This will seem like an odd question from someone who expends a lot of energy giving writing and publishing advice in a half-dozen arenas: attending a weekly critique group, writing a monthly post here at WU, participating on online writing forums and Facebook groups, fielding e-mails from aspiring writers, retweeting links to smart writerly advice through Twitter, and on and on:
What’s the point?
Do you really need writing advice? Following advice perfectly doesn’t make anyone into a great writer. You can follow every rule and still write clunky sentences, unbelievable plots, and wooden characters. And with so many paths to publishing these days, what good is one person’s advice on how to get published? We’re all living in a world of one. Should you get an agent or go it alone? Focus on craft or throw yourself into marketing? Write the “book of your heart” or chase what’s popular?
The great meme of “14 Writers Handwrite Their Advice on Their Hands“, which Barbara O’Neal mentioned here last week, has some wonderful advice in it. And that’s what got me thinking about advice in general. Because I was reading through it quickly, and I thought that what one of the writers in question had written on his hand was this: “Don’t take anybody else’s writing advice.”
Which, honestly, is a decent position to take. No one can really tell you the secret. No one can tell you a phrase or a sentence that will make all your writing better for all time. You can read sites like this every day and still not get to the perfect book, the big publishing deal, the writerly goal that makes you happy, whatever it may be.
But it turns out what Lev Grossman really wrote was this: “Don’t take anybody else’s writing advice too seriously.”
And that, after considering the “What’s the point?” question, is what I think is really the best advice. Because all of this advice does have its purpose. I’ve learned an immense amount from fellow writers, from my agent and editor, from the professors in my MFA program, and on and on. And I hope people have learned something from the advice I give in the forums I listed above.
The secret — the unspoken message behind Grossman’s statement — is this: It’s just advice.
Anything that anyone says about writing or publishing, on the internet or elsewhere, is just advice. It’s not a secret or a rule or a magic bean. It might help you out or it might not. It might save one book and wreck another. But the right advice at the right time can save you a lot of heartache and frustration. The only way you’ll know what to discard and what to treasure is to read a lot of it, and think critically, and test every offering by asking, “Is this right for me?”
So read through what those authors wrote on their hands, and consider it carefully. Because, taken in the right spirit, advice doesn’t have to be a vice — it can be a virtue.
What do you think?