Monday, 10 October 2011

Do Not Trust Your Gut

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.

If you found this post of use please consider retweeting. Cheers.


Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Good advice as always moody. Taking criticism can be hard when it's your baby that's on the line.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy honest criticism. Better to fix things now than discover something's not right after the book has been published. Great post!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Half-hearted is half–assed. I'm placing that slogan where I can see it!

julie fedderson said...

Great post, as always.Consistent critiques should be taken seriously, the ones that are contradictory still are good in that they tell you something is wrong and at least deserves a good evaluation.

Susan Gourley said...

Sounds like you need to follow your instincts. Are you leaning toward one.

Julie Farrar said...

I'm dealing with this problem right now. One group said "more"; another said "less." I still haven't decided what I want to do. But the contradiction did make it clear to me that something is not working. And you're right, I have to figure out what I want.

Southpaw said...

At least the both zero'd in on the same area. So something wasn't settling right and you can go from there.

Alleged Author said...

How funny that advice is so contradictory. I agree with you on making an informed judgment.

Rusty Carl said...

Great post. I'm always frozen when it comes to making decisions about what to do when I get contradictory advice. Good way to look at it.

McKenzie McCann said...

Mmm, I kind of agree and I kind of don't. I agree indecision spawns from a lack of understanding the story, but if you do understand, you're gut will tell you what makes more sense.

Jamie Gibbs said...

Damn good advice :) My instincts suck, so I know where you're coming from :) Depending on the size of the change, if you get two sets of advice, I'd advise trying both out and seeing how they look.

Sarah Tokeley said...

Interesting points, and good timing for me since I'll be starting edits in a couple of days :-)

mooderino said...

@Michael-I think it helps to let go of a need to be spoken to in a certain way or to expect encouragement as a marker of respect. All those things, while pleasant, are irrelevant, in my opinion.

@stephen-me too, better to sort it out now than to have it bite you in the ass later.

@Alex-bumper stickers available soon.

@julie-all comments are worth considering, but it's worth taking time to work out what people are trying to say even when they have a hard time saying it clearly.

@Susan-not sure what you mean, leanign towards one what?

@Julie Farrar-knowing there is a problem is a valuable thing in itself.

mooderino said...


@AA-interpretation varies greatly, as does taste. I would always prefer more comments to less, though. It's fun seeing what people think, even if it's nowhere near what I meant.

@Rusty-glad to help.

@McKenzie-maybe, but over the course of time I think most people can see that goign with your gut is just a cheap new age type message that doesn't really hold up for the majority of people. You may not be in that majority, of course.

@jamie-that certainly is an option, but the problem is advice doesn't work in a plg n play manner. You need to understand the reason for change, work it in, rewrite it, change other parts of the story etc. It can be very time consuming. If you just try it one way then the other it will probably be meh both ways.

@Sarah- good luck!

Sophia Chang said...

hahaha I love it I love it!!!!

Anne Gallagher said...

Great post, Mood. Trusting yourself, your guts, your instincts when you write is very powerful. It frees you to become a better writer. Of course you need to know and understand the rules before you break them.

And I can honestly say, I've never used duh in a critique. That's just rude.

mooderino said...


@Anne-not sure we're quite on the same page. If you rely too much on instinct as this magical panacea, when someone says your story doesn't work for whatever reason, it's easy to retreat into a place where you know it does work because your gut tells you so, and you can become defensive and precious about it, like it's a personal attack on your muse.

If, however, you use judgement to take criticism on-board and base your analysis on logic and reason, you have a much better chance of produicing something better than youstarted with, which is always a good thing.

Of course, some people do genuinely have great instincts. But not as many as think they do.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

A "half-hearted is half-assed" bumper sticker? Oh, yeah.

This reminded me of an episode of "Seinfeld" where George decided his instincts were so bad, he would just do the opposite of whatever his gut told him to do. His life improved immensely. :)

I'm not saying I recommend this but I do keep it in mind when I feel stuck and need to shake things up a bit.

Sarah McCabe said...

"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.... If what they say doesn’t seem right, then don’t change it, even if they’re a god damn genius."

That sounds a lot more like instinct that critical thinking to me. I think your post contradicts itself.

mooderino said...

@madeline-we should all be more like George Costanza.

@Sarah-by strike a chord I mean what they're saying makes sense to you. You aren't assuming it's correct, my point is if you have a grip on why the suggestion is being made you have the best chance at making it work (if it's a good suggestion but you don't really get it, it still won't work).

LD Masterson said...

I like criticism. Helps me see things I missed. I especially like it when multiple people point out the same problem. But I hate it when one critiquer loves something specific and another one hates it. That always messes with my head.

Sarah Allen said...

Really great advice. Definitely something to take into consideration.

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Lorena said...


This is extremely timely for me. I've been getting contradictory advice on a particular project and it's paralyzing me. Some of the things you say here make complete sense, particularly this:

"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."


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