This Is Advice

Writing is hard. There’s no way around that. It’s hard to tell a story, in words, on the page. It’s hard to communicate character, emotion, plot and elicit the response out of an invisible audience. Your tools are limited, the opportunity constrained.

It is a skill. A learned skill. One that is constantly improved, honed, altered by practice. Doing the thing is the best way to improve. But seeking the perspective of others can help. Workshops, classes, MFAs, Q+As, even a coffee with a friend can lead to illuminating insights into craft and process.

I am in the business of advising writers. Every day I give advice. I suggest a plot change, a different process, a career goal. I tell a writer to re-write this or maybe try and write without an outline or maybe to pursue screenwriting. Sometimes it’s a micro scale nudge to change a word and sometimes it’s a complete re-write and re-conception of a whole book. Sometimes it’s breaking down their process, telling them to go outside, take a nap, drink water, go look at a bird. Sometimes it’s get back to work, focus, don’t get distracted.

Sometimes, they even listen to me.

Because here’s the secret of advice. It’s never right. It is impossible to give advice that is correct. Correct in all ways, or correct in every situation, or correct for every person. But more than that, it is still impossible to give correct advice for one person in one situation. The best you can do is give advice that unlocks a door. Something that suggests a path. An edit is not a decree, it’s a question. And that question can lead to better answers. But not right ones.

There is no good advice because there is no right answer.

Sometimes I give advice online. Whether here in this newsletter or on twitter or on a zoom panel or at the head of a workshop table, I’ll drop pithy sentences about how to think about tone or character or first lines. I am paid for this service, although I often do it for free too. I give advice to writers professionally, sometimes solicited, sometimes not.

But just because I’m literally a pro doesn’t mean I’m right. Or that, for you, what I say is remotely useful. Just because some people like it, just because it’s in your feed, or even that you opted in to this newsletter doesn’t mean it will make sense to you, that it will open that door for you.

Advice is like a drawer full of keys. You can try it, but there’s no assurance that it will fit. Each problem, each setback, each block requires a different approach to unlock it. The teeth of the thing have to fit the shape of the challenge.

I like giving advice. So much so that I have to regularly check myself. Remind myself to hold back, focus on listening rather than telling. But it’s also my job to share what I know, what I believe. It’s a balancing act to find the line between support and overbearing.

I like giving advice so I do. But that doesn’t mean the advice I give is good for you. It doesn’t mean it’s right for you. It doesn’t mean you have to listen, to conform to it.

Writing is hard. And maybe one of the hardest things is learning when to take advice and when to trust your instincts. To know the difference between the clarity of an outside perspective, and the conviction that comes from doing the work yourself.

So my advice is to always listen, but to also question whether or not you should follow. To hear it, but make sure it fits, for you. To ask if this opens doors or closes them. Just because it was given doesn’t mean it has to be taken. Your instincts are your first, best, and only guide. Learn to balance listening with trusting in yourself. Including now.

Take it or leave it. That’s my advice.