Day 9 -Three Rules of Writing the Workshops Get Wrong

In the Beautiful Failure Challenge today, we looked to Margaret Atwood’s example of “breaking through the invisible wall” and doing the hard work that you’ve been avoiding. Atwood came to the The Handmaid’s Tale after several months of working on a failed novel. I’d love to know what constitutes your invisible wall, what you’re avoiding in your writing. (Arrived at this blog out of context? Take the 10 Days of Beautiful Failure Challenge).

Meanwhile, I wanted to take a deeper look at three rules of writing the workshops get wrong. Writers are (often erroneously) taught to avoid: genre, sentimentality, and telling instead of showing. Unfortunately, this advice leads many writers astray. Here’s some further reading on why genre is not a dirty word, why there is a place for sentimentality in writing, and why “show don’t tell” isn’t quite the whole story.

Why Genre Is Not a Dirty Word

When I was in grad school, genre was a dirty word. The last thing you wanted to be accused of writing was a thriller. There was definitely a double standard, though. I attended Southern university with a whole lot of testosterone, where half of the men seemed to be embracing the modern-Western genre by mimicking Cormac McCarthy, down to the rhythm and the beat of a sentence. McCarthy, talented as he is, is a writer I sometimes grow bored of because he often sounds like a parody of himself. Reading other people’s imitations of McCarthy is really a slog.

But genre isn’t a bad thing, nor is it the death of literary fiction. Genre is simply a way of classifying story. John LeCarre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana are brilliant literary novels in the espionage genre.

Why We Should Rethink the Term Literary Fiction, by yours truly, via the Submittable blog

It’s Genre, Not That There’s Anything Wrong With It, by Arthur Krystal for The New Yorker

What Does Sentimentality Really Mean?

Writers in workshops are taught to avoid sentimentality at all costs. While cheap emotional tricks are lazy and maudlin, writers who attempt to avoid deep emotion for fear of being sentimental sacrifice the possibility of genuinely connecting with readers. Zoe Heller and Leslie Jameson address sentimentality in joint essays for the New York Times: Should Writers Avoid Sentimentality?

Sentimentality is simply emotion shying away from its own full implications. Behind every sentimental narrative there’s the possibility of another one — more richly realized, more faithful to the fine grain and contradictions of human experience. Leslie Jameson, author of The Empathy Exams


You hear it from early in your education, as far back as elementary school: Show, don’t tell. But I feel that this adage does a disservice to writers, whose job is not only to reveal a world but also to examine its implications. In truth, good fiction strikes a balance between showing and telling. Events and characters and actions are shown through scene, but we are told what they mean through interior monologue, dialogue, or an omniscient authorial voice.

Joshua Henkin, author of The World Without You, tackles the question in Why Show Don’t Tell Is the Great Lie of Writing Workshops, for Writers Digest.

Share in the comments:

What’s some advice you think the writing workshops get wrong?

What have you been avoiding in your writing?


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