Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Should Unpublished Writers Offer Advice

Picture from wikimedia
 I’m borrowing a topic from Hatrack River Workshop, as I frequently do.  A discussion that started out as writing research turned into a heated debate on whether unpublished aspiring writers should give and get critiques/writing advice from each other.  I understand the arguments against trusting advice from unpublished writers.  They have no credentials or proof that they know what they are doing, and there is some concern of the blind leading the blind.  It is hard to determine if someone really knows what they are talking about when they don’t have anything to back them up.   But it’s not any easier sorting through all of the professional advice from editors and published writers either.  There is so much writing advice out there and so much of it contradicts each other.  So even if an aspiring writer only sought out writing advice from published writers and legitimate editors, he/she could still be going in circles.

The problem with writing stories is that there is no right way of doing things.  There are as many paths as there are writers, and every single path will be viable for someone.  And while I do believe we should study the craft and soak up as much information as we can, the truth is that we kind of have to figure out most of it on our own.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that we have to reinvent the wheel.  But someone can give us the tools and tell us how to make a wheel, even draw a diagram, but the only real way to learn how to do it is to do it.

I think that sorting through the writing advice is a lot like sorting through all the parenting advice out there (I’ve touched on this on an early post, but I’m going to go into more depth here).

When I had my first baby, I read about four books on parenting and a ton of articles and blog posts on the internet, all written by professionals with impressive credentials.  So much of it was contradictory.  Put your baby on a schedule vs. follow your baby’s lead.  Baby should sleep with the parents vs. get the baby out of your bed or he/she will stay until he/she goes away to college, etc.  I had to pick and choose the advice that made the most sense to me, that fit my personality and the baby’s.

But sorting through the advice was so much easier than implementing it.  No matter how many fabulous examples the books gave, none of them fit my situation perfectly.  I was constantly tweaking and adapting the advice to fit my unique situation.  It was hard and involved failing at times, but no one can really tell you how to parent any more than anyone can tell you how to write.  It all comes from trial and error.

I realize that none of this directly addresses unpublished writers giving advice, so let’s get to that.  In keeping with parenting theme, I see unpublished writers as other new parents.  Having some good, solid friends who are in the same place as you in writing or parenting is like gold.  A lot of it is support, but sometimes just talking through your problems with them can help you see what you need to do.  And sometimes they can give you the best advice because they are right there with you and can understand where you are coming from better than any seasoned professional.   

Since you have to use your brain to sort through all that professional writing advice, I don’t see why you can’t also sort through the advice given by unpublished writers.   And who knows how many of those unpublished writers are on the verge of being published. 

Of course we shouldn’t blindly follow them, but then I believe we shouldn’t blindly follow anyone.  Each of us is unique, and we all have to find our own path.



  1. You're absolutely right-- there seems to be no shortage of contradictory advice out there, on ANY topic. For that reason I, especially as an unpublished writer, try to present my "advice" in a tongue-in-cheek way, or give examples of what has worked for me, never assuming that my way is even close to the best way.

    Writing advice is at its most useful when it makes a reader think "Cool, I do the same thing. I'm not alone in this!"

    1. Yes, that is how I feel about it as well. I never really feel like I'm giving advice more like sharing what has worked for me. Personally, I love to hear how other writers do things. I don't like the idea of silencing anyone for any reason.

  2. I can't even tell you how many times I've read publishing advice from a published author and thought that they really had no clue what breaking into today's publishing industry is like. As authors, we need to learn to go with our gut. And as a blogger, I try to back up my advice with links to other blogs--hopefully blogs with authors who know what they are talking about.

    As far as critiques by unpublished authors--where else are we going to get critiques? I've had a few published authors and even an editor or two give me advice, and I don't find their advice any more useful than what other people have said. When someone is off the mark with their advice for my stories, I usually figure it out before too much damage is done. Again, I've got to go with my instincts.

    What we need is people who READ published books, and people who try to figure out what they like in books. The line between published and unpublished is an abysmal sorter, IMO.

