Monday, August 20, 2012

Bad Writing Advice

A few weeks ago (I'm behind on the times! I blame the revisions cave), author Colson Whitehead wrote a hilarious article over at a little magazine called The New York Times on the subject of writing advice. If you haven't already read it, you should do that now.

Done? Great.

So Colson's advice is obviously sarcastic. But as I read (and laughed!) at this article, I got to thinking about some of the bad writing advice I've been the recipient of in the past, which sadly wasn't sarcastic:

-This sounds too conversational. Avoid narrating like how a teenager actually speaks and save that for the dialogue (This in reference to The Witch Hunter's Bible).

-Agents don't like first person present tense. It's the mark of an amateur (Also in reference to The Witch Hunter's Bible).

-Readers don't like scene-jumping. They find it jarring. Try to think of something interesting to say about everything the character does throughout the day. (This was advice Ruth Lauren Steven once got because she hadn't described the character's shower or something else really boring. Seriously.)

Okay, so these are some prettty extreme, stand-out examples. I've received plenty more advice through the years that was only moderately dubious, along with way more that was fantastic and completely invaluable. I suspect, though, that for some newer authors it might be pretty hard to distinguish the good advice from the bad.

So now we've come to the portion of the evening where I share my thoughts on writing advice.

Writers are like parents, in that anyone with a lick of experience thinks they're an expert (Okay, so maybe that's a gross generality, but whatever. It's my blog :D). Someone will always be there ready to tell you what you're doing wrong and how you can do it better. Perfect strangers feel compelled to offer you advice. Often times this advice is conflicting with what others have already told you. Sometimes this advice is good, and sometimes a mom tells you to wake your seven-month-old baby up at least twice in the night until they're a year old or else they'll become dehydrated and fail to thrive.

So where am I going with this, you ask? Should you ignore all the advice and just flounder about until you maybe or maybe not get it right? (whatever that is).

No, definitely not. Like with a new, inexperienced parent, advice can be very helpful and welcome at a time when it seems there's just so much to learn and everything is very daunting. It's simply a matter of taking it all in and, as you learn and grow, choosing what works best for you. No one knows your baby (book or otherwise!) better than you do.

Aside from that, be cautious of 'You must do this or else' types of advice. Writing isn't black and white; anything can be done if executed well, and what works for one person might not work for another. Good writing advice takes gray areas into consideration.

And lastly, if you're the recipient of bad writing advice through a critique, please remember that that person still took their precious time to read your work and give you their thoughts. That alone is worth a big thank you.

(Fun fact: my son's hydration status is just great, thanks for asking :) )





17 comments:

  1. Haha, loved the original article and thought your tidbits were great. Particularly the first person present tense one. I guess some people regard personal preference as a writing rule.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Xan! Yeah, there seems to be a lot of people that hate FPPT. Not I!

      Delete
  2. Great article. Great post. Gave me my morning giggle. :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great post! I think the writer is the only person who can ultimately determine whether advice they're given is "good" or "bad." In the past few years, I've grown tremendously as a writer and I think I've gotten better at determining what advice I should follow and what I should ignore. I hope the same rule applies when I start having children, whenever that may be! lol

    ReplyDelete
  4. Now, if only I could figure out how to check my manuscripts capillary refill...

    ReplyDelete
  5. That advice Ruth got was brutal. I once had someone tell me my query was lacking the themes that arose in my book (a few books ago): "Is it about hope? Human struggle? What will your reader learn from reading your book?" While I try to consider all feedback, especially regarding queries, I just had to pass on that one.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And I don't think your query suffered from your decision, since I read it and loved it so much!

      Delete
  6. omg I completely forgot someone said that to me!

    Yeah, I kind of ignored that advice :D And my baby is adverb-free while my ms gets its 5 a day. All is well.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah I really don't hate on adverbs like I used to. A few here and there are fine by me :)

      Delete
  7. It's often difficult to determine good or bad advice. And if I'm honest, I'm guilty of dolling out bad advice in the past. Well meant bad advice, but bad advice all the same. (Isn't hindsight a wonderful thing!) We grow, we learn, we realise our mistakes. :-) In the end, when it comes to our own manuscripts/books/babies, we have to go with our gut. My daughter is thriving, so hopefully will my writing.
    Great post, Michelle.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh me too, Amaleen! I'm afraid I have given advice as a newbie writer that was probably just as bad as some of my examples above. No one's perfect. :)

      Thanks, Amaleen!

      Delete
  8. Haha, someone forgot to tell Suzanne Collins that Hunger Games marks her as an amateur. And forgot to tell her agent, and publishers, and masses of fans...never mind.

    You can tell when you have a good beta reader, because all their advice gives you an, "Ooooh, right..." moment. I've had one that didn't click at all, and the advice just made me frustrated with the reader, even though she meant well.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Exactly, Erin! I know just what you mean.

      Delete
  9. Great article, Michelle! Loved it.

    ReplyDelete