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Literature Basics Week

Okay, so maybe not everything. But there's a lot of stuff that I remember learning in middle and high school that turned out to not actually work for me -- or for pretty much anybody -- as a writer.  I'm hoping that if I can lay these lies out for you, we cans turn it around and unlearn some of these bad habits. Because, man, nothing says "noob" like practicing some of these frequently-taught faux pas.

Lie #1: Be super duper descriptive!


PLLSpencerSubtlety2

Wait, wait, I know what you're thinking. Descriptive language is good, right? You want your reader to know what you're talking about, and to be able to see, smell it, hear it, touch it, taste it the way you do in your head. The problem is that, when it comes to description, a little bit goes a long way.  Sometimes, it's about finding a better word to use, instead of a string of adverbs and adjectives to go with your verb or noun.  You know, you could say "She skulked through the forest" instead of "She walked sneakily through the heavily-wooded area."  See what I mean?  Now, that's kind of an obvious one, but when you go to write, here's a good trick to keep in mind: modifiers are evil. They are sneaky and they will slip into your poetry and prose without you even noticing. Your job, as a writer, is to keep an eye on those things.

Modifiers -- like adverbs and adjectives -- are words that describe other words. They should be used sparingly. Otherwise, you're going to have a mess on your hands. When you're writing, always ask yourself, do I need this word? Or is there something simpler and equally descriptive that I could use here?

SO HERE'S THE TRUTH: Use descriptive language and sensory details, choosing words carefully. Every word you put on the page should be a word that NEEDS to be there.

Lie # 2: Show off your vocabulary!


PLLHannaBigWords

Some writers I've run into have a penchant for tossing around five dollar words. It's almost as if they want the reader to know that they totally nailed the vocab section on their SATs. The thing is, creative writing isn't about what you know, it's about telling a story in the smoothest way possible. So why use "loquacious" if you could say "chatty?" Think about how your narrator or point-of-view character would think and speak. Think of how the people around you speak. If you can't imagine someone using that word in a conversation, it's probably a no-go. When it comes to five-dollar words, they should be sprinkled, not poured, into your writing.

SO HERE'S THE TRUTH: If you want your writing to feel authentic, use authentic language. Use those five dollar words sparingly!

Lie #3: Spice up your speech tags!


PLLWorsetoWorser

Here's the thing about speech tags: They should be invisible. The reader should pretty much not notice them at all. I mean, there's a reason that you sometimes don't even need them -- like in an extended conversation between two characters.  There are pretty much only two speech tags you will ever need: "said" and "asked." (You can, and should, of course, alter the tense as needed.) You may be able to slip in a "screamed" or a "replied" here and there, but sticking to the basics is always the better option. You don't want your reader getting hung up on speech tags when she should be paying attention to the conversation and the story.

Another word on speech tags: Using simple tags like "said" and "asked" doesn't give you carte blanche to start throwing adverbs around. "She said, angrily" or "he asked, jokingly" is just as much of an offense as not using a simple speech tag. If someone is speaking angrily or jokingly, that should show in the words they're using, and in the body language in the scene.  This is a great case of "show, don't tell," which, thankfully, is a lesson from school that you can hold onto.

SO HERE'S THE TRUTH: You will hardly ever need to use words other than "said" or "asked."

Lie #4: Poetry is about your feelings!


PLLAriaForkInNeck

No. Poetry is about expressing yourself, sure -- just like any other writing. But it's not about emotions. It's about saying something. It's a narrative between the poet and the reader, and it should be full of images and ideas, not simply the thoughts you would write in your journal with some line breaks thrown in. Yes, poetry -- just like any other writing -- can be emotional. But your job as the writer isn't to emote onto the page. It's to get your reader to emote. Again, this is a place where that whole "show, don't tell" thing comes in handy.

SO HERE'S THE TRUTH: Poetry isn't about any one thing. And all writing should evoke emotions. Use your excellent writing skills to make the reader feel!

Lie #5: Capitalize the beginning of every line in your poem!


