Two Extremes Writers Take & How To Avoid Them

Why do we writers tend to become extreme in our opinions? Are we just passionate by nature and therefore quick to form strong feelings about certain issues?

Recently I got this comment in response to a blog post about growing in our writing skill: “This is such a lame post. Only shills of trad pubs speak like this. Reading how-to writing books and taking classes only make you write the same drivel as anyone else.”

Wow! Talk about strong feelings against reading writing craft books! And of course I don’t agree with the statement. But it made me realize how often we fall into the trap of seeing things in black and white.

So often we take an all or nothing approach when it comes to many issues within the writing industry. When it comes to the issue of learning how to write, here are two extreme approaches I’ve noticed:

Extreme #1: Writers who read how-to books risk writing the same drivel as everyone else.

How often do we hear, “It’s ALL about the story”?

Well, I’m going to go against the grain and say, NO, it’s not ALL about the story. In fact, we can have the best story known to humankind since the beginning of time, but if we don’t know how to tell it in a way that appeals to readers, we might as well keep our fantastic story for our own personal enjoyment on our hard drive.

We have to learn to craft our stories so that others will want to read them. In order to do that our stories need a framework, or structure, much like in building a house. We can’t throw together a bunch of bricks and shingles, slap some paint on it, and hope to have a house—at least one that’s livable.

Rather, we have to follow some basic guidelines, have a solid foundation, erect beams in correct places, put the floor on the bottom and the ceiling on the top. Yes, every house has those basics. Every house NEEDS them to be able to stand.

Books are built too. They have structure. And it’s within the framework of plot acts, character arcs, and scene & sequels that a writer’s creative and unique story-telling ability should shine. Within the hallways and rooms of our stories, we can color, decorate, and bring our special touch to the words.

We don’t risk writing drivel when we learn to craft stories. Instead, we’re being smart about building sturdy books in which readers can “live” with pleasure.

On the other hand, we do risk writing drivel when we try to decorate our stories like Pottery Barn or Better Homes & Garden (copying other writers) when we really should let them reflect our special personalities, interests, and life experiences.

Extreme #2: Writers have to learn all the “rules” before we can have a publishable book.

As you know from this post: My Writing Success: The ONE Thing That Helped Me Most, I strongly encourage writers to study fiction how-to books, put into practice basic techniques, and learn what constitutes salable fiction in today’s market.

However, I think many of us, particularly those with perfectionistic tendencies, get caught up in the need to make our stories technically perfect. We get so focused on writing without dialog tags, trimming exposition, eliminating adverbs, formatting the manuscript, and a myriad of “rules” that we lose ourselves and the beauty of story-telling in the process.

To carry on the house-decorating analogy, we end up with an interior that lacks vibrancy. Maybe we trim so much that our stories have as much warmth as a sterile convalescent home. Or maybe we add so much that our books resemble gaudy, over-decorated Victorian parlors. We get fixed on the details, the minutae, instead of the bigger picture.

The Preacher’s Bride wasn’t technically perfect when I landed my agent and book contract. But I’d taken the time (years) to study fiction-writing basics. My structure was solid. And within that framework was a gripping story.

My Summary: We can go from one extreme to the other. On the one side we can give the story TOO much freedom (and not enough structure). And on the other side, we can let the rules have TOO much control (and forget the story).

My encouragement is to find a middle ground. Know the basics of fiction-writing, the elements that comprise well-crafted stories. But also tell the best story possible without worrying that everything is perfect.

What’s your opinion? Is it ALL about the story? Are writers at risk of writing drivel when they read fiction how-to books? And if you think writers need structure, how can we avoid letting the “rules” have too much control over our stories?


  1. Great post, Jody! I'm definitely somewhere in the middle. A great story doesn't matter if I can't tell it well. I have read several how-to writing books; as a result, I (and my critique partners) have seen a tremendous improvement in my ability to tell a story well. That said, I feel as though I've got the information I need, and now it's a matter of honing my new-found skills. Too many writing books can stifle the process.

  2. There are always happy mediums. I think where the arts are concerned (and I consider writing to be among the arts) you will always have passionate views. I don;t think there is anything wrong with being passionate as long as we don;t attack others who don;t share our view. Sorry you got that comment. That must have hurt a bit. You dealt with it very professionally :)

  3. No, I don't think by studying craft we end up writing the same drivel. But in a way it is about the story b/c without a great story it doesn't matter how good the writing is. But I love when I find both in a book!

