How to Evaluate Writing Advice

Since I will be doling out writing advice every day this month, it is appropriate I start with instructions on how to evaluate writing advice, whether it’s coming from me or someone else.

Before I begin, I want to repeat a little of what I said at the end of my last post, which is that I am not an expert and I am not pretending to be one. All of the advice offered on this blog comes from my personal experience, which may or may not align with the writing community at large. I am not an authority, and I am not offering prescription.

With that out of the way, let’s get into this.

Look at the Source

I encourage everyone to exercise a little bit of skepticism when taking writing advice. The amount of skepticism often depends on where the advice is coming from. You can usually trust a college professor or a widely published author. Conversely, if someone carves a few pearls into the bathroom wall, you might want to give that offered wisdom a little less weight.

Don’t (necessarily) dismiss advice out of hand. Use your best judgement. If the advice seems particularly radical, harmful, or destructive, give it a pass regardless of the source. But if, after spending several days climbing and hiking up a mountain, should you stumble into a cave where a wizened old hermit says, “The Oxford comma offers clarity,” go ahead and put that in your tool bag. It probably won’t hurt and you can always ignore the advice later.

Check Other Sources

Sometimes, you might receive advice that is clear in the directive, but unclear as to why. For example, I used to hear people say all the time, “Show, don’t tell!” The advice is sound, but no one told me where the advice originated, or why it was important. Later, checking with other writers, I learned quite a bit more about the notion, furthering my understanding and making me a stronger writer.

Writers love talking about writing almost as much as they love talking about their stories. If you open a fortune cookie that says, “You don’t have to put two spaces after a period anymore,” it’s perfectly acceptable to check in with your other writer friends. Post a message to social media. Ask your writer’s group. Writers are full up to the back of their throat with opinions, and they will share them with you if you ask. They will share them even if you don’t ask. Just look at this blog.

Also, don’t be afraid to look ignorant. I’m going to spoil one of the themes for this month, which is this: no one really knows what they’re doing. We’re all guessing, taking stabs in the dark, performing rituals to fill the blank page, hoping that the magic continues to work. This is a truth I’ve found present throughout the industry, from writers, to agents, to editors, to publishers, to marketing… no one really knows what works and what doesn’t. If we knew, we’d all be doing it. There are truths we cling to (like the advice of “show, don’t tell”) but some books succeed, some don’t, and everyone is guessing as to why.

So, ask your questions. Don’t be afraid to look ignorant, because we all are.

Be Leery of Absolutes

When someone gives you advice that starts with the words “never” or “always,” take it with a grain of salt. You don’t always have to show. You can use adverbs, sometimes. Your sentences don’t have to be perfect. Passive voice from time to time is just fine. Beware absolutes.

If someone tells you, “Never start a book with someone waking up with amnesia,” consider the advice. One of my favorite series, The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny, begins with Corwin waking up in a hospital room, completely unaware of who he is or where he came from. It’s an older story, and the trends have changed, but there are other examples of stories starting with an amnesiac. If you have a story idea that would be amazing with that type of beginning, write it. Just be aware that you might have a hard time getting the right people to read that story because you’re bucking the current trends.

Trust Your Gut

This applies across the board, from evaluating advice to crafting your story, from writing a query letter to accepting an offer. None of us know how to write an automatic best seller, but our instincts are often sound. Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them. Search your feelings, you know this to be true…

What was I talking about again? Oh yeah, instincts. Listen to your gut and use your best judgement. It might save you from destroying your work. Or, it might be the thing that elevates your story to the next level.

JK Rowling would not be where she is today if someone hadn’t trusted their gut and published a story that no one at the time thought publishable.

Experiment

Sometimes, the best way to evaluate writing advice is to science the hell out of it. Take the advice and a blank page, put them together, and see what comes out on the other side.

As writers, we sometimes forget that we do not have to share or publish everything we write. It is healthy and good to write something you know you’re going to throw away. It’s practice. It’s an exercise. It will strengthen your skills and free your mind from the stress and pressure of trying to perform.

If you get a beta reader that says, “I don’t know… I think this would be a lot better in first person, present tense,” don’t threaten or harm this obvious heathen. Maybe they’re right! If you have the time and patience, take your opening and try rewriting it in another document. See how it feels.

You should not take every piece of advice offered to heart, and you also should not spend all your time experimenting. At the end of the day (or by the end of the month) you have word counts to achieve and stories to finish. If your vision is clear, trust your instincts and stick with your original plans. However, know that some of the greatest growth spurts you will achieve come after doing something that challenges you.

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