Monday, June 2, 2014

4 Ways to Sift Through Writing Advice

There's a plethora of writing advice out there in bookstores, on the internet, at writing conferences, in critique groups, within the circle of family and friends. We are surrounded by well-intentioned people with opinions on how we should write. Some of the advice is sound, some of it contradictory, some baffling and some seems to make sense but you're not so sure a few months later. How then can you sift through all that information to know which advice to follow?

Ask yourself where the advice is coming from. Advice from an industry professional may carry more weight than the advice given to you by your closest friend whose last written project was done in high school, or your dad who secretly prefers you to become a lawyer. Even the advice from industry professionals shouldn't be taken at face value. Not all editors are made equal. Not every agent has the same vision for your story. Not everyone who writes about writing has the same amount of experience.

Reading advice isn't enough. You might read or hear a great piece of advice and nod in agreement, but ultimately you have to put what you learn into practice. It's the only way to know if it works for you, the only way to truly learn.

Excuses will hold you back. Have you ever heard a piece of writing advice and dismissed it? I know I have. When writers raved about outlining, I switched off. Yeah, I'd think, that's great for them but not for me. I championed the cause for winging it. The story would let me know where it was going when I got there. It wasn't until much later that I tried outlining. I haven't looked back since and wish I'd made the change years earlier. Not every piece of advice will work for you, but you won't know until you try.

Don't take every piece of advice as law. Sure, adverbs can weaken prose, but that doesn't mean you can't ever use them. They aren't disease-ridden pests to be blotted from existence. The same goes for dialogue tags or any other writing 'rule' you might encounter. Writing is creativity and anything creative requires bending the rules. The trick is learning which rules to bend and when.

You want to make your writing the best it can be so that means putting the effort into learning the craft and listening to a wide range of advice and opinions. Don't cut yourself off from those opinions. Listen to them, consider them carefully, perhaps even put them into practice, and keep writing.

What writing advice have you heard and dismissed? What advice do you wish you followed sooner? How do you sift through all the advice?

Lynda R Young
@LyndaRYoung

Photo: a closeup of a mirrored heart which was part of the Vivid Light Festival in Sydney.

31 comments:

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

There was a time when I felt so overwhelmed with craft advice, etc that I was almost paralyzed, too freaked out to write, worried I was doing it "wrong." I've gotten better at sifting through it all. I listen to my gut and when I hear that "zing," that piece of advice that speaks to me, then I give it a try.

Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption

kaykuala said...

Appreciating advice is a virtue. One gives voice to what one hears. It represents the dissenting view or 'other view' where one is not aware of.In this I feel is the benefit of advice. To follow or not then on is based on how the added info has altered our thinking. Great write Lynda!

Hank

Pat Hatt said...

Have to take each one with a grain of salt indeed and work through what is best for you. And never ever take advice from someone who hasn't been through what you've been through, or close to it, as they are usually full of you know

Susanne Drazic said...

Hi, Lynda! Great tips.

Kim Van Sickler said...

Ha, ha. My current blog post wrestles with an advice dilemma. I really like my story told through the POV of three victims, but I've been told my story will be stronger if I retell it from one POV and make the other two supporting characters. That is definitely the more traditional way, but I was going for more of an A.S. King and Jennifer Egan feel.

Not sure yet what to do.

Cortney Pearson said...

It's definitely hard to know which advice to take sometimes! These are great tips!

Terri Tiffany said...

I love the adverb one! It's so hard for me to use them after someone giving me the device not too.

Carol Riggs said...

Hear, hear! Reading too much advice can make a writer go crazeeee. Definitely editors and agents are professional sources, as are published or more experienced authors/writers, but even they can be subjective. Sometimes we just have to follow our gut feelings, but like you, I've ignored critiques and only realized LATER they were spot on.

L.G. Smith said...

Writing isn't a one-size-fits-all type of endeavor. You really do have to tailor the advice to fit your own unique style and way of working. It's like anything in life, really. Take what works for you and toss the rest.

northofandover said...

I had a friend from a writing group who tried to follow EVERY "rule" and piece of advice he encountered (including silly/outdated things like "Always use Courier font for a manuscript because editors need that to get an accurate word count"), and the result was a big mess.

About the Law of Adverb Avoidance: Every time I see someone spouting that, I want to go through a 1000-word sample of their writing and make a list of every adverb THEY used. (Funny how a lot of people think that only -ly words are adverbs. *g*) It isn't even possible to say "Don't use adverbs!" without breaking that "rule," because "not" is an adverb.

Also, if someone tells you, "Your story would be a lot better if you added some vampires," and your story isn't even the kind that could logically contain vampires, ignore that person.

Carol Kilgore said...

Great tips, Lynda. I especially advise newer writers to pay attention to the first one.

Jemi Fraser said...

I still struggle with the last one - trusting myself is tough so I tend to want to follow ALL other advice!

Chrys Fey said...

I do post a lot of advice and tips on my blog, but I always say that they aren't law, especially those writing "rules". Advice on writing is just that . . . advice, and mostly it's an opinion. It always depends on what you personally make of that advice. And if it seems sound, to put it to use.

LuAnn Braley said...

I visited a blog today, where the blogger was talking about having written a book about her experiences with a genetic disorder, and her hesitancy to send it to publishers. So I thought, "IWSG"!!! Hopefully, she will be here on Wednesday. :O)

L. Diane Wolfe said...

There's so much advice out there. Everyone gets hung up on rules, when most are just guidelines.

