Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Filtering advice

If you're like me (which I imagine you are, because you're reading a blog about writing and reading), you read a lot of writing advice.  There's a lot to be had.  A search for "writing advice" yields 434,000 hits, and that doesn't even scratch the surface of books written about writing, workshops, classes, BFA and MFA programs, or well-meaning strangers who will spout off advice if you mention you're writing a book.

The trouble is, it's often contradictory.  Most of the advice covers different subjects or different levels of writing prowess or different genres.  But with the vast store of opinions out there, a lot of it overlaps, and, within that overlap, it's inevitable that people will disagree.

The majority of advice about writing is opinion.  There are certainly hard and fast rules, like subject-verb agreement, spelling, sentence structure, and the formula of building to a climax within a story.  There are even opinions on these matters, though.  I'm sure you've heard the phrase, "poetic license."  One of my writing teachers once said that one earns one's poetic license by proving one knows how to drive the language correctly, first.  In order to break the rules, she expounded, you must demonstrate that you understand them.  I've read some books that broke all of the basic rules I learned back in high school, but I loved them.

If you're a writer, you can't accept every last opinion you read or hear, because you can very quickly become confused.  For example, you may read on one writing blog that you should write every single day, even when you don't feel like it, to keep up your writing momentum.  You may read on another blog that it doesn't matter how often you write, and that you should even take days off from writing to recharge the mental batteries.  And worse, maybe you're a single mother taking night classes who laughs at the idea of having fifteen quiet minutes anywhere in her day, short of cutting down to sleeping only four hours a night.

It's just an example, and not the best one I could've come up with.  My point is, you have to find out what works for you.  Every writer has methods and tenets that work for him or her, just as every writer has his or her own style, ideas, and approach.  You won't ever catch me saying on this blog that pantstering is the best way to write, because it has a lot of drawbacks, and drives my outliner friends batty.  They wouldn't write as effectively if they threw words on the page to see what sticks, the way I do.  Similarly, if I try to outline, I quickly get bogged down in that process, and then it feels like all the fun was sucked out and now I have homework to type up.

That is not to say that you shouldn't take any advice.  Other writers who have been there and written that are an excellent resource, and can lend you excellent perspectives on what you may be doing wrong.  My best example is when I stumbled across a post by Seanan McGuire about point of view.  Now, you may well skim that post and shrug, but, when I read it, I cursed up a blue streak, agonized over committing that very sin in my book, then went back to the drawing board to figure out if I needed to cover another perspective.  Ultimately, the answer was yes, and I was pleased at how much better the story flowed with the changes I'd made.

The trick is learning which advice to take.  Some of it won't work for you.  Some of it will be like inspiration in its purest form seeping into your brain.  Most of it will be something you can keep in mind as you're editing the next draft, and to be prepared to discard.

So, how do you know what to listen to?  If you're new, you find out through a lot of practice.  Write a short story or a poem with an attempt to follow one bit of advice you liked.  Try editing a few paragraphs with another writer's advice in the forefront of your brain.

If you're not as new, but still unsure, match it up to problems you've had in the past.  Will it help with this issue you've experienced before?  Will it make it easier in the long run, or much harder?  Do you think you've tried something similar before?

You may find yourself revisiting old pieces of advice you've discarded in the past, and that's normal.  As you get better at writing, you get to learning what works for you at your current level.  Taking on advice that's too advanced for what you're doing is like trying to break in a pair of shoes you'll wear for the rest of your life before your feet have finished growing.  It doesn't work at that moment, but it will.

Do you have a favorite piece of advice that you don't think would work for everyone?  How did you decide which advice to follow when you heard contradictory opinions?  How do you filter out writing advice that doesn't work for you?

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