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In replying to this question I thought this would make a good question...

This entire site is devoted to giving people advice on their writing, there are a near infinite number of books and magazines that intend to do the same.

Personally I have an approach to writing that seems to go against a lot of the perceived wisdom (I am happy to concede this could be why I've never published anything) But I enjoy the writing and at some point I'll likely chase myself down the publishing route.

So for someone sitting at home scribbling / bashing out their first novel, having spent an age digesting pages of advice on how best to write. How much should they pay attention to what they've read. How could they determine when to take heed and when to think they should do something differently.

How do they know what to listen to and what to ignore?

  • Please read my answer here: writers.stackexchange.com/a/17719/5645 (just replace "how-to books" with "writing advice") – user5645 Jul 13 '15 at 11:52
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    Note: this question does not ask "what do you do" (which we would close as primarily-opinion-based) but, rather, "how do you know/evaluate". Please focus answers on that. – Monica Cellio Jul 13 '15 at 12:55
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    @what that is a fantastically good answer! – Michael B Jul 13 '15 at 13:06

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You should follow the advice that makes you go, "Oh, of course, why didn't I see that before."

If you don't have that kind of clarity, then you have not understood the advice properly and will not be able to implement it correctly.

Thus if someone tells you to remove all your adjectives, and you go "Oh, of course, those adjectives add nothing and just slow down the text," then remove them. But if you go "Huh, what the heck is wrong with my adjectives?", then leave them alone because you are not in a position to decide which to delete and which to keep, and the person offering the advice may be talking through their hat.

This is not to say that all the advice that make you go "Of course!" is good advice. There is a lot of grossly oversimplified advice out there that sounds great but really does more harm than good. But once you have heard advice that makes you go "Of course!" you are going to follow it anyway, at least until your mastery of the craft grows to the point where your realize the advice is crap.

Or, if you want a more specific litmus test for writing advice, come up with a set of five or so writers who you particularly admire (mine would probably be Steinbeck, Waugh, Lewis, Kipling, and L.M. Montgomery) and try applying the advice to their work. It they seem to follow it, follow it. If they seem to violate it, ignore it.

But even so, don't try to follow advice you don't understand. You cannot possibly do it correctly unless it makes complete and lucid sense to you.

  • As an avid (but selective) adjective hunter, I appreciate your example :) – Weckar E. Aug 31 '17 at 13:13
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Question: How do they know what to listen to and what to ignore?

You should try to find great writers; although, they would technically have to be exceptional teachers too. There are people that can teach you the methods to become a great writer. I would have them teach you.

In general, if you want to become a more intelligent writer:

  1. It takes significant time and commitment. Make sure to read a lot everyday.
  2. Focus on the writing process. Have others give you constructive criticism.
  3. Respond to criticism in an open way and focus on improving your writing abilities. Revise, rewrite, and edit your work constantly.
  4. Keep your eyes open for excellent writers. They are the ones to learn from.
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You can learn a lot from an expert. You can learn a lot by doing. More likely, however, you can have your time wasted.

I've found that when my writing actually improves it's when I get in front of readers and they react. If an expert tells you to use technique A or always have Writing Ethic B in mind, it might guide your writing to the better. Or it might not. How do you get a sense of reality and test the assertions of the experts?

Robert McKee recommends reducing any story, early in its development, into the oral tradition and telling it to a person as if you were around a campfire. If a simple version of your story doesn't work in that setting, it's a huge red flag that the story structure isn't there (I have actually followed this advice and realized my story was garbage). Writing goes up and away from there, but all the writing books in the world are just kindling if no one can muster mere attention for your story.

Workshopping is another way to get audience feedback, but in my experience they are skewed by a set of expectations that do not represent an "everyman" audience. Workshop participants sometimes give you feedback that makes the speaker sound smart, instead of insight into the story's problems (I include myself as guilty of this time wasting posturing). What, specifically, do you do with "your characters could use more dimension?"

Whenever I hear workshop feedback, I always ask the speaker "despite that, would you keep reading? Do you want to know what happens?" I find that question focuses the discussion back onto what I can fix in re-writing.

I combine both campfire tellings and workshops to vet my stories. Audiences are the true "expert."

