An interesting question came up recently with regard to authoritative advice for writers. It’s a fair question. With so many books and blogs out there, who should we believe and trust when it comes to advice? Further, what qualifies a person to give such advice?
In my October 6, 2014 blog post, I talked about the accepted authorities for spelling and grammar. That was a much easier topic to address because there are recognized standard reference sources. Even though I pointed out that these sources do not always agree, we’re dealing with an area based more on fact and less on opinion: the spelling, definition, and usage of words in the English language. The minor discrepancies arise because the language is always in a state of flux and not every change is magically adopted everywhere at once.
When it comes to the practice of writing, once we step beyond the basics of word meanings and grammar, we enter a world that becomes incredibly subjective, a world where the language gets bent and twisted–where presumed hard rules of grammar are broken–to fulfill the writer’s vision.
Nowhere has this become more apparent to me than while I’ve been working on our soon-to-be-released punctuation book for fiction writers. If you think that the rules of punctuation are all firmly in place, you’re wrong. I found places where the rules seem to be up for grabs, even among established authors. Unlike our dictionary authorities where research teams exist, there is no established research team or forum to compile conventions for writing. From time to time I’ve pointed out my own disagreement with some advice.
Now, let me give you a specific example. In the blog post here by Kellee Kranendonk on “Crafting a Marketable Story,” Kellee made the statement that “all stories must be believable” and someone asked the question “What authority does this person have to make such a blanket generalization?”
Well, Kellee really was not making a blanket generalization. She was stating a simple fact. A year ago I did a post that addressed this issue.
Kellee’s statement was really an observation of what readers expect. Of course not all stories are believable from a purely factual perspective. If stories had to be believable, then fantasy and science fiction and a lot of other stories would not exist. “Believable” in this context means “believable in the context of the story.” It means that the reader is willing to suspend disbelief in order to accept the story for what it is: a piece of fiction.
Granted, some readers shun certain genres because they prefer stories more grounded in the “real world” where time travel, world-conquering alien beings, Jedi Knights, dragons, vampires, werewolves, the undead, and kids who attend schools of magic do not exist.
It’s worth noting that Mark Twain, the man who wrote Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn did not restrict himself to the world of fact and reality. He also wrote A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and No. 44: The Mysterious Stranger, his last novel, which he never completed in a final form. Twain also criticized some of his contemporaries and their work and fashioned himself as an authority on writing. Would we consider Twain qualified to make proclamations on writing? Why him and not those he criticized, those whose works are considered classics today?
I point the reader to the following piece by Mark Twain, who makes a far better case on the subject of “authority figures” that I ever could.
I don’t want to get into a discussion what constitutes “good literature” because I’ve yet to run into a satisfactory definition of it. You might argue that it’s that which has stood the test of time or that which says something about the human condition or that which raises significant questions or… The list goes on. The reason I bring this up is that we are tempted to consider the authors of “good literature” as authorities on writing. But since we have difficulty defining “good literature,” how can we ascertain which authors fall into this category. Does an author’s popularity or productivity qualify him or her as an expert?
Stephen King has written a book–more of a memoir–on writing titled just that: On Writing. He is seemingly considered an authority figure, but why is he any more of one than J. K. Rowling who has outsold him many times over? Do we not consider her an authority on writing? Or would we only do so if she wrote a book about writing? Would we consider the works of these authors to be “good literature?” I’m quite certain that any number of the scholarly literati would answer this in the negative.
The odd thing is that few bestselling authors have written books on writing. In fact, many such books are written not by bestselling authors but by authors few people are familiar with. Some books on writing are written by literary agents, who are perhaps just as qualified (maybe more so) to write on the subject as is a bestselling author.
I’ve read quite a few books on writing and the one thing they’ve taught me is that no one person has all the right answers. Every author of such a book brings his or her own prejudices to the subject, and many times the advice is contradictory from one book to the next. Writing techniques and styles are as varied as anything can be. Because of this, you can’t assume that the advice of one author is more authoritative than that of another.
I contend that anyone who has done research on a subject is qualified to give advice on it, whether that person has hands-on experience or not. One might ask what qualifies me (and Scott) to give you advice in this blog? Maybe we have no clue what we’re talking about and you should ignore us completely?
We often provide links to online references to support our views, and you can always do the research, as we have done.
So, who should you believe? Whichever sources make consistent sense to you and your situation, and whose information and advice you can verify from other sources, are the ones you should take as your authority. Scott and I do our best to give you advice that we have found to be reliable, but that doesn’t mean everyone will agree with us–or that what we say applies to everyone equally.
Authority comes from two places: hands-on experience and research. Either may suffice alone. A good writer will research anything he or she has questions about. After you’ve done the research and find the same thing being said by a variety of sources, then you have the experience and become your most reliable authority.