Saturday, May 4, 2013

What to Do with Bad Writing Advice

The main job of a writer is to write. We write what we want to write about, we tell the stories we need to tell the best possible way we can, and we discover our own personal style through writing and reading.

Write selfishly. Never forget this.

Write the story that festers in your brain. Write because you need to, because you can’t NOT write. Write the way you want to write and not the way people say you should write. Oftentimes, listening to people indirectly telling you “what makes you excited to write is wrong” is harmful, even if it’s said with the best intentions.

Additionally, lots of people will tell you how you should be writing, but one of the best pieces my writing professor told me was, “Don’t listen to that bullshit.” Oftentimes, advice can really help us if we decide to take it. Good advice gives us thoughtful, considerate perspective outside our own and provides avenues we might take to better our story. But bad advice is harmful. Bad advice erases you from your story for all the wrong reasons, and bad advice can come in a multitude of categories.

  • Format is all about whether or not you’re setting each shift of POV into a new paragraph, if your commas and quotations are used correctly for dialogue, so on and so forth. This is about the overall look. Write your story in whatever font type and color you so desire, but when you’re preparing to submit to critique partners or literary magazines or agents, make sure you know what the required format is. A critique partner who’s been down this road can help you with this, and if you’re ever unsure, Google manuscript, short story, or poetry formatting and look for the most up-to-date source.
  • Structure, flow and characters are what the brunt of critique should be. General story stuff. What felt right, what didn’t feel right. Where the pacing lagged, where it could be improved. Characters and their consistency and impact on the story. Keep in mind that if a critique partner felt iffy about something, don’t dismiss them. There might be something legitimately throwing them off about a scene or character and they’re not sure what it is. However, if they tell you exactly how you should fix it word-for-word, be wary. Changes are not for anyone to decide except you. They might be spot-on about what they felt, but absolutely off about how to fix it.
  • Grammar and punctuation should only ever be commented upon if the critique partner in question is a trusted source. Some things can be tricky, such as the uses of the apostrophe, and different people may give you conflicting advice/corrections. But keep in mind that grammar and punctuation are not laws, they are guidelines. Plenty of books on the shelves utilize fragments and run-on sentences and split infinitives, whatever your drug of choice may be, which leads into the next point.
  • Style and voice are personal. This is about a writer’s own taste. It’s how they like to throw paint on the canvas and how they want it to look after they’re finished. The important thing to keep in mind with style and voice is that it varies from one person to the next and it’s not for anyone to decide on or change except the writer in question.

The most harmful critique I see is an attack on personal style and character voice. As writers, we grow and develop our taste over time, and this is a good thing because we learn what we like and we know why we like it. When we read, we read critically, even if we had intended to read purely for pleasure, and this is a constant, endless study to build on our writing. We learn the rules of grammar so that we can test how to break them most effectively.

Always learn the rules before you break them.

Good advice on style and voice comes from a critique partner who is open. They may or may not know the rules of grammar very well (and knowing grammatical terminology as well as a dentist knows the name of each molar does not give more credibility over a well-read critique partner who simply goes by their gut). They tell you when something in the narrative isn’t working as well as it could.

Example: I used to love sentence fragments, and by ‘love’, I mean I flooded my narrative with sentence fragments—but I did so lovingly. My writing professor at the time told me STOP, because, not only did I neglect to realize I had so many, but the flow of my narrative had become jarring and fractured. She didn’t tell me to take them all out. She told me to use them less frequently and more wisely. I did. My style is a million times better.

Good advice also comes from a critique partner who addresses problems with the story, not problems with you, the writer. I’ve heard many a horror story of workshop groups where one participant’s critiques were overly harsh and attacking, but under the guise of “feedback in the real world is harsher than this and I’m doing you a favor.” That’s like people who honk at student drivers to “teach them a lesson”, which it doesn’t, it only makes them more nervous and scared. When someone says, “I’m just gonna tell it like it is,” it means, “I don’t feel like and/or know how to put forth the effort to explain this in any way that won’t be offensive.”

Bad advice will tell you how you should change your style or character voice instead of simply how it’s not working as well as it could. Sometimes critique partners mistake personal opinion as fact. It happens. But when said partners try to make your personal style of writing more alike to what they want to read—or more alike to their own style—that’s not good. Bad advice might even use their authority or status as a weapon to enforce their credibility, and that’s even worse. “I know how you want to write better than you do” is essentially how that translates.

Example 1: I once received advice to never, ever use the word “very”. Well, I can see why. Descriptions such as “she was very beautiful” are empty, but what in my case? My two other critique partners disagreed, noting that the story’s POV is first person, and that any use of the word “very” was his personal, natural voice. To take it out would be to harm his voice.
Example 2: This was when I had finished the first manuscript I wanted to publish, but the word count was grossly high. Someone with a huge amount of authority told me to pair the narrative down. I didn’t have much fat to shave off outside the character voice, and unwittingly, I shaved it down to the bone, stripping my character from the narrative. It was a disaster that I can see only in hindsight.

Bad advice will also tell you what NOT to write about, or criticize what you decide to write about, for no legitimate reason outside of “I don’t like it” (and sometimes this is disguised, again, as fact instead of opinion). Yes, we want to avoid writing clichés if we intend to have our stories read and accepted by the public, as an example. But clichés can be improved with fresh takes, written from new angles, redone to be new again, and this is much better than “Don’t write about this ever.”

Generally, we get some really good advice that effectively expresses opinions as purely subjective opinions, but differentiating good advice from bad isn’t always easy. What do we do?

  • Always, always get second, third, fourth, etc. opinions. If I had relied only on “never, ever use the word ‘very’” in example 1, then I would have dulled the edge of my character’s voice like I had in example 2. Thankfully, I had two critique partners that I trusted to tell me otherwise.
  • You have the power to reject feedback. Take in what your critique partner has to offer first. Nod. Get clarity if you need it. Then, thank them. Leave it at that. Don’t argue or tell them they’re wrong. If you disagree with what they have to say, simply don’t apply their opinions to your work, but make sure you absolutely understand where they’re coming from first. Be objective.
  • Trust your gut. If you apply the advice offered and feel like this has changed your story in a way you don’t like, if it makes you uncomfortable, then undo what bothers you. Keep your story yours, just make sure you understand where your reader is coming from and why you can’t apply the changes offered.

In the end, the most important thing is to write selfishly, revise wisely.

(cross-posted from KSW on Tumblr)

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