April 23, 2015

What Kind of Advice Works for You?

Drawing of happy and sad masks with text: What Advice Do You Need?

I often point out how there’s no “one right way.” There’s no one right way to brainstorm, draft, or edit our book. There’s no one right way to query or publish our books. And there’s no one right way to market or promote our books.

We can probably all think of several ways that don’t work—ever. Constant “buy my book” tweets? That definitely doesn’t work. Ditto for just whining about wanting to write a book but never actually putting in the time to do it. *smile*

But there are often several paths that do lead to success. Plotting our story in advance and writing by the seat of our pants can both work. Traditional publishing and self-publishing can both work. Trying to appeal to new readers and focusing on our current readers can both work.

Sometimes we might have better luck with one method over another, but that doesn’t make the other method wrong. The question for which way we should go isn’t about right or wrong but about which way works best for our processes, personality, goals, etc.

The Two Kinds of Encouragement Advice

The same spectrum applies to encouragement advice. We often see two kinds of encouragement in the writing world:

Pushy Advice:

  • “Get your butt in the chair and just do it.”
  • “Writing is hard. No one cares about your excuses.”
  • “Want to be a success? Suck it up and learn (grammar, marketing, entrepreneurship, etc.).”

Sympathetic Advice:

  • “Writer’s block sucks. Maybe try something different to see if that helps you brainstorm.”
  • “10 Ideas to Promote Your Book without Feeling Like a Desperate Loser”
  • “You can do it! I believe in you!”

Both types of advice can be useful and helpful to people. Neither are wrong.

However, depending on our situation, our mindset, or our mental health, the non-helpful (to us) kind of advice can actually be harmful (to us). And it’s important that we understand ourselves enough to recognize the difference.

How Advice Can Be Harmful

If we’re procrastinating or not working as hard as we could, pushy advice might be just the kick in the pants we need. Or if we’re being whiny about everything we need to learn or about rejections or bad reviews, pushy advice might be a needed reality check.

However, if we’re already working hard and running ourselves ragged, pushy advice might force us into burnout or sickness. Or if we’re already feeling bad about ourselves, pushy advice can make us beat ourselves up even more.

On the other hand, if we’re not in a strong mental or physical state, sympathetic advice lets us know we’re not alone. Or if we’re already doing everything we can, sympathetic advice can assure us that it’s okay to cut ourselves a break once in a while.

Yet at the same time, if we’re procrastinating or letting our fears hold us back, sympathetic advice can enable our excuses. Or if we’re looking for a reason to avoid learning how to edit (or whatever), sympathetic advice might convince us that we don’t need to stretch beyond our comfort zone.

We Need Balance between the Types of Advice

Both kinds of advice can be helpful or harmful, depending on our situation. And only we know what that is.

No one else can tell us what our goals should be. No one else can tell us what our priorities should be. No one else can tell us our budget, our comfort zones, our personality, or our strengths or weaknesses.

The kind of advice we need might change from hour to hour or project to project. We might need a kick in the pants to get us going in the morning and then need sympathetic advice when we get to a hard scene in our story later that afternoon. Or we might need pushy advice about self-editing and sympathetic advice about paying for an editor.

Others don’t know what we need. The tweeted advice that doesn’t work for us might work for others. The blog post that makes us feel bad might be just what others need.

That mismatch is not on the tweeter or the blog post author. They’re trying to help, and if we were in a different place, it might even help us. The mismatch is on us. So what can we do?

We Can Recognize Our Needs and Be Kind to Ourselves

A couple of weeks ago, Chuck Wendig tweeted a lot of pushy advice. When called on it, he then followed up with a post about the flipside of that advice. (Warning: language at those links)

In his sympathetic advice post, he pointed out that we have to be kind to ourselves, but that doesn’t mean giving in or appeasing our excuses:

“Kindness is about understanding one’s limitations but still encouraging growth. It’s like physical or mental therapy — kindness to your bum knee isn’t just letting the leg atrophy and accepting you’ll never use it again. … Kindness is leaving it alone until it heals enough that you can move it. Kindness is pushing a little bit here and there until that knee can move again. Or until you can compensate. Kindness isn’t giving up, but rather, believing that you can do it — and then taking action to make it so.”

We can push ourselves and yet have compassion for falling short. We can strive for success and yet forgive our failures.

Most importantly, we can recognize what type of advice we need right now and let only that type of advice into our sphere of awareness. We can give ourselves permission to ignore the advice that won’t be helpful (and might even be harmful). We don’t have to give that unhelpful advice space inside our heads.

Being kind to ourselves is about being aware of our situation and letting only the right type of advice—for us—into our senses. Being kind is about being aware of the lies we tell ourselves and calling out those lies.

As I said in that post about how to tell a lie or an excuse:

“If someone offered me a million dollars to prove that lie wasn’t true, could I do it?”