    1. I forgot to get to critiques, so I'm glad you brought it up. I'd love to get a professional critique, but that isn't easy to do unless you join a workshop which isn't really possible for me right now. But I've gotten fabulous critiques from unpublished writers that have helped me grow as a writer.

      Really, the best critique is an honest reaction to the story from a readers perspective. Readers are who we are writing for, right?


  3. Good advice. (ha.)
    You make a good point. Following only published writers is a bit like only listening to politics from politicians, Non?
    ~Just Jill

    1. LOL, good analogy. I think it is always good to keep an open mind, and never be so arrogant to think that someone has nothing to teach you.

  4. Oh, sheesh. Now, I haven't read the thread, but I'm absolutely 100 percent for getting advice from other unpublished writers. Besides, being published doesn't make you a better or worse critiquer. Most importantly, no person is going to offer you the same exact advice on any given story - and no two publishers are alike in what they want.

    Not that you should listen to every piece of advice you get, no matter whom it's from. I think it's a good strategy to offer your writing out to anyone and everyone - even non-writers! Because the person who is the right critiquer for you and your work could be just about anyone.

    1. Sabrina, you missed out on another one of those Hatrack dramas. You know how much fun those are. :)

      I'm with you 100 %. Although I've never had a professional look at anything I've written, I've found avid readers and aspiring writers to be amazing in their critiques. But I think it is also important to know when the advice works for the story or works against it. I guess my point in the entire post is that that is something we have to figure out for ourselves or we will never make it. We can't just do whatever someone suggested just because they have impressive credentials. If the person doesn't get the story you are trying to tell, their advice will destroy it.

      Learning to figure out which advice to use and which to toss forces us to grow as writers, in my unpublished opinion.

  5. I love your analogy, MaryAnn. Having a child with some mild sensory issues (I probably wrote about that somewhere before), I heard and read a LOT of advice that I just knew in my heart didn't mesh with *my child*. (And then the 2nd kid came along and I realized, "Oh, THIS is the kind of kid they were talking about! I get it now!) Conventional wisdom didn't always work, and expert advice didn't always work, but I usually did best when I trusted my instincts. For writing to be fulfilling I think you have to trust your instincts there, too. Otherwise whose story are you writing? :)

    I think a great critique relationship can be as much about each person getting what the other is trying to do as it is about expertise.

    1. Yes! That problem is that each parent and child is unique, and there is no one advice that fits all. The same holds true for writing. Every writer and story is unique, so there is no one advice fits all in case either. Wow, did that makes sense?

      I agree that the best critiquers are the ones who "get" the story because they will make it better. When I critique, I always have tons of suggestions for those stories that I love. And when I critique a story that I don't like or that is in a genre that I don't read, I have nothing to say. Because if I don't feel like I understand what the writer is trying to do, I don't know how to make the story better.

  6. Some of the worst advice I've ever been given on parenting came from someone who was pregnant with their first baby. She had read every expert, and KNEW exactly what I should do with my kid's issue.
    The thing was, that she was telling me what she (scared and overwhelmed by the prospect of being a parent) would do in my situation. It was completely wrong, and condescending. Later, after she'd delivered the baby and realized how hard parenting is, and how it doesn't always fit within "what to expect" she apologized.

    I've been that same scared overwhelmed writer, and I've given plenty of bad advice based on me learning what kind of author I want to be.

    I think the same thing can happen with advice from anyone, no matter if they're published or not, advice is filtered through experience. A published author might caution you from writing a certain style, or subject, because they'd been rejected for the same thing. An unpublished author might be so stuck in the rules of good writing and the fear of being rejected, that they caution you to not take risks.

    I think, you just have to do the best you can. Learn from everyone, and never decide that that someone's opinion is less than yours. Never decide that you are a good enough writer you don't need to improve. Take it, filter it to what helps you, and write.

    But I published my book, so you have to listen to me.
    BWAHAHAHA!!! Credentials!

    1. I guess from now I always have to listen to you. Good thing you're so smart or I'd be in trouble. :)

      I've given bad advice too, and I felt bad about it after I realized it wasn't good. It really is up to the receiver of the advice to figure out what to do with it. I think it is tough to do, but an essential part of learning how to write.


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