Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Problem With Writing Advice

The problem with writing advice is basically that we're all beautiful, individual little snowflakes who are determined to fail at writing in an infinity of different and creative ways. I, for example, tend to flap my hands and whinge impotently about how whatever I'm working on isn't ready for anyone to look at it yet. The advice I need as a writer tends to be in the form of "ways to know when it's good enough" and "just send it out there, tiger, it has to grow up someday." There are other people like me, certainly. But there are also a number of people who will pound out a first draft and put it into an e-mail without so much as running a spell check. The last thing they need is encouragement about submitting.

Writing involves dozens of discreet, albeit related, skills; grammar, rhythm, pacing, vocabulary, plot building, character, word play, formatting, market savvy, editing, world building, research, self-discipline, self-motivation, quality assessment, and so on. And each of us is probably on at least slightly different places on the road to perfection in each of these. Not to mention none of us have exactly the same temperament regarding the consumption of advice; I know some people whose principle motivation is spite against people who have dared to suggest a best way to do something. Generalized writing advice, no matter how well meaning, is often likely to either not really apply to you personally, or be so universal as to be true but not particularly helpful.

That said, I think you should probably read it all, and take it for what it's worth. The best thing, honestly, would be to have a talented, well-informed professional who had read your entire body of work and studied the market, and could give you tailored, useful feedback, but honestly, the ratio of professional authors to author hopefuls is soul-crushingly skewed, and professional writers are actually busy people who are not likely to have the time to read everything you've written. A group of peers can be helpful, but they're also likely to have about the same knowledge and market set you do; and as such they may not just be unsure, they run the risk, through no fault of their own and not for want of earnest good intentions, of being very much wrong.

In the end, I think you have to cultivate a certain capacity for self-assessment and careful reading. Know what you need and know how to recognize advice that might help you, then try it and see if it works. If it doesn't, have the self-awareness to know whether you're doing it wrong, or whether that just wasn't the advice for you. It's hard to do, but in the end, I think it works out better than looking outside for advice to write you a neat, concise little map. Advice written for a general audience doesn't know where you are, and as such it can't tell you the quickest way to where you're going. 

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