PLLAriaWeAllGetItWrong

This is actually an antiquated form. If you're reading poetry -- and if you're writing poetry, I hope you are! -- you'll notice that contemporary poets only capitalize where they would in a regular sentence. So lines can start with lowercase letters. You capitalize when you start a new sentence, or for proper nouns -- all the usual suspects. But when you start a new line, and the previous line didn't end with a period, no, you don't need to capitalize. In fact, I'd recommend sticking to the new way of doing things. We both know you're not Shakespeare, after all.

SO HERE'S THE TRUTH: Sure, you can capitalize every line, but it's going to make you look old-fashioned. And not in a trendy way.

Lie #6: Practice writing by writing!


PLLHannaEw

This is actually half true. Yes, you do get better at writing by writing. But you know what's even better? Reading. A well-read writer is going to be a way better writer than a writer who writes every day but never reads.  I promise you, this is a fact.

SO HERE'S THE TRUTH: If you're not reading as well as writing, you're doing it wrong.

Lie #7: A haiku is 5-7-5!


PLLWhat

Yikes! They really stepped in it with this one. Sure, some haiku these days are 5-7-5, but usually these are referred to as senryu, since they are Westernized and have less to do with nature and brevity and more to do with cramming something into that syllabic format, often with a humorous twist. There's a lot of information out there about haiku, but I'll leave you with this: Writing haiku is more about brevity and observing nature than it is about an exact syllable count.

SO HERE'S THE TRUTH: Haiku isn't about the syllables. Do some research and figure out what style of haiku works for you!

Lie #8: The classics are the right way to learn writing!


PLLAriaYouDidNotJustSayThat

Sure, the classics are great. But if you want to write for contemporary readers (like, you know, alive people), it's a good idea to read contemporary work! Enjoy some Emily Dickinson, but make sure you're also checking out Louise Gluck. Feel free to curl up with J.D. Salinger, but don't forget about Jennifer Egan. And, you know, there's lots to be discovered in your local library or bookstore -- not just the bestsellers. Read widely across genre and author background. Read books you like and books you don't like. Just make sure you're reading, and reading more than the tried and true golden oldies.

SO HERE'S THE TRUTH: If you want to improve your craft, read lots of genres and DEFINITELY check out your contemporaries!

Lie #9: Only write what you know!


PLLMonaBoring

If this were true, we wouldn't have, I don't know, any fantasy. Or space operas. Or historical fiction. Sure, it takes a lot of imagination and even more research, but writing outside of your comfort zone can be a good thing. Writing what you know can keep you grounded, and using your life experience to keep your writing honest is an excellent idea. But talking to people with different experiences from you, and reading about other lives and other ideas, and imagining schools for young wizards...well, these are all great tactics for writing richer stories.

SO HERE'S THE TRUTH: Start with what you know, use your imagination and your ability to do research to take your writing to the next level.

Lie #10: You're a genius!


PLLAliDontScream

Don't pretend someone in your life hasn't told you this. Someone along the line -- a mother, a teacher, a friend -- has probably read your writing and told you that you're going to be a New York Times best-selling author. And it felt good, I bet. But, you know what? If it's someone like a parent, a teacher, or a friend, they might be looking at your writing through rose-colored glasses. And you need someone who's going to be tough on you if you want to improve and have any chance at being a capital A Author. Are you a genius? Maybe. But don't take this "lesson" at face value.

SO HERE'S THE TRUTH: If you don't work hard and seek critical feedback, and learn to take critical (and negative) feedback, you probably won't succeed no mater what kind of talent you have.


PLLEmilySoMuchGoingOn

Got questions?  Leave 'em below!  There are exceptions to every rule, and there are plenty of rules that might not make sense, which is why talking to other writers is always helpful. (Another lie: Writers can only be successful when they are holed up in a cabin in the woods somewhere.)  And feel free to share some of the lies you've heard before! In the mean time, enjoy the rest of PE: Literature Basics Week!

http://www.ekristinanderson.com

 



