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Some Thoughts on Writing Advice

Categories: Kate Monahan 2009-2010.

I’ve been thinking about a quote I posted last week by
Katherine Anne Porter. The quote speaks about the idea of “being ready,” of
waiting until one’s work is mature enough before beginning to pursue
publication. Porter says, “I think it is the most curious lack of judgment to
publish before you are ready. If there are echoes of other people in your work,
you’re not ready. If anybody has to help you rewrite your story, you’re not
ready. A story should be a finished work before it is shown.”

As an MFA student, one of the greatest benefits of the
program is the workshop environment. While work-shopping, other students offer
constructive criticism, suggestions, and advice on how to make your story or
novel better. I mean, there is a LOT of advice given. You almost can’t escape a
workshop without echoes of other people in your work. Not only do fellow peers
offer suggestions, but work is also shaped by the teachers in the program. Perhaps,
during this learning curve, while advice is being offered, we’re not yet ready
for the publishing world? I’m not sure. After all, beyond the MFA many people
hold their “first readers” near and dear and often rely on them for advice and feedback.
Does incorporating this feedback mean one is not ready?

This issue becomes even more complicated. Let’s just say
advice is beneficial… Well, therein rests another conflict: which advice and whose
advice is beneficial? Some people believe peer workshops can be hindering. They
say it’s a case of the blind leading the blind. How can newbie amateurs help
others in the same boat?  Here’s a
possible flip side: we can learn from
others mistakes. We can learn from what isn’t working in a story. We learn how
to construct stories by picking them apart, analyzing them. No matter— in the
workshop environment much time is spent writing and thinking about fiction (or
non-fiction or poetry). This in itself helps one grow as a writer.

And what about a teacher’s advice? A mentor’s advice? Does
taking a more accomplished writer’s feedback suggest our work is not prepared to
go out into the world? Sometimes a trained, experienced eye can see things we
can not. However, and I’ve been running into this a lot lately—advice often
varies from teacher to teacher. One teacher suggests you cut two pages of your
story while the other recommends adding four. One will love the fantastical
elements in the story while another will strongly suggest you pull the story
in, grounding it in reality. All this is proof of how wildly subjective this writing
thing really is. 

So. There are some potential hazards here, some questions
to consider. First— are we really not ready, as Porter suggests, if we take
others’ opinions and fold them into our writing? Secondly—how does one sift
through all the advice to decide what will benefit their singular piece of work? What
does one do when caught between two vastly different hard pressed pieces of
advice? Which road do you take? If any?

I’m posing a lot of questions in this post. Advice, advice,
advice. We all give it and take it. Some believe we may not even need it. In
life, my husband is big on asking as little advice as possible. Occasionally he
asks a trusted confidant what they’re recommendation would be, but rarely does
he question the masses. Me. Well. That’s a different story. I’m quite the
advice hog, if you will… I’m always calling not one person, but three, four,
and upwards from there. What do you
think?
I say. What would you do? But this person said that, what do you think
of their advice?
I get lost in advice, muddled by it. This is unhealthy, I
know. I need to learn to trust my own judgment especially when it comes to my writing
because, at the end of the day, it is my
vision that I am releasing into the world.

One thing I know is this: when someone offers me advice and
I feel that little tug on my heart, that little voice that says yes, yes, I know it’s feedback I should
seriously consider. Just the other day I was contemplating the end of one of my
stories and I began to feel that the character needed more strength and resolve.
 She
seems to have backtracked
, a writer friend told me days later after reading
it. We need to know she is going to be
okay.
All along I knew this, too. I just needed that little push, that
nudge, that reassurance. In the end, we do know what’s best for our stories and
we need to be true to that. Only when we’re true, when we stay committed to our
vision, do we create work that is unique and authentic.  And then it becomes something we can bet on,
because authentic work seems to always find its way in the world. It always
seems to find an audience, a home.

“Nobody
can give you wiser advice than yourself.” 

~Cicero

 

 

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5 Responses to Some Thoughts on Writing Advice

  1. Kate says:

    Yes, I agree! Lara put it great.

    Kirsten–Very true about not taking that pressured advice by people who "we think know better than us." When we take this advice the work often ends up reflecting their vision, not ours. And isn’t unique, singular work the whole point?

    Laura—On the flip side, you make a good point about at least TRYING to put others advice to use. We don’t lose anything by implementing suggestions because if they don’t work out we don’t have to KEEP them; the old work is always there, safe and saved. I’ve noticed recently that by sometimes trying out advice (especially teachers and mentors), I’m learning more about the writing process and MY process specifically. It’s kind of stretched me—trying new suggested ways and not always relying on my old familiar ones. The suggestions certainly don’t always work out, but we do learn something. Sometimes we simply learn to trust ourselves and our gut!

  2. Excellent post, Kate! It is daunting when you consider all the writing advice out there. I love reading books on writing, but I only take the advice that works for me. I don’t think there’s really any ‘bad’ advice out there, nor ‘good’ advice. Different things work for different people. Sometimes I put others’ advice to use, but if I don’t feel that connection, then I don’t use it. It’s always good to try because you never know what could come out of it. But like you said, it’s most important to listen to our heart or gut or wherever that *tug* comes. Only we know what’s truly best for our stories!

  3. Kristan says:

    Wow, Lara put it great. I was going to try and say the same thing, but she did it first, and well.

  4. Kirsten says:

    I can’t speak to what Porter meant by her quote, but I have a thought. Having been through an MFA program, I believe the advice and critiques that I received were invaluable to my work. But do I consider those voices and words as other people IN my work? Not so much.

    Like you said about hearing that "yes" in your head with some advice, I think that the best advice and criticism you get will resonate with something that’s already there within the story that you simply didn’t see yourself. Yet. I feel like there is a huge distinction between taking words that click with you about your work and changing something in your work because of opinions you are given that you incorporate or listen to because you feel pressured or forced. If you find yourself thinking, "well, that’s not how I felt about it, but so-and-so said it should be like this, and they know what they’re doing," or "I really like my ending, but my editor says it won’t sell unless I change this," THAT’S when, as Porter said, you may have other people in your work. When you stop trusting your own voice and trust someone else’s instead–that is when you find echoes of others in your writing.

  5. Lara says:

    I think the distinction comes when you come to recognize that not all advice is good advice, as well as not all advice is good for *you*. When you can sift through comments offered on your work, and both considering the source, and considering your intent, modify only to the point that you do not lose your work to another’s voice.

    Stage 1: Too many inexperienced authors steadfastly refuse to listen to advice, afraid of subsuming to another’s voice. Ego is the mark of the "adolescent". This is the "hidden diary" stage. I don’t share my work with anyone — because they’ll never understand.

    Stage 2: With publication as the aim, the stage 2 author takes every angle of advice, and ends up without her own voice shining through the piece any longer. This is the author who shows her work to everyone, having started with positive voices. She feeds in the critical voices, but takes them all in. This author’s work resembles someone else’s, almost guaranteed. Her inner critic is furiously squashed in favor of outside voices.

    Stage 3: Publication is just around the corner for the stage 3 author. She recognizes her own voice, her own intent in her work, and her requests for advice are more articulated, and the advice is sifted through, sorted, partially taken, and partially discarded, the work’s intent being the barometer, not her ego. This writer has become mature, and her work’s voice is her own. Her improvements are advised, but shaped by the internalized critic whom she begins to trust.

    IMHO.

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