Making Sense of Writing Advice


Now, I don’t want to begin all my blog posts about writing with various self-deprecating jokes about how my advice is just as poor as everyone else’s, but please take anything I say with a heavy dose of salt, because I like all people may be mislead, wrong, or secretly trying to trick you so that I can succeed in writing where others have failed (yeah, nah),

Writing fiction is a daunting task, and part of that daunt is making sense or the myriad of advice out there. I hope this post might offer some help in making sense of it all, I plan on presenting a broad guide for interpreting advice and then a rundown of how to assess the source of advice you may have received.

What gives me the right to dispense such advice? Well I’m no hotshot author, but I am a qualified psychologist (nothing on this blog can be considered professional psychological advice btw its just not the ethical way to do that) and I believe such a qualification has given me good tools in understanding and disseminating information. I’ve also been on the writing journey for some years now and have come across all manner of information and guidance particularly online, and while none of it has spurred me to super-stardom I feel I at least have enough sense to identify what has been helpful and what has not.

Besides as my opening section will suggest, if anything I say doesn’t work for you, simply take what you can from it and keep working away.

PART ONE – how to approach advice in general.

So whether you attend a creative writing class, watch Ted talks by Stephen King, or bounce ideas around a local critique group, the most important part of any advice is to understand it. You see fiction is a highly subjective art and what counts as good advice today, might not be useful tomorrow, what works for G.R.R Martin may not work for your WIP, therefore the best way to make use of advice is to make as much sense of it as you can and then apply it intentionally to your own work.

For example when some-one says ‘show don’t tell’ I often see people interpret this advice to mean that straightforward prose should be flashed up with creative language and nothing should be told to the reader.

Now that might be a valid piece of advice, but important to me is understanding the base statement. Show don’t tell is good advice because showing a reader action that depicts the story is far more immersive, is more compelling, and also creates a more interpret-able tale. Whether that means eliminating all forms of tell in your work is up to you, as long as you can come from a place of understanding the why of what you’re doing.

The same approach can be applied to specific advice. If a beta-reader says ‘you have too many characters cut some of them out!’ I don’t mean you should interrogate a critic or complete a psycho-analysis on why your friend and writing-buddy wanted to hurt you so bad, but rather to compare the advice to your work and make intentional decisions. If someone says you have too many characters, don’t go to r/writing and post whether 14 main characters is too many, but look at your work and ask the question: IS the number of characters a good fit for the story I’m trying to tell, and have I handled them appropriately for a reader to follow them all.

I’m not saying that all advice can be sacrificed or ignored on the altar of ‘it’s my work I can do what I want’. I think its also wise to consider the source of the advice and what said advice is guiding you towards. Again I’m not saying to engage in ad-hominem towards your critics and teachers, but rather to make sure you grasp where they are coming from. Beta-readers are likely to provide advice towards what they would enjoy most reading a book, an agent will be providing advice towards what they believe will sell the best, a literary editor towards what they believe is objectively a stronger story. This is particularly important to consider when you are considering attempting to traditionally publish commercial fiction or simply trying to get your unique vision ‘out there’. The reason I say that is there are many tropes/techniques and so-forth that make a book more marketable that many might not want for their work, which is fine, but knowing what the advice you receive is leading you towards helps in making good use of it.

The last section of my general guidance, is to check your own level. This may be controversial to say, but advice not understood is practically useless or even harmful for a writer, better to be unfettered than to make errors through misunderstood writing rules. If you hear ‘make your characters relate-able’ and have no idea what that means, it’s probably better to store the thought away for another day rather than try to implement such advice without sense.

PART TWO – sussing the source

Just a reminder here, this is not about ad hominem arguments and intentionally dissing anyone. If you hear brilliant writing advice from a hobo begging for change, so be it. However in general terms its important to make sense of the sorts of places and people you might get advice from and who in general is most important to listen to.

