I love doing the puzzles in my local newspaper. (Kids, newspapers are collections of paper that are delivered to your home each morning. They include all the interesting stuff that you saw on Twitter and YouTube yesterday . . .) I do the Sudoku, the crossword, and, my favorite, the Cryptoquote. The Cryptoquote is that puzzle that gives you an encoded quote; you have to figure out what each letter represents to discover the quote and its author. I bring this up, because this week I solved a puzzle and discovered one of the best quotes I’d ever heard. It’s from Miles Kington, the late British journalist:
“Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.”
Yes, this does have something to do with writing. In fact, it has everything to do with writing. This site offers a lot of knowledge, and, we hope, it offers even more wisdom. But sometimes distinguishing between the two can be the key to writing success. So, I thought I would focus on a few instances in which knowledge and wisdom are significantly, even crucially, different.
Knowledge: Never write a story in first person, present tense, because editors don’t like it. Wisdom: As with so many things, if you do it well, in a story that is original and compelling, it will sell. Just ask Suzanne Collins. Explanation: This is one of several tidbits of “conventional wisdom” that aren’t wise, at least not all the time. Is it true that editors will balk at stories or books that are written in first person, present tense? Yes. But as I have said before, I sold just such a story after an editor (Ellen Datlow) contacted me and asked me why I chose to write my story that way. I gave her my reason, she liked my answer, and she bought the story. The Hunger Games books are all written in first person, present tense, and they’ve done pretty well. In fact, Collins’ books are so well written (in my opinion) that I really didn’t notice that they were written this way until I was a couple of hundred pages into the first book. If you’re writing a story in first person, present tense (or some other voice) for the sake of being different, but with little thought as to how the voice relates to the story, chances are editors will object. But if the story dictates that you do something unusual, even “taboo,” go with it. If you can justify the choice from an artistic standpoint, and if it enhances the narrative, chances are you’ll be okay. When someone, myself included, tells you that you should never do one thing or another, take it with a grain of salt. Even if the knowledge is right, as it is in this case, wisdom tells us that, with precious few exceptions, an editor will buy a story that is well-written, gripping and, to their mind, marketable, regardless of other concerns.
Knowledge: Do not use adverbs. Wisdom: Adverbs are a part of the language, like nouns, verbs, and adjectives. You can use them. Just don’t OVERuse them. Explanation: This is a pet peeve of mine. Sure, you don’t want to use too many adverbs. They can be — CAN be — a sign of lazy writing, because they tend to be a part of passages that tell rather than show. But Mark Twain used adverbs. So did Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. Cormac McCarthy, Alice McDermott, Barbara Kingsolver use them, not to mention Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, and Patrick Rothfuss. You can use them, too. When I hear of aspiring writers combing through their manuscripts, trying to remove every word than ends in “ly” it makes me want to scream. Do not use them too much — as I say, this can be a symptom of telling, rather than showing, of relying too much on a certain kind of crutch that undermines the clarity and power of our writing. But using adverbs is not a sin. Some passages call for adverbs. That’s not bad; that’s writing. Give yourself a break.
Knowledge: Self-publishing is a poor way to break into professional writing. Wisdom: Self-publishing can be the best option for some people. It carries risks and costs that aspiring writers should understand before choosing it as a career path. But it can be a terrific alternative. Explanation: I am as guilty of perpetuating this “knowledge” as anyone. I have seen too many people who know little about the business declare self-publishing to be a panacea, and I have reacted by taking the opposite view with too much vehemence. I apologize for that; I will try to do better in the future. To be sure, self-publishing does still carry a stigma in certain circles, and it can hurt the career of a young writer who doesn’t take the time to learn the business. It carries financial risks, by demanding an up-front investment that might never pay off. And it often denies the writer the invaluable experience of working with a professional developmental editor. But it also offers freedoms that the traditional route does not. It places more power over the production process in the hands of the artist, which can be a very good thing. And it has the potential to be more profitable for a fortunate author. Whatever career path you choose — be it traditional, small press, self-pub — take the time to learn as much as possible about all your alternatives. That is the wise course.
This is, I suppose, the classic “There’s-No-One-Right-Way-To-Do-This” post. That is the ultimate marriage of knowledge and wisdom, because there really is no single correct path we can follow. We all have to find our own way. The things that pass for knowledge have their basis in fact. A tomato really is a fruit. Wisdom brings perspective and context to that knowledge. It allows us to find the exceptions to all those rules we have thrown at us day after day. Those exceptions, in turn, infuse our work with originality and make them stand apart from the work of others.
What writing “knowledge” have you found contradicted in some way by writing “wisdom”? What “knowledge” do you wonder about? Ask me/us. It may be that we can bring some context to rules you’ve always found puzzling.David B. Coe http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com