Let’s say you’ve written a story, you think it’s pretty good but you know it needs work—and you’re prepared to do that work—but being so close to it, it’s hard to know exactly what to change and what not to change.
So, you give it to a couple of people to read and they both zero in on the same thing that needs fixing. And you’re pleased because you too suspected that part needed work. However, the suggestions they make for what’s wrong with it and what approach needs to be taken to make amends is totally contradictory. One says do more, the other says do less. One says this story needs more of Mr X, the other says it needs more of Mr Y. Make it quicker, no, make it slower.
And the thing is, you can see both make valid points. They both have merit. Either could be right. What do you do?
What you’re told do to do is have faith in your own instincts. Believe in yourself. Listen to your inner voice. Do what’s right for you. That would be great advice if my whole life hadn’t taught me that I have terrible instincts, and so do most people.
Of course, it would be nice, and very ego-boosting if we all made great snap judgements and had supernatural help making the right choice. But your brain, it turns out, is not your friend. It makes you freeze when you should be running for your life, makes you stammer during an important speech, makes you forget the thing you need to remember. Junk food, alcohol, cigarettes, horrible exes, crappy movie sequels, clothes you thought looked great in the store but never even wore once, friends you gave one more chance not to be a dick—where were your good instinct then?
Instincts are not what you need to employ. You need to use your judgement. And judgement can be learnt, and improved and applied without having to resort to your magic 8 ball.
When it comes to writing (yes, I do have a point to all this) you have to be able to discern between good and bad, both in your own estimations and in regard to what other say. And what others say will often be contradictory. Contradictory to what you believe, contradictory to what others believe, sometimes even contradictory to what they themselves said last time. That’s normal.
If someone makes a suggestion, either about what’s wrong with your writing or how to fix it, and it strikes a chord with you, go with it. Doesn’t mean the change will be for the better, but it’s worth trying.
If what they say doesn’t seem right, then don’t change it, even if they’re a god damn genius. They may well be a hundred percent on the money in what they say, but if you don’t believe in it you won’t do a good job of rewriting. Half-hearted is half–assed.
If you’re unsure about what you’ve been told, again, don’t change it (for similar reasons to above). You have to be totally on-board to translate their idea into your story successfully.
When it comes to contradictory advice, look most closely at the suggestion of people who explain themselves. Their thought process on paper will make it easier to understand their point.
And if they seem to be patronising or condescending to you, rise above it. They don’t know why you made the mistake you made, if they have to explain it to you as though you were a child (don’t write ‘ran quickly’ it is redundant, running already implies quickness, duh!) so be it.
It was an oversight, of course you know it was a mistake, but they could have just pointed it out without speaking down to you like an idiot. Sure. But if you don’t want to be spoken to like a child, don’t make silly schoolboy errors. Just be grateful someone took the time to point it out in whatever fashion.
Generic writing advice is good in general, but nobody writes in general, they write in specifics. The people who take the time to explain are the people you should most value.
And if you still can’t tell which route to take, the problem isn’t with the advice, it’s with you. You haven’t decided what the story is about. You have to step up and make a choice about what kind of story you’re trying to tell, and then you’ll know what you need to do to achieve that.
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