  4. Sounds a little like Christianity to me. :-)
    Great break down. As a fan of headhopping, I heartily agree with this! LOL

  5. Oh, Jody, I'm a big believer in studying the craft and learning the techniques. The BIG problem I'm having with writing my current project is not getting too caught up in those rules and guidelines as I write the first draft. I'm feeling I need to let go of that internal editor and just write as I develop my current story. I've loosely outlined in order to follow some of the rules of plot and structure, but it's time to just WRITE! Happy Monday, girl!

  6. Thanks Jody,

    Being a woman of extremes I have been at both ends of the spectrum you describe (currently with nose buried in writing books). Alas, I am sure that one day I will reach the balance that I am looking for (in life, as well as in writing).

    Thanks for the post.

  7. I agree with you about middle ground, however, I'm one who gets caught up in structure, which has been my creative downfall many times. (I become blocked from telling the story that's in my head, b/c I'm too worried about proper craft.) In a way, I wish I would have written all the novels I'll ever write—all the first drafts stacked high somewhere—and THEN I'd study all the craft books I can get my hands on! LOL That way, I'd already have the storytelling done, and I could switch gears & spend my time structuring them. (Just kidding...Sort of...)


  8. I think that keeping it humble and being open to learning is always a good thing. I do not think that reading about writing has hindered my unique voice; in fact, I think it helps. I recently read If You Can Talk, You Can Write and it motivated me to do my own thing, rather than to imitate the author's approach.

  9. Good morning, everyone! Love hearing where you're all at in the spectrum of extremes.

    Several of you have mentioned the risk of getting caught up in the "rules" during first draft mode which then inhibits the flow of the story. I do think if we're practicing a new skill, we will write a little bit slower until the skill becomes second nature. That happens to me too. So, in some ways, I think it's okay to slow down.

    But when the "rules" become paralyzing and stop us altogether, then I think we need to put them aside and wait until we get to the editing phase to think about them.

  10. Of course how to writing books help as long as you leave time for the writing and use them as a guide and not as the only way to do it.

  11. Excellent post, Jody...complete with sound structure, and a mesmerizing metaphor to give it life and vibrancy!:-) The ONLY thing I took issue with is the statement about "falling into the trap of seeing things in black and white." There is an underlying assumption here, that this IS a trap, and as some things ARE indeed black and white in my mind, I would question the accuracy of this statement. Other than that, I couldn't agree more with your assessment, and your recommendations.

    BTW, what are "shills of trad pubs?"

    ~ Betsy

  12. I don't know why, but this post reminded me of certain people and their fear of getting counseling. Some people need counseling. It helps. Even just a few sessions.

    I always find it curious when people are quick to knock something without giving it a go. But then again, I learn from anything. I could squeeze wisdom from a rock.

    There are my random thoughts for you this morning. ;)
    ~ Wendy

  13. Awesome post, and such valuable advice for any writer.

  14. This is another one of those situations where it's all about middle ground. Extremes are rarely useful and this post illustrates that beautifully. And as far as rule learning goes, those of us that were widely read before we started to write likely picked up many of the 'rules' by osmosis. You can write without reading craft books, but craft books will strengthen those skills. It's all about balance and I suspect that those that master that balance are the ones who will be the most successful at their craft.

  15. I wrote five stories before I knew much about craft. While they were fun to splash on the page, they wouldn't sell because they lacked some of the basic elements of a marketable story.

    I revised one of those stories taking into account the generally accepted guidelines. (Sounds less rigid than rules, right?) My agent sold that story.

    A story can be great, but it must be told in such a way that it appeals to readers. That's where learning craft comes in. It's not a case of either/or, but and.

  16. Hey Jody! :-) I think there's some balance to be had. You don't want to revise the voice out of your story but you do want a structure that works. Knowing the basics of scene and sequel and stimulus and response, and then being able to manipulate them, can go a long way.

  17. Hi Jody- I tend to lean more towards the "not following the rules" writer. I don't really read writing craft books OR study the craft of writing, but I think my reason is because I write non-fiction. Since I'm writing what is true, I don't have to worry about structure or backstory or characters and instead just need to focus on presenting the information in a way that's as clear as possible.