Pretty Little Liars, anyone?
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:iconakaluv:
akaluv Featured By Owner Oct 20, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
Thank you, this is great! I work really hard on my writing and I'm constantly trying to improve. I do agree with the said part though, I've had mixed feedback on that. 
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:iconpinkymccoversong:
PinkyMcCoversong Featured By Owner Oct 20, 2014  Professional Writer
Glad you enjoyed the article!
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:iconfernknits:
fernknits Featured By Owner Oct 11, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
#10.  Preach it.
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:icondream-and-believe:
Dream-And-Believe Featured By Owner Sep 14, 2014
I wholeheartedly agree with everything, but the other day someone else posted a list of tips. One of them is about the word 'said'. To sum it up: the word should be used once per page at most. Now I am torn between using it a lot, barely using it or throw everything out the window.
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:iconpinkymccoversong:
PinkyMcCoversong Featured By Owner Sep 14, 2014  Professional Writer
I would say that with most words you want to avoid overuse. But with "said," you want the word to become invisible. Look at the books you read -- do you see a ton of "fancy" speech tags, or is it mostly stuff like "said," "asked," etc.? 
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:icondream-and-believe:
Dream-And-Believe Featured By Owner Sep 14, 2014
Often more than not, they vary between the two. A lot of people gained the idea to use 'said' only when you cannot really use any other word to replace it.
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:iconpinkymccoversong:
PinkyMcCoversong Featured By Owner Sep 15, 2014  Professional Writer
Yeah, that idea gets taught in schools, but in published books you'll usually see mostly said/asked/other simple words. You want your dialogue tags to not really be noticable.
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:iconfudgyvmp:
fudgyvmp Featured By Owner Oct 7, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
I almost always consider dialogue tags to be parenthetical and only really useful when you need to make clear who's talking if it isn't already. 
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:iconghostinthepines:
GhostInThePines Featured By Owner Aug 3, 2014  Hobbyist Photographer
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:iconliliwrites:
LiliWrites Featured By Owner Jul 27, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
Excellent advice that I have learned already thanks to critiques from people on this site. :D I learned a lot more from deviantART than I ever did from lit courses. 
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:iconleyghan:
leyghan Featured By Owner Oct 7, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
So true. :)
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:iconpinkymccoversong:
PinkyMcCoversong Featured By Owner Jul 27, 2014  Professional Writer
So glad you liked it!

And I think I've gotten equal amounts from school and dA/online critique.
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:iconredwallfvs:
redwallfvs Featured By Owner Jul 26, 2014  Student General Artist
I completely understand what you're saying, but in my writing I may not totally go with these pointers. 

I'm just saying that I like to add my own spice to things, is all. This list is agreeable. :)

Sorry, but I'm sort of a vocabulary nut and love my originality, basically. :) 

Hope that's agreeable.:)
 
Apologies again, I just love adding smiley faces to things. :)
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:iconpinkymccoversong:
PinkyMcCoversong Featured By Owner Jul 26, 2014  Professional Writer
Everyone wants to be original, and wants to add their own personality to their writing. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't consider authenticity and audience.
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:iconredwallfvs:
redwallfvs Featured By Owner Jul 26, 2014  Student General Artist
Of course. :) By the way, you are very good at politely arguing. :) 
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:icondragoeniex:
dragoeniex Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014
I think a few adjectives/adverbs are fine. Like you said, sparingly is best.

I have a slight objection to using only "said" and "asked." While having a character "chortle" something can be cringe-worthy, saying someone "chirped" a response can highlight a fantastic mood. (Bonus points if the other person is aggravated by said mood and chirping.)

Mind you, I could be biased. I've been doing newspaper articles for a little while. The editor likes a lot of quotes. At the end of the day, I'm cringing at how often I use "asked" and "said" and "continued" and "explained." DX It gets monotonous fast.

Part of that is due to staying in a certain structure. Still, I think the occasional fun speech tag, if it makes sense and fits the tone, keeps things lively.

 In other news, I enjoyed this article. :) There were some helpful comments in here. And I actually hadn't heard about the move away from capitalizing every line of poetry. I've seen it, but didn't notice it becoming a norm. I'll look at that more carefully from now on.

Thanks for piecing this together. You've got a nice tone.  
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:iconpinkymccoversong:
PinkyMcCoversong Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014  Professional Writer
Glad you liked the article!

