Prescriptive and descriptive writer’s advice

In my earlier post on advice to fiction writers, I drew an analogy with the difference between an algorithm (a mathematical ‘recipe that always works’) and a heuristic (a search strategy that usually works, but may not necessarily be the optimal one for the case at hand).

Another analogy can be drawn: the difference between descriptive and prescriptive language standards.

A number of the major Western languages have prescriptive standards: a centralized body serves as the final authority on how the language should be spoken and written. For instance, the Académie Française, among its other activities, also regulates correct spelling, grammar, syntax, pronunciation… of the French language. German has a Rat für Deutsche Rechtschreibung (Council for German Spelling — note its more limited mandate), and Hebrew the Academia la-Lashon ha-Ivri (Academy of the Hebrew Tongue/Language).

In contrast, English has no prescriptive standard at all. Instead there are two competing descriptive standards: the Oxford English Dictionary (for the Queen’s English) and Merriam-Webster (for American English) are based not on how things should be written (from a theoretical-linguistic point of view) but on how the language is actually used. This is, by the way, one of the main reasons for the maddening irregularity of English in some respects — its mixed Romance-Germanic heritage is another. (English could be called the “mutt” of world languages.)

Likewise, advice to writers — be it from books, workshops, blogs,… — basically comes in two kinds: prescriptive and descriptive. “Prescriptive” advice usually derives from literary pretensions, ideological agendas, or both, and often the ones most vocal about it have little in the way of published output that anybody actually wants to read. (One subtype has been called “grey goo fiction” by the Beautiful but Evil Space Princess :))

“Descriptive” advice does something else: it analyzes the work of successful entertainment fiction authors, and tries to distill down what they actually do into guidelines. Again, one must beware of absolutism: what works for most writers may not work for you or your chosen genre.

In the days when a handful of big publishing houses ruled the roost, prescriptive standards held more sway as a book often got nowhere if the major publishers nixed it. Now that effectively independent publishing has eaten deep into their market share, at least within the US (especially for eBooks), descriptive standards will be more relevant than prescriptive ones. And even so, a book could in principle violate all the established conventions and still become a bestseller if it compels enough readers to keep reading.

There is no such thing as “the way a novel should be written”. But a lot of empirical wisdom can be obtained from what has worked for others. If one is wary of following any sort of “advice book”, one might instead reverse-engineer one’s own rules from what has worked for other books in the category one seeks to write in. Such “bulk reading to learn the rules” has its own risks, namely that of churning out warmed-over fan fiction. There is a reason I deliberately chose a genre far outside my usual reading fodder for my first long-form writing project 🙂

Algorithms, heuristics, and creative writing: some reflections

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There was a heated discussion on CLFA about the merits, or lack thereof, of creative writing advice. Of course, one finds all sorts of “English Lit Ph.D.”s who of course must be having all wisdom for lease (priceless Dutch expression) — often without having published anything anybody wants to read themselves — saying one must do this, then that, and woe betide who does the other,…

At the other extreme there are those who say all  such advice is worthless, since there is no formula for success.

I do believe the truth lies somewhere between those extremes, and that many people are making a category error: mistaking heuristics (search strategies) for algorithms (recipes guaranteed a correct answer). Allow me to explain.

In mathematics and computer science, an algorithm is a procedural description that, if followed to the letter and applied within its stated limitations, is guaranteed to yield a correct answer. Long division is a simple algorithm we all used to learn in school. Here is another simple example. Wanna know all the primes below 100? Simple.

  1. write out the integers from 1 to 100
  2. start at 2
  3. circle the number as a prime
  4. cross off all multiples of that number
  5. find the next number not crossed out
  6. if you’re not yet at the end, go back to step 3

The numbers circled are the primes you want. Works every single time, whether it’s below 100, 500, 10000,…. The recipe is older than dirt: it’s called the Sieve of Erasthothenes.

Now there are many mathematical problems of practical importance for which no such “always works” recipe exists. Consider, for example, minimization of functions in many variables. There are all sorts of algorithms that, within certain constraints, will give you a local minimum (the bottom of a valley), but no guarantee it is the global minimum (i.e., the deepest valley). One could do the brute-force thing: just chop up space into a grid and scan all the points, but that quickly becomes computationally intractable as the number of variables goes up.

There are, however, search strategies (such as simulated annealing) that give you a good chance of locating such a global minimum, a chance which gets better the more CPU power you can apply to it. Such strategies are called heuristics.

We all apply heuristics in daily life. Consider, for example, doing business: absent rent extraction, there is no algorithm  to guarantee you make a profit, but there are sure as heck heuristics that give you a good-enough chance of doing so.

A lot of writing advice — both fiction and nonfiction — should be taken in the same spirit.  There are no magic formulas for a bestseller or even just a book that doesn’t, well, aspirate. There are, however, a variety of techniques/heuristics: some will work better for writer type X, others for writer type Y, yet others better for genre Z. Some are more universal than others, but often advice that works well for the typical writer (e.g., begin with short stories, work up your way to novellas, then attempt a novel) may for some reason not work for you personally. For example, you may have been plotting this long-arc story with lots of details in your head, and it’s just fixing to come out. Or you are a natural ‘pantser’ rather than a ‘plotter’ so outlining won’t work for you.

Some more technical things apply nearly universally, across both fiction and nonfiction. For example, even people who can spot typos in everybody else’s writing will miss them in their own, not out of narcissism but because the brain ‘knows’ what it wrote and corrects the typos on the fly while reading. (Hence recommendations such as trading proofreading with another writer, copy-editing on paper if you wrote on the computer, having text-to-speech read the MS out to you,… or proofread only some time after you wrote, so you don’t have the text loaded in your brain anymore.)

Pat Patterson pointed me to Chuck Wendig’s The Kick-Ass Writer . If your sense of humor is as irreverent as Pat’s or mine, you will laugh out loud at least once every couple of minutes. (If you’re offended by salty language or risqué metaphors, prepare to be shocked at least as frequently.) In his humorous way, he however packs in a ton of useful advice and “why haven’t I thought of this?” ideas about language, characterization, plot,…  But what I like just as much about the book is that Wendig recognizes the limits of such advice — that he sees and states explicitly that every rule can and should be broken if doing so pushes the story forward. (Now if you *have* no story to tell, you have other problems.)

On a related note: do not believe those (in writing, music,…) who claim they never needed to learn anything and just let their innate talent speak. What these people really mean is that they honed their talents in ways other than formal schooling. Consider this: one of the greatest pieces of electric guitar music ever recorded, Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” (his only #1 hit ever, posthumously) was recorded live in the studio the 2nd time the band played the track (well, the two other guys just laid down a foundation for Jimi to work his magic over). Does that mean it just magically appeared out of thin air? Heck no. Jimi honed his clearly immense innate talent by practicing every available waking moment until he got famous, and quite some time after. He’d reached the point where if inspiration hit him, he was completely prepared to exploit it to the max.  “Chance favors the prepared mind”, Louis Pasteur used to say about serendipitous discoveries in science. Likewise, in fiction, inspiration favors the honed pen.