    That said, I think that a novelist--- especially a new or newer novelist--- can't succeed if they haven't studied the craft of writing. I've read too many novels that have huge gaps or don't make sense or aren't compelling. In fact, I just looked at my nightstand last night and saw a book that i started three months ago. I have 43 pages to go and I haven't picked it up in weeks. What would make me start and almost finish a book but put it down with 43 pages to go? It's the structure. I got confused on the backstory of one of the characters and couldn't get past some plot gaps and it made the whole book unreadable to me. As a novelist, the best way to avoid that is to study the craft of writing because I think it isn't something that just comes naturally.

  18. I think the commenter was more of a "troll" than a serious thinker on the subject. It is an individual's choice how they choose to approach writing.

  19. Intellectually I know my struggles between craft and writing but sometimes keeping that middle road is really tough, especially as a first time novelist. When I find myself writing or revising in circles and making little progress on the page, it never fails to surprise me that I've fallen once again to my extremes. I do believe that this give and take between craft and writing will get better with each story written but for now, it's all about cutting my teeth on that first novel.

  20. I think you missed an "extreme", Jody. Too Little Coffee. That is an Extreme I see many writers make time and again. It's just sad. Very. Sad.

  21. Hi Betsy,

    Yes, I do think there are some things that are black and white. Truth is truth. However, when it comes to the publishing world, especially with the ever-changing nature, I think we're wise to avoid taking extreme approaches.

    And shills of trad pubs? I'm pretty sure that particular commenter was referring to traditional publication in a negative light, which again is another extreme. Those who are in self-pub often stab at the beast of trad pub. And those in trad can stab at the faults of self-pub. It goes both ways. But I personally believe that eventually writers are going to end up doing a little bit of both, and thus should avoid all of the bashing.

  22. Fabulous post, as always, Jody!

    I do believe that writers should study "craft" books, but through time, they will develop their own creative process.

  23. I don't think writers see things in black and white, but certain personality types do. Writers tend to run the gamut of personality types, so there will always be black and white thinkers among them. I'm the type of person who shies away from black and white ideas--the world is way too complicated for them.

    This person sounds frustrated to the point of combative, in my opinion, rather than black and white. Frustration-fueled responses feel satisfying at the moment, even if the nihilism lurking beneath the frustration ultimately is not a great way to cope w/ the world (or in this case, the publishing part of the world).

  24. Hi Jody, I don't have your success to back up my words, but I do agree with you. Perhaps the person who commented had not learned much from reading craft books, but that is on him or her, not on the material.

    For example, many folks are good cooks, and developed their knowledge through watching and helping others in the kitchen, rarely using a cookbook to acquire expertise.

    Other cooks develop their skill by studying recipe after recipe before branching off to develop their own style.

    In the end, is there a difference? :)

  25. I think it's important to know the "rules" before you can effectively break them. Reading craft books doesn't mean you have to follow everything you learn. It just gives a framework for how stories work.

  26. I agree with you, Jody. And similar to Bridgette's cooking analgy, if we have to read a cookbook to learn the basic ingredients for a cake before we venture into creating something called Double Decker Chocolate Lover's Delight, why shouldn't we also educate ourselves with the how-to writing books out there? It's always good to keep learning plotting skills and formulas. You have to have something to get started with first.

  27. I think it's a lot about the story... but not ALL about the story. No, I don't think those who study writing craft books write drivel, and I think we do need a little structure.

    :-) I guess I'm in between? Not extreme? And that's... good??? *grin*

    I think there is a little merit in saying that if you try to copy what others do or be too married to rules of craft, not just in decorating but in the actual frame of the house, we get a little yawn-worthy. It's like going into a subdivision where there are only 4 different floor plans. They all decorate different, have different color brick or siding, some might have shutters and other might have stone gables. But it's still pretty repetative. It's not "bad" because there is definately a market for it... but sometimes it's fun (and totally GOOD!) to draw floor plan that is unique and all your own and you can build a fantastic looking house that is different than all the rest... but is still eye-pleasing.

    You can also do that, without experience, and build a crappy house that isn't safe, doesn't pass inspection, but you build it anyway and no one will buy it because it's against code and they are afraid it will fall down upon their children while they sleep because of all the weird angles.

