Encouragement Without Information
A writer I know had joined a critique group and finished a novel. She was pretty sure that the novel wasn’t ready to send out yet, but this particular critique group was all about encouragement, and they told her she was just not feeling confident enough, that the novel was great, that any problems would be easy to fix, and that she should start querying agents about it right away. Reluctantly she did, and some of the agents were interested, and one asked for a partial (a small number of chapters–requests for partials usually mean there’s a chance the agent might be interested).
But the writer still felt that the remainder of the book was profoundly broken, and none of the friends in the critique group had any suggestions for improving the book.
“Almost immediately after I sent the partial,” she says, “I learned that most of the people who had read my novel and pushed me to submit it–whose opinions of the novel had given me the confidence to submit it at all–had never actually read what I had sent them. None of it, in some cases.” The book really wasn’t ready.
When Opinion Is Misunderstood As Fact
The same writer joined another critique group, one member of which had a published novel out and some other writing success. After getting some encouraging feedback on a particular story from some members, she got this critique from the published novelist: “You’re hiding behind your [air quotes] ‘beautiful prose’ because you don’t know how to write a decent story.”
That same story later got some very positive feedback from good markets where it almost made the cut. Another of the writer’s short stories sold recently, after a mix of critiques from people who in some cases loved and in other cases hated the piece.
I’m not suggesting that critique groups are bad, though of course they can be. Critique groups have been key in improving my writing, and in fact in practically any area of life–writing, parenting, relationships, cooking, finances–I can point to advice I’ve gotten that has been absolutely invaluable. But there were also pieces of advice or feedback that I carried around and replayed in my head for decades, only to eventually discover that they were not good advice and were leading me the wrong way.
Some Ways to Test Advice
Here are some key things to watch out for when getting advice, regardless of how kind the intention is. (And despite these examples being about writing, the ideas apply to any kind of feedback or suggestion.)
- Does the advice feel wrong to you? If so, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is wrong, but it suggests there’s some kind of important question to resolve. Talk with someone about your gut reaction to the advice, or write journal-style about it. The result will often tell you whether 1) your reaction is the real problem that the advice is going to help you overcome, 2) there’s a legitimate difference of opinion between you and the advice-giver, or 3) the advice-giver has an issue or concern that doesn’t have much to do with you. Treasure the first kind of advice, consider the second kind, and throw away the third.
- Is the advice specific? Generalized advice is the advice-giver theorizing about how the world works, while specific advice is likely to be more closely based on a reaction they’re having and therefore more useful as information. I wouldn’t say that all generalized advice is bad (for one thing, that would be contradicting myself), but I will say that advice like “I didn’t get into your story very much because there was a lot about dogs, and it wasn’t interesting to me” is much more useful than “Nobody wants to read a novel about dogs.” After all, I gave up on The Story of Edgar Sawtelle after 100 pages from of lack of interest, but many thousands of people loved the book.
- Just because someone succeeded one way doesn’t mean that they know the only way for people to succeed. Stephen King says he tends to chop out about 10% of his first draft writing while editing, but many other successful writers find their later drafts expand instead. Someone who has accomplished something will often feel that they know the one way that thing has to be done, but really all that can be said confidently about successful people is that they’ve done something that worked–not that they always understand what worked, nor that their ways are the only ways to succeed.
- Your emotional reaction to the advice does not necessarily reflect how important the advice is. If someone tells me that I dress like a clown, I might feel very distressed about it or completely unconcerned, but neither feeling would make it any more or less true than it would be otherwise. Believing that how we feel about something necessarily tells us something true about how things are is a broken idea called “emotional reasoning.” It can be the source of a lot of trouble, and is worth working through. For more information on broken ideas, follow the preceding link, or click here to see some examples.
- Disregard anyone who pronounces that “You don’t have any talent for this.” Talent comes from deliberate practice–the research on this subject is very substantial–with little dependency on basic traits. I won’t belabor the subject here, but follow the link for more details. Most of our culture seems to buy into the false assumption that talent is mainly inborn, so even highly respectable authorities can fall into the trap of assuming that talent is the reason behind someone doing well or not in a given field.
Photo by laughlin