On Taking Advice and DWS

In my last post and the next couple of ones I’ll focus on how many beginning writers practice their craft, or rather don’t really practice. But this post will focus more on how we obtain the knowledge we need to improve.

Having dived into the fantastic world of writing fiction, many aspiring authors soon realize that their writing… well, it isn’t very good. And for many that leads to trip across the endless sea of books and blogs and vlogs on the craft of writing. As I mentioned briefly in my last post, it isn’t a lack of information that stops us here but more likely information overload.

There are books covering every aspect of writing and books focusing on sub-atomic parts of the art. There’s blogs from famous authors and from editors and agents. There’s long-winded blogs and there’s catchy top ten lists. And if you don’t look out, you’re going to spend all of your time reading about writing instead of actually writing. And to be honest, much what’s out there is just aspiring writers, like myself, sharing our opinions and trying to build an online presence, (he sighs, realizing he might just be adding to all the babble but hoping he’s not).

So what I really want this post to be is a word of caution. It’s easy to get lost and spend way to much time reading about the craft instead of practicing. You should focus on the thing you want to improve, and if you don’t know how to practice, then read up on that specific topic. It’s easy to get confused, too, with so much information out there and so much it being contradictory. For example, there are people saying to avoid using other words than “said” as a tag to dialogue, some that say you should use variety here, and some that say you should never use a dialogue tag at all. So who do you trust?

1) I suggest you start by looking at who’s providing the information. Is it a professional author or editor you’ve heard about or whose work you’ve read and like, then that’s usually a good sign. Is it an amateur author you’ve never heard about and only got a few publications to their name (like me, he says and sighs again), then you should be a bit more cautious about the advice. And if it looks like a scam artist (usually people who are promising an impossibly easy road to success), just run away.

2) Another good indicator is how often you stumbled across that particular advice. This doesn’t always work, and bad advice do get spread around, but it can be a useful trick. If ninety-nine percent of the pro authors tell you to stick to the simple “said” dialogue tag, then there might be something to it.

3) Look at the reasoning of your source. You can be wrong even though you have good arguments, and faulty logic can lead to the right idea by accident, but generally people who use sound arguments and logic to explain their views are more likely to be right.

4) Are the source of the information providing a nuanced view of things or are they very one-sided. Not that people who are seeking the middle ground are necessarily right, but when people feel very strongly about a subject, they tend to ignore logic and good arguments that goes against their conviction.

A good example of where I’ve needed to use this kind of logic lately to sought through information was when I read Dean Wesley Smith’s blog posts on Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing.

DWS is a professional author who’s been making a good living with his writing for decades now, so he definitely passes the first barrier. The point of his series of posts is to throw some controversial advice out there which he feels beginning authors doesn’t hear enough. So, naturally, the second barrier is more of an obstacle. Though, a good deal of the “controversial” advice is actually something you hear a lot of pro authors provide. So his advice pass this bar as well.

It’s when reaching point three and four I realized that I should take in DWS’s advice with a bit of caution. As for his reasoning, he uses a lot of his own experience in the business to support his arguments, which is great considering just how much experience he has as both an editor, traditionally published author, and self-published author. But it also leads to some faulty conclusions. For example, he argues that writers don’t learn anything from rewriting/editing which he supports with the fact that he didn’t become a pro author until he significantly cut back his editing. But correlation doesn’t equal causation. It could very well be that he learned a lot from those years where he spent more time editing. It could be that heavier editing could make his stories even better, or maybe that he’s grown to a skill level where he simply doesn’t need as much editing any more. He also support a lot of his claims with his theory on the creative and the analytical side side of the
brain, which is just… well, you don’t need to know a lot about neuroscience to realize that’s not how the brain works.

As for the fourth barrier, DWS does remind us that all writers are different and if it works for you, then it works for you. But aside from saying that once or twice he’s very much on one side of the fence, the side that doesn’t have a lot left for traditional publishing, agents, and some of the more traditional writing advice. In other words, he feels strongly about this and doesn’t provide a nuanced view on the subject.

This is turning into a rant against Dean Wesley Smith, which wasn’t the purpose at all. In fact I think his Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing series offers a lot of tremendous insights and great advice. But I also think it contains some pointless ranting that some aspiring writers might take to be an absolute truth, and it did prove a good example of how important it is to be critical about all the writing advice out there.

5) Finally, try it out and see if it works for you. Now, I’ve placed this at the end, because there’s simply too much (contradictory) advice out there to try it all out. And I think it’s important to weed out the obviously faulty advice and the likely not useful stuff before spending a lot of time trying to implement it in one’s own writing. This should also keep you from the trapdoor that leads to accidentally incorporating habits detrimental to your writing (such being flowery with the dialogue tags).

What all of this really boils down to is use your common sense.

I hope my approach for going through writing advice was helpful to you. Feel free to leave a comment if you have another approach or just something to add.

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