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Word to the wise

Advice is everywhere, coming at us constantly from all directions—friends, family members; wanted, unwanted; sometimes it’s helpful, sometimes it’s not; very often it’s unavoidable. But it’s everywhere! And if there’s one thing we try to do on this blog—often and (we hope) well—it’s offering advice that will inform, educate, and encourage our readers in what they do. At the end of the day, it’s one of the main reasons we’re on here to begin with.

But, admittedly, not all advice is alike. Because honestly? You shouldn’t actually remove all the commas from your work; and you shouldn’t have to only “write what you know.” And frankly? it is okay to put a work-in-progress aside temporarily if the writing isn’t coming easily; and no.. there doesn’t have to be conflict on every single page.

So today I ask you: in your writing endeavors, have you been the victim of unwanted advice? And if so, what’s the worst writing advice you’ve ever received?

14 Responses to Word to the wise

  1. Worst writing advice ever: “Don’t you think it’s time you faced reality?”

    i.e, stop writing.

    Best advice in this scenario: Consider the source – if it’s coming from an engineer who never cracks open a book, unless it has a table of coefficients in it…just ignore it.

  2. Wayne says:

    A friend who was a career magazine and newspaper guy suggested I stop writing after five chapters and have someone in the industry read it – to be sure I wasn’t wasting my time. My TV agent, though a friend, got the first five chapters to an editor at an imprint of one of the Big Six. They loved it! Of course, they asked for the rest of the manuscript…which didn’t exist. By the time I finished the manuscript (three months later), the editor’s interest had waned.

    Now I’m doing the ol’ submit-and-wait routine, trying to find a lit agent to get me right back where I was over a year ago.

  3. Kaitlyne says:

    I was often taught in college to “write what you know.” I was also always the weird genre writer among many who aspired to be literary, writing short stories about alien abductions. My teachers would say that writing about topics you had experienced would give your work the authenticity it needed. But how do you write about evil demon ghouls haunting a subway in Belgium when you’ve never actually fought demon ghouls, been on a subway, and the only Brussels you know is in sprout form?

    This one drove me crazy as a student just because of the sheer contradiction. After all, my favorite writers wrote about topics there was no way they experienced, and those who did write books about their own professions and lifestyles had never interested me.

    I’ve since come to my own definition of what’s really meant by “write what you know.” What makes a book authentic is understanding characters and their reactions and being able to replicate people in a believable way. We learn about people and life and human nature, and we apply what we’ve learned about those topics in our writing. I think it’s a much better definition than the traditional one, which I’ve always found very limiting. Besides, how many of our lives are really interesting enough for a novel?

  4. You must hire a freelance editor to edit your work for you if you want a chance of landing an agent or getting published. Funny enough, the advice was given by a freelance editor.

  5. Laura says:

    I was once advised to give a character a tic to really “set her apart.” Like, every time she appeared in any scene, she should either be tapping the ash from her cigarette or clearing her throat or twiddling her thumbs. Every single scene.

    I was also advised to put more war scenes in my lyrical piece about mother-daughter relationships. I get it, dude. This isn’t what you normally read. (But maybe he was onto something: moms + grenades?)

    Even with the bad advice, you can sometimes uncover something helpful behind it. Like the person who wanted my character to constantly smoke or clear her throat: Was this character fading in the background? Too similar to another character? Something to think about. Minus the thumb twiddling, of course.

  6. An overzealous relative of mine frequently advised me to “just get [my] stuff out there” before I “killed” it with over-editing. I agree that too much perfectionism is a bad thing, but all of us need to polish a little bit. Still, I know that if I’m getting advice, it means I’m loved.

  7. Alex Field says:

    I hate those editors who claim to be able to whip any manuscript into shape and get the book ready for publication. Not that I’ve ever tried those services, I just loathe scams…. : )

  8. Lisa Marie says:

    Well, okay. I went to a workshop where writers were encouraged to write only X-number of pages or words per day. I’m sure that works fine for some people, but whenever I’m on a good roll, I don’t want to stop with X-number of pages. This feels counter-intuitive to me.

  9. Giora says:

    The first 2 lines in your post are great. The advice of “write what you know” doesn’t make sense to me. Most literary agents, editors and publishers want to find a book that will be a best seller. Their advice should be, “write what many readers want to read”

  10. Kim says:

    That’s easy. The critique partner in a class who–after being presented with a sample chapter, a one-page synopsis, and mention that I was presenting a novel excerpt for review and comment–suggested that I “read more short stories and study the form.”

  11. Jen Daiker says:

    I think sometimes as writers – at least the case for me – is that I ask for too much advice, or don’t clarify what I’m looking for at all.

    I used to get angry at the beginning. Everyone throwing opinions at me, voicing their concerns. It was until I’d take ALL their advice and fix it out they wanted that I realized I lost my voice.

    Their ideas weren’t bad, it’s how I handled the situation. I was meant to take their advice, see if it was warranted, and fix it myself.

    On query letters or books that I just want praise on I have what I call the “Cheerleader corner” they are a few of my friends who are mean to just cheer me on. Nothing more. It’s to get the piece written. Once it’s written I enlist the two people I trust… my crit partners. No one else unless I feel it isn’t up to par.

    It’s all in who you present too. Don’t be an over-sharer. :)

  12. When I first started writing, I didn’t read or seek out any writing advice. I just wrote and sold my first two books by what would now be called a “seat of the pants” method. For my 3rd book, I made the mistake of reading how-to books, all of which advocated highly structured methods that involved outlining, writing character charts and bios and the like. Apparently, the first two times I’d been doing it wrong. Who knew? My 3rd book was a planned out, structured book that was boring, oh my god, so boring. Every time my gut said –oh, do this! — I dutifully stuck to my outline because that’s what real writers do.

    I didn’t get published again until I said the hell with “doing it right” and went back to writing the way that had worked for me. And what do you know, that book, and the 10 others after it, written by the seat of my pants, have all sold.

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  14. I think the worst piece of advice was when I was told my all my friends that I would never find a publisher or agent for my writing.

    Not only did it light the fire in my mind to prove them wrong, but with the current trend in the writing world, a publisher and agent are not necessary.

    Not that I would turn one down if they came along. I just won’t hang around waiting for them.

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