What Advice Do You Ignore?

by Jami Gold on May 9, 2017

in Writing Stuff

Ear plugs with text: What Advice Do You Ignore?

There’s no shortage of writing advice out there for us to learn. We can find tips about drafting, editing, publishing, querying, branding, etc.—anything we can think of.

Some of that advice is questionable, a few tidbits are outright harmful, but most of it is decent-to-good. Yet even if advice is good, we still might want to ignore it. No joke. *smile*

Even the best advice won’t always apply to us or help us become better writers or published authors. Let’s talk about the different kinds of advice out there and why we might sometimes want to ignore even the good stuff…

Why Might We Want to Ignore Good Advice?

  • There’s No “One Right Way”:

As I’ve written about before, there’s no “one right way” to do many things in writing. Therefore, just because a mentor thinks an approach is the “best” way, that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to succeed.

For example, many writing instructors feel that writing by the seat of our pants can’t possibly result in a coherent story. My writing—and that of many other pantsers—proves that assumption wrong. *grin*

  • Our Tendencies Don’t Match Up with the “Usual”:

Each of us is unique, with different strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies, so advice that applies to a common weakness or bad writing habit doesn’t necessarily apply to us. A good kernel exists inside even the worst advice, which is why it continues to be shared, but the nuanced context—context that could help us understand whether the advice applies to us or not—has often been lost over the years.

For example, the tip to “write tight” and avoid too many modifiers like adverbs is good advice for many writers. However, some writers default to a stripped-down, bare writing style and need to be encouraged to flesh ideas out more.

  • We Have Different Goals:

My whole series about Indie Publishing Paths at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University has been about how we have to find the right strategies for our goals. An author with a long-term vision needs different advice than an author looking to score some quick cash.

The same could be said about some of the writing craft advice out there. Some authors want to ensure their story is easy to read, while others want to make their readers think a bit. Neither of those goals are wrong, just different.

  • Our Genre or Readership Has Different Expectations:

Advice about point-of-view, emotional depth, plot obstacles, etc. can all be genre- or readership-dependent. Do readers expect a guns-blazing plot and don’t care about what characters are feeling? Do they want lush descriptions? Do they expect a mind-bending twist?

Some advice won’t apply to certain genres and readerships. I tend to talk a lot here about character arcs, but some genres frequently feature “flat arc” characters. Same with advice about using deep point-of-view or how strong or devious our antagonist should be. Our genre can make a big difference in whether advice applies to us.

  • The Usual Advice Doesn’t Work for Our Processes:

Often, it might be best for us to ignore advice simply because it doesn’t work for our processes or mindset. Opposite styles of advice can both be valid, but maybe only one will help us—which should be the whole point.

For example, when it comes to encouragement, some of us need “pushy” advice and some need “sympathetic” advice (and our needs might change from hour to hour!). Both kinds of advice are valid, and neither are wrong. But if our current mindset requires sympathetic advice, whip-cracking edicts won’t help us—and might even hurt us.

All Advice Has Context—Find the Nuance

Another great example of how we shouldn’t just blindly follow advice cropped up on the kboards forum a few months ago. The original poster expressed surprise at advice she’d read from Dean Wesley Smith about not rewriting.

Wait… Isn’t writing mostly about getting it right in revisions? Her head spinning, she wondered if it’s true that rewriting actually makes our stories worse.

However, as mentioned above, we should keep the context in mind when evaluating how or why advice might or might not apply to us. Or when considering if the advice wasn’t intended quite as we’ve interpreted it.

In this case, reading through the rest of the kboards conversation illuminates several aspects of context that add nuance to Dean’s “avoid rewriting” attitude.

  • A commenter pointed out that Dean was likely referring to a short story rather than a novel, which greatly affects how much editing is necessary. Short stories don’t have as many interconnecting elements, so it’s more likely that revisions could move the story away from our original intentions for it, resulting in a workshopped-to-death piece.
  • We’re often warned against editing as we go, which is helpful advice to those writers who would get stuck on the same chapter, fiddling endlessly, and never making forward progress, but it doesn’t apply to everyone. Dean reads through—and makes changes to—the previous day’s work at the start of each writing session.
  • Our writing processes are all different, which can affect the amount of rewriting we need to do. Some pantsers might end up with more tangents that need to be taken out after the story’s shape is known. Others need to make fixes as they go.
    As the commenter Rosalind says (emphasis mine): “There is no right advice on writing process. There are examples.”

Commenter Chrissy explained more about Dean’s method:

“He calls it cycling—where you go back over your work and add/change things. The key component I believe he makes is state of mind.

If you are making changes while in the creative mind set, that’s NOT rewriting. 

However, if you go back over your work from the critical mindset, then that IS rewriting, and he believes doing so will hurt your writing.”

Confession from Another Non-Rewriter…

Given Dean’s perspective on the definition of rewriting, I guess I don’t rewrite either. Instead, like him, I reread my previous day’s words before I start. (That step helps me remember the voice of my characters, not to mention gives me a chance to fix typos. *smile*)

Also like Dean, I go back and make changes as I discover more about where my story’s going, rather than waiting to make structural changes after I finish. Sometimes these changes will mean reworking a scene, but other times small changes can fix big problems.

In other words, I’ll sometimes go back further than just the previous day’s work if I need to make elements fit together differently, as it’s easier for me to remember what exactly needs to be changed if I do it in the moment. (Scrivener makes it easy to jump around when necessary. *whew*)

However, others might not know where their story is going until it’s finished, so any premature reworking might just lead to never finishing the story, as everything keeps changing with each new story direction. There’s no “one size fits all” for advice.

