Bad advice

Bad advice is one of those topics that comes mind whenever I discover a problem somewhere in my work, and realize I actually understand what that problem means. Sometimes, it’s just that I didn’t realize what exactly the problem was, even after being told about it.

One good example of bad advice comes with technical problems. You know: spelling, grammar, punctuation and so on. I see those sorts of things as mistakes more than actual writing problems. Yes, those are elementary parts of the craft and I shouldn’t be making those sorts of mistakes if I consider myself even somewhat serious. My least favorite is “perhaps you should get a grammar book.” My position is that this is bad advice. It’s simply not helpful for someone who doesn’t necessarily know what the problems are. Not only that, people make mistakes. One of the things I’ve learned, working where I do, is the faster you work, the more mistakes you make. It doesn’t matter how good you are, these happen. So, in your story, or novel or whatever, even re-reading often doesn’t catch these kinds of problems. Why? Well, because, you’re probably working with 50-80K (or more!) words. On top of that, you’re one person who is also intimately familiar with the work and like it or not, you are probably skimming over large portions of text. If, indeed, someone has a truly heinous grammar, the surest way to prevent them from addressing it is to tell them their grammar looks as though a 6-year old wrote it. A better solution, if possible, is to offer to mark up a few pages to point out the mistakes they’re making and perhaps even an explanation as to why it’s wrong. One of my most egregious transgressions are run-on sentences. When I was first told this my reaction was: What the hell does one of those look like? Well, I can identify them now, still make the mistake though.

Another example is something like: “Your characters are flat.” or “The characters don’t really have their own voice.” Again, when I first started, I got this a lot (still get it actually, but I’ve got better ideas on how to fix the problems, and what it means to the story if I don’t) The only thing this advice did was make me ask: In what way? How? The main reason I think this bad advice is because it’s really only unhelpful criticism. For writers who are likely to argue back about any particular suggestion (Don’t pretend you’ve never done this, if you’re trying to be a writer or are, you have.), this sort of advice is going to be summarily dismissed. I can’t say what the correct advice might be for any given situation, except to say that it should be a full-on discussion, pointing out why you think this might be a problem, and a couple of suggestions as to how it could be remedied. Whatever you suggest is almost certain to be shot down in the end, but an alternative solution the writer dreams up is far more likely. For me, this approach helps to illustrate the problem and gives me a sense of what might work for remedies. This sort of feedback usually goads me into some sort of revision, which, inevitably, is better.

The worst advice ever, however, is the writer who refuses, point blank, to take it. Sometimes that’s the right decision, but unless the explanation to yourself is super-clear and actually works to make the story better in some fashion, it’s not. Every writer hands out his or her work to be reviewed and commented upon. A lot of the time all we get back are cliched and unhelpful remarks that don’t actually get at the heart of the problem. If your reviewer has pointed something out, even if it is unhelpful, odds are quite high that an actual problem exists, and you should get a second opinion. When you do get some good quality advice it is essential to consider it. When a reader tells you something that boils down to: ‘your first chapter seems to be building up too much with no pay-off’ (I got advice very much like this and the advice was satisfyingly specific, with suggestions.) you have to listen. Perhaps the best thing to do is set it aside and think about it, but the bottom line is: If you really want to make the best story possible, you have to take advice.

I could totally go on about this topic forever, but I think I’m done with my rant for now. Moral of the story: Advice should be specific and focus on remedies, Advice should be seriously considered. I’ll probably complain more about it at a later date.