On Writing: Knowledge Versus Wisdom


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

25 comments to On Writing: Knowledge Versus Wisdom

  • […] Faith Hunter, Misty Massey, John Hartness, and Mindy Klasky, among others.  The post is called “On Writing: Knowledge Versus Wisdom” and it is about the truisms we encounter as writers and the ways in which they are both accurate […]

  • sagablessed

    (For this I shall gank your format)

    Knowledge: keep only one person’s POV per book.
    Wisdom: if you can craft the story well, do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law -but plan ahead for edits.

    Explanation: It is not recommended to switch too often, nor does this mean head hopping. Both are frowned upon by agents and editors. GRRM switches POV per chapter. Tanya Huff changes does limited head hopping several times in the same chapter. In my current WIP, I change the POV from one character to another. This is a risk. However, it being written in such a way I can consolidate the sections so each character is about 1/3 or more of each chapter. I think the current format is working well, but we shall see what my beta’s think. Then an agent. Then an editor.
    The point is, no matter what, write as you feel comfortable, and experiment, but plan your work to incorporate editing if you veer from what ‘they’ say is acceptable.

    I hope I was not too obtuse or confusing.

  • sagablessed

    And yeah, sorry about the chronic homophones. Writing in a rush today.

  • Thanks for this, Donald. I would definitely agree that “keep only one POV per book” is NOT true wisdom. I’ve not heard too many people saying this, but it may be that there are those out there giving offering that as advice. If so, I would certainly say that they’re wrong. My first eleven novels all had multiple POV characters and it was never, ever a problem. As you point out, this does not mean that head hopping is okay. It’s not. Your POV shifts should coincide with new chapters or at least visible breaks in the text indicating a change of scene (and POV). Now, on the other hand, the general rule is one POV per short story, and that is usually good advice to follow.

  • sagablessed

    Yeah, such advice is falling out of favor, but I do get it from time to time. Thanks for the validation and tips, David. 🙂

  • David, uh, I got nothing. *Everything* conventional is up for grabs. If you do it well. 🙂

  • It seems to work like this:
    Knowledge: rule one, rule two, rule three….
    Wisdom: is it successful? Then it’s fine, whatever you do.

    As for the Great Adverb Debate… I was talking to John Hartness the other day, and he suggested I suggest a panel at CC, so I’m going to. I’m going to suggest a grammar panel (yeah, bring the booze, no one will come… but hear me out). We have so many rules: kill the adverbs; don’t use passive voice; don’t use second person; avoid “to be;” show don’t tell; don’t use sensory verbs (I saw, heard, etc..); use strong verbs; don’t end sentences with prepositions and so on (I could go on).

    And those can be really, really useful. But you’ve got to know that really, people mean “adverbs of manner.” So don’t write “he walked really really fast.” Instead try, oh, “he ran.” You have know what passive voice is and how it works. You’ve got to know how other adverbials work so you’re not, say, cutting prepositional phrases, etc just because “well, they’re adverbial, right?”. So, since I’ve edited, and I teach a grammar class, I figured I’d suggest a panel (and recruit AJ Hartly whether he likes it or not), about grammar for writers. Talk about the “big issues” and how you recognize them and how you fix them, considering that grammar vocab isn’t being taught the same as it used to be. (Cue “education these days…” rant.) To be fair, I didn’t understand what passive voice was, really, until I had to explain to a class full of freshman comp students when I was in my 20s. Sure, I used it correctly, because I grew up speaking Standard English and reading, and I was an English major in college.

    So, my point ns all this, is that we often say “know the rules before you break them…” I’d like to amend it to “understand the rules…” because it’s easy to say “kill the adverbs” or even the more specific “kill the adverbs of manner…” and everyone will nod, but what those are, how those work, can be a mystery.

  • sagablessed

    Pea: if you pour it, with chasers, they will come.