Follow Advice that Helps Us and Ignore the Rest

We should never rewrite just for the sake of rewriting. If it’s broken, we should fix it or make it better. But otherwise, we shouldn’t feel pressured into doing more edits than necessary just because the typical advice makes us think we should do more revision/rewriting passes. Ugh.

When I wear my developmental-editor hat, I always include disclaimers with my revision suggestions to my clients. Those disclaimers all come down to the idea that they should take the suggestions that work for their story and ignore the rest.

Even the best advice won’t always work for us, especially over time. The writing process that works for us on one story might not work for us next time. Our increasing experience can also change our process or what we need as far as help.

So let’s all consider this permission to ignore whatever advice doesn’t help us or our story. And rather than feeling boxed in by advice that doesn’t apply, we could instead choose to see that irrelevancy as a sign of our progress. Yay, us! *smile*

What writing advice do you ignore? Why do you ignore it? Does it fall under one of those reasons at the top of the post, or do you have other reasons? Have you adapted advice to make it work for your processes or needs? How so? Do you consider your process rewriting or not?

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6 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Mary Kate May 9, 2017 at 7:45 am

I also edit as I go, but as you say, I try not to make it simply fiddling but just making sure what I just wrote is taking the story in the direction I want it to go in, and then moving on from there. I can’t work otherwise — I get too lost if I don’t let myself reread previous sections to remind myself of where I’m going.

I also do a rough outline kind of thing, not a detailed outline, despite all the advice saying “You must have a perfect outline!” Perfect outlines don’t work for me — rough timelines and random ideas put in rough chronological order, all of which is subject to change, do.

Perhaps the ONLY piece of advice I’ve found must be universally followed is that you need to be a reader in order to be a good writer. I’ve met people who write who “don’t have time to read” and every single time their writing has been terrible. But who knows, maybe someday someone will come along and prove me wrong about that, too (though I kind of doubt it — reading teaches you so much!)

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Auden Johnson May 9, 2017 at 10:46 am

I ignore the write everyday rule because, as you mentioned, it doesn’t fit my process. I understand why they say write every day but I don’t feel I need to. So far, it’s worked just fine for me.

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Clare O'Beara May 9, 2017 at 12:37 pm

Yes, I read over my previous day’s work to get my mind into the characters and situations. If I am writing a series, it helps to read a previous book – especially if I have written something else in the meantime.

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Kathy Steinemann May 9, 2017 at 1:27 pm

“Short stories don’t have as many interconnecting elements, so it’s more likely that revisions could move the story away from our original intentions for it, resulting in a workshopped-to-death piece.”

I find that short stories require more attention. Every verb must pack a punch. Adjectives? Not unless they strengthen the narrative. Stacked adjectives? No. Adverbs? If necessary.

However, I agree that we can overwork a piece to death. That’s a disadvantage of receiving multiple critiques from online groups like Critique Circle or Scribophile. As writers, we have to hear our own voices in our work and discard advice that doesn’t suit our style.

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Sieran May 10, 2017 at 1:35 pm

It was really nice to see all the examples you raised up there. For the write tight advice, my writing style nowadays tends to be somewhere in between–not very descriptive, but not bare either. I believe in balance! Also, though I don’t believe in cutting out all adverbs, I avoid using clumsy or overly long-looking adverbs. Honestly, I think that was the origin of this advice, for people who use clunky-looking adverbs—can’t think of an example right now, but you know what I mean.

Hmm as for pantsing, some of my stories have more tangents (I read that as subplots), but some are pretty focused. I actually fear that my more focused stories are TOO focused, that they don’t have enough exploration of the story world, and that the non-protagonist characters end up very undeveloped or even flat, sigh. My Chinese martial arts story is the opposite extreme. I don’t think the subplots are sprawling in a disordered way, though; I actually like the subplots and how they weave around to make a complex and deep tapestry! But a less patient reader might not like that style, and I would understand. My Chinese story is still much simpler than A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, though!

Hmmm I recall the advice for beginner writers to start off with short stories rather than full-on novels. Well, I didn’t quite follow that, since I’ve always found novels (and series!) more exciting to write. And I DO finish writing these books, so. I resisted the peer pressure to write shorter stuff, lol.

Some believe you shouldn’t use too many metaphors or similes, but my current story begs to differ. My story is fantasy, and the heroes cast spells, i.e. they do stuff that we don’t see in real life. So I find it helpful to use similes and metaphors to describe how their magic looks like. Maybe some people would disagree with me and think I should stick predominantly to describing the magic directly, without all those images and comparisons. But I personally think the metaphors and comparisons help to make it look both more captivating AND more vivid and easier for readers to imagine.

Another thing that some writers advocate, is that we should describe our characters’ physical appearance, so that readers can picture them. Again, I totally ignore that advice, because I want the readers to imagine my characters themselves! This is especially important because character X may be super stunning to character Y, but when I describe X to you, you might not find X attractive at all, because you and I have different aesthetic preferences. Oh, this is particularly important as I can see from romances that my aesthetic type is SO different than the typical romance heroes. (I fancy short guys who look as delicate as a flower, for instance, lol. But I’m aware most readers who are attracted to men prefer tall guys, haha. So you can understand why I wouldn’t tell my readers that my boys are short, haha.)

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