Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Only Kind of Writing Advice You Should Ever Take to Heart


I was reading a craft book the other day, and the author was witty and extremely knowledgeable but he was also very, very snarky.

As informative as his book was, I didn’t want his voice in my head so I put it aside. He was constantly talking about his students’ failings. His distain for them was obvious and it made me feel sorry for anyone who had ever attended his workshops.

Many writing teachers justify harsh tactics, saying that the road to publication is tough and students need to grow a thick skin. I used to think that way myself, but now I question that tactic.

When I look back on the many writing teachers I’ve had, whether it be the author of a craft book or a real-life teacher, I realize I didn’t gain the most from the extremely critical teachers. In fact, I got the most from a teacher who looked at my writing and immediately identified the glitter among the ashes.

Were if not for him, it might have taken much longer for me to claim my identity as a writer. I was not a very good writer when he critiqued me, but he made me believe that I could grow into one. That is the best kind of teacher, the one who can look past the bumbling and fumbling and posturing and see possibilities. I wish all writers could find someone like the man who encouraged me.

If a craft book makes you feel small, if a critiquer makes you feel diminished, you should close your ears to the advice. Even though some of it might be valid, if it comes with unkindness or snark, it’s not worth it and is hard to shake off.

Instead listen carefully to those rare individuals who are on your side, who are more concerned with what you do well, than where you fail. Pay close attention to the advice of teachers whose advice is gentle and who care about you and your writing more than they care about appearing superior or clever.

If you can’t find that in a real-life person, it can be found in books: I recommend the following:

Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott

If You Want to Write by Brenda Ureland

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

These books are also good for washing away the ugliness of a scathing critique.

Critiques cans be hard, and you’re bound to encounter harsh ones, but always remember the words of Brenda Ureland:

“Everyone is talented because everyone who is human has something to express… Everyone is original, if he tells the truth, if he speaks from himself.”

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  1. Couldn't agree more. As a novel writing instructor I am so mindful of the person behind the words that I always try to accentuate the positive. It's not about sugarcoating, it's about urging new writers to take risks and really stink up the joint with bad writing. It is the only way to learn and to emerge as someone with talent AND confidence. Great post!!!

  2. Thanks, Saralee. It's nice to know there's teachers out there like you. I've been mostly lucky getting nice ones but there's been a couple of people who really got to me.