There’s been a fascinating moment happening on Twitter as relates to advice on writing. Really, as relates to advice on advice. (And I’ll get around to advice more generally if you’ll stick with me on this blog post, really.)
I first noticed it with something an Odfellow had retweeted from Ann Leckie. It culminated most spectacularly with
I don’t care how good or famous a writer was, who gave out oversimplified, toxic advice. I don’t really care if God herself said “kill your darlings” or “show don’t tell” or “only describe food if it’s necessary to the story.” They can fuck off.
— Ann Leckie ☕ (@ann_leckie) June 10, 2018
But I encourage you to read from the beginning if you have the time.
I retweeted it. I read it aloud to unsuspecting writing-minded acquaintances. A few days (a week?) later, I saw this long-form thread from Chuck Wendig:
GOOD MORNING it is time for the Writing Advice song, so sing it with me, 🎶writing advice is a product of survivorship bias, an error of false conclusions based on success that is probably at least in part a bit of luuuuuuuck🎶
it’s a catchy tune I know you’ll dig that jam
— Chuck Wendig (@ChuckWendig) June 11, 2018
Apparently, this was a Thing that was happening on Twitter. And it was in response, perhaps not surprisingly, to a discussion that had sprung up around the dogged writing mantra “kill your darlings” and whether or not that was good advice.
It’s oft misunderstood advice. People are quick to misconstrue just what is being killed. (For the record, it’s not advice to kill characters off—it’s advice that says, should you be so in love with a bit of prose, or a phrasing, or a scene that you just cannot bear to let it go no, you should probably let-it-the-hell-go.)
It’s not the kind of advice that should be given to everyone. Only to the people to whom you’d like to say get the hell over yourself but you can’t because you’re too nice or it’ll burn some sort of bridge and you’d really rather not engage in a bucket brigade to put out the blaze. Or if you already have told said person to get over themselves, it’s fallen on deaf ears. It’s the kind of functional advice you can give to someone who thinks too highly of himself to try and get him to pull his head out of his ass in a particular situation (read: his prose) even if he’s beyond help in the rest of his life.
The majority of the Twitter soliloquies by Ann Leckie and Chuck Wendig can be boiled down to context is important when deciding what advice to follow (or to give). And also that the so-called rules of writing should not be construed as rules or laws, but as advice.
With one caveat:
If the person/editor/publishing house/company who is publishing you says this is a rule of ours you must follow it or we will drop your contract, then consider it a rule and follow it as it pertains to your contract. But when you write your next thing, and should it not be published by said parties with said rules, then that rule no longer applies.
I once attended an AWP panel on the topic of Prose Poem vs. Flash Fiction and how to tell one form from the other. Robert Olen Butler sat at one end spouting indulgent, esoteric theories of what poetry is and why prose could be considered poetry in certain circumstances while Ron Carlson sat at the other end of the panel making faces as he listened. Eventually Ron Carlson had had enough and said simply, that he was of the mind that he’d written only prose for several decades. Predominantly short stories. Some shorter, some longer than others. Some only a hundred or a few hundred words long. Then someone approached him and said they’d like to publish a collection of his poetry. And in that moment, he they became poems. In short, write what you write. Advice and theories don’t particularly matter. The publisher will likely relabel it but if you already believe in the work, there’s no harm in it being called something else. If the publisher wants to call it a monkey but will pay you well for it . . . why then, it might be you’ve been writing a monkey all along.
For the record, Robert Olen Buter appeared less-than-thrilled with these blunt counter-statements and I don’t believe Ron Carlson referenced a monkey.
But I digress greatly from my original intention.
My original intention was to state: Advice is advice.
And those who treat advice as rules, advice as laws, advice as demands, advice as strident suggestions, advice as telling you what to do—or worse—advice as telling you what to do and expecting you to do it, just boggle my mind.
I remember being a young adult and stating to my father my surprise and confusion. “There are people,” I asked him, “who think when you ask them for their advice that you’re going to follow it just because they gave it to you?”
“Yes,” he told me, “I just broke up with one.”
I still don’t get where those people think they have a leg to stand on. But no doubt, their self-assurance comes from the fact that there are people out there who believe that just because they’ve asked for advice, and they’ve received it, that they have to follow that advice.
Please don’t be that person.
It’s fine to follow advice you’ve received. If you think it’s good advice.
It’s fine to disregard advice you’ve received. If you think it’s bad advice.
It’s fine to follow advice in part but not in whole, because you’ve thought about your situation and found which bits are applicable.
The common denominator is not the advice, it’s that you’ve thought about it.
The best advice has caveats because it acknowledges that it’s situational and that the receiver has to consider the context when applying advice. However, not all advice givers are going to be flexible or thoughtful.
As much as I don’t want to be flexible or thoughtful when I say advice is advice and you should only follow it after you’ve thought about it and decided if it applies to your situation, I’m certain there are times when you should immediately take advice without thought. Like when someone yells, duck! You do you—especially where your personal safety is a concern.
But I won’t think less of you if you don’t follow my advice. I won’t judge you based on whether or not you can follow Ann Leckie’s advice not to follow advice without taking into consideration context, or Chuck Wendig’s. I just strongly encourage. I cajole. I counsel. I suggest. I . . .
I am put in mind of that line from Pirates of the Caribbean where the the pirate played by Geoffrey Rush states to Keira Knightly’s character, “They’re less rules and more guidelines.”
Take all writing advice (or advice in life generally) as guidelines and not rules, and you’ll be fine in most cases.*
*Cases where you won’t be fine: Submission guidelines, submission requirements, submission advice. Remember Robert Olen Butler and Ron Carlson above? You can be as artsy and philosophical as you want, you can break all the rules or conform to all the theories in your art philosophy. But once you go to submit it to a publisher, you format it as the publisher wants. If you want them to pay you money, it’s worthwhile (in that context) to follow their rules.