Literary agents – go to the top of my list for sources of advice about fiction writing. Why? Well first because for the most part if you want to be traditionally published literary agents are the gate-keepers to the process, and that fact alone should make their advice sort after. Bear in mind agents aren’t some sort of angry secretaries for important business-people they are in the field because they love a good story and also want to represent authors who are going to sell and be popular. Not often but common enough I hear aspiring authors angst about agents as if they were purposefully denying their brilliant work for some ulterior motive, I’ve also seen people claim literary agents were pretentious  with all their criticism and advice for writers. No, no no. Agents are people well versed in the craft and well placed to dispense advice. If you’re looking for somewhere to start, Google around for literary agents who like to teach.

Creative Writing teachers/lecturers – I have cautiously placed this profession above other authors (the next) for the most part creative writing teachers are well positioned to provide advice, however a few caveats: there is some truth to the cliche – those who can do, those who can’t teach. I don’t believe as a generalization it hold true in the majority of cases, as many authors pick-up a day-job as a teacher, however I do believe there are those out there with successful teaching credentials but not necessarily writing credentials. The key is to check-out qualifications and of course follow my advice from above. If someone tells you something that stinks, check-out where that smell is coming from.

Other Authors – It may surprise you to learn that I don’t always think that anyone successful in a field is the best person to seek advice from to succeed yourself. Huh? You say, wondering if it’s time to stop following this weirdo with writerly aspirations. The thing is just because we succeed as something, doesn’t mean we have a good understanding of how we got there in the first place and even more importantly how you might also get there. For example (Oh dear I’m probably misquoted the master here) I believe Stephen King gives the advice to ‘share until people care’ in regards to making people care about fictional characters. Like all advice that can work, and obviously it does for King, probably the most famous ‘pantser’ there is (person who writes by the seat of their pants rather than planning). However it easy to image how an amateur might take this advice and proceed to ruin their stories by overdosing on character moments.

Another point for already established authors is there may be a disconnect between what got them there and what got them published in the first place. There is certainly a distance between what an established author can get away with versus someone trying to get published in the first place.

Random Dudes Online – now this is tricky one, because this is where I myself sit. The truth is it’s very hard to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to random splotches of advice from anonymous people online, especially when you can’t check their credentials. Some of the best insight I’ve gained in writing has come from such sources, but equally there have been some incredibly tragic pieces of advice presented with the illusion of authority. My advice is to read widely, and apply your skeptical eye, never be hesitant to ask questions or challenge convention, as discussion helps us make sense of information, good or bad.

To conclude, if a piece of advice you hear works for you, great! If that is too glib I will end on one piece of wisdom which I do believe wholeheartedly:

There is always room to improve and more to learn. It’s only when you stop improving and stop learning that you become a so-called ‘bad-writer’

Thanks for reading – what pieces of advice have you heard that was truly terrible, what was life-changing? Make a comment (don’t be shy)


7 thoughts on “Making Sense of Writing Advice

  1. I would also suggest one should be wary of any writing advice presented as a rigid rule. Like your example, if someone were to say “Your novel should have no more than 14 main characters”, a sensible response would be “what’s so special about 14?” The general principle (too many characters make it confusing for the reader) is valid, but exactly how many depends on how well you are able to make each character distinct and memorable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • For real – hear a lot of people either applying rules rigidly (showing a lack of understanding of why the rules exists in the first place) and then a lot of people wanting to just throw all the rules out completely again showing misunderstanding 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  2. From one random dudette to a random dude on the Internet :D, this post has SO much truth! I believe in sharing what I’ve learned, whether it’s through research or experience, but gosh I hope readers take it with a “heavy dose of salt” too, as you said. No one knows what will work but the author himself, and there’s so much trial and error to be had. Not to mention industry “how-tos” change as such fast pace that it’s really tricky to know what works and what doesn’t. But that depends on the topic itself. Either way, Ilove this post and even though you’re warning to take it easy on believing writing advice, I’ll choose to side with you on this advice/opinion anyway. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I had some great advice from members of my writing group while I was working on my novel. I agree, though, that you should approach with caution writing advice from anyone other than professionals. But, of course, it takes a while to get to the stage where you can get advice from agents, etc. I believe reading widely is probably the best apprenticeship for writers, and gives you something to balance writing advice against.
    Looking forward to reading more of your blogs, Thomas 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: On (character) Motivation | Lonely Power Poles

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