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When NOT to Take Writing Advice

There’s no shortage of advice out there for aspiring and beginning authors. But knowing when NOT to take advice may be as important as knowing when to heed it.

I learned this within my first year of pursuing publication. At the time, I was preparing a short story for a contest put on by an editor of one of the biggest religious publishers in the business. So I submitted the story to one of my writer’s loops. The opening line read,

How in the hell do you drown in the desert?

That’s a decent opening line, don’t you think? Well, my critique partners chimed in and rather surprisingly took me to task for the profanity. Because this was a religious publishing house, they warned, the cursing would be a red flag. In fact, some suggested it would incur immediate disqualification. As a yet unpublished author, I took that to heart and sought for some ways to replace the dreaded expletive. I submitted these four alternatives:

1.) How in the heck do you drown in the desert?
2.) How in the world do you drown in the desert?
3.) How in God’s name do you drown in the desert?
4.) How do you drown in the desert?

The advice poured in. Someone offered tarnation, another How in God’s green earth. One person suggested, How in blazes do you drown in the desert and another added blue blazes. That was a little different. I began contemplating the blazes options, when someone noted that blazes and blue blazes actually meant hell and should be avoided; furthermore, How in God’s name was taking the Lord’s name in vain. At this stage, holy hangnail seemed like a viable option. I was overwhelmed with advice. Finally, my southern-fried friend Ane Mulligan settled the matter for me. She said, “Go with your gut.”

And out of all the advice I’d received, that one rang a bell. So I stayed with my original line. The story went on to become one of the finalists and was one of my first big breaks as a writer.

A good rule of thumb for aspiring authors is to ask a lot of questions and listen carefully, especially if those giving the answers are seasoned writers or industry professionals. Problem is that, even then the advice you get will differ.

Stephen Koch in his excellent Writer’s Workshop, establishes that fact in the Introduction to his book:

I have tried to present here a loose intuitive consensus on the basics of the craft. Consensus of course incorporates, and sometimes masks, dissent. Some people—you may be one—may well disagree with some of the things said here. Maybe many things. Rest assured, there is some notable figure somewhere who could be found to take vocal and irritable exception to every single insight in this book. (emphasis mine)

So how does a writer determine what advice she should take or leave? I mean, here’s a journeyman writing teacher saying that even his insights can be questioned by “some notable figure somewhere.” Which leaves the rest of us peons scratching our head. How can we apply anything with confidence if everything can be debated? Or is the publishing biz really some giant roulette wheel… with us in the cylinder?

Here’s how it shakes out for me — and it has to do with middle ground. On the one hand are those who are too eager to accept ALL advice. On the other hand are those who are unwilling to receive ANY advice. And somewhere in the middle are those who go with their gut.

The downside of having so many writing resources is a near addiction to advice. Compound this with the fact that many aspiring authors seem to be looking for a secret formula, some technique or rule that will capture lightning. They fawn after celebrity agents, check off all the hoops as they jump them, read writing blogs, write writing blogs, and memorize the latest How-to book. Problem is, this approach acts as a buffer against autonomy and potentially squelches something intrinsic to being a writer: your unique voice. If we are too busy importing bit and pieces of advice from others we might lose sight of our own writing style.

But there’s an equal danger in not taking ANY writing advice. We snub our nose at “the rules,” kick against the goads of convention, curse the commercial sellouts and, damn the torpedoes, do our own thing. However, the point at which you DON’T take writing advice could define your writing, for better or worse. How many writing careers could have been salvaged or started if only one had sought and heeded good advice?

All that to say, most successful, tenured, writers seem to follow their own unique sort of system. They have found what works for them — word count, revision, writing environment, inspiration, critique, etc. Most of their individual style is the result of a compilation of things, some advice TAKEN, some advice LEFT. Sure, their style may be quirky or conventional. It may be formless or formulaic. Nevertheless, it is their own and it avoids both the above extremes of being too eager to accept all advice, and being resistant to any advice.

Because after you attend all the conferences, read all the writing blogs, and study all the craft books, you still have to… go with your gut.

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Question: How do you think a writer should determine what advice to TAKE and what advice to LEAVE?

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{ 20 comments… add one }
  • Charlene Ann Baumbich April 20, 2011, 5:46 AM

    Check your ego, shore up your resolve, listen to the story.

  • Steve Doyle April 20, 2011, 6:09 AM

    If one person points something out, I make note of it. It two people point out the same thing, I take a second look at it. If three or more do it, I start revising.

  • Carradee April 20, 2011, 6:20 AM

    Determine where the critique’s coming from. Then evaluate what they got out of the story, what you were intending to convey, and if that reader’s representative of your intended audience.

    Sometimes the reader just needs to check a dictionary, himself (like the one who called my consistent use of “faerie” a misspelling in a story). Sometimes the reader’s spot-on (like my friend’s comment that she couldn’t finish reading an early draft of A Fistful of Fire because the narrator was too annoying).

