3 min read

Frame bugs

I often find that while I'm writing about or discussing an issue, it turns out that the way I initially framed things was wrong. Not factually wrong, exactly, but as I am writing I find that the way I framed things suggests consequences that are silly. This doesn't worry me – it seems to be "just a part of the process" of exploring the issue.

(It feels like "the framing is silly" tends to correlate with implicitly assuming we can categorize things, without thinking about the social process of how we (would) categorize things in the relevant context – who does it by, what process, in collaboration with whom, with what motivation or incentives, etc. That seems to be one particular class of frame bugs I often run into.)

For example, today I started drafting a post about aggregating potentially useful writing advice. I wish such an aggregator existed! I might find it valuable. I definitely would have a few years ago. Unfortunately I don't know of such a thing. I suspect there may be some challenges to the thing as I imagine it. Part of why I was writing the post was to figure out what those challenges are and how they might be overcome.

At one point in the draft I wrote that I was interested in focusing on advice that is useful to intermediate writers, rather than to beginning writers. As I started to write out from there though I noticed a feeling that this might be the wrong way to frame things. I wanted to write that such an aggregator would have to filter out "basic" advice "unlikely to be useful to intermediate writers." But how do you define what advice is "basic"? Some advice might be terribly simple and yet it might be the most useful thing you could read. In fact, lacking this "basic" idea might be one big reason you're (read: I'm) still only an intermediate writer...

(There are other problems, too, like: This seems like kind of an arbitrary distinction, the categorization is going to nebulous in practice, which means you are likely to run into trouble with "borderline" writers... Also this smells like gatekeeping which brings its own issues...)

So it seemed that "useful to beginner writer vs. useful to intermediate writer" was the wrong way to frame things. I think what I wanted when I framed things that way was to exclude a few particular genres of "not so great advice." I'll get into detail about what those were for the sake of the example.

One such genre is "oversimplified" or "too prescriptive" advice. If you've looked at writing advice at all you probably know what I mean. It's not that such advice is always useless so much as it is that it's dangerous to take the advice too seriously. Probably the classic example of oversimplified or too-prescriptive advice as others have articulated it is "show, don't tell." This advice gets at something useful, but if you only remember the slogan "show, don't tell," you are going to end up very confused about how writing works and you are going to have a hard time writing anything effectively. If you "believe" in it (and why not, everyone says it's true, even famous published writers!), it will trap you. I feel like I've run into a lot of "trap advice" like this, although this is one of the more egregious ones.

But I also wanted to exclude the other classic genre of writing advice you find online, the "vaguely predatory-feeling advice." Again, if you've ever searched for writing advice you probably know what I mean here. I won't name names because it's so subjective. Instead, some warning signs: (1) Every time you visit the website there is a pop-up asking you to sign up for their newsletter; (2) every post includes an ad for their FREE (always capitalized) e-book of tips, which you get by signing up for the newsletter, as mentioned in the pop-over; (3) they offer simple printable worksheets for you to fill out to "figure out" your story or characters in some sense; (4) they claim to know The Way((TM), Mandalorian salute) To Write Novels/Stories/Screenplays (That Sell) and that they're happy to share their secrets with you... probably in a class or book ($$$). Bonus points if (5) they 'use' (or offer, at least) their own Complete Conceptual System For Planning Your Novel/Story/Screenplay (which is probably explained "more properly" in the paid content). These signs aren't individually damning and such sources might even give helpful advice. Sometimes they do. Still, every time I see these features on a website, I can't help but think: Oh no, another one of these.

I notice I've gotten a little off track from the point of this post. The bottom line is: Sometimes the thing you want to write about is different from what you think it is, and it seems you have to figure that out by writing what you think it is, and paying attention to whether the thing you're writing still feels like the right thing.