  • sagablessed

    And active vs passive is something I still have issues with. So I think the panel sounds great. I’ll see you there.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Knowledge: Said-bookisms are outdated and they “tell more than show”, while the word ‘said’ often becomes invisible on the page.
    Wisdom: Everything in moderation, and *sometimes* telling is better than no description at all.

    Explanation: (Ahead of time apologies, this is one of *my* pet-peeves.) While the word ‘said’ *can* be invisible on the page when it is used in moderation, when the phase ‘so-and-so said’ is attributed to every piece of dialogue, it actually becomes very not invisible very quickly. Worse, it can become a symptom of lazy writing where each conversation is efficiently transcribed onto the page and then left like that, without any description what-so-ever. Of course, finding the balance of good, descriptive dialogue that flows well and reads clearly can be very tricky (for me at least), but it’s also very worth working and practicing and striving to get it right, to make it so that, not only do the dialogue attributions become invisible, the conversation itself becomes a flesh-and-blood scene rather than a context-less recording. But it definitely *is* a balancing act, and requires *lots* of different writer tools to accomplish.

    As to the adverb debate: I adore adverbs, but I still delete lots of them in my own writing when I see that they’re only acting as filler.

  • Razziecat

    I love this post and I’m going to mark it to come back to. I had to laugh, David, at that tomato quote. On another forum I frequent (non-writing-related), someone uses that as their signature line. 😀

    These are all things that I’ve wrestled with. Somewhere I read that a writer should never use “said” at all. I find this unrealistic. As a reader, I get annoyed when I read through twenty rapid-fire lines of dialog with no attribution, and lose track of who said what–especially when there is inevitably a line that SEEMS to belong to one character, but makes more sense if the OTHER character said it. There are only so many ways to call attention to who’s speaking by referring to what they’re doing, and that becomes just as distracting (and starts to look like filler). Then there are the missing quotation marks (often in e-books), which also messes up the flow of dialog. Ugh. I think the solution is to convey the information differently, rather than in a long stretch of dialog.

    Adverbs–yes, I use them occasionally. There are times when there’s no alternative. But I always ask myself if there’s a better way to say what I want. Often, there is, so I stretch my skills, and the result is a better piece of writing.

    POV: Several of my favorite books are written in first person. Carol Berg is fantastic at it. Sarah Monette switches between two (and sometimes three) protags in her “Doctrine of Labyrinths” series. It’s not hard to tell who’s speaking because each character has a very distinct voice, something that’s necessary if you’re going to do this in a book.

    One last comment: If you’re a young writer (20s, even 30s), you DO have time to go the traditional publishing route. Especially now when technology is on your side in terms of how you write and submit, research methods, finding agents and publishers, etc. Thirty years ago, you needed typewriters, ribbons, paper; books about the market (updated once a year) and periodicals (once a month or every 2 months). Research had to be done in person: Library–if they had the materials you needed, and if you could get there; Travel–if you could afford it. Finding agents is probably the part that’s changed the least, although now you can just go to a website to find submission guidelines, etc., instead of writing to the agent’s office and waiting for a reply in the mail. With computers, much of the process has been streamlined.

    I’m in my 50s. That may not seem old to some, but I’m acutely aware of every year that passes without being published. If you’re young, consider the traditional route, as well as the newer ones. You’ve got the time to try everything 😀

  • Ken

    This is a great post, David.

    Knowledge: Strunk and White prefer that you put the subject of your sentence at the end of the sentence. Wisdom: It depends on whether or not it fits the story and the voice you’re writing in.
    Explanation (to paraphrase Stephen King): While “With a hammer, he killed Fred.” may be technically correct, I don’t think that it will ever replace “He killed Fred with a hammer.”
    I mention this because The Elements of Style was the first book on writing that anyone ever pointed me to. And while there are some things in there that I really try to adhere to (“Omit needless words” comes to mind), there are some things that dont apply to the WIP and that’s ok.

