In a recent posts I’ve offered some advice that seemed pretty strict: banning a few words, sending you out in search of passive voice, telling you how to punctuate a line of dialog, and so on. In those posts, and others like them, I try to make sure that that advice is tempered by a simple, indisputable fact:


Fiction is a creative act, an art form that no one can possibly “perfect,” and as such rules are made to be broken, bent, redefined, summarily ignored, or applied piecemeal as you feel is necessary to express yourself in the unique way you so choose.


And I stand by that.

So if at any point I use words like never or always, please assume that those sentences end with “unless you want to.” I’m a professional editor with creeping up on thirty years of experience, almost entirely in fiction and mostly in SF and fantasy, but who the hell am I to tell you how to write? I can and try to nudge you in this direction or that, pass on the wisdom gained from my own mistakes and others’, but in the end, your story is your story. Write what you want to write in the way you want to write.

There is an important distinction, though, between knowing “the rule” and breaking it on purpose and not knowing “the rule” and later on making the claim that it was a choice and not a mistake. Generally speaking, as an author you shouldn’t really be engaging with anyone but your editor (and a few selected, trusted beta readers) about the specifics of your writing. Let the online haters hate and lovers love, but don’t start collaborating on your own writing. If someone points out a mistake, please don’t let your ego kick in and make you want to say, “Oh, no, I wanted it that way . . . it’s my style!” If that isn’t actually, literally, specifically true, then learn from that mistake—and maybe adopt it as a personal style point, but more likely, learn from that mistake and never make it again. In most instances, actually, you’ll probably keep making that mistake over and over again, and your editor will keep pointing it out and fixing it over and over again . . . we all have a few of those.

When do you make these specific stylistic choices?

The little tweaks will show up when you’re not paying attention, along with a thousand or more other mistakes, typos, and ideas that seemed good as you were typing but don’t stand up to even the first read-through.

Last week I talked about how Ray Bradbury also advised writers to write fast, uncaring of perfection or grammar or spelling or anything but the raw experience. I think this is excellent advice. So write your rough draft like a madperson . . . as fast as you can type. Then you can go back and suffer over when you feel this bit of passive voice works or that comma should be taken out even though “the rule” says it should be there, and so on. So how about this:


Write in ecstasy.

Edit with intent.




—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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