Monday, March 15, 2010

Monday Column: Giving advice

For the record, I have been guilty of the following. I'm trying to point out something I've learned through personal experience.

Writing forums are a place for us to go and see what's going on in the industry, connect with our peers, and even ask for help. However, writing is very solitary work, and for many of us (myself included) asking for help can be difficult. Especially when there is a high risk of two out of three responses to a post turning out to be nothing but "what you REALLY need to be focusing on right now is..." and "no, no, no. Don't do that, it's not what's IN right now. You need to do this..." or the worst, "that's not how I did it, and I did it the way every SUCCESSFUL writer has done it, so you need to find out how that's done and change what you did."

That's not helpful, it only comes across as speaking to hear your own voice. To be fair, when I made this mistake, it truly was an accident. I had the purest intention of giving advice that I rarely heard when I started writing, and I wanted to share it so that this other writer could be successful. It came across wrong, and things kinda blew up from there, and I definitely regret how I approached it and how it turned out. And I'm sorry.

For any writer out there who participates in the boards, this is for you, and it's something I try to keep in mind. Before you reply to a post, consider: what are they asking for? If it's help on a query letter, or a first page, first chapter, or synopsis, is there anything specific they want looked at? If so, answer that FIRST. If you don't have any response to give to their specific request, make sure what you DO say is actually helpful, and mention that to the person who posted. If you ask for a critique on a synopsis to see if it makes sense to other people, and all you get back is a bunch of posts about what different kinds of synopses you should be writing, is that going to help you? Or if you post your first chapter to see if it grabs the readers' attention, how irritated would you be if all you heard was how weird your name is, and here are some suggestions on marketable pseudonyms?

While that advise might be helpful, I think it's best to assume that the other writer knows it already. If a writer is especially frustrated, you'll only frustrate them more, driving them off where they don't have to listen to anyone.

There are plenty of opportunities to offer constructive criticism, useful advice, and random facts that the rest of us may not know, so keep your eyes out for them, and make sure you do it in a way that doesn't sound arrogant and like you think you know it all. Because in the end, your intentions only matter if the outcome is positive.

Let me say that again. Intentions ONLY matter when the outcome is beneficial. No one cares how much I wanted to help them if all I did was make them feel stupid.


  1. Hey Giles, found your blog after you posted over at Nathan Bransfords forums. I agree with you but I think we should still be willing to share certain things and look for feedback. Just keep in mind that not every comment or piece of advice is going to be right, just apply those that you agree with and leave the others be.

    I've become a follower of your blog now. Click on my name in my post if you'd like to do the same for me.

  2. Matthew, we DO need to share our work, but I think we need to be open to real feedback, whether or not we agree with it. It's just the useless stuff that we need to really ignore :)

  3. How can the person commenting be assured that what they are saying is useful? You are making an assumption that they know what you want. What if their take on isn't what you want? By asking for only "useful" comments, you may actually deter someone from offering a valid, critical piece of advice bec. they don't want to bother you with their thoughts.

    As a writer, can you not cull the pertinent comments & apply what you ascertain as helpful? "Take the meat & spit out the bones."

    Additionally, any writer worth their salt will write the comment & then re-read to refine, edit, clarify before clicking "post".

    Or, have I misunderstood what you are asking for? (see first paragraph) Altho, you know I'm not shy abt sharing my thoughts, edits, comments or suggestions for a psydo bec. "your name is weird", etc. :-)

  4. Essentially a comment is useful if it pertains directly to the original post. If a writer asks for advice on their query letter and receives a reply that says they should always make sure their manuscript is done, then that reply is generally useless. Most writers already know that their manuscript has to be complete before they write the query, and unless the letter openly admits that the manuscript isn't finished, then the responders should assume that the manuscript is ready for submission.

    Most of all, it comes down to common sense. Read what's asked for, and then post accordingly.

  5. If someone is soliciting feedback, I usually take on a "take it or leave it" attitude. I prefer the Golden Rule when it comes to criticism; if it's something I'd want to hear about my work, I tell the person, and if it's something I think they already know then I hold back. That's why I don't usually complain about typos/grammar/punctuation -- that stuff is easier to fix than plot threads and character development.