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By what speaks to them. The best writing advice is not vague or inspiring. That's for the sides of coffee cups. The best advice is specific to you and zeroes in on exactly what's holding you back. If one person tells you to write in the mornings when you're fresh, another tells you to write what you know, and the third tells you your story slows down in the middle and your characters all sound the same, which one is more useful?

Obviously it depends on the one seeking help and what that helps needs to be. The best advice is often uncomfortable to hear, challenging to accept, and nails your weak spots the same way a masseuse goes straight for the sore spot.

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Treat advice as a smorgasbord. Pick what works and leave the rest.

Make sure you test the advice you get. That way you will know if it works or not. It may sound great in your head, but it's what happens on the paper that counts...

I look at my writing as a dual task: 1) Write books and 2) create my personal process/method for how to write books.

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The only way you can really know what will work for you is by a process of trial and error.

Maybe the best approach is to start off by listening to all advice, but be willing to abandon or change whatever doesn't feel like it is working for you.

It does take a huge amount of courage and confidence to say 'I've read all of this advice on this aspect, and it is wrong' but sometimes when it comes to how you should personally approach writing, the only good advice is what works for you.

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I like technical advice, which is odd considering I enjoy poetry and poetry is something which often as not transcends technical points of style concerning correct grammar.

It's akin to a bit of wisdom musicians seem to naturally favor in that they practice scales, chords; practice rhythms and playing specific notes.

Advice is fine. Advice, however, is passive. What's the old adage ...? Oh yes: Writers write.

Hope that helps.

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Depends on how much you like it.

Given the huge number of writing styles, perspectives, tones, genres, and dialects, I don't think there is any one correct way of writing. That said, you should judge any advice you see in terms of what you're trying to accomplish yourself. Does the advice resonate with you or your perspective audience? Ask yourself:

  • Who is giving this advice? Is what they write similar to what I am writing (or, do they have similar audiences)?
  • Where is this advice coming from? What does it seek to accomplish?
  • Is this advice relevant to what I want to accomplish?

It's not hard to find cases of two well-known, if not classic, writers giving directly contradictory advice. Nor is such a situation relegated only to writing - in fact, pretty much every field has a similar phenomena, and I can attest to it in programming. That doesn't make either or both sets of advice bad, it just means they're coming from different people, and used to accomplish different things.

Getting too caught up in advice can lead people to suppressing their own creativity and hampering their growth. Considering you've spent an "age" reading advice, I think it's safe to say you're stuck in this. No amount of advice will make you a good writer, and in my opinion, enough advice can make the best writer mediocre. It's much better to find the tone and style that suits what you're attempting to convey than try to find the "one true way," since there flatly isn't one.

You should look at it no different than you would feedback on your own work: as helpful suggestions, but possibly not that much so.

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I have two degrees in Creative Writing (that and $4.50 will get you a latte at Starbucks). For many years, I was in a writing group with several excellent writers, and we had different approaches to "advice" in the sense of working with different teachers. One of my fellow writers fought tooth and nail against every teacher, insisting on doing things her own way, no matter what they advised. I took a different route -- in each course, I essentially surrendered myself to that particular teacher, doing it their way, and then when the course was over, seeing what I got out of it that was useful to me.

My best advice is to read advice and then forget it -- just go write. Don't worry about advice or feedback or criticism until you've written what you want to write -- in some cases, your work will be too fragile to expose to the criticism of others. When you've written something that you're satisfied with, share it with someone you trust, a teacher, a fellow writer, a friend. D. Elliot Lamb makes an excellent point about workshop feedback -- it may be serving the responder much more than it is serving you.

Good luck. Stay focused on writing what pleases you and you will be likely to succeed.

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Part of the value is just talking to other writers, and hearing what they do. I don't plot, I rewrite a lot, until I feel it is right. Knowing that you are not alone or that other writers also don't accept common wisdom, and still get by, is valuable.

Hearing what value other writers put on various ideas also helps.

Sometimes it is craft tips, sometimes it is help with a plot hole. On this site, and unlike any book on writing from some famous author, people can get help on their specific problem as they wish to explain it. You can't call Stephen King up and ask him to help with your book. Here, you can ask for help with your book, and judge whether the answers are help on their merits. Yes or no, either way it was free.

From my point of view as an answerer (I enjoy even this kind of writing), if it helps somebody take a step forward as an author or on a potential career, it was worth my time.

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