    :-) So... there is a balance, like you said! *grin*

  28. Jody,

    I agree, everthing in moderation. And what a constructive way to respond to a negative comment - to the benefit of your readers. Thank you.

  29. Jody
    This post couldn't have come at a better time. I'm realizing that even tho I have a good idea, I need more education on structure and basic story elements. It's been a long time since I've studied writing, and I need to continue to educate myself.
    I actually just picked up Brook's Story Engineering, and it is a great tool.

    And I agree, there is a middle ground but if the story isn't told in an appealing way, readers aren't going to care enough about the plot or characters to stick with to the end.

  30. Hi. I agree, the middle ground is best. Too much of many things (not only in writing) is not good.

    I would like to add though, that authors should read books, a LOT of books, not just about the craft. If one hasn't read from all genres, then he/she will not know which one fits him/her. And when choosing a gender, then read books from that gender as many as possible and analyze them. If one does not get in the "shoes" of the reader, then he will never know what readers want. Here the above rule does not apply :).

    Thank you for an interesting post.

  31. Hi, Jodi, I enjoyed this insightful post. Stop by my blog, I gave you an award.

  32. Some people, including writers, have very strong opinions and they don't have the grace to restrain themselves. They seem to want to bash everyone over the head with their opinion. As far as writing is concerned, it's a craft you have to learn. And like everything else, you learn the rules so you know when and how to break them. I've learned a lot from reading in general, but also from how-to books on writing. Many writers have done this also, but we all have very distinct voices and writing styles.

    It's like baking a cake. The first couple of times you might follow the recipe, but by the third or fourth time you alter, substitute, and add different things. Pretty soon you don't even need a recipe. You know how to throw it all together in a bowl and make it come out right, different, maybe even better.

    I vote for the middle ground. You can kill a story by stripping it to the bone (ascetic, by-the-book writing) or by careless, indulgent writing that drips with adverbs and adjectives.

  33. I remember reading that comment on one of your earlier posts and smiling. Its author's blog is full of protests, rants and negativity so I'm not surprised she had something critical to say. Your summary is the perfect positive response.

    I've heard a number of people go on, and on, and on, telling what had the nucleus of a good story, but it was told so poorly I had trouble feigning interest. Learning helpful techniques doesn't mean an original story can't be creatively told; it simply helps us avoid the pitfalls of bad storytelling.

  34. It's quite annoying when people assume that what happens to them with a certain route will happen to everybody.

    I read grammar handbooks and how-to-write manuals for fun. I'm a freelance writer who also writes speculative fiction. It's quite normal for me to find fiction-writing tips that help my freelancing, and freelance writing tips that help my fiction writing.

    I do believe that you need to know the writing "rules" to be able to break them. If you don't understand why the rules exist, you'll probably end up proving them right in your breakage of them.

    But here's the kicker: You can know those "rules" subconsciously.

    I took a poetry writing class for 2 reasons in college:
    1. My brother dabbles in poetry, and I figured it would help me critique him.
    2. I have trouble understanding poetry and figured it might help me comprehend it better if I learned to write it.

    We were handed a book of poems, told to write a poem inspired by something from one of the poems in the part of the book we had to read. I came up with something that kicked off my teacher telling me later that if I weren't so cheery, he'd be worried about me.

    I turned it in, got it back, and stared at all the "very good sense of [poetry terms that I had no idea of what he was talking about]". I evidently have an instinctive understanding of flow and rhyme. (I still think it's my best poem.)

    So my prose gets all the rule-study and bending. My poetry gets the instinctive treatment.

  35. Carradee, Great point about some things be instinctive (or subconscious). If we've grown up submerged in literature of poetry or reading, then we've probably picked up some of the rhythms and flows of story-telling or poetry. But as you said, it also important to begin to understand some of those things that may come naturally so that we can hone our skills and make ourselves even better.

  36. You're right, you do need both. But I find that reading how to books is less helpful than just reading good books. If someone tells me in a how to book : do this, I understand but I don't really absorb it as well as I do by seeing it done in an actual story. I think that is where the instinctive understanding mentioned earlier comes from, reading a lot to see what works.

  37. Excellent post! I particularly appreciate the analogy to a house; that helped me envision your viewpoint. And I agree with it.

    Thanks for the reminder to pursue excellence in our writing craft while maintaining our own unique flair!


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