Re: said, I think as writers we notice it more than we do as readers, or than readers do. Next time you're reading a novel, note how often the writers uses anything other than said, or something simple along the lines of "asked" or "replied." I bet you'll be surprised.
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:iconfeatureenvy:
featureEnvy Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014  Hobbyist Filmographer
This is such an interesting journal.
I've always thought I was a terrible writer. I've always tried to incorporate most of the "lies" you discussed above into my writing, but I always ended up with a forced, ill-paced narrative. Maybe I should go with my gut instincts more often when writing instead of going with the voices in my head telling me to add a bunch of frills and lengthy chains of descriptive words.
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:iconpinkymccoversong:
PinkyMcCoversong Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014  Professional Writer
Read lots of published books. That, and peer critique, are the best ways to become a good writer.
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:iconcutebunny50:
Cutebunny50 Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Wow, this is very informative! Thanks for this! ^^ 
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:iconpinkymccoversong:
PinkyMcCoversong Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014  Professional Writer
Glad to be of service!
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:iconcutebunny50:
Cutebunny50 Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014  Hobbyist Digital Artist
:) 
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:iconlhmac:
Lhmac Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
Ah yes. All things I've mentioned to people when I beta read.
As far as writing is concerned, less is more. Simplicity can convey more emotion and story than complexity most of the time.
And we also always need to mention there are no hard-and-fast "rules" to writing. Everything is circumstantial. Even grammar sometimes.
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:iconpinkymccoversong:
PinkyMcCoversong Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014  Professional Writer
Well, I think there ARE some hard and fast rules. Like, you know, be interesting. Or communicate clearly. (Even if you're disobeying grammar rules, you have to be clear!)

And the rules change depending on who you're writing for. Just for yourself, in a journal? Go nuts. For friends and family? You might want to tighten things up a bit, so that people enjoy it. For publication? That's a can of worms that I don't even want to open today!
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:iconlhmac:
Lhmac Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
Well, that's not true, either. Writing doesn't *have* to be interesting. Some purposes are served without being interesting. Some purposes are served without communicating clearly, either.
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:iconpinkymccoversong:
PinkyMcCoversong Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014  Professional Writer
Would you want to read something that wasn't interesting?
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:iconlhmac:
Lhmac Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
It's not about want. There are many classic works that aren't at all interesting. They serve a purpose. It's rare in fiction. But then, what about nonfiction? Not everything is interesting to everyone.
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:iconpinkymccoversong:
PinkyMcCoversong Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014  Professional Writer
I don't think you understand what I'm trying to say.
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:iconlhmac:
Lhmac Featured By Owner Jul 26, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
Cool, coz I was thinking the same thing about you. Not everything is "interesting". A lot of experimental writing really isn't. And I've never heard anyone describe James Joyce's Ulysses as interesting.
I wouldn't recommend any novice writer try to break that "must be interesting" rule unless they've followed it pretty closely for awhile, but it doesn't mean that no one can break that rule.
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:iconpinkymccoversong:
PinkyMcCoversong Featured By Owner Jul 26, 2014  Professional Writer
I think the point of experimental writing is to find new ways to make things interesting.
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(1 Reply)
:iconplusheight4plusgut:
PlusHeight4PlusGut Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Fascinating.
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:iconheyrandomppl:
Heyrandomppl Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014  Student General Artist
well... My life was a lie.
Thanks for telling me before it was too late 0_0 btw i love your icon SPARKLES! 
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:iconpinkymccoversong:
PinkyMcCoversong Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014  Professional Writer
Thanks!
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:iconheyrandomppl:
Heyrandomppl Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014  Student General Artist
XD
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:icondrippingwords:
DrippingWords Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014  Student Writer
Woohoo footer! Commenting to help with that, haha.
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:iconpinkymccoversong:
PinkyMcCoversong Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014  Professional Writer
<3
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:icondrippingwords:
DrippingWords Featured By Owner Aug 20, 2014  Student Writer
:glomp:
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:iconvoisb:
voisb Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014  Hobbyist Digital Artist
not really a writer but these were great to know. thanks!!
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:iconpinkymccoversong:
PinkyMcCoversong Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014  Professional Writer
Quite welcome.
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:iconinfernalgenius:
InfernalGenius Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
I disagree with both what you say and what I supposedl "learned". I will write whatever the hell I want. That's what writing is. I can use all the fancy words I like or none at all. If I put borders to my potential writing will look joyless and dead.
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:iconpinkymccoversong:
PinkyMcCoversong Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014  Professional Writer
Wow. I don't even know what to say to this. 

