Jean McKinney

Strange Stories for Strange Times

Tag: writing advice

Making Sense of This Whole Writing Thing

OK, I’m gonna do it.

I said I wouldn’t. There’s so much advice and information out there for writers of every kind.  Everyone’s got a course, a blog,  or a resource list that’s going to help you overcome your fears, deal with procrastination, find clients,  publish your work!

Does the writing world really need one more?

I never thought that it did.  But maybe I was wrong.  As a  working denizen of this online writing world and a longtime observer and participant of the writing biz, I see a lot of advice about “making it” as a writer (in all the many ways that “making it” can be) that means well but can end up discouraging and disempowering the very people it purports to help.

And I also realize that every one of us who is fortunate enough to move in this wild and woolly world of digital creativity has a duty to talk about that experience and share what we know.

This is  a time when personal stories rule.  In order to be “real,” they say, your origin story needs to be a part of your public persona.  But I suspect that the old saying, “familiarity breeds contempt” can also apply to the obsession with sharing the often boring details of everybody’s life.

So I focus this site on creating cool worlds I hope readers will enjoy visiting, rather than writing about my dogs or my love of webcomics or the rattlesnake on my carport the other night.

However . . .  a running commentary on the good, the bad and the really ugly of the writing advice that’s out there just might be the thing someone, somewhere needs to hear in order to take that next step toward creating something awesome.

And that’s where I’ll put my stories. About my years of teaching people to find their writing voice and the strength to share it.  About really stupid mistakes that tarnish a writer’s credibility.  About my often rocky journey toward becoming a full time writer and publisher.

Maybe it’ll be more useful for writers than the story about the snake.

There’s a new category on this site now, called “On Writing” that gathers these articles together and keeps them separate from the fiction.  It’s going to tackle some popular stances and bust a few myths and make a lot of people mad.

But hey, isn’t that part of the job?

Stay tuned.


In Defense of the Passive

The passive voice has gotten a bad rap.  This slightly complicated construction is the bogeyman, the standard bearer of bad writing, the ugly troll blighting good active sentences and scaring readers away.

My spelling and grammar checker tells me so every time I construct a sentence that could even remotely be considered passive – and writing guides solemnly warn that it should be avoided at all costs. (Gulp! I just committed a passive in public!)

The notion of “passive -bad,” “active-good” has even been extended to include a variety of constructions that aren’t really passive at all. I found this out in a recent brief from a client that warned that people with only high school diplomas are confused by passives. The brief referred to a peculiar page that lumped true passives in with a lot of other grammatical constructions such as subordinate clauses and sentences with gerund subjects like, “Adding a few spoonfuls of matcha tea makes your smoothie healthier.”

So let’s take a look at what the passive really is, and why it has very legitimate uses.

The “passive voice’ in English is a handy dandy little structure that lets you focus on the receiver of an action, rather than the agent performing the action.  When I was a college writing instructor we’d illustrate this with the written version of stick figures in simple sentences like:

Adrian read the book. (That’s active,with a subject, an active verb and an object -Sentence Structure 101.) vs The book was read by Adrian. (a true passive, with the object now the subject, a passive verb construction of BE + participle and the agent expressed by, well,  “by”.)

Now obviously you wouldn’t want to clutter up your writing with clunky bits like this.  The passive does add more words and it isn’t really necessary much of the time.  But fear of the passive also goes hand in hand with another fear: of the existential and linking verb BE. More about that one another time.

But to return to Adrian and his reading habit, if the book is really what you’re talking about, and if you want to add more information about Adrian, a passive construction could work quite nicely in ways that an active sentence might not.

The book on carnivorous elves was read by Adrian, who dressed in a bloodstained green tunic for the occasion.

The passive also comes in quite handy when you don’t know, or don’t care, who’s performing the action. Or if you want to keep that a tightly guarded secret.  That’s why one of the most famous examples of a passive construction is a quote from disgraced President Richard M Nixon, he of Watergate fame: “Mistakes were made.”

But the passive simply shifts  a different sentence element into the spotlight.  “The monument was erected in 1969” works just fine. We don’t need to establish who erected it, unless that’s highly germane.  If so you’re then faced with a choice between active and passive in how to express that.   Your choice will partly depend on the surrounding sentence framework, though.

The passive voice, like the active voice, and all the other voices and modes and tenses, is just one of many tools in the writer’s toolbox, to be chosen deliberately for its contribution to the overall tone and message of a piece of writing.  It’s not to be avoided at all costs as the mark of an unskilled writer – or as a nasty bug that could frighten readers.

How many times did I use passive constructions in this post?  Did you notice them at all while reading?


What Writers Really Have to Fear

If you’re a writer, be afraid. Be very afraid.

That old line from the movie The Fly seems to fit the current state of advice to writers.

Just a few minutes ago, a Google search for “writers fears” turned up 82,600,000 results in just 81 seconds. Topping Google’s page 1 were articles with titles like:

“10 Way to Harness fear and Fuel Your writing” Writer’s Digest

“Purging Your Writing Fears.” The Trite Practice

“The 7 Deadly Fears of Writing.” Men With Pens

The message in these and many other writers’ resources is clear: writing and fear go hand in hand. If you are a writer, or want to be a writer, you must face fears, you will be beset by fears, you must have the courage to face your fears, you must overcome your fears, don’t let your fears stop you!

These absolutely well-meaning articles, books and posts are designed, I’m sure, to reassure and empower new writers, writers in the making and even seasoned wordsmiths. Because it’s true, starting new endeavors can be scary – and creative work pulls up a lot of insecurities, some personal and some imposed by our culture.

In this scenario, writers are told it’s natural to fear:
Having no ideas
Having too many ideas

And the list goes on. It seems that the message to writers is that fear, paralyzing fear, mist be your constant companion on this writing journey, to be thwarted, conquered, crushed, or transmuted at every turn. There’s no way out.

We’re told that fear isn’t even always fear. Other things can masquerade as fear, so if you don’t think you’re afraid, you really are anyway – you just don’t know it, or you’re in denial.

While that’s certainly true in some cases – watching a silly TV show instead of spending an hour pulling words out of your head, for example – in others it’s simply not. If life situations are calling you from writing right now, maybe it’s because you have a life with situations that need to be addressed, not that you’re running from your writing.

Writers tend to be a self-reflective lot, living as we do in our heads much of the time. To judge from the proliferation of reassurance, encouragement and support out there, we seem to need a lot of hand-holding.

And the fearmongers are profiting from making you believe that. The number of coaches, courses and guidebooks on overcoming fears, writers blocks and crises of confidence is staggering. It’s easy to fall into the trap of the hypochondriac: that’s not me! Or is itt? I’m not scared! But should I be?

You don’t need that kind of insecurity undermining your work.

I was a coach and writing teacher for a lot of years – and I’m not here to dismiss those creative fears. They are very real.

But writers are no more vulnerable to them than anyone beginning a new endeavor or creative work. It takes courage to stand for your ideas, whatever they are. And if you do, you are not the fragile flower that all this advice makes you seem to be.

If you’re worried about what stops you from getting your work in front of readers, there are over 82,000,000 resources ready to help. Use them to find ways to overcome hesitation, identity crises and lack of confidence.

But don’t let anyone make you believe that writing must come with a built-in Pandora’s box of terrors – and that a part of writing must necessarily include beating back freezing fear at every turn.

And especially – don’t let anyone profit from making you feel fear. You’re a writer. You wrestle ideas down and pin ‘em to the page. You make magic with a keystroke. What you really have to fear is the helpful, disempowering message that because you are a writer, you are stalked by fear.

What do you think – am I right? Or not?

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