    Adverbs: I try to use them like spices. A little goes a long way, but I will admit–albeit shamefacedly–that every once in a while, I catch myself putting a bit too much cayenne in the chili 🙂

  • I’d never heard that there should be only one point of view in a book; I’ve often seen the stricture that there be only one point of view per scene, and this I agree with. I can’t think of an exception where this would be justified, though I’m sure they exist.

    An author friend of mine violates this frequently—sometimes changing POV within a single paragraph or even sentence—and it jolts me every time (and not in a nice way). It seems the sort of thing an editor should have caught and strangled at first sight, but said friend has published numerous novels; it’s hard to argue with success.

    Speaking of editors, *are* there any developmental editors anymore? From the dreck I see being published in an out of genre, it looks as though some accountant picked the manuscript out of the slush pile, did not read beyond the title, and threw an advertising budget at it. Bad grammar, inconsistent characterization, illogical plot development, and even misspelling seem to be the rule nowadays. It makes the Grammar Nazi in me weep, and that’s not a pretty sight.

  • Great discussion, folks. Thanks!

    Saga, glad to help.

    Faith, yes, pretty much anything can be on the table.

    Emily, I think that would be a terrific panel for ConCarolinas. If you want me on it, I’d be happy to join in the discussion. But either way, it will be one that all writers there should attend. Great idea.

    Hep, that’s an interesting example. The fact is that said-bookisms will draw the consternation of editors. And the fact is that using said again and again does make for dull writing. But there are lots of ways around this. Take the tag line said bookism “she hissed.” Well, you can use “she said” instead and it’s technically correct, but it lacks the emotion you want. You can also use “she said, hissing the words” which does both. Or you can end the dialog without a tag, but in the next sentence say “She spoke the words with a hiss.” or “The words slithered from her lips like a hissing serpent.” That last might be a bit much. Or is might be precisely what the author wants. My point is, there are ways around overusing said that still allow you to avoid said-bookisms. Thanks for the comment.

    Razz, thanks so much. Great comment. I agree with all of it. I have heard that advice, re. NEVER using said, and I think it’s a very bad idea. But using it for every line, also doesn’t work. There is a middle ground. I love your remarks re. young writers, and I agree with you there as well. It can be a rewarding route and if writers have the time and inclination to be patient, I still believe it is the best course. But there are two sides to all of this. Thanks again.

    Thank you, Ken. Glad you like the post. I love Strunk and White, but agree with you that not all of their advice is geared toward fiction writing. We need to keep in mind that works in expository writing is not always what works in creative writing, and vice versa.

    Wolf, I tend to feel that head-hopping is just bad writing, but even that is a matter of taste and market preferences. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry, is one of my favorite fantasies of all time. It came out in the late 80s and early 90s when the omniscient narrator was accepted. The head-hopping in those books is kangaroo-like. And who knows? Twenty or thirty years from now, writers might look at the strict POVs of today’s books and wonder how we could have tolerated such a static approach to narrative voice. As for developmental editing, yes it definitely still exists. All the editors I have worked with take great pride in the work they do with authors to help them polish and improve manuscripts. Thanks for the comment.

  • It’s not that adverbs are bad, or even a sign of ‘telling’. Rather, that they can be a symptom of inaccurate language (the same problem as ‘weak verbs’). Using “walked swiftly” when you meant “strode”, that sort of thing.

  • Ken says,

    While “With a hammer, he killed Fred.” may be technically correct, I don’t think that it will ever replace “He killed Fred with a hammer.”

    My node of perversity instantly responded:

    He’d been but a tool to them all his life. So he responded in kind. An axe for Mary, a wrench for Bob. And with a hammer, he killed Fred.

  • Hah, Reziac!

    All of this has been great to read. I especially like Razziecat’s advice to us younger folks about trying for traditional publishing first. It’s hard and painful, but in the end, at least I’ll know I tried. Best of all? The amount I’ve learned from the copious revisions, that I might not have learned if I’d chosen not to push myself like this.

  • Reziac, I’m not sure I entirely agree with that. There are plenty of adverbs one can use as accurate descriptors; the problem with them is that they can be symptomatic of weak writing that, as I said, relies on telling rather than evocative description. To be sure, the example you give is a good one in that it shows the difference between a weak phrase and a stronger, more concise one. But I don’t necessarily believe that walking swiftly and striding are equivalents. But that’s a matter of style and taste. I love your response to Ken’s comment.

    Glad you’re enjoying the discussion, Laura. I do think that there are great rewards awaiting those who opt for the traditional approach, and I hope you get to experience them soon!

  • No need to apologize, David, to anyone who says self-publishing is a panacea. It’s an option that many people, myself included, have been exploring and, because it’s relatively new, some people lose perspective, but it’s not a solution for all writers and can be the worst thing a writer can choose if s/he hasn’t taken the time to obtain wisdom about when a document is ready to be let loose on the world.

  • Great post and discussion. I’m all for breaking the rules, but I’d like to second what Pea said–people need to understand the rules and why the rules exist and how breaking the rules affects the writing before making a decision about whether to follow rules or break them.

  • David> I’ll hold you to volunteering! Warning: there may be handouts! 😀

    With the “said” thing: I wonder if it came from the writing exercise. I’ve seen workshops (in person, and in books) that recommend taking a couple of your characters and writing a scene wherein you never use “said.” The point isn’t to not use said, but to develop the voice of the characters to such a degree that you don’t NEED to tell your audience who’s talking, they can tell by the voice. It’s a cool exercise, but ultimately not sustainable, I think, for a whole novel. I mean, at some point a character is probably going to say something like “No.”

    And for pov, the “don’t shift pov” is so patently not true. It’s more true scene to scene, sure, but even that isn’t wholly true. I imagine trying to write a first person narrative that switches POV would be very tough and a tough sell.

    The whole verb of speech thing is interesting, too. When I worked for the press I worked for, they were very … picky about verbs of speech. “Hissed” couldn’t be used unless the words were heavy on sibilants. “Growled” wasn’t allowed as a verb of speech (unless there were shapeshifters involved. A werebear can growl words). I thought they were way picky, too much so, really. Those verbs can be really useful–especially to avoid adverbs/adverbials of manner (she preached). Though honestly a different verb of speech every line (she intoned) would just get to be too much! (she declared). After a while (she whined) everyone would just like a simple ” she said” (she pleaded) because they become distracting (she implored).

  • Xman, thanks. It sounds as though you have a great perspective on self-pubbing and its place in the industry.

    Sisi, thank you. Your point (and Pea’s) is well taken.

    Emily, consider me forewarned. The said thing might well have come from that exercise, which, of course, is one that I drew up. I have no one to blame but myself!! But as you say, it’s merely an exercise and is NOT meant to be a technique for a book-length or even story-length piece. You’re right about the POV thing. It is true that shifting POV in mid-scene, without any visible break in the narrative, is not good. But otherwise multiple POVs are just fine. That’s very interesting about the said- bookisms and the limits placed on words that could be used for different speakers and or word sounds. But yeah, too many said bookisms — not a good thing. Thanks again.

  • Oh, I agree — “walked swiftly” and “strode” are NOT equivalent, and “walked swiftly” is not weak writing if it’s precisely what you meant. Strong writing is partly about using the correct words for exactly the intended meaning. Weak writing uses adverbs to ‘fix’ the meaning of the not-quite-correct verb… sorta like putting a patch on a bald tire.

  • I’ve long felt that the only reason we bother to learn the rules is to learn how to effectively break them. 🙂

  • Megan B.

    Knowledge: Cut unnecessary words to keep your sentences tight.
    Wisdom: Sometimes the rhythm of the sentence or paragraph is best served by (carefully placed) unnecessary words.

    Knowledge: Never head-hop.
    Wisdom: A teeny bit of it *can* work in certain types of stories. Fairy tales for example.

    You’d better know exactly what you’re doing, though! 😉