Don't edit as you go - that's one I've heard often and discarded early. I write ten pages, I edit those ten pages. That's just what works for me.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

A number of years ago at a workshop the author leading it dismissed my contract with a small indie press, told me I was ruining any chance at a career in writing. She was very tactless about it. Glad I didn't listen.
Good advice I've received is to be careful what I say online and stay away from controversy.

Lynda R Young said...

Madeline, that's actually a common reaction to the mountain of advice out there. And it does take time to sift through it all.

Hank, appreciating advice is definitely a virtue.

Pat, lol, yep they're full of...stuff that isn't helpful ;)

Susanne, thanks

Kim, when you get that kind of feedback it's often helpful to lean toward the majority vote (don't just listen to one opinion), but of course, it's still your story and if you still feel strongly about keeping the three POVs then know it might be harder to get published, but not impossible. The 3 POVs might be just what your story needs.

Cortney, in times it gets clearer. (Most of the the time).

Terri, I really really like thumbing my nose at the adverb rule ... within reason, of course ;)

Carol, In the case of advice through critiques, often it's time that helps us sort out the gold nuggets.

Luanne, exactly right! Well said.

Lynda R Young said...

North, I see it too often when new writers follow every rule to the letter. You also made me laugh out loud with your last example. Sage advice.

Carol, yep, that's an important one.

Jemi, it can be hard to find that trust in ourselves as writers. It takes time to build the courage and confidence.

Chrys, and I'm sure you've helped a lot of people with your advice.

LuAnn, the IWSG sounds perfect for her. That's so great you thought to make a connection to the group with her.

Diane, a great example! While I'm not one who edits along the way (unless I'm stuck and it gives me thinking time), I can appreciate it works for others.

Susan, I'm glad you didn't listen too.

Carrie Butler said...

Yes! A lot of marketing advice I see thrown around is based on isolated experiences and treated as the gospel. "But so-and-so sold 5,000 copies overnight by getting XYZ ad!"

*Facepalm*

Michelle Wallace said...

Each writer's journey is unique to that particular individual, so different things work for different people.
Shouldn't we also take into account the ever-changing "face" of the literary industry? With regards to marketing/publishing, advice that may work now for writer no.#1 may not work as well for writer no.#2 when he reaches the same point...

Stephanie Faris said...

I've found with any advice, I generally fight it at first, then eventually embrace it. It's important to listen, then step away from it and let it digest. What advice should I have listened to? Hmm... I think it's that I shouldn't get so stressed about promoting my first book. Much of what I did didn't really make a difference, although a few things did. I guess I had to do all that to find out what worked, though...like throwing a bunch of spaghetti at the wall to see what stuck!

Carrie-Anne said...

I feel bad for newer or younger writers who immediately, automatically rush to embrace every single piece of modern writing "advice" and then try to bring other writers "into line," without even looking at why those so-called rules are being broken. For example, I fail to see what's so evil about adverbs or non-standard dialogue tags. though I agree those conventions were often misused and overused in older books. I've mostly read older literature my whole life, so I was just used to that, but after starting to read some more modern prose, I can see the contrast and understand why moderation is important.

I'm also no fan of the word count police. You'd think these people had never read any super-long novels they loved, or that they sincerely think a classic saga would be so much better with hundreds of pages hacked out or split up into a pretended trilogy or series, the plot divided up piecemeal.

Mark Noce said...

Great advice on...well, advice:) It's a lot liek advice about life...you have to kind of figure it out for yourself (at least that's how it's been for me). :)

S.P. Bowers said...

I stopped writing for a few years because I had seen authors talk about their methods and they didn't work for me. I thought if authors did it that way, and I couldn't, then I couldn't be an author. I wish I had those years back.

J.L. Campbell said...

Good advice, Lynda. I used to wing it myself in the early days. Then as time grew more limited, I realized that I saved time if I knew where the story was going.

Lynda R Young said...

Carrie, yeah, it can really set up false expectations

Michelle, excellent point. The industry is changing rapidly and that should be taken into consideration.

Stephanie, lol marketing can feeling like spaghetti chucking in the beginning. I can totally relate!

Carrie-Anne, moderation is key in all things.

Mark, it's like that for most people, I think.

SP, so many wonderfully talent writers stop because of that and it's truly tragic.

Joy, that's the exact reason I love outlining! Such a time-saver!

Blue Grumpster said...

Anything creative requires bending the rules... You're so right. Advice taken!

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

When I first started out I was told to eliminate all the was in my work. I did. Haha, As you can imagine it took a while longer before I understood that active voice meant something much different. Today I'm watchful of too much telling, but I also appreciate it summarizing non-essential text.

Medeia Sharif said...

There's so much advice out there. I've absorbed advice from professionals, good CP's, and informative books and posts. I've absorbed these suggestions with time, because when I was younger I simply wasn't aware of what I was doing wrong.

Southpaw said...

Don't take every piece of advice as law! Love that one.

I wish I would have realized that everyone has a personal preference and opinion about everything, and a lot of time you there will be a completely contrary position on the subject. I spent too much time confused by the contrast!

Lynda R Young said...

Blue, thanks so much for popping in and leaving a comment. Enjoy bending those rules.

Joylene, hehe yep, I did the same in my early writing.

Medeia, it does take time to absorb all the good information.

Southpaw, not surprising considering how much seemingly contradictory info is out there.