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How to receive advice as a writer

Giving advice is one thing, how you receive advice is quite another. For some reason, reciving advice is a topic that is not covered all that much. In this post, we are going to take a look at how to receive advice and make the most of it.

Being given advice is a mixed bag of emotion and despair. As writers, we need to be tough enough not to let the criticism get us down and yet open enough to let it guide us.

Processing initial emotions

There are a number of emotions that you may experience when receiving advice from others.

  • Anger – How can they be so wrong?
  • Elation – I am the best writer in the world!
  • Depression – Why did I think I can write?
  • Embarrassment – I have humiliated myself in front of real writers.
  • Contempt – Puh, they have no idea what they are saying.

Positive or negative, these emotions are not especially useful. In order to get the most out of any advice you receive, you need to acknowldge your own feelings and then set them aside.

The advice you are getting is not praise or critisism of you. It may feel like it is but is just feedback on the words you wrote down.

Realise that all people will sometimes be wrong

Not all advice is any use. Some advice is just wrong.

I am pretty sure it was Stephen King who said something like, if one person says something is wrong with your work then they are mistaken but if several people say there is something wrong with the same part of your work then they are probably right.

Apply a pinch of salt when you receive advice. At least half of the advice you get is going to be wrong or at least wrong for you. In most writing groups the people there are still figuring things out just like you are.

People will say you need to do this or you need to change that. Sometimes they are right and sometimes they are wrong.

Everyone who gives you advice is to some degree wrong. It is up to you to figure out what they are wrong about. A big clue, as King says, is if lots of people tell you a passage is broken, then it might be worth fixing that passage.

It is harder when you really respect the advice giver’s work. If King, Rowling, or Gaiman came to a Thanet Creative event, (after they were done signing autographs), I would probably follow every correction and advice they offered me, without question. The chances are, though, these well-respected writers would be wrong in some small way.

Not all advice should be followed

Another writer I admire, Neil Gaiman said something to the tune of, if someone says there is a problem with a passage you wrote then they are probably right but if they tell you how to fix it then they are certainly wrong.

Other writers will often tell you how they think you should write your work. We writers often offer advice as if we were applying our own techniques to our own work. Something I recommend against when giving advice. There is nothing “wrong” with such advice exactly. It just means that some writers will give you advice that does not fit,¬†for your style.

Just like all advice is wrong about something, all advice does not apply to you. Learn how to silently discard advice that is wrong for you.

Sometimes the best thing you can do is thank a person for their enthusiasm and willingness to help. Then take a look at your work and make up your own mind about it.

Never defend your work

Your work is your baby. It might be an ugly baby but it is your baby. I covered a similar point in the article about giving advice.

If your work was published, you would not be able to go to the home of every reader and explain it to them. Even so, the temptation can be to try and defend your work. This is rarely helpful but it eats up time that could be used for getting or giving more advice.

That need to explain what you were doing, or to show the other fellow how they are wrong makes you seem ungrateful. One writer that I know does this a lot. The result is that people actively avoid offering them advice because no one needs an argument like that.

If the other person is wrong or does not “get” your work, thank them, make a note that you might need to help some readers “get it”, and move on to the next thing.

The best place your answer or clarification can go is in the writing itself. Your desire to explain your writing only goes to show that you have a bit more work to do. That inner voice is simply your internal writer getting ready to do more work.

Don’t waste your muse on just one person, share it with us all via your writing.

Listen actively

Active listening is a skill. I am not sure if I have mastered active listening fully. I would love to say this is easy to do but when I am excited about a topic I want to talk forever about it.

When getting advice or feedback, the best thing I can do is shut up. The same probably goes for you too. Planning on not saying anything gives maximum chance for your brain to take on board what you are being told.

I know full well that shutting my mouth so my ears can listen takes effort. If you know of a way to make this super easy, please tell me.

The only time you should say anything is if you do not understand the advice you have received. If you don’t understand then ask the person to clarify. Remember you are here to listen to other people talking to you – the shorter your question the sooner you can go back to getting feedback.

Learn how to ignore destructive criticism

Sooner or later you will encounter a writer with a big ego. Big ego is fine for helping you power past self-doubt but it can manifest destructively when it comes to giving a critique.

Sooner or later you will get advice from someone that is four parts spite to three parts rubbish. Worse is the critique that simply says, “this sucks”. This sort of advice is all about how you suck and not a lot of advice on how you can stop sucking. In other words, it is all junk.

My own mother, who is as sarcastic as I am, once gave me feedback on a short story which went something like “it has been done before by other people and they did it better.” She was right but that was not a lot of use in helping me grow and improve.

I laughed because mums tend to try and say only nice things like, “it was very good dear.” My mum was being a bit more honest. I love my mum but I also know that this was advice I could not do anything with. So I shrugged and got feedback from other people.

Don’t let praise go to your head

Praise is nice. It builds confidence and feels wonderful but it rarely helps you figure out how to make a good work even better.

Recently I have received feedback on a chapter from a draft novel. More than one person made a positive comparison to Douglas Adams’ work. This did wonders for my ego and for a few days after I felt like I had made it and was about to be very rich.

I had made the mistake of letting praise go to my head.

Instead of fixing a dozen minor errors all I could see was a perfect manuscript. That was my fault and after a while I did get back to it and improved it a lot. That writing needed a lot more editing work.

I have no advice on how to stop praise from going to your head. Just don’t let praise go to your head.

Let it sit for a while

Sometimes the best thing you can do with a big bundle of advice is review the work quickly, fix anything that seems obviouse to you now and then let it sit. Give yourself time to process and consider what you have been told.

Letting the advice sit gives you the benefit of a cooler head. The sting of criticism and the elation of praise fade in time. That time gives you greater objectivity. With objectivity comes much better editing.

I have a folder filled with chapters, excerpts, and short stories that have been scribbled over by all sorts of people. When I come back to something to work on it, I can reach for that advice and see what I can do with it.

Advice that has been allowed to cool is often easier to digest.

Over to you

Do you have any tips to add? Have you been given feedback that changed everything? Have you been given criticism that crushed you? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Originally published as How to receive advice on our old blog. This is an updated and revised version of that article.

2 thoughts on “How to receive advice as a writer

  1. Jason Latnar says:

    That moment when someone reads your work and is suddenly an expert. They’ve never written anything but feel they have the right to tell me all the ways I’m wrong. I ignore any advice that’s not from someone who writes.

    1. Thanet Creative’s all genre feedback evening is writer to writer advice. Like the science community, writers work best with peer review.

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