What is the best advice you’ve received about writing? Do you incorporate that advice into your writing habits, and would you give this same advice to a newbie writer, or something different?
The best piece of advice I’ve received as a writer is now the first piece I give to any aspiring writer. It’s a no brainer, and in my experience, it’s the defining trait that will separate those who want to write for themselves alone, and those who wish to grow their talent and share it with others—particularly on the mass market. The advice is simple: learn to love the red pen.
If you’re working on a piece, and you share it with others, seek out the corrections, the questions, and the complaints. They will help you vastly more than the compliments and trite pieces of praise. If you only want to be told how good your work is, you may as well just put it up on your trophy shelf and call it a day. But if you’re willing to find out what doesn’t work for others—where they get lost or lose interest—then you'll find yourself on the path to becoming a better and more successful writer.
It’s not always easy to take this advice. We're all deeply attached to our work. When we first present it to the world, it’s all too natural to dream of unanimous adulation and unfettered praise. Sadly, that will get you nothing, and your work will never become anything more than what it started as.
True, there are probably a small handful of special cases where a book was written in one go and became a critical darling with nary an edit needed. But those are the extreme exceptions to the rule. For the most part, writing is by-and-large a social process. It’s an effort by us to communicate to others, and like it or not, communication is a two-way street. If you want to express yourself, you’d do well to start by listening.
Learn what catches the reader, what motivates them to turn the page, and why they become attached to some characters over others. Learn what works in your writing, and what doesn’t.
I remember vividly the first time I shared a section of my first attempt at a novel (now long forsaken) with a big group of strangers. Naïve nitwit that I was, I was secretly hoping for everyone in the room to fawn over my clever wordplay and gasp at the stunning insights I had into society and soul alike. What I got were some curt head nods, some perplexed ‘harrumphs’, and a lot of red marks all over my professionally printed (and very expensive) pages.
I went to my car and sat in the dark parking lot—the tiny driver’s light and a big blue Walmart sign provided my only illumination—and I read every single comment.
Some were stupid. Some missed the point. At first, I began to fall into the old trap of imagining that any critique of my efforts represented a shortcoming not in my prose, but in the reader. ‘They just don’t get what I’m trying to do.’
Make no mistake—this is the most fatal mindset a writer can ever have. It means stagnation, complacency, and death.
As I processed all of this sadly, I made the best decision I’ve ever made as a writer. I sat there, and I read it all again.
Some of the comments still seemed a bit asinine—there will always be a few of those. Others however, made a good point. When more than one person made that point, I began to connect the dots.
I pulled out a red pen of my own, and on one untouched copy, I began to scribble my own notes and corrections. For close to an hour, I sat there, and the potential of my book began to unfold before me. By learning what my peers liked and didn’t like, and what questions they had, I soon began to feel closer to the characters and events themselves. I was no long creating a world for my own amusement; the world was made, and I was now partaking in it and watching it develop.
So, I share this advice now as I’ve shared it ever since that moment. Eschew those who will sing nothing but your praises. Find the contrarians and the bastards--those who care enough about you to tell you when something isn’t right.
If you want to write for yourself, that’s fine. Writing is an art, and it’s no less valuable if its audience is only one. But if you do want to produce something that will resonate with others, then you should damn sure listen to what they're saying and find those who are honest enough to help you.
Seek out the ones who want to grow your talents, not your ego.
-Brad OH Inc.