delivered in a well-written manner--not so many writing errors that it distracts from the story...but in the end, it is the story that sells.

    Great post...wonderful comments, all.

    If you are curious, and have time, my referenced blogpost is called "Reading With Which Eye?" and can be found here:

    Oh, I found you on the A to Z linky-list. Look forward to your posts. :-)

  14. Ladybug & Teresa, I agree that the one fundamental is to tell a good story. However, I think that what that looks like to people changes over time. In other words, what one generation agrees is a gripping story might be utterly rejected fifty years on.


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