The fine line between giving in to our excuses or being kind to ourselves is difficult enough in the best of circumstances. Ditto for the line between wanting more for ourselves and being kind about the effort it takes. Add in advice that’s outright harmful to us with our current situation, and it’s near-impossible to find the right balance.

We need to act as bouncer for our brain and let only the good advice (whatever that means for us this minute) inside. See advice that isn’t good for us right now? We can bookmark it if we think might be useful later, but we don’t have to listen to it this very minute.

As Chuck said, we can be understanding about our limitations and still encourage growth. We have enough negativity in the world to deal with, and we don’t need to give advice that isn’t helpful to us a platform in our thoughts. We don’t have to let anyone else guilt or shame us for our situation, choices, or priorities.

Instead, be kind…to yourself. *smile*

Do you find pushy advice helpful sometimes? And is sympathetic advice helpful to you sometimes as well? Does one type work better on you more often? Are you able to recognize which type of advice you need and filter out the unhelpful type? Do you have other suggestions about how to be kind to ourselves with the right kind of advice?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Some time ago I received a real kick in the butt from a beta reader and I won’t lie, it was hard to take. I even thought of giving up my current WIP novel. Right now I’m reading some books on writing craft and looking for someone to make an outline critic for me, though I think my problem isn’t the plot but the way I wrote it. So I’m doing my best to make it better.

Marcy Kennedy

I find that I’m much more receptive to sympathetic advice generally. I suspect that’s because I’m hard enough on myself and because I’ve had a lot of bad experiences with pushy advice. That said, I know people who thrive on pushy advice. One of the things I appreciate about your blog so much is that you do emphasize that there are many ways to reach our goals and how we go about it depends on our personality and our circumstances.


I find that I’m much more receptive to sympathetic advice generally. I suspect that’s because I’m hard enough on myself and because I’ve had a lot of bad experiences with pushy advice

Thirded. 🙂

Stephanie Scott

I’m hardest on myself, so the pushy advice reinforces that. Though also I’m learning to tell when I need to scale back and give myself a break.


Hi Jami,

Another great post! Thanks! Another side of this issue is knowing what type of advice to give. I have a friend that is struggling with her writing and I want to encourage her and be there for her…but I’m unsure how “tough” to be. I’ll definitely be sending her this post. 🙂

Meg Justus

To me, the two kinds of advice are telling me what I’m doing wrong, or telling me what I’m doing right, which do not map to your pushy vs. sympathetic even though they sound like they ought to.

I learned long ago that being told what I’m doing wrong doesn’t do me nearly as much good as being told what I’m doing right. If I know what I’m doing right, then I can build on it and make the whole thing better. Being told what I’m doing wrong doesn’t give me anything to build on.

My ex learned that the hard way when he was trying to teach me to ski, too [wry g].

Anne R. Allen

Most of the advice you get on the Interwebz assumes that one size fits all–which is almost never true. The newbie who manages to squeeze out 300 words a day can be making a “personal best” that can get a career going. The old pro writing formula series books can write a novel in two weeks without breaking a sweat. Telling newbies they’re “not really trying” when they can’t do what the pros do is counterproductive.

I don’t know why people don’t understand that writing has a learning curve, just like any other craft, skill, or sport. Advice should be given accordingly.

Great post, Jami!

Glynis Jolly

I cringe at sympathetic advice. I think it’s ridiculous to get a pat on the back for not doing what I’m capable of. Pushy advice will throw me off at first but it gets me moving. If done with just a smidgen of tact, you can get great results from me.

Joe Kovacs

I’m with Glynis. I agree we have different personalities and need different kinds of motivation or support. But when it comes down to a question of doing or not doing, and you’re not doing….the best thing someone can do is encourage you with tough love along with, as was mentioned above Jami, a small amount of tact. The line between treating yourself kindly and making excuses is very fine and I’m all for erring on the side of caution (meaning, tough love). Thanks for this eloquent post. Joe

Audrey King

Jami, a couple of years ago when I was writing my first novel, I needed advice. Really needed it. I knew nothing except to write, write, write.
I had my first draft and I searched desperately for help. Well, I found it, lots of it and ended up tearing my first novel apart.
I went through several emotional stages and then the rebel came out in me – that’s when I published the darn thing anyway.
I didn’t advertise much, just tweeted and blogged here and there. But the digital book was downloaded over 300 times.
Was it a good story? Absolutely! Could it have been better if I didn’t take any advice? Probably not.
Although, I learned a lesson. A hard lesson. If I read any advice on writing better and begin to feel that I suck at it, I drop that advice like a hot potato and never go back to the person who wrote it.
Today, I write freely and I love writing again! It’s getting better with each book.
And as you can see, you are one of the many advice givers I stayed with. Thanks for all you do!


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