    But sometimes, the reader’s comment actually is both wrong and right. I recently had a reader comment, “Uh, who’s this?” because I’d put the lines in a bad order, so there were enough lines between someone being first brought up and the second mention of their name that the first comment had already been forgotten.

    The stronger my impulse to completely dismiss a comment, the more carefully I evaluate it and make sure I’m not just having a knee-jerk reaction.

  • Amarissa Cale April 20, 2011, 6:33 AM

    I agree with the consensus… Go with your gut. Most of the time, you will know intuitively if the advice is right for you. If you revise on someone’s advice, and find the story no longer reads the way you meant it to read, lose the revision. Long and short, the story is yours. I have been through the addiction to advice, and have decided it is not for me. There is good advice out there, no two ways about it, but if the story is no longer the one in your head, don’t follow. My story changed so drastically on some levels, I didn’t recognise it, didn’t know where to continue. I went back and revised it again, just allowing it to flow, and it now belongs to me once more.

    Great post! Grand advice! “Go with your gut.”
    Cheers,
    Amma

  • Donald S. Crankshaw April 20, 2011, 6:33 AM

    This has less to do with individual advice than technique, but my policy is to try out many different things, and see what works.

    Are you a discovery writer or an outliner? You won’t know until you try writing a story each way (and generally find some place in the middle where you’re comfortable). Should you plow through your story to get to the end, or take your time and shore up the details before moving on? Again, try them both.

    In the end, you learn what advice works for you by trying it out. The caveat here is that I’m talking about advice on how to write, not necessarily specific advice on how to improve a story. Learning how much advice to incorporate is another one of those things you have to learn by trying a bunch of different ways.

  • Bruce Hennigan April 20, 2011, 6:51 AM

    In medicine I have learned to always pay the most attention to your first impressions. So, I agree with “go with your gut”. I’m in the process of the final edit for my upcoming book “The 13th Demon: Altar of the Spiral Eye” and I have rewritten the thing about a dozen times. The last edit came from advice from a self publishing house. But, my current editor with Charisma House gave me six pages of changes. As I was rather dejectedly reading the proposed changes I made a startling realization. All of the changes he suggested were already present in my ORIGINAL manuscript! I had moved away from my first impression of the story into editorially advised waters that had weakened and muddied the story. I went back to my original story and started all over. The final product, I hope, will be much better than the mishmash of changes I made at the suggestions of multiple editors.

  • Johne Cook April 20, 2011, 7:25 AM

    I pay attention to whether the advice strikes me as sound or mere opinion. If it’s a valid thing (like using American instead of British punctuation), I set ego aside and learn the lesson.

    If it’s a mere preference thing, I go with my gut. (And I have a large gut.)

  • Katherine Coble April 20, 2011, 7:48 AM

    I stay away from writers’ groups. I cannot stand their operation, quite frankly. Your story buttresses every feeling Ive ever had about their uselessness for a craftsperson.

    Imagine that instead of authoring, your craft is building chairs. You would read a book about building chairs, take woodshop in school and stay after class for pointers from your teacher. You could also go to a chairmaker whose chairs you admire and ask her to help you figure out some things.

    You probably WOULDNT go to a chair builders group where somepeople make straightbacks, others do upholstered wingbacks and not a few use their time to sew beanbags. Well, you might go for friendly conversation and talk about the chair market in general. But ask that group for input on your chairs? Theyll tell you it isnt good becayse you only upholster the seats or its the wrong colour or your chairs arent mooshy squooshy enough. It’s all remarks on taste with the understanding that their kind of chair is automatically better. It is useless for improving your craft.

    It took me years, but I found readers i could trust for helpful critique. Even then i only use 80% of what they tell me. My writer meetups are more about cake and commisseration. Critique, like sex, is best handled one on one in a loving relationship behind closed dors.

    • Jill April 20, 2011, 9:07 AM

      Oi, where do you get that kind of critique? 😉

    • Neil Larkins April 20, 2011, 3:22 PM

      I too attended a writers group for three years before realizing they all knew as much about writing as I did — nearly nothing. What we all gave each other on a regular basis was opinion, how we felt about the various works presented. It didn’t help me and as far as I could tell it didn’t and hasn’t helped any of them. I left and have only gone back a few times as a courtesy to some of the members.
      My current problem, and the same problem I have always had – if this a problem at all – is that I have access to no one who is savvy on writing to read for me. [Correction: I do have access to one person who has been a professional editor at times and has said she would read for me, but as yet has not had the time. And it’s been five years. Hmm.] So for all practical purposes, I had to go with my gut. This seems to be working for me so far but the ultimate test has yet to be administered: Getting published.

  • Eric April 20, 2011, 7:49 AM

    “For every expert there is an equal and opposite expert.” –Clarke’s third law

  • Dave Wilson April 20, 2011, 9:09 AM

    I think it’s important to determine who you’re writing for, then solicit advice from those who are similar to your “ideal reader.” Ultimately, I don’t think you should care about the opinions of those who aren’t your audience.

    Dave

    • Carradee April 20, 2011, 9:45 AM

      I’ve found it useful to find willing betas who aren’t my “ideal reader”, to see how wide appeal I can have. In some cases, I’ve been surprised and they’re raving fans. In others, they’ve been able to point out little things that actually improve the story to change, and make it accessible to more than my “ideal” (spec-fic fan) reader.

      • Dave Wilson April 20, 2011, 10:18 AM

        I wouldn’t disagree with including “betas.” That said, I would still give much more weight to my “alphas.”
        Dave

  • Jill April 20, 2011, 9:25 AM

    As somebody who is an information gatherer, yet not a rule follower, going w/ the gut is an absolute must. Some critiques feel like synchronicity–the exact right moment and time to advise me in a way my gut already understands but hasn’t acknowledged.

    I can’t stop thinking of Katherine’s analogy of one-on-one critique. It reminds me of Cavendish and her Blazing World (1666), in which the main character visits a new blazing world and brings back the empress of that world via her soul, and then her husband joins them, and they have this tea party in her soul. It’s all completely platonic, though, and the main character makes certain to point this out over and over: My husband is fine w/ others frolicking in my soul, really he is–because it’s platonic.

  • Alan Oathout April 20, 2011, 10:06 AM

    For me, evaluating advice starts with developing a reasonably firm idea of what I want to accomplish…having some sort of end goal in mind for my writing. Otherwise, I have no “filter” to screen out the unhelpful, and end up like the people you described in the post who try to somehow accept and incorporate everything.

    I think it takes time & mistakes & a ton of reading to really hone in on your vision of what your writing should look like…but once you do, you have a litmus test with which to judge both General Advice (from books, blogs, seminars, etc) and specific advice (from reviews & critiques). If a piece of advice moves you closer to accomplishing what you set out to do, then it’s “good.” If it takes you further away from your unique aims, and turns you into a vanilla copy of everyone else, it’s “bad.”

    With that as a starting point, here’s how I determine what to take and what to leave:

    1) Is this advice consistent with what I see in novels I admire? (If the Authors-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up use longer chapters and a slower pace, then the well-meaning advice to keep things short & zippy is not consistent with the effect I’m looking to achieve.)

    2) How ubiquitous is this advice? (I look for commonalities among sources I trust. If my five favorite writing teachers all say “don’t overdo adjectives and adverbs,” then I’m going to think long and hard before I break that rule.)

    3) If I reject this advice, can I live with the criticism? (As you suggested with the quote from Stephen Koch, some authority, somewhere, can and will criticize every decision you make as a writer. So it’s not a matter of whether you will be criticized, it’s a matter of deciding what you’re willing to be criticized for.)

    4) To what degree am I in alignment with the motives of the advice-giver? (Every piece of advice comes from a person with his/her own agendas & “causes.” For instance, many “How-to-Write” books present a decidedly commercial, or literary, bias….which has everything to do with the type and tone of advice given. Same thing is true for individual readers of your book. Deciding whether or not to take the advice depends upon where you fall along that continuum. Do you aspire to write the next “Ulysses”? or the next “Harry Potter”? Something in-between?)

  • R. L. Copple April 20, 2011, 12:21 PM

    Good comments. I consider everyone’s advice, but with the understanding of the following:

    They are only one person in a vast sea of potential readers, and their taste on any particular point may or may not match the majority. If what they say makes sense to you, then incorporate it. But you are the only one who can determine whether that change or “problem” will make sense for your story. No one else has your vision or gut feeling of what you are wanting to accomplish.

    If it is something well know, like punctuation, grammar, common plot mistakes that you didn’t intend to make, fix it. If there is something that is inconsistent with the character motivations or plot, fix it. You should be able to determine if that is true or not regardless of the critiquer’s pov.

    IOW, I agree. Don’t dismiss any comment out of hand without giving it some thought, but go with your gut on whether a suggested change or problem is really what your story needs. It will be you that gets critiqued when the book goes public, not the critiquer who told you to change it. Your name is on the line. You may as well stand or fall for writing who you are rather than trying to let everyone else write your story for you.

  • Heather Webb April 20, 2011, 5:13 PM

    I agree. Somewhere in the middle is almost always the best place to be, regardless of the topic. And I couldn’t agree more- you MUST go with your gut!

  • Patrick Todoroff April 21, 2011, 9:00 AM

    You’re never going to bypass the learning curve. Anything worth doing well is worth doing poorly at first, and making bad decisions is how we learn to make good ones. Different styles/voice aside, writing is no different.
    You’ve got to master what works well for you and your audience.

    Tick off the litany of the obvious: learn grammar, punctuation, characterization, setting, plot, clarity, etc, and “Go with your gut.” ends up as pretty sound advice. Add accountability before God into the equation, and “Pray. A lot.” is right up there too.

  • Mary Fagan August 12, 2011, 9:10 AM

    Now where would we be if Cormac McCarthy listened to advice?

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