How I Process Writing Advice

So, having established that I don’t know shit about writing and publishing, I figure it’s worth talking about filtering the great swathes of writing advice out there. And, more importantly, how to figure out if a particular bit of advice is actually going to be useful to you. I mean, there is a whole bunch of writing advice out there on the internet, and a lot of it is…conflicting.

Or authoritative.

Or great advice, that is utterly useless to you, specifically, even if it works for everyone else.

So how do you process good advice when it comes along?

Honestly, I can’t tell you, but I can offer you the process I work through when I come across something interesting, which may be useful. I read about writing a lot, given my various day-jobs over the years, and my approach to taking things on board is pretty formalised at this point.

It also includes one important rule.

RULE ZERO: ANYTHING THAT STOPS YOU FROM WRITING SHOULD BE IGNORED

Not getting stuff done trumps everything on this list. Period. The core of your job as a writer is getting new work done, and there is always advice that kills your forward momentum stone dead.

Sometimes it’s because you got the wrong advice, or the right advice at the wrong time. You fixate on a particular idea and it keeps you from writing, or redrafting, or editing. You stare at the blank page, wanting to open with a line of dialogue, and some asshole’s voice is saying “don’t open a story with dialogue, editors hate it” rumbles through your head.

Ignore the voice.

Ignore the advice.

Rule zero: anything that keeps you from writing should be ignored.

That trumps everything else on this list.

STEP ONE: WHO THE FUCK IS THIS GUY?

I learned this one from a seminar delivered by Kevin J Anderson when I was just a baby-writer – whenever someone is giving you advice, consider who they are and what their background is. Publication histories, backgrounds outside of writing, their current approach to particular aspects of the craft or business.

There is a surprising correlation between writers who have done a lot of shit and been successful in their craft, and writers who offer a ton of great advice about writing and publishing. It’s worth considering taking a look at someone’s publication history before you take their advice on board. Why are they an authority on this? Why are you paying attention to them?

STEP TWO: WHAT THE FUCK HAVE THEY DONE & HOW ARE THEY DOING IT?

Before you take someone’s advice on-board, ask yourself whether you’d actually be interested in replicating this aspect of their career.

This is easy on the craft side of things: taking advice about plotting from writers whose approach to plotting I admire? Total no-brainer. Taking advice on author platform and social media from an author who has a monster profile? A much harder choice, even if the person offering the advice is great at blogging or tweeting.

Different genres will offer different approaches to building a career. Indie and traditional will require different approaches. Business models impact on the advice you’re paying attention to. Consider: a self-published writer putting together a novel series and building an ongoing readership is generally working with a business model that is completely at odds with the needs of a writer producing unconnected, one-off volumes for small press.

Writing advice is not one size fits all. It looks that way on the surface, but generally speaking writers have built up habits and techniques that play to particular strengths and weakness, different goals and means of making money. Take this into account before you take something on-board.

STEP THREE: WHAT’S THE ANGLE?

Let’s be honest – the vast majority of writing advice offered on the internet largely comes with with a side-order of please by my books in the subtext. That’s cool. I’m willing to roll with that and consider it the price of admission, especially when I’m under no obligation to do so.

On the other hand, if I can’t figure out why the advice is being offered – or if it’s really closely attached to a service with a high price-tag – I start getting twitchy. I want a lot of corroboration before I take that sort of stuff on-board.

When someone presents themselves as an authority or talks about the one true way to do things, it throws up all manner of red flags for me.

No-one offers advice without some form of agenda, and figuring out where the advice is coming from and why they’re sharing it can often be as illuminating than the advice itself.

STEP FOUR: STRESS-TEST THE HELL OUT OF THINGS

Advice you don’t use just exists to make you feel better. There’s nothing wrong with that – I have a host of books on my bookshelf who exist as the equivalent of comfort food. I read them when I’m having a bad day, and think if only I implemented this approach to plotting, everything will be fine.

Then I put the book down and go back to going what I always do.

Nothing wrong with that.

But advice you’re actually going to implement?

Advice you actually use should be taken on-board with the goal of actually doing something better, or faster, or more effectively. I want to make sure I know why I’m about to implement a particular piece of advice, and what I’m hoping to achieve by doing so, before I put it into practice.

Knowing that means I know what success looks like. It means I have a way of measuring whether things are actually useful, or just the writing equivalent of a placebo.

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