I had written something that nobody in the workshop could understand. Or rather, they understood what I wrote; they just disagreed on what the meaning was! A discussion about the role of ambiguity ensued. At the end of the back-and-forth, our teacher chimed in. I’ll never forget what he said: “You have to have it one way before you can have it two.”

Years later, I mentioned to him that this had never gotten away from me. It was one of those pieces of advice that stuck like glue.

Of course, he didn’t remember saying it, and suggested that he might have been quoting someone else who said it first.

The conversation got me thinking about the advice I’ve never let go, along with the advice that I’ve rejected.

Like many others, I learned that you should always use active voice. For years, I bent and warped sentences so they included an “active” verb. It was only later, after years of studying the breadth and depth of writing out there, I realized how bad that advice is. Pick up any newspaper, magazine, or novel: There is no question that “passive” voice is a part of good writing.

Then there’s the advice that good writing “shows” rather than “tells.” When I worked as a writing tutor and taught college composition classes, my freshman students would turn in papers that went out of their way to “show,” when telling would have been more effective. What they didn’t know is that writing is about making choices. Sometimes you show. Sometimes you tell. Knowing when to do which is the difference between good writing and bad.

Which brings me to my only conclusion—that learning never ends. I took this for granted; even after graduate school, I have never stopped learning about writing. I read several abooks about writing a year and try to take at least one class.

To many professionals, that seems odd, as if being paid to do something means you know everything there is to know about it. Trust me. You can learn something new, even if you already know (almost) everything about it. MW