Debunking #HarshWritingAdvice Through The Power of Etymology–Extended SFF Community Edition

Twitter followers already know I’m not a big fan of #HarshWritingAdvice.

It’s not just that the hashtag seems to harness the worst part of consecrated formulas like “Kill Your Darlings”. The part of the writing community that takes the potentially useful reminder far too literally, making it a form of penance without which your writing will be self-indulgent and therefore automatically bad.

In my experience, the best writing happens when the author is having fun with the material. That shit is contagious–especially for us speculative fiction writers. If we can’t have fun while imagining worlds and expanding the field of the possible, than what the fuck are we doing any of it in the first place?

It’s not even that #HarshWritingAdvice seems to have turned, at least in part, into a flagellation machine aimed directly at the insecurities and vulnerability of the many writers just setting off on their adventure.

Especially in Science Fiction and Fantasy, there are so many new writers who use the writing community on Twitter, and its many awesome pitch events, as a vital source of validation and progression in their career.

I shudder to think of the effect all these categorical and often contradictory instructions, coming from an apparent place of authority a new writer has little ability to question, would have had on me when I was starting out.

Beyond all of that, #HarshWritingAdvice is simply a bad choice of words, from an etymological point of view at the very least.

If you’re not posturing and are genuinely trying to convey a point, without irritating your partner, that is.

As I laid out in my tweet, “Harsh” is a particularly poor choice of word. It originally meant “Hairy” in English, from a Proto Indo-European root meaning “To scrape, to scratch”.

Likewise, “Writing” also comes from Proto-Germanic and Proto Indo-European root words meaning “To carve, to scratch”.

So that’s two out of two for words that are the etymological equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. That might work for posturing and attention-grabbing, but not so much if you really intend on sharing experience and information.

Which brings us to the worst word choice of all, “Advice.”

Advice is the etymological equivalent of a jumbled celebrity couple name like Bennifer. It’s a bastardised version of the Vulgar Latin expression “Mi est visum”, “In my view”.

With a -D added in compared to the French “avis”, for no damn reason at all.

But most of all, the word does not mean “Advice” at all, in the present day sense of “Guidance”. Advice is only, and has only ever been, a shitty personal opinion. Or at best, a point of view.

In my original tweet, I concluded with: “So keep your damn hairy-scratchy opinions to yourself!”. I stand by that.

But it’s even more true when you think of the disproportionate impact all this #HarshWritingAdvice posturing and writerly Bible-thumping is having on all the new writers in the SFF community on Twitter.

There are, of course and thankfully, genuine attempts at sharing experience and wisdom in the flood of posts on the hashtag.

But all it takes to royally fuck up a new writer, before they even get started, are a couple of popular posts more worried about getting in on the action and getting retweets than about the effect those 280 characters will have on members of the members of the community who are the most vulnerable.

It’s reaching the point where I wonder if I’ve stopped, at least for the time being, recommending the SFF Twitter community as a resource to the new writers I’m helping out through programs like the SFWA Mentorships.

And that’s a tragedy for me, because I’m convinced the Twitter SFF writing community, and events like PitchWars in particular, are an incredible way to level up your craft and your knowledge of the industry.

I know I wouldn’t have the writing career I have today, however modest it may be, if I hadn’t drawn deep from the true advice offered by all the incredible folks out there in the community. All the writers keen on paying forwards the help they themselves had received.

A lot of folks are using the hashtag to offer real help to new writers, and that’s a great thing. I just hope that we can all remember the meaning behind our words, and the effect behind our posts, before we unintentionally harm others just stepping onto the first rungs of the ladder.

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