There's personal writing, for you. And there's writing you share, which has an audience. If you want to communicate effectively with your audience, it no longer becomes just about what you like and what's easiest. It becomes a dialogue between the writer and the reader. In that case, yes, rules and lessons matter.
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:iconlibertades:
Libertades Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Excess: bad.
Poor: bad.

I don't agree yet don't disagree with the person who made all of these advices, but I do believe in a balance and I believe I've made mistakes like the ones pointed here, so you're free to write whatever you want and say that's what writing is about but that puts in risk your life as a writer (and at least the way you word it it sounds like you're a bad writer, no offense), just that. :)
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:iconliettore:
Liettore Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
I agree! I'm glad someone else agrees that there needs to be a balance in common and fancy words. I mean, you don't want to sound like someone just coming out of kindergarten, but you don't want to sound like the encyclopedia, either. 

This is all very good advice! Thank you so much for sharing!
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:iconpinkymccoversong:
PinkyMcCoversong Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014  Professional Writer
It's all about voice and authenticity!

Glad you enjoyed the article.
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:iconbugerking713:
bugerking713 Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014  Student Digital Artist
same here im dsiagreing besides im doing amazing on my own
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:iconpinkymccoversong:
PinkyMcCoversong Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014  Professional Writer
Glad you're doing well, I guess.
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:iconkatieline:
Katieline Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014
...yeah, I'm just going to disagree with a bunch of these in varying degrees. Especially 3.
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:iconpinkymccoversong:
PinkyMcCoversong Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014  Professional Writer
Why?
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:iconkatieline:
Katieline Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014
Short answer: I have a vocabulary and I'm not afraid to use it. And style has no right or wrong.

Longer answer: I write stuff to get ideas out of my head, not to publish. I write for myself, and if other people happen to enjoy it, well and good. I know perfectly well that some of my writing is crappy, some is good, and some is meh. I'm not interested in what publishers or editors want from a writer; I see too much subpar writing published these days. (Today I saw the word "weaved" in a published book. WEAVED. And paragraphs of straight SVO sentences. "We verbed X. We verbed Y. We verbed Z." Arrrrgh) I enjoy description, and nothing will ever, ever make me use "said" and "asked" to the near exclusion of other tags, let alone leaving off modifiers. "Broke in with forced cheer" is a better descriptor than "interrupted." I am a opponent of "always always always show don't tell." No. Do it frequently. But it's not appropriate all the time.

Also, the comment "I do this for a living therefore I'm right" bugged the crap out of me. Everyone has different literature tastes. Alice might prefer a spare style (e.g. Coraline or Narnia) while Bob likes knowing exactly what to picture. Knowing "what sells" and "what publishers currently want" does not necessarily mean "this is the absolute right way to do it." (Especially with so much crap writing these days.) It's style. Try telling e.e. cummings to capitalize words and split lines sensibly. Yeah, no.

That's why.

Oh, and this, because it's funny:

Haikus are easy
But sometimes they don't make sense
Refrigerator
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:iconpinkymccoversong:
PinkyMcCoversong Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014  Professional Writer
Weaved can be correct, depending on the context.

When I mention that I do this for a living, it's not to say that all published books are better than unpublished writing, but just to give folks a sense of where I'm speaking from. Experience DOES give you more expertise, in many cases.

If you're not writing to publish, or for an audience, do whatever you want, of course! But if you are writing for an audience, you should consider that audience when you write.

As far as vocabulary is concerned, it's all about authenticity. If you want your readers to feel that your voice and your characters are authentic, you should take that into consideration when you're choosing words. Would a character or a narrator really talk like that? If not, choose something different.
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