Monday, May 20, 2013

Bad Writing Advice, Part Two: Form Versus Formula

As a writing teacher, I frequently find that my students want to be given a formula for writing their papers.

Some of this may have to do with laziness or the desire to obtain an unearned grade.  Most of it, though, I believe derives from anxiety: the stakes are high, the process is arcane and unfamiliar, and it would greatly lighten the student's cognitive load if there were a simple, paint-by-numbers way to write a paper.

Unfortunately, of course, there isn't.

All art has form.  But no good art is formulaic.

To differentiate between the two, I use form to mean the shape or structure that emerges from the artwork itself.  Such a form will, of course, resemble the form that emerges from other artworks; no work of art creates an entirely new form.  But such repetition of conventional forms is not the same as a formula, by which I mean a predetermined shape or structure that is imposed on the artwork, whether it belongs there or not.

Pursue form, I tell students, but shun formula.

And so it's depressing to see how much writing advice on the internet seems to be pushing people toward formula--telling people, in fact, that if they nail down the "right" formula, they're virtually guaranteed success.

The problem with this kind of advice is twofold:

1. There is no magic formula.  The form that emerges naturally from one artwork will not be precisely the same as the form that emerges naturally from another.

2. When two prescribed formulas conflict--as they necessarily will--the writer is left confused, angry, and even more anxious than before.

To provide a small example of these problems, let's look at the advice on writing query letters, which represent an artform in themselves.  Such advice is all over the place, and some of it is quite good.  For example, the advice on writing queries in Agent is loose, relaxed, fun, and non-prescriptive; though it does provide a list of "do's" and "don't's," the tone of the article makes it pretty clear that the rules are made to be broken.  And the article provides lots of examples to show the variety of queries that can be successful.

But then there's this advice, from the normally redoubtable Huffington Post, which tells writers in no uncertain terms what they must never, ever include in a query letter:

Skip rhetorical questions or flashy introductions.  In the first few lines, agents are looking to get a sense of your book's genre and marketability, not your sense of humor, and definitely not to ponder the answers to any broad questions.

I'm reading this, and I'm thinking, "Huh?"

Agents don't appreciate a sense of humor?  Agents aren't intelligent people who like to ponder big questions?  Agents are all robots, clones, and/or idiots?

Perhaps more importantly: all queries have to look the same?  No query could possibly exist whose form demands humor, rhetorical questions, and/or pondering?

The trouble with this formula--or any formula--is that, while it might apply to some queries under some circumstances, it can't possibly apply to all queries under all circumstances.  If you're concerned about agents despising rhetorical questions, relax; you don't have to look far to find an agent who's okay with a good rhetorical question under the right circumstances, as evidenced by this post from Kristin Nelson.

If, on the other hand, you're worried about breaking some kind of law, offending the gods, or daring to do something different, I would also say, relax.

If the form demands something the formula prohibits, then the formula is wrong.

And that's the only formula I accept.


  1. "Pursue form, I tell students, but shun formula."

    Excellent advice.

    1. Thanks, Lorena! I was very proud of myself for coming up with that, so it's good to see someone else appreciates it!