Monday, May 30, 2016

Take my advice ... or not

I often see discussion threads in forums like Goodreads started by writers wondering about some part of the writing process. They feel insecure because they aren’t doing it exactly like [insert big name author here] and they wonder what’s wrong with them.

There is one piece of advice that I invariably give whenever discussions start up about the “right” way to do things, whether it’s about writing or critiquing or worldbuilding or editing or any part of the process. In fact, I think it’s the only true piece of advice I ever give. All else in my mind falls into the category of “this helped me, maybe it will help you too, but that’s for you to say.”

My advice is simple: develop your own judgment about what works for you and what doesn’t.

There is no “right” way.

The only things that matter are the words you have on the page when you reach the end of your writing process and decide to share your work with the world. How you get there is immaterial.

Now, this sounds like a recipe for ignoring any and all advice that people throw at you. No, that’s not it. Advice is good, but it is not God.

This is a tricky balancing act, especially because it involves self confidence, and writers on the whole are a desperately insecure bunch.

On the one hand, you should recognize that what is good advice to one person may be poison to another. Try things out, but have the courage to know when something just doesn’t cut it for you and to know that that’s OK.

On the other hand, that doesn’t mean be a jerk and refuse to ever listen to advice. At least hear why the proponent thinks it’s such a great idea and make a reasoned choice for yourself.

“I’m different,” “This is my voice,” “I’m trying to be experimental,” are all fair enough, but have the courage to recognize when it actually isn’t working for you and that maybe those dinosaurs who pay attention to little things like spelling and grammar might actually have a point ...

So, listen to advice, be receptive, look at what works for a whole bunch of people and work out why it works for a whole bunch of people. Don’t be afraid - or too proud - to try things out. But know that the goal is to get a story down on paper by any means that works for you. You’re being judged by those words and the impact they have on readers, not by conformance to somebody’s idea of a good writing process.

How about you? What perfectly reasonable advice have you discarded because it just wasn’t right for you?


  1. Hi Ian,

    I'm in total agreement with you on this one, good sir. I firmly believe there is no such thing as the right way to write. Each of us has to believe in our own unique style. Adjustments are fine according to well meaning advice. However, we have to feel what's right in our writing.

    When it comes to writing, I haven't really had any advice from anybody. Although, the dog has made some suggestions I'm trying to heed.

    Thank you for your thoughtful article, Ian.


  2. Advice is good, but it is not God. Love that sentence. Yes, writing rules are made to be broken. Funny thing. All the 'rules' that we are instructed to follow are broken shamelessly (oh, did I use an adverb?) by the big name writers. You'll never find your unique voice when you're trying to be someone you're not.

    I'm an avid reader of how-to-write-edit-publish craft books, but hey, who has the time to use all that advice? Only by writing and writing can we discover what our own 'rules' are.

    Good one, Ian.

    Denise :-)

  3. When I taught art at our local college I had students ask for the right way to do things. I gave them your advice: Decide for yourself what works and what doesn't. I was far less popular than other instructors who convinced students there was a right way to do things.

  4. Gary, we have to feel what's right in our writing - exactly. Sadly I have no advice to offer on how to do that.

    Denise, I think people harm their own writing when they try to be someone they're not. Unfortunately, following role models is all many people have for guidance.

    Stephen, there's a distinction between technique, which can be taught, and creating art, which can't. Instructors can often forget that distinction.

  5. I'm sure there's been some advice along the way I completely discarded, but I tend to listen pretty closely to what people say. Then I analyze for hours, days, weeks over what the heart of the problem is. The only advice I've completely disregarded pertained to actual critiques.


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