On Platitudes

Hi Folks,

Recently, Alison Holt, a friend and writer whom I greatly respect and whose works I admire, posted an article in PWW titled “Beware the Platitude Trap.”

As I commented on her post, I was pleased, in an unnerving kind of way, that she’d relegated “Just write the next sentence” to the status of “platitude.” I was both complimented and appropriately chastised.

On one hand, it’s gratifying to know folks have heard “Just write the next sentence” so much that the new-advice smell has worn off. On the other hand, I am and always have been all about warning writers not to automatically bow to platitudes, so I’m right there with Alison.

In fairness, I should mention that Alison pointed out in a reply to my comment that “Just write the next sentence” has been around forever. That wasn’t true for me.

I first heard the phrase in a passing comment from Dean Wesley Smith on what to do when I was mired, when a story bogged down. It worked, so I picked it up and ran with it. So to my thinking, “Just write the next sentence,” as advice, was brand new when I heard it a few years ago.

Anyway, as I’ve said many times, the fact that advice has become a platitude doesn’t mean writers should automatically accept it, but neither should they automatically dismiss it. It only means the writer should delve deeper into the platitude, figure out its true meaning and thereby determine whether it’s helpful or just so many words in a row. A few biggies come to mind (these actually make me groan):

* kill all your darlings
* show, don’t tell
* never use passive voice
* never use gerunds (though proponents of this one most often say “never use ‘ing’ words”)
* never [insert your favorite clichéd advice here]

Frankly, that we can now add “Just write the next sentence” to that list boggles my mind. Apparently it’s become one of those traps newer writers stumble into and apply without thinking.

But if that’s the case, then for this one too, even though it’s my own favorite reminder of how to get past the critical voice, I advocate thinking about it, figuring out what it means and whether it is actually helpful.

To help with that thought process, here’s what I personally mean when I advise writers who are “stuck” to “Just write the next sentence.” Your results might vary, but it isn’t meant to be as flip and clichéd as it apparently now sounds.

1. When you’re stuck, “just write the next sentence” that pops into your head. In other words, write the next unedited thought that comes from your creative subconscious. Most often that leap of faith will propel you forward in your story and you will be off and running again. I promise. (Note: If you find yourself trying to “think” of what the next sentence should be, that isn’t just writing the next sentence. That’s bowing to the conscious, critical mind.)

2. Occasionally, if you “just write the next sentence” it will propel you instead into a meandering mishmash, possibly even a paragraph or two that you will later (while cycling, still in ceativev mind) cut. But it will still eventually lead you back into the story and (again) propel you forward.

3. Much less occasionally, there flat won’t be a “next sentence” to write. The story will slow rapidly, or bog down altogether. When that happens (it’s happened to me, twice) it usually means you wrote past the end of the scene or chapter. If that happens, I recommend you back up, read (as a reader) the last few paragraphs you wrote. Usually the end of the scene or chapter will become readily apparent. Then skip a line or insert a new chapter head and Just write the next sentence.

It really is that simple and that difficult. Once the writer trusts his or her subconscious mind, everything else is gravy and the writing is fun again.

And if writing isn’t fun for you, well, you probably have more serious problems than facing-down platitudes.